Major League Baseball’s amateur draft begins next Monday, June 4th, and if you’re like most of the civilized world, you probably had no idea. While the NFL season often seems like a build-up to its draft and the NBA draft features all of our favorite college stars, even major baseball fans don’t always know much about the MLB draft.
It’s tough to blame them, since amateur baseball lags far behind the other amateur sports in popularity. Baseball also might be the hardest sport in which to determine what skills will translate from college or high school to the pros. Even when scouts get it right, players drafted next week won’t see the majors for a while. Only a few guys will see the bigs in the next two years, and most will be in the minors for 3-6 years, if they ever make it to the majors at all. Anyone not paying attention to whom the Mariners or anyone else drafts next week would be justified.
Those not paying attention will also be missing out, because for some reason, I think the draft is great. Since most of the players are unknown, it’s easier to trust the Mariners’ scouts when they make a pick. Everyone has an opinion when the Seahawks draft Russell Wilson. No one will have a clue who the Mariners third round pick even is. And while we’re on the subject, the Mariners are good at drafting. They have their misses like everyone, and their draft picks are just now hitting Seattle, but there aren’t many people I’d rather have running my draft than Tom McNamara, Jack Zduriencik and company.
If you’re new to the draft and still want to keep reading, consider the rest of this post your introduction to next Monday!
How does the draft work?
In general, it’s no different than any other, but it does have a few defining quirks. Teams draft in reverse order of record (M’s pick third) for 40 rounds (dropping from 50 in previous years). The order gets a little weird in the early rounds because teams can sometimes lose picks when they sign top free agents and gain picks when they lose guys. There’s a big supplemental round between the 1st and 2nd rounds where most of these happen. Teams also can add picks if they failed to sign guys in the first three rounds of the previous year’s draft. None of this really affects the Mariners except that they have an extra pick at the end of the 3rd round for failing to sign slugging prep 1B Kevin Cron last year.
Complicating forecasts this year are some changes made in the latest collective bargaining agreement. Previously, teams could spend whatever they wanted on picks. MLB would recommend bonus amounts for each pick, but teams rarely stuck to them. This year, there’s something of a salary cap. Each pick has a dollar amount attached to it, and teams will have the sum of those amounts to spend on the draft, with penalties in taxes or lost picks next year if they exceed their bonus pool amount. So, for example, the Mariners might have $5 million for the third pick, $1.2 mil. for their second rounder, and so on for a total bonus pool of $11.8 million (all amounts made up) for the first ten rounds (rounds 11-40 don’t have a cap, but any bonus over $100,000 for them counts against the pool). The M’s don’t have to spend the exact amount on each guy. They can spread it around, go over slot on one guy and below on another, but the ten round total has to come in at the bonus pool amount.
That might be more than you want to know, but the point is that no one’s sure how it will play out. It used to be a top high school guy might be seeking a big bonus and saying that he’ll go to college if he doesn’t get it. He might start dropping below where he should be picked until one team, usually with lots of money, would finally pick him, throw a bonus way over slot at him and hope he signs. It often ended up with teams getting players who were much better than where they were drafted, because they were willing to pay more. They can’t realistically do that now. Teams will still make adjustments, but there don’t seem to be a ton of loopholes. Baseball America has a quick piece here that tells more.
Who’s eligible for the draft?
The draft is for players in the USA, Canada, and a few places in Latin America. Only high school seniors and college juniors and seniors (usually) are eligible. Generally, the high schoolers and college juniors are the most talented players. It’s thought that more college seniors will be drafted high because they have the least leverage and can signed for cheaper, leaving more money for other guys under the new rules. It’s anyone’s guess when any of these guys will reach the majors, but in general a high school first rounder will be in the minors at least 3-4 years, while a top college guy might get there in half that time. Or they might not.
So who will the Mariners pick first?
On to the fun stuff. I have no clue who the Mariners will pick #3. Part of that is because this a pretty unsettled draft. There’s no clear top guy, and the draft is seen as fairly weak overall. The Mariners are also incredibly tight-lipped. Last year they picked Danny Hultzen second overall. He was one of about six guys who was considered worthy of the #1 overall pick, but he was the last of the six I expected them to pick. We just won’t know what they’re thinking until they make the pick. Even then, the pick can be influenced by money or location demands, as everyone but college seniors are eligible to return to school, unlike other sports. If you’re mad that the M’s didn’t pick your favorite guy, that’s fine, but know that A) they might have know there was no way that guy would sign with them, and B) they are much smarter and have seen all of these guys many more times than us.
All that said, here are the ones to watch, as near as all the experts can tell:
Byron Buxton is getting most of the buzz as the top talent in the draft. He’s an incredibly fast and athletic outfielder from rural Georgia with above-average hitting talent. He’s raw and there are questions about how he’ll develop offensively. His power is the primary concern, as his batting practice shows have yet to translate consistently to games. Even with the concerns, he’s the best bet to become a superstar and is far and away my top pick for the Mariners. It’s doubtful he’ll drop to them, but there are rumors that the first two teams, the Astros and the Twins, are looking for pitching or more immediately ready prospects. I’m not getting my hopes up, but there’s a chance.
Mike Zunino, a catcher from Florida, is the top college position player in the draft and also the guy most mock drafts have the Mariners taking. I wouldn’t be upset with that pick, but I’m not real excited about it either. He doesn’t project at the Buster Posey-level of impact. More likely, he’d be at the Jason Varitek level, if things broke right. That’s plenty worthy of a high pick, but catchers are also hard to develop, no guarantee to reach their potential, and oft-injured. Further complicating a Zunino pick is whether the Mariners want Jesus Montero to stick at catcher. You can only play one of them and Zunino’s bat isn’t likely to be good enough at another position.
There are a few top college pitchers, led by Mark Appel and Kevin Gausman, with Kyle Zimmer right behind them. Appel, from Stanford, is a lot like last year’s #1 pick, Gerrit Cole. Both have great stuff and entered the season as the presumptive #1 prospect, but a less than dominating season raised questions. Whether Appel can still be the top pick like Cole was remains to be seen, but there’s a good chance he’s gone before the Mariners pick.
Carlos Correa is the late riser this year. He’s a shortstop from Puerto Rico who will likely move to third. He’s also possibly the top hitting prospect in the draft. Generally, Latin American guys are known for being free swingers, which holds back many hitters talented at making contact. The Mariners have had more than their share of these guys. Scouting reports are unclear on Correa’s plate discipline, but some people are calling him the most talented guy in the draft, so if the Mariners pick him, I’ll be good with it.
Those are the six most likely to be Mariners, but don’t be surprised at all if someone else is the pick. We just don’t know what the Mariners are thinking, and if they value someone else the most, they’ll go against public opinion and make the pick. As they should. This is now really long, so I’ll wrap up. Let me know if you have questions. I’ll pass along any info that comes along before the draft and then give my thoughts once they make their picks.