The San Diego Padres largely played to type on the first day of the draft, going for upside and carrying tools. But they also gave themselves plenty of flexibility by spending underslot for each of their first three picks. Now that the club has moved quickly to sign nine of their first 11 picks and 24 overall, they find themselves with a significant amount of money still to spend, and some interesting options for it.
With so many remaining variables, it’s early to evaluate their strategy, much less their results, which won’t become clear for years when selected players begin to mature as big league players. We’ve nevertheless talked with the leading national media experts for their views based on what we know now. We finish that series today with Eric Longenhagen, the co-lead of Fangraphs’ prospect and draft coverage.
In just two years, Longenhagen and his colleague Kiley McDaniel (who long-time MadFriars readers remember from our shared time together on the Scout.com platform) have made Fangraphs a go-to source for metrics-informed scouting profiles of players across baseball. If you’re not already a regular reader of their work, you’re certainly missing out!
Longenhagen, originally a Philly boy, has been living in the Phoenix area for several years, giving him great access not just to the lowest levels of the minor leagues, but a ton of high school and collegiate showcases hosted in the Valley of the Sun. He was kind enough to take time out from the stunning volume of content he produces for Fangraphs to talk more in-depth about the Padres’ draft.
Our interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
MadFriars: Just as a starting point before we talk about any players, how do you define a successful draft.
Eric Longenhagen: That’s a good question. It’s a gut feel thing. Did you successfully execute an effort to get more than or the same amount of talent as you would if you were just taking what was at the top of your board every pick.
The Red Sox made their first pick at 40. I thought they had a successful draft. The Braves had two first round picks and I thought they did not, but they may have gotten more talent. So it can vary. It’s about expectations and how a team performs in context of those expectations. But generally, I would say, if there was a clear effort and execution of acquiring more talent than you were expected to it was a success.
With that as context recognizing that a lot of the answer to it depends on which of those Day Three high-end kids they actually get, what’s your initial reaction to what the Padres have done?
I think that they did that stuff. It was clear that Joshua Mears, their second-round pick, was just lower on our board than he was for other teams. They may have gotten an undervalued player in Logan Driscoll. College players are judged by their performance and it’s often the big school players teams have the most confidence in. Driscoll, as a small school guy, is just a pure scout pick. But on the surface, a lefty-hitting with power at catcher who’s athletic and can be worked with is a pretty interesting comp round pick. Hudson Head they’ve been on for a while. I think they did well in the first three rounds. They’re all are interesting upside calls. And then I know, Andre Tarver in the 15th round, it sounds like they are going to get that done. So, I think they did quite well as far as acquiring a good collection of talent, an interesting group that I’m going to enjoy watching in the AZL.
Do you look it at the value of what they did in part based on what they’ve currently got in the system? If an organization with mediocre talent had run the same gambit would you think as highly of it? Or do the Padres have the flexibility to shoot for the moon a little bit more?
Eric Longenhagen: I think if I were looking at this draft class and it said the White Sox on the top, I would definitely see it differently because it would be such a departure from what the team typically does. But that is not the case for the Padres. You think of the Mason Thompson pick and Cal Quantrill, and then finding small school college pitching that moves quickly… Like this is that type of draft class.
If you had said the Padres are going to start with Abrams and then in the second they’re going to take a giant power hitter out of high school, then in the third round they’re going to take a small-school college power catcher I mean that’s Austin Allen. So this is the typical Padres draft where there are some surprises but when you stand back and look at it after the fact it does look like a Padres’ draft.
In that group of arms from Day Two, obviously not a lot of folks had a whole lot of looks at Matthew Brash up at Niagara this year, but you had thrown a 35 on him. What did you hear coming in that that had him on your radar?
Eric Longenhagen: Yeah. The timing to check on small school Northeast college pitching is pretty precise. So I didn’t get a look. I know it’s like up to mid-90s, the slider will flash above, and there might be more there through player development. He’s got a longer arm action, shorter stride and is athletic enough to maintain it. But some of these Northeast college arms you just don’t know. And they’ve done an exceptional job drafting and developing these types of guys who’ve ended up being much better than expected. So this is the type of guy who, when he gets in the player dev pipeline, could take off though the ceiling is probably limited.
How would you define the strengths and weaknesses of their player development effort from what you’ve seen at this point?
Eric Longenhangen: I think clearly some of the things they’ve been doing on the pitching side are working. That’s evidenced by how much young pitching is on the big league club. On the hitting side, it’s probably been mixed.
You never know how an individual will perform against big league pitching the first time they see it. So it’s not as if Urias’s initial struggles were caused by bad player dev. You can’t say that definitively. He has been tinkered with and now he’s murdering Triple-A.
So it’s hard to say that even though what you’ve seen in the big leagues has not been great over such a small sample, he’s been made worse by those changes.
I think that, in general, some of the guys you think on the face could be swing change movers – Margot has above-average raw power, Naylor needed approach adjustments to hunt pitches he could drive – some of that they had trouble dialing in. But it’s not a universal fix – every hitter needs their own attention, their own plan and it’s so dependent on that individual to execute that plan. And there’s so much of hitting that is out of the hitter’s control, that’s reactionary. I think there hasn’t been as much movement on the hitting side as there have been with some other clubs, which makes me say that they’re a little bit behind teams like the Dodgers and Astros and Red Sox as far as developing hitters.
I don’t think that what they’re doing is just bad with the hitting, there hasn’t been as much movement as we’ve seen with some others certainly.
Drake Fellows is a kid who’s been starting at Vanderbilt for three years. There aren’t a whole lot of those who come out in the sixth round. Is he that profile of quick mover who’s probably pretty close to a finished product already? What do you see in taking a shot at him where they did the sixth round?
Eric Longenhagen: I think he is a terrifyingly inconsistent college arm. I’ve seen three plus pitches from him. In any given start, he will show you like a nasty 93 mph fastball with angle, a plus breaking ball, a changeup that dies as it reaches the plate and bottoms out just beneath the zone. So, he’ll give you everything, but he is so consistent and hittable at others and has wiggled off the hook an awful lot.
I think that taking a chance on a guy with that kind of stuff in round six is totally defensible. I think it’s an excellent idea. I think more teams should take big swings in the middle of day two like that. But he’s not like a polished college starter. He’s got some serious issues.
And Mason Feole who took a step back this year after his team USA work?
Eric Longenhagen: Feole is pretty standard as a lot of lefties who have come out of UConn – undersized but remarkable athletes. He could be one of the two lefties out of UConn, either Anthony Kay or Tim Cate. He’s an athletic, vertical arm slot lefty with a good breaking ball. It is that type of Joey Lucchesi arm slot basically. So he’s low 90s with weird angle and creates unique action on his pitches because of the slot.
Then you start to look at those days three guys where you know clearly that’s where this draft is going to be made or broken for the organization. You’re looking at they’ve got maybe $2.2 million to spend. I’m assuming that Maurice Hampton, even at that level, is still out of play for them?
Eric Longenhagen: I think so. I think he’s a backup plan in case something weird happens with Hudson Head, who I think will be overslot. I don’t have a lot of info on which day three guys are signing, it just sort of trickles in. I think Tarver’s the only one from that group who I feel strongly about them getting done.
There’s probably more than one guy. I would say that there’s probably a $700K and a couple $200K guys on day three. Tarver is a more mature body, very physical, a lefty bat with power. His swing looked grooved to me over the summer and I was not super confident in the hit tool playing. But he’s a two-sport guy so maybe there’s some more room to project on the back there. It’s a typical right-field profile. Then the other high school kids on day three, I’m not sure which of them might be in play.
If they do still have on the order of $1.5, $1.75 million after Tarver, do you think that’s enough to make a run at Josh Rivera?
Eric Longenhagen: It might be, I’m not sure. IMG kids’ signability is hard to gauge because part of the reason those kids go to that school would seem like because they want to go pro. They’re less likely to pursue a college education. So he would seem like he might be signable. If you’re going to make odds. Which of them gets done. I’d say he might be.
If I told you Bodi Rascon’s number was $350K, is that a reasonable number? Would you make a run at him for that sort of price tag?
Eric Longenhagen: Yeah that’s kind of right in that area.I think of it in general in increments of 250,000. So that seems right there. He’s more of a bet on the frame than anything else. Sort of a violent low arm slot guy – not violent, but there’s some violence about its head. So I guess that’s about right. He’s like a $250K – $500K guy for me.
Last year they came back with five high school kids who signed right at $125,000 from day three. They’ve been aggressive with those high school and JuCo guys whose college commitments were tenuous and they’ve already signed Pierce Jones and Anthony Nuñez out of high school this year. I’m curious what you think about that approach?
Eric Longenhagen: I think that those little nooks and crannies are where scouts are going to start to – I hate to use this phrase – add value to the org as the pure player talent evaluation pie starts to be more and more occupied by tech. Understanding how signable kids are, understanding how likely and motivated they are to either go to college or go to pro ball. Getting to know them and their families so you can have a firm understanding about that and communicate to those families that you are serious about their son playing pro ball and this is the number.
When you get going on or night one, you know we have this many kids on day three who are signable at this price so that when you’re making calls during the first couple of days, you know how much money you have on day three and you know where there are pockets of players. It’s about having the most efficient draft. It’s sort of like taking an approach that some teams take toward Latin America – a high volume approach like Philly has done, like Cleveland’s doing – where you have to take a high volume approach and trust your player development. Especially as player dev becomes better across baseball, this approach might be a more intelligent way to go about it.
[Editor’s note: Subscribers may note that this echoes some of Mark Conner’s pre-draft discussion with us.]
You guys wrote, I thought, a fascinating piece about the trend for hitters to bypass college because the development staff at the collegiate level isn’t as advanced. Do you think somebody eventually decides they’re in a position to do what clubs did on the international side, and just blow through their spend, take the penalty and sit on the sideline for two years? If it means getting every top 100 kid who’s not drafted by the third round and giving each of them $2 million, is it worth it to go for it?
Eric Longenhagen: It takes right confluence variables in a position to think you can pull it off. If you are the Diamondbacks this year, you have so much already, that taking that sort of risk becomes too much. So it takes the right type of situation and it takes confidence to be able to execute. You could have all these backdoor deals all these high school players and junior college players with strong commitments. Because that’s where you would have to attack.
Brandon Williamson was a lefty drafted out of TCU this year. He was just an unsignable junior college kid last year. You’d need to convince that guy. So it would take a lot of work. It would take a very intricate social network that doesn’t have any leaks because if word gets out that you’re doing this a couple weeks out from the draft, you’re just done and it won’t occur.
So I think it’s very unlikely that it will ever happen. And if it does it would seem a one-time thing. It would not ever be a thing we start to see teams do annually. And if it did, and a team decided, you know what, we can spend and get more talent than we would over the course of three drafts, baseball would do what they did with international signing structure. They would hard cap it so it can’t.