The San Diego Padres took a bit of a chance at the top of their 2018 draft class, opting for lefty Ryan Weathers over several pitchers seen by public observers as potentially higher ceiling options. But the club felt comfortable about adding the left-hander to an already deep organization.
Behind Weathers, the team was able to select a mix of college and high school players, going a bit more aggressively after upside picks on day three. We talked with Mark Conner about the philosophy and strategies the organization uses in building their draft class.
Two of the club’s top 11 picks were with Texas Tech in the College World Series until Thursday night, so the last work of signing Weathers and a handful of other talents was on hold. The organization and their picks have until Saturday, July 7 to come to agreement.
MadFriars: When you look at this class as a whole, how do you see the group fitting into the organization as it is today?
Mark Conner: Honestly, I think it’s a very good group to add. One of the big things we’ve tried to stress over the past years, and we did it this year, we took players our whole group really liked. Starting at the top with Ryan Weathers, our area scout, Tyler Stubblefield, had him at the top of his list the entire year. He got to know him and the family extremely well and we got a talented player and really good competitor who comes from a great family.
On top of that, we added some college hitters this year, and that’s a little bit different than years past. We took some hitters from the high school ranks – Xavier Edwards. And I think it just fell into place a little bit this year where a lot of the hitters that we really liked ended up getting to spots that we liked them in. I’m excited to see these guys get out and play, because it’s going to be good to blend with the guys we already have in terms of their experience level, their feel to hit and athleticism and the different components that they bring.
Everyone always talks about “best player available” at a pick. But obviously, at some point, you had to have Cole Wilcox higher than whoever you took at some point late on day two. So how do you balance “best player” at a specific spot with “best class of players” when you approach your draft board.
Mark Conner: For days one and two, there’s a lot of strategy – there’s a lot of factors that go into it. Who’s got a chance to get to the next round? We’ve got to play that game in our minds, and there’s also piecing together the pool money. And then, on top of that, you’ve got day three where you’ve got the blend of trying to get the best player available, but also trying to put yourself in a position to get some guys who are going to be overpays over the $125,000 threshold and potentially get a couple of those guys signed.
On day three, you took a handful of high school guys who kind of look like, if there is such a thing, “signability” high schoolers. Guys with a fairly weak commitment or other reasons they might choose to get started on their careers, even if they’re not in line for much more than the $125,000 bonus amounts. Was that a specific approach that you took into the year?
Mark Conner: Sometimes, there’s going to be players who fall into this category, high school players with upside who have a strong interest in going out and signing. If they’re at that $125,000 threshold, that’s intriguing just for putting the class together. And then the second part of that, our area scouts – Tim Reynolds with [Tyler] Mortenson and Nick Brannan with [Payton] Smith – those two guys did a really good job of letting us know when we had to take them, and that we could wait and try to take them a little bit later to build the best draft class possible. As far as targeting those players, I think the biggest thing is we still want to make sure they have tools, upside, skill, they have aptitude and make-up that they can handle themselves on their own and they’re mature enough to go out and start their careers. Those are the most important things, not just the aspect of what they’re looking for money-wise.
You mentioned Payton Smith, who signed quickly. He seems to be, even by the standards of a day three high school guy, pretty raw?
Mark Conner: Yeah, he comes from a smaller school in South Carolina. But he’s a big, physical young man who can really impact a baseball. It’s one of those things where it’s a strength and speed combination that’s hard to find and ultimately, he maybe a little farther away than some of these polished high school players, but the passion he has for the game is very evident. Our area scout Nick Brannon went in there and spent time with him and talking, and this kid just loves to play. It’s one of those things, where he hasn’t been as immersed into it as some other players, so there’s some really untapped potential here that, with our player development staff, we’re excited he could tap into.
You always talk so much about the importance of getting to know guys and their families, and the importance of character. How do you look at a guy who’s been through three high school programs in four years like Sean Guilbe, or the suspension issues for Juwuan Harris and say, okay, we’re still good about how they fit in on that front?
Mark Conner: I think first and foremost, when we start looking at these guys, we need to see where they come from and break down their family and their history and just kind of get that backstory of who they are. We understand that guys make mistakes, that none of us are perfect. And in those situations, or others that we might have with make-up questions, the biggest thing for us is addressing those questions with the players and getting their takes. We address them with the parents. With Sean Guilbe, Dustin Johnson did a good job of talking to other sources, people around him, people he’s interacted with in the past, people from those different schools and doing a lot of vetting in that process.
With Juwuan, Jake Koening did a nice job of talking to the coaches, talking to the football coaches and digging a lot and trying to get a lot of the backstory. But ultimately, when they come and present a piece of information, it’s one more thing we take into account. Our big question when it comes up is, is this something that we can help and if we put him in a certain situation and surround him with the right people and environment, is this something we can aid? We don’t look at and just say, ‘there’s a makeup problem, we’re out.’ We’re like, ‘there’s a makeup problem and how can we help solve this problem?’
So much has shifted in terms of amateur acquisition in recent years. I know you and AJ already noted that there’s been a rise in baseball-only guys. What other things are you seeing as real shifts compared to when you started as an area guy?
Mark Conner: One of the things – there is a benefit to the showcases because we’re able to see a lot of players in one spot. But it’s less about playing the game and the actual skill and small parts of the game. You don’t see players who know how to move runners over, fight enough to get a groundball to move a guy from second to third. [You don’t get] infield in or infield back situations with a runner on third base and less than two outs. The guys who understand how to play catch-up baseball and take pitches late in games when their team’s down a few runs and they need to try to get good pitches to hit. I think the small things that need to be executed to win – I think there’s been a shift more to tools and guys swinging hard. Pitchers are trying to throw for the radar guns, so you see fewer breaking balls in the amateur ranks these days. When a guy has a real curveball, that really stands out. In the last few years, there’s been a real shift. There’s a lot more sliders than curveballs just because it’s easier to throw for strikes. Those are some of the biggest trends.
I think, too, you don’t see the three-sport athletes. I think the thing kids need to keep in mind is, it’s good to have those breaks. It’s good to train other muscles, and put them in environments that aren’t necessarily the easiest or the best. It helps them handle adversity when they’re playing a second or third sport that’s not their strongest.
When you bring players in for the workouts you run, how much of that is about getting them into an environment where you can use the TrackMan systems? How much of those data collection tools are you using across the board?
Mark Conner: We definitely apply the TrackMan data and any of the other information we can get from some of the major events that happen. With our pre-draft workouts at Petco, we definitely have those resources and we definitely apply it. It just helps separate some things, and our guys from research and development are really good. I pointed out some things that maybe answer some questions – or bring up some questions – about the players. It’s another piece of the puzzle. We don’t have that at every single one of our workouts. We don’t have that luxury, so when we do have the chance to use it, we definitely do.
Are there specific data points you look at, whether exit velocity or bat speed stuff for the hitters, is there stuff you’re most interested in seeing?
Mark Conner: Honestly, the research and development guys dive into all aspects of that. They’re going to talk about spin rates a lot. They’re going to talk about vertical break, the exit velocity and launch angle. Those are the things that are brought up more often than not. But for me, I want them to look at all the numbers and put together the picture of the player and highlight things that are outliers in a very positive way or outliers that are raising questions in another way.
Who are you spending the most time with from the R&D side?
Mark Conner: Mostly it’s Tristan Sandler. He and I work together on it. Dave Cameron was in the draft room with us and had some good stuff to add. Josh Stein brings up good points throughout the year and in the draft year. But my main contact is Tristan throughout the course of the year.
We got to day two of the draft, and immediately the first couple of picks were a couple of Midwest guys and I was joking ‘who would have possibly guessed, a Mark Conner draft turns to the Midwest.’ Is that kind of a comfort zone thing for you at this point?
Mark Conner. No, I’ll be honest, I have no bias that way. The one thing is, the Midwest is one of those places where there are a lot of players out there – a lot of colleges and a lot of high schools – that ultimately that our group has scouted those players and they are players who excite us and that we want to get in the system.
How do you leverage guys like Dave Post and Logan White in prepping for the draft? Do you give them hit lists of players to see, do they come up with their own lists, or somewhere in between, to have them layer on?
Mark Conner: I have a lay of the country and know where our looks have been, so I try and direct those guys. I’ll try and coordinate with AJ, and he and I will have discussions about potential guys for them to see. I try to blend in, as well, some players that our area scouts and regional cross-checkers have gut feels on. I definitely try to get them to players that we have interest in, and not just top players in the draft. But I try to let them have an impact throughout the entire draft.
Is there a specific guy from day three where one of those two went in and said, ‘okay, this is a guy to prioritize’ for you?
Mark Conner: I think Nick Gatewood was an example. Our assistant scouting director Kurt Kemp went in early, probably middle of the year, and he saw him with Tyler Stubblefield. They really liked his swing – professional approach, big bodied left-handed hitter who swung with intent and showed power. And then later on, David Post went in there and saw him and was there with our regional cross-checker Chris Kelly. But the voice of the group saying this is a good body with power, as a group helped impact our decision to take him.
Is it safe to assume that your GM has seen more of the kids who you’re talking about in the draft room than any other GM out there?
Mark Conner: I don’t know how many players other GMs see. AJ obviously loves to scout and he has a really good take on players, so he tries to see as many as he can with all the other duties he has. I know he sees a lot, but I don’t know how it compares to other GM’s.
The night the draft ended we briefly touched on this in your press conference. Do you and Chris Kemp and Sam Geaney as a group, feel like right now, organizationally you might be better equipped to be able to help a guy like that because of the structures and processes they’ve put in place for the wave that’s come in internationally over the last couple of years? Or is that not something that’s not part of the process in the room?
Mark Conner: It’s honestly not part of the thought process. I think the thing I think more about is if our philosophy is able to handle those types of players. We definitely are a patient organization that is willing to take on both the polished and the more raw players who are going to take some time. It’s an organizational belief that we provide the quality environment that’s going to help these guys get better as players and help them mature as young men. Honestly, we’re not worried about them rushing through. We’re willing to be patient. And not necessarily because of players we have in the system, but I think that’s been our overarching philosophy since AJ came on board.
I know you had most of your amateur scouts out at the complex together with the players and player development during spring training. It feels like you might have more flow between scouting and player development and the big league operations than maybe has been the case in the past. Is that true, is it intentional, and how does it inform what your group is doing?
Mark Conner: I definitely think that we have a really good relationship between scouting and player development. We have guys on both sides who have experience in the other. Kurt Kemp spent a long time as farm director for the Atlanta Braves. And then you’ve got Sam Geaney and Chris Kemp who have done time scouting. I think we understand each other and I think we communicate well with each other. It takes work from both sides to know that we’re on the same page with things, and I can trust those guys with the processes they have in place and what they do. I think they feel the same way about how we do things. That’s the camaraderie that we have, it’s a group of guys that really like each other and has the same vision going forward, so it’s easy to be on the same page.