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Some early thoughts on the 2019 Blue Jays draft

Toronto Blue Jays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

With the 2019 Rule 4 Draft in the books, it’s now possible to reflect and make some assessments and snap judgments about this draft class for the Blue Jays 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.

The first major takeaway is the overall balance. For the second straight year, the top four picks were spread across the four demographic groups — one college pitcher, one college hitter, one high school pitcher, one high school hitter. It’s even more balanced across the two years, as last year the high school hitter the first rounder and the college pitcher in the 4th round, this year that flip flopped.

That’s in contrast to the first two years under the current regime, where the Jays went very college heavy, with 19 of the 21 picks on the first two days being college players and over 80% of the dollars spent on college players. Because about half the pool (see below for more discussion) is tied to the 11th overall pick, the spending will once again skew towards college, but it’ll be roughly equally split over two years. It’s a major positive to me that the Jays are not pigeon-holing themselves as in the Riccardi years (and Shapiro years in Cleveland), and following the talent where it is in the draft.

Where there was less balance is that after taking two pitchers to start, the Jays took hitters with their remaining eight picks in the first 10 rounds. That’s not inconsistent with what they’ve done in the past few rounds, with a heavy focus on college bats though they’ve usually turned back to college pitchers later on the second day which they didn’t do this year. It’s worth remembering though that in using their top two draft picks on pitchers, that alone will mean over 60% of their total spending will be on the pitching side.

Where there was a very different approach was on the third day. In recent years, the Jays haven taken a run of college pitchers who sign for $100-$125K, with a very heavy college skew generally (they didn’t even take a high school player last year until the 21st round, with 22 of the 30 picks in rounds 11-20 being high school players). That didn’t happen this year, and the Jays took three high players in their first six picks with a fourth in the 19th round.

Overall, the draft class skewed to adding premium arms and position player depth. One clear point of emphasis seemed to be drafting for the hit tool, as their 4th through 6th rounds picks were college hitters with track records of hitting both in college and wood bat summer leagues, but who are either bat first players with defensive limitations or positional questions. 9th round Philip Clarke fits this profile too.

Finally, one last potential thing I found interesting is that the Jays are not shying away from high school players who are on the “oldish” side. In recent years, there’s been a lot of research suggesting older high school players (closer to 19) historically have been overdrafted and underperformed in pro ball (presumably because they were more physically mature than their younger peers), with the reverse holding true for younger players (closer to 18). That tended to hold more for position players than pitchers, where stuff can be measured more independently of competition faced.

That was one of the major hits on Brett Baty this year, who was well over 19 on draft day. He was one of the best performing high schoolers, but was it because he was nearly a year older and more advanced than them? So there’s been a big shift in the industry in incorporating this into evaluations.

Looking at the high school players the Jays drafted, a number of them are closer to 19 than 18. This isn’t universally true — Dasan Brown and Nick Neal are both really young — but Kendall Williams is, Jordan Groshans was last year, and the two Puerto Rican draftees are both 2000 both years when that would normally have had them in last year’s draft (like with most Canadians as opposed to most American states whose school year cutoffs are in the summer). It may be they see the pendulum as having swung too far in the opposite direction, leaving talented talents being overly passed over.

Update: One last thought on the late rounds. It seemed underwhelming compared to last year when they drafted — and signed — some really interesting guys like Cobi Johnson, Cre Finfrock and even Andy McGuire. This year, by contrast, it arguably looks like they started with essentially courtesy picks about round 25 (players unlikely to sign), and constituted a majority of picks from that point. That would change if some of the seemingly less likely picks sign, but otherwise I don’t see additions on the same calibre.

In terms of individual players, for the most part it’s too early to really say anything. But at the very least, it’s not obvious that either of the first day picks were overdrafted. Some considered Alek Manoah as the top college pitcher available, and there was potential for him to not even be on the board. He’s certainly not in the Deck McGuire/Jon Harris/Chad Jenkins genre of first round pitchers, with a wide arsenal of useable pitchers, but nothing plus, as he’s got a big fastball and sharp slider as carrying tools. There’s risk, but considerable upside.

The question will be, as usual, the opportunity cost of the other players on the board. The one that stood out to me was not other college pitchers, but high school outfield Corbin Carroll, who went 16th (possibly somewhat overslot, though probably less than the 11th slot). Will the Jays regret passing on him?

High school pitchers are always risky, but I like the building blocks for Kendall Williams. He’s not one of these big arms with little idea where the ball is going who tend to high pretty high failure rates, but there’s still reasonable upside. Dasan Brown in the 3rd round isn’t everyone cup of tea as the toolsy athlete who might/probably doesn’t hit but is a potential star if he does. I don’t like the profile early (as with D.J. Davis), because of the opportunity cost of the more refined talent on the board against the risk, but it’s a lot more palatable lower down. And that risk is balanced by taking the opposite profile, hitters with track records but defensive/positional shortcomings.

Let’s turn to the financial implications. For the most part, the Jays appeared to play things pretty up straight-up, but below is a rough estimate of how I see things coming together, as well as some possible scenarios:

2019 draft estimate updated

Note that the conservative/aggressive bonuses (from the team’s point of view) are done on an individual player basis, not the overall scenario. The overall total for the conservative scenario is well overslot, even with the 5% wriggle room, that certainly won’t happen. Likewise, there’s no way the total will come in $1-million plus under slot.

At the top, Manoah should more or less come in at slot. They might have been able to save a little, just because the slot falls by over $150,000 per pick if the Jays didn’t take him, but he wasn’t going to fall much further and had no incentive to cut a significant discount, so I see something like $4-million as an absolute floor.

Kendall Williams is a Vanderbilt commit with considerable upside, so I feel confident saying the $1.4-million slot value would be an absolute floor. I expect it’ll take a little bit more (or more to the point, the deal was more a bit more), noting that Hagen Danner came in about $450,000 over slot two years ago (before the slots were flattened).

The next several picks should come in more or less at slot. Dasan Brown went a little ahead of consensus, balanced against his alternative of going to Texas A&M, so I expect neither savings nor extra cost. The next two were college juniors — who rarely go overslot — but were ranked ahead of where they went so are unlikely to go underslot or in any event much or at all. It’s similar to Riley Adams, Kevin Smith and Sean Wymer in recent drafts.

There should be some savings after that. College seniors typically take big cuts, almost always signing up $50,000. Lesser ranked college juniors can sign a little under slot, that may be the case with Cameron Eden but it’s not going to be a huge cut.

Some of that money is likely going to Philip Clarke, a draft eligible sophomore at Vanderbilt who turned down $1M+ out of high school two years ago. He’s not going to get that now, but it’s going to take well more than slot (again, this should be a case where the number was agreed before the Jays took him). Glenn Santiago is a high school player, which could theoretically require above slot, but likely not much as Puerto Rican draftees in lower rounds tend to sign around the slot numbers.

In aggregate, I’d estimate the total bonuses for the top 10 rounds coming in around the total slot pool. Teams can go 5% those pools without triggering draconian penalties, so gives the Jays just over $400K and maybe a couple hundred thousand of savings to sign players for more than $125,000 in round 11-40. Three of those first six choices were high school players, and to prioritize them like that one has to think they’re likely to sign. The first two will likely require a good portion of that money between them, with the last being more likely to come in near slot as a lower profile Puerto Rican high schooler.

Overall, it appears to be a pretty solid and balanced draft class, with no obvious reaches and the Blue Jays showing a flexible approach strategically.