Here’s a draft strategy for you: Just take the best damn player you can find.
I’m sorry, I don’t mean to sound frustrated. And I have oodles of respect for all my colleagues who are putting a lot more time and effort into draft analysis than I’m going to. But, if I’m being blunt, there is just too much uncertainty surrounding amateur talent to move my needle.
This is not to undervalue the draft and the future big leaguers it provides. The draft is one of the two essential pipelines a team must use to build their roster. Having cheap Major League talent on hand allows clubs to fill holes in their rosters by overpaying for veteran talent. Having prospects allows clubs to deal for impact players who can put them over the top. So, it’s clearly important.
But the likelihood of any individual prospect fulfilling a club’s even most reasonable projections is still relatively low. Consider 2012. Of the first 60 picks in that draft (a list that covers all of the first round and supplements to that first round), only 31 have made the Majors five years later. And of those 31, just 17 have been worth more than a win above replacement for their careers to date. And, again, that’s five years later.
Even those players who do make it might not make it in the way teams hope and expect. Consider Aaron Hicks. Drafted 14th overall by the Twins in 2008, Hicks rose slowly through the minor leagues until finally debuting on Opening Day 2013. He proceeded to hit .179/.249/.326 through early June, when he was demoted back to triple-A. In three seasons with the Twins, he it .225/.306/.349 before he was traded to the Yankees. Only now, almost a full decade after he was drafted, has Hicks seemingly found his footing, hitting .311/.447/.589 in 115 plate appearances.
And as tempting as it might be for a club to try to draft players into its organization at positions they lack, that strategy almost never pans out exactly the way you want it to. Indeed, far more valuable is just having a bunch of good players lying around that you can plug in where you need them. Like Mookie Betts. Betts was drafted as a middle infielder in the fifth round by Boston in 2011. He rose through their system as a second baseman. But, as you probably know, the Red Sox have been pretty well set at second base for a while now with future Hall of Famer Dustin Pedroia. So they just moved Betts to the outfield, where he won a Gold Glove last year.
I suppose a team might decide to go pitching or hitting, but the timetable on most prospects is so long and so much can happen between the moment they’re drafted and their debut. Veterans get hurt or leave the organization. Other talents come from nowhere like Jacob deGrom. And if a club winds up with extra good players at any one position (“What an awful problem to have!” he types sarcastically), those players can always be exchanged for someone else who better meets their needs.
There is a science to drafting, signing, and developing prospects, yes, but there’s also so much indecipherable voodoo magic. It’s too much for any club to have a specific draft strategy. Keep it simple. Take the best players available. Get them into your system and help them to succeed. Worry about the rest in five years.