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Some early thoughts on the 2018 Blue Jays draft

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2014 MLB Draft Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

With the 2018 Rule 4 Draft complete, it’s now possible to reflect and make some assessments and snap judgments about this draft class and the general strategy employed. Granted, we need to see who signs and for what, and of course how the draftees develop and perform in the fullness of time - but the bulk of the talent has been allocated, some important trends are clear and there’s some interesting takeaways.

First, at a very level, it was very encouraging to see some demographic diversity at the top. After two very college heavy drafts with under 25% of the bonus pool allocated to high school players, the Blue Jays took a pair of premium high school players who should receive the two highest bonuses and will mean the pendulum swings to about two-thirds high school spending in the 2018 draft. Indeed, the top four picks hit all four of the demographics (HS/college, pitcher/hitter) with one draftee each.

That’s not to say that drafting high school players is inherently better than drafting college players. But after heavily shying away from high school players the last two years, especially on the pitching side, it was reassuring to see that we’re not in for a repeat of the Riccardi years (or even the Shapiro GM years in Cleveland) where a significant portion of the pool of draftees was systematically ruled out in a manner that proved very detrimental.

With that said, it will be fascinating to see how the actual strategy the Jays deployed plays out in the long run. The Jays “reached” for Jordan Groshans in the first round, in order to allow them to sign his Magnolia High School teammate Adam Kloffenstein. Essentially, the Jays traded the #12 overall pick, a 3rd rounder and a fair bit of slot room for two late first round picks.

This gambit was particularly interesting given the players available to them, in particular Arizonians LHP Matt Liberatore and 3B Nolan Gorman who were both expected to go in the top-10 and to a lesser extent RHP Cole Winn who was connected to them. If I had been told beforehand that one of Liberatore and Gorman had made it to the Jays, I would have been thrilled. And it wasn’t signiability, as Liberatore will actually end up a little below slot with Tampa and Gorman signed at (a much lower) slot with St. Louis. Both teams have to be ecstatic getting those guys where they did.

So will the Jays end up regretting passing on either or both? The teams have so much more information and background on players, especially high school players who lack the statistical track record college players do, that it’s really hard to second guess them. It may well be that regardless of what happened, by draft night they were locked into their strategy having laid the groundwork, and it wasn’t compelling enough to pivot. Maybe the players weren’t willing to cut (significant deals). Maybe they just love Groshans that much.

The other pick worth mentioning is second rounder Griffin Conine, who had been connected to the Jays last winter in the first round. I had reservations about how good of value that would be, but getting him in the second round is a much better gamble even with the slow start to his season and the higher strikeout rate. At the end of the day, he’s still a guy who hit with wood bats, who has produced in a quality conference (and his 2018 production ended up in line with 2017 in the end). Players go through bad stretches all the time, and I like that if the Jays were on him that aggressively in the first place, they’re sticking by their conviction.

Beyond that, there were some interesting trends. At the start of the last day, the Jays took a run of mostly lesser known college pitchers, as they did last year. I was sort of underwhelmed last year, but all turned out to have pretty big arms and a year later are at least interesting. Hopefully the Jays have found some more diamonds in the rough.

Some specific names are quite interesting. John Aiello was a highly regarded player out of high school, and showed some big power in 2017 before a down junior year. Josh Hiatt has a really good change-up. In rounds 30-32, the Jays took players who were also really big prospects in high school but had injuries. Cobi Johnson and Cre Frifrock are particularly interesting if they can sign them. There’s essentially no opportunity cost, and if they get on track there’s upside.

The final name was Parker Caracci in the 37th round, He had a huge breakthrough year at Ole Miss, and had already indicated he’s going back. Lasting as long as he did, it’s not surprising that’s the case. But the rub is that he turns 22 in September, so he’s already on the older side. If he does indeed return to Ole Miss, it’s likely the case he’ll be 23 before he ever gets back full season pro ball. I wonder if the Jays have a little money, if they could make a run at him.

Let’s turn to the money side. Here’s a rough estimate of what I’d expect (this entire section has been updated for the Groshans bonus news that broke shortly after this went up):

2018 updated draft estimate

Normally, I start by ballparking “conservative” and “aggressive” scenarios (with the midpoint implicitly being a base case). However, with the reported $2.5-million deal for Kloffenstein representing about $1.85-million over slot, my conservative scenario had the Jays about $400,000 beyond their pool and the 5% cushion. That’s not going to happen, so clearly there’s significant savings elsewhere to be identified.

The Jays drafted four college juniors in the top 10 rounds, and I’d expect all of them to sign roughly for the slot value. There might will have to be some modest savings, but there’s really no reason for any of them to be well below slot given where they were ranked and the fact that they retain some leverage in having remaining college eligibility.

The three college seniors combine for a slot allocation of just under $650,000, and all fit the mold of senior signs, so there will be significant savings. It’s not uncommon for these players to sign for five or ten thousand dollars, but they aren’t all total non-prospects either so I went with $100,000 total meaning $550,000 in pool savings (and a good chance it’s ~$50,000 higher). Update: the Jays will need every penny they can muster, so assume $25,000, opening another $75,000 for $625,000 total saved towards the pool.

Taking that ~$550,000 in slot savings and adding it to the 5% cushion of just under $400,000 gives us $950,000 to offset Kloffenstein’s overslot deal (update: $625,000 and $1,025,000). That still means we need another $900,000 $775,000 It’s not going to come from Addison Barger, whose signability was already seen as a surprise given his talent and University of Florida commitment/scholarship. If anything, I’d actually expect an overslot bonus. For now, I’ve just rounded up to $300,000 but even upwards of $400,000 would not surprise me. An overslot bonus doesn’t really fit into the pool without one of the juniors taking a cut.

Update: Groshans signed for $3.4-million

All of this then gives us a ballpark on what Groshans will sign for, as just staying within their pool necessarily requires a discount of upwards of a million dollars. I assumed $3.25-million, a round number $950,900 underslot that just squeezes the total pool in. If some squeezing occurs elsewhere, maybe it could be a little higher but not much. Conversely, it could be lower since Groshans was ranked more towards the back end of the first round and had he been picked there, the slot would have been more in the $2.25- to 2.75-million range. But $3.25-million is already a pretty hefty cut, and I’m skeptical it would be much more.

That also means that barring any significant savings verses the above, there’s basically no money for overslot bonuses further down. That would essentially rule out signing any of the high school players they took later, of whom very few taken in the later rounds do anyway.

Overall, it looks like a promising draft. At the very least, it’s not one thatlooks immediately underwhelming (unlike, for example, the Orioles)