I recently bought a subscription to Baseball America this year which includes a draft database of each team’s draft history, how much a player signed for, their school, position, etc. It sounds naive (probably because it is) but after spending several hours sifting through the A’s draft history over the past ten years, I realized how much money was spent on prospects that haven’t worked out. I meditated on all the time scouts spent in video rooms skimming over footage, all the plane rides taken across the country and back, all the million-dollar checks written out, all the notes and data collected on every player of interest. This is an insane amount of time, money, and effort to be spent on kids who are still doing algebra homework each night or eating ramen noodles in a dimly lit college dorm room. I don’t say that as an insult, rather the opposite. These guys are extremely skilled and highly specialized, but they’re still teenagers/young adults who (like most of us) struggle to find success at a young age in whatever domain they choose. With some amount of certainty, we can say that a collection of these kids will blossom into the stars of tomorrow. However, with even greater certainty, we can safely assume most will not achieve their big league dreams. Yet it’s this never-ending race to catch glimmers of certainty in prospects, for Major League scouts, that keeps their inevitable psychosis at bay.
The MLB Draft for front offices is akin to hitting in baseball – you don’t expect to hit a home run every at-bat, rather, you try to put the ball in play and hope for the best.
A’s Draft Strategy: A Brief (and recent) History
Although they have been surprisingly consistent in their proportion of prep to college players, even by position, the Athletics seem to go through periods where they like to draft a certain demographic of players in particular rounds. For example, a ten-year streak of drafting college players in the first round from 2002-2011 (15 picks total). Unlike football and basketball, talent is too difficult to come by for teams to draft purely based on positional need. However, a streak like this is too coincidental to conclude that there were no attractive prep players available to the A’s during this time. To me, this seems like an active implementation of a draft strategy based around selecting college players who are closer to the majors and don’t come with as big of a warning label.
When the A’s do decide to draft a player out of high school, it’s generally worked out at the same rate as college players since 2000 (College: 14.2%, HS: 12.9%) – at least if we define “work out” as a player making his MLB debut. I agree, it’s reductive to analyze success through such a narrow prism, but at its very least it communicates these players are given a chance. I understand the apprehension involved in spending several millions of dollars on a high school player in the first round. These aggressive draft strategies are risky especially for teams like the A’s who consistently outperform expectations and compete for a playoff spot on a nearly annual basis in the past decade. Rounds two and three have left a particularly painful sting considering that Sean Murphy is the only player drafted in those rounds since 2015 to make his major league debut.
Matt Olson remains the only home run first-round high school pick by the A’s since Eric Chavez in 1996. Although the dataset that I used to create these graphs doesn’t include 2020, Tyler Soderstrom (2020 first-round pick out of high school) is continuing to help the A’s realize that taking risks in the first-round might be a philosophy worth practicing. A new leaf has to be turned – either change how college players are being evaluated, or become more aggressive and start drafting prep players with high upside in early rounds or both. The A’s scouts are capable of identifying high school talent; other than Olson, Addison Russell and Billy McKinney have been serviceable major league players selected by the A’s. The jury is still out on the last two first-round prep picks for the A’s in Austin Beck and of course Soderstrom. Beck is getting his chance in Triple-A as we speak and doesn’t look nearly as promising as Soderstrom who’s feel for hitting and projectable frame alone makes him the most valuable first-round high school selection by the A’s since Olson and Chavez.
These will be a collection of high school players that I think the A’s should select, not the players I think they will select. I should also note that considering the A’s have one of the most limited bonus pools this year of $6,188,900, it’s unrealistic to pick all of these players given the money it will take to sign them all.
Generally, these players will also be on the riskier side, not only because of their prep status but also because of their seeming lopsidedness in terms of overall skill. For example, the most credible questions with Soderstrom stemmed from his ability to catch at the next level. His hit tool was never in question, or at least less so. I hope the A’s chase this archetype, players with high offensive upside. Arguably, it’s easier to teach defense than it is to teach hitting, Marcus Semien is a prime example. When the A’s traded for Semien they accepted his defensive question marks because they believed in their coaching system’s ability to develop him into a respectable defensive player. They ended up squeezing more than just that out of Marcus, they got an all-star shortstop with above average defensive metrics and one of the greatest offensive seasons put together by an Athletic shortstop.
I don’t expect the A’s to drastically change their draft strategy, I still expect a heavy amount of college righties with pro-ready 6’0″-6’3″ frames; safe picks. So as far as I’m concerned this will be a half educational exercise and half LARP session.
- Round 1 (pick 25): Max Muncy (Thousand Oaks HS, CA) – $2,740,300
I’ve been high on Muncy for a few months now and I hope to do an analysis of his swing mechanics in the future. For good reason, this year’s class of prep shortstops expected to go top in the 10-15 picks have left Muncy on a bit of an island in terms of getting the recognition that he deserves, although he’s been climbing up big boards for the past few days. Many have claimed that a move to third base would make sense for Muncy as he grows into his 6-foot-1 frame, but I disagree. He’s fluid and bouncy shows great instincts and hands, and possesses an accurate arm with solid strength. If he needs a change of position, let him fail at short first instead of preemptively moving him. Of course, there is room to grow which is why Muncy will be a 2-3+ year project – emphasis on the plus.
Muncy’s at-bats are patient and poised, he knows exactly when to get aggressive and when to get his foot off the gas. It’s clear he has an intuition at the plate beyond his years, but he’s also shown a strong work ethic in his dedication to studying pitcher’s tendencies, according to Baseball America. When I see Muncy I see a solid defensive floor with high offensive upside. This is a player who could anchor a lineup if his potential gets a chance to fully stretch its legs.
- Round 4 (pick 127): Brandon Neely (RHP, Spruce Creek HS, FL) – $1,200,000
Neely is a prep pitcher out of Spruce Creek High School with loads of potential packed into his mature 6-foot-2, 205-pound frame. He has a fluid and quiet delivery with an athletic leg step, punctuated by a fastball/breaking ball(s) combo that bursts electrically out of his hand. The fastball sits 94-95 with fantastic arm-side life through the zone. He throws two breaking balls, one is more of a 12-6 shape sitting somewhere mid-70s, and the other is a much tighter and east to west like a Jose Berrios slurve. Regardless, Neely has a great feel for both pitches which lays a good foundation for his changeup (still a work in progress) and any other pitch that teams might want to consider adding to his arsenal.
Some adjustments could be made to make him more consistent with his fastball command in particular. With his athleticism and upside, I think Brandon Neely is just what the A’s have been lacking in their system – youthful upside at the pitching position. He’s a proud country boy and a commitment to Florida might also complicate the A’s ability to sign him, but I’d easily throw a few hundred thousand dollars over slot value to make that happen.
- Round 5 (pick 157): Caiden Huber (SS, Yucaipa HS, CA) – $1,000,000
The more I watch Huber, the more amazed I am not to see him higher on leaderboards. At 6-foot-4, 195 pounds, Huber’s body alone makes him an intriguing prospect. Visually, however, Huber doesn’t look like a clumsy giant out at short, as some might expect. He maintains an athletic stance with good eyes and instincts when reading groundballs, paired with soft hands and a whippy sidearm throwing motion. He looks like such a shortstop which makes me hesitant to suggest that other positions in the infield could also be in his future, particularly second base considering his arm might not translate well to third as of now.
Just like his defensive abilities, Huber’s swing is a balance of majestic and concise. His ability to recognize pitches makes his power projection that much more intriguing not to mention his pure bat-to-ball skills. Huber hit 0.330 last season against great high school competition, proving that he isn’t overwhelmed by higher velocity pitching and above-average breaking balls. Some tweaks could be made with his swing, mainly regarding an early weight transfer. I’m sure many other things will take time for Huber to develop, like his power at the next level and his defensive ceiling. If a team is going to take Huber, faith in his bat will likely be the primary reason. He’s committed to USC so it would be a tough sign but I have him going somewhere in the million dollar range.