We have passed the signing deadline and know who the Indians were able to sign and who they didn't sign from the 2016 first year player draft. With this information, it is time to make an initial judgement of this draft. However, since you can only really judge a draft 5 years or so down the road when you see how players develop, this post will be more about the draft strategy that was at the heart of the Indians' draft and execution of that draft strategy.
Before we get into a discussion about the strategy of this draft, let me give this draft an overall grade of B+ based on my assessment of the talent we obtained (although, statistically, if you look at what these guys have done so far, most of the scouts should be fired :-)). Had we gotten any of our late round flyers to sign it might have pushed this draft up to an A- or an A. Still, this is a very good draft for the Indians, considering that 13 teams got to draft in each round before the Indians did. Not only does that mean that the Indians had fewer prospects to pick from, it also means that the bonus money they had to spend was in the bottom half of all of baseball. So, with those limitations, the Indians had to come up with a good strategy if they wanted to make this a good draft. Let's talk about what they did.
The Indians drafted aggressively and, as I indicated at draft time , it was questionable whether the Indians had enough money to sign all their picks in the first 10 rounds. As it turned out, they barely did, leaving only about $48,000 from their bonus pool of $7.7 million...while still signing all the guys they drafted in rounds 1-10. The strategy I think the Indians used is very different than I have seen them use in the past and I really like it. What was so different about their strategy?
This draft was about balancing acquiring top talent (Benson and Jones) with not giving in to wasting picks on college seniors and other guys who would sign for peanuts (to save money for Jones). When you do that you tend to get less talent with those college seniors than you would if you picked the best available, signable prospect left at that slot. Instead of drafting college seniors to save money, the Indians chose carefully the players they drafted after their first two picks to make sure they got SOME current talent and some real intriguing young, projectable prospects while drafting players who, for the most part, would sign for at or under their slot values. The college players they drafted in the first 10 rounds were picked with the idea that while they had limited upside, they all project as future major leaguers with most likely to change the role they had on their college team. Besides Jones and Benson and those college juniors, the other players drafted in the first 10 rounds were HS players and one JUCO player, all of whom had significant upside and who would sign for slot or slot bonuses. By doing this the Indians were able to save $50,000 to $150,000 per player which, when multiplied over 10 rounds, added up to over $1 million in savings from their bonus pool. They then used this excess to sign Jones. At the same time they got intriguing talent that I believe might produce the most major leaguers the Indians have gotten out of a draft in the last 15 years or more.
Now, let's talk about their draft strategy pick-by-pick for the first 10 rounds.
1. Benson - I think they valued Benson a little more than other teams did. As I said before, the mantra of any draft for any team is "teams like who they like". All you have to do is watch Benson and you can see he has issues with his swing but the athleticism and raw talent is there. These drafts are so fluid, however, that someone would have likely snapped him up before the 55th selection in the draft. So the Indians, knowing how much they liked him and that he wouldn't be there when they picked in the 2nd round, popped him at #14 overall. In doing this they almost assuredly had to know Benson would sign for less than slot and that they could apply their savings below slot to a later pick.
2. Jones - Frankly, I don't know that Jones was their target here but clearly somewhere in this draft they wanted to use the money they saved from Benson (and any other picks they could save money on) to draft a high profile prospect (Jones was the 19th best player in the draft) who had dropped in the draft due to bonus demands. I think the Indians knew what Jones was looking for and decided to go for him as they thought they could get to his bonus demands by saving money throughout the rest of the first 10 rounds.
Now, here is where it gets interesting and they started to apply their strategy. The scouting staff knew what players to draft to get talent AND meet what they needed to get Jones signed.
Great scouting by the Indians allowed them to sign high schoolers Capel and Cantu for slot value when most everyone thought it would take above slot bonuses to get them signed. This, to me, was the key to this draft strategy working. Had Capel and Cantu required overslot bonuses that would have made it impossible for us to meet Jones' bonus demands, which would likely have significantly weakened our draft from a total talent obtained perspective.
The Indians then finished out the top 10 rounds with solid, low-ceiling, low-floor college players and a couple of young, unpolished intriguing talents in Nelson and Taylor who they must have liked more than other teams. Because they had a good estimation of what the industry thought of the talents of these guys I think they knew each would sign for less than slot. They are banking on the player development staff polishing these guys into major leaguers. While this is a main part of the player development staff's job, of course, at no time in my memory did we have enough of these types of kids from one draft. No more Cody Bunkelmans and other picks that were wastes from the moment they were announced. These first 10 round guys all have, in my mind, a clear development path to get to the majors. No more "...and then a miracle happened" drafting by the Indians. At least not in this draft.
Interesting strategy but it all hinged on using almost all their excess money on Jones AND IT WORKED!
Let me be clear about this: To know about what Jones would want almost to the dollar and to get that extra money, almost to the dollar, without just punting and drafting college seniors was brilliant. To get the additional talent we got while getting Jones his money is, indeed, also stunningly well-orchestrated and genius.
The quality of their thought process didn't end there, however. As all teams do, they had contingency plans if Jones didn't sign with Baird and others who could have split the $1 million plus we saved on the other first round bonuses. If Jones hadn't signed we would have gotten our second round pick back next year and still had over $1 million to sign some of these late round flyers. Again, while not out of the ordinary, still good planning by the Indians to get quality players who would end up playing the same positions that the players drafted in the first 10 rounds played. For example, Ben Baird is a highly ranked HS shortstop. If Jones didn't sign Baird would have been his replacement. We drafted two college catchers in the first 10 rounds. If they didn't sign we drafted two highly rated high school catchers in later rounds (three HS catchers overall). We also drafted relatively highly rated HS outfielders and third basemen, mirroring guys we drafted in the first 10 rounds. While I know this has happened before, it seemed this time to be more systematic and planned than in past Indians' drafts.
So, excellent draft strategy by the Indians, maybe the best I have ever seen from them. The only thing that could have made it better would have been if they had been able to shave another $100K from Benson and $400K from Jones to give them $500,000 to throw at late round flyers. Unfortunately, that did not happen but it doesn't change the quality of this draft. It just makes it top-end heavy and, at least on paper, it appears that our chances of getting even a fringe major leaguer out of the rounds from 11-40, while not zero is probably more unlikely than it has been in the past 5 years. Also, based on the way this draft played out, it appears on the surface that if Benson and Jones don't become impact players, this draft might well end up producing only spare parts and role players. As I said previously, however, if everything clicks this draft could produce an unusually high number of major leaguers of various contribution types.
So, while there is SOME truth to the baseball draft being a crapshoot due to injuries and failed projections, this is a good draft that I think was built on analytics. I hope we will be remembering this draft fondly five years from now. I think there is a better than average change of that.