Tuesday, November 8, 2011
The benefits of drafting prep talent
By Jason A. Churchill
Dylan Bundy of Owasso (Owasso, Okla.) was the 2011 Gatorade Player of the Year. He also went No. 4 in the 2011 MLB Draft to the Orioles.
The Major League Baseball Draft, officially referred to as the First-Year Player Draft, consists of 50 rounds of selections. Three levels of players are eligible from the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico, including high schools players that are slated to or have just graduated high school.
The slight majority of players chosen generally are of the college ilk, but last June more than half of the top 60 picks were prep players, and the class was considered the best in at least a handful of years.
There are benefits to drafting both college and high school players. The college player generally is on shorter path to the majors, leaving less risk to the club that the talent will stagnate and never supply a return on the investment. The college player also brings fewer questions in terms of makeup, physical capabilities and injury, since there is far more information available on a three-year university veteran than high school player.
The benefit to drafting high school talents, however, is a fascinating trip down Draft Philosophy Boulevard. It depends on which scout is asked as it will somewhat based in their experiences -- and the success and failures -- but the commonalities are abound.
Here are three reasons why a high school player can be the better choice:
1. Professional Instruction
The longer, and sooner, a player can begin receiving professional instruction the better the chances he maximizes his natural talents and becomes the player in which the club hopes he can ultimately develop.
While not universal, as there are several exceptions, it's generally accepted that college coaching staffs have different goals. They are hired to win games for their school, not necessarily prepare their players for professional baseball.
"Pro ball allows the talent to be nurtured," said a scouting supervisor of one American League club. "Colleges don't have that luxury, they have a different goal. A player's best chance to run its (development) course is through pro ball."
There is a lot of value in a club being able to shape the talent the way they prefer, and often times it can be the difference between an end-result sprouting a star versus a fringe major leaguer.
In connection with receiving professional coaching and guidance, there are differing habits and routines developed in college that do not prepare a player well for pro ball. The schedule is significantly abbreviated and the kids have to spend a lot of time studying for classes.
If they head from high school to the minor leagues, their every twitch can be focused on their development as a baseball player, and they will be doing so under close scrutiny and training of those in charge of getting them ready for the big leagues.
"I would always lean toward high school drafts," explains one clubs's assistant GM, "just because the time you get to spend molding the players as your own and because they haven't developed habits, yet."
Going from a schedule that may extend out to 60-70 games in college to the 144-game schedule in the minors can be awfully demanding for the college draftee, who is generally 20-22 years of age on draft day. His skills may be ready for a big-league promotion -- particularly pitchers -- before his body is ready to handle the rigors of a full big-league schedule.
With a high school player, he can be fully acclimated to the 144-game minor league schedule before he hits his age range of 20-22, making for a much smoother transition a season that is basically three weeks longer.
When clubs select a college player they are more-less hoping that talent translates fairly quickly to the major leagues, and aren't necessarily seeking significant physical progress or additional expectancies in performance. In other words, to an extent, he is what he is.
"That's what makes them safer picks," the supervisor explained. "You'll probably get something out of your higher picks if they are college guys, and that is especially true for pitchers."
With the prep athlete, however, you have to dream a little bit, project down the road. Clubs will take performance into consideration, of course, but if the specific skill set is there and the player displays the physical attributes of a future big-league player, he's a prospect. Those that show exceptional levels of ability within those skills, both physical and technical within the game of baseball, they have rather high upsides.
"Simply put," said an NL club's national crosschecker, "these higher-ceiling kids can be stars, there's still that chance. If a college player isn't a superstar in school he's not likely to be one as a pro."
This thought links to Nos. 1 and 2 in terms of maximizing the chance to develop a player into a superstar. It's no surprise that many of the game's brightest stars that came to MLB via the draft were selected right out of high school. Prince Fielder, Alex Rodriguez, Josh Hamilton, Clayton Kershaw, CC Sabathia and Justin Upton are just a handful of examples.
In conclusion, there is no right or wrong answer to the question of which is the better philosophy, selecting college players or high school talents in the draft. And there are more factors that come into play than just the players' abilities when organizations make these decisions, including how soon the player projects to assist the big league club in their goal to winning a World Series, and the reward the player is capable of bringing once he arrives.
"I think it can depend on the situation your club is in at the time," said the assistant GM. "I think drafting really high, you have to take the best player regardless of position or level of experience, but if you are a club building toward winning three or four years down the road and you have a college player and a high school graded equally after evaluating all the risks and rewards, perhaps the high school kid makes as much or more sense. You know, to try and get that franchise player out of it."
Jason A. Churchill covers scouting, player development and the MLB Draft for ESPN Insider, as well as Prospect Insider where he's the founder and executive editor. He's served in similar roles for numerous publications since 2003, including the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. You can find Jason's ESPN archives here and follow him on Twitter here. He can also be reached via email here.