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2018 MLB Draft Prep: The draft made easier

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What kind of approach should the Cubs take for this year’s draft?

Miami Marlins v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

The MLB Draft tends to be a bit difficult to grasp for a number of reasons. Players rarely graduate to the parent club. The player names are unfamiliar. Many baseball fans don’t like college or minor league baseball. However, another is that nobody tries to make the draft accessible. The experts like to say, “This kid has a 60 fastball.” Meanwhile, he goes to Rookie League Ball, and sports an ERA of 7.38. It’s a bit of a cloistered language, if that makes any sense. Therefore, those who don’t dig the intricacies of the scouting jargon/lingo are left out. My goal today is to make the draft a bit easier to understand.

In June, the Cubs will have the 24th pick in the first round of the draft, and will make 42 selections over 40 rounds. You’ll hear people talk upside, ceilings, floors, and a bunch of other verbal clutter. Whether designed to help or not, the terms usually help those already on the inside. Feeding the pig, as it were.

To simplify draft selection, what should the Cubs want with their first pick in the draft?

An ace?

A middle-of-the-order bopper?

A trade piece?

Made a bit more simple, the Cubs want a guy that will play for the parent club. The better he performs, the better.

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Selecting 24th, the Cubs are up against longer odds than you might expect. While the natural lean is to see the successes, note also the slashes. The “failures.” The 24th spot, as with most, offers plenty of them. Two of the main recent successes at 24 have been Chad Billingsley and Joe Blanton. Neither were powerhouses, but both were successful, especially for 1.24.

As you notice the staggering amount of “fail,” try to determine for yourself (I can’t decide this for you) what level of success would be acceptable for you at this spot. Ask eight people, you’ll get at least six different answers. Mine will be a curious one. It involves Marlins infielder Derek Dietrich.

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A few years ago, I was getting used to following people on Twitter who were far better at assessing the draft than I was. One of the people (he had an online draft guide he was putting together for the season) was on a road trip. He was noting that Dietrich was looking rather bad at the plate. I took the note and ran with it. Dietrich wasn’t worth drafting. That June, he was selected by the Rays in the second round, with the 79th overall pick.

My question now is, would Dietrich’s career represent a reasonable value at 24? The quick way to tell is to look at his career WAR, which is a rather modest 3.4. Realistically, that’s reasonably close to the over/under you should be placing on the choice at 1.24. Perhaps a wee bit high, but as easy as it is to say “That isn’t enough,” it might be tolerable. Or, at least, should be.

The plot thickens, though. If you look carefully, Dietrich’s career in MLB hasn’t been with Tampa, but the other Florida team, the Marlins. While still a prospect in 2012, Tampa flipped Dietrich straight-up for Yunel Escobar.

In the few years after, Escobar has been a 2 WAR player on average. Eventually he forwarded to play for the Nationals and Angels. As Dietrich netted Escobar, regardless how Dietrich fared, he was represented as a usable league starter in trade.

If the player the Cubs select at 24 is represented as a league starter type in trade, that qualifies as a win. Regardless if he debuts, and with precious little regard for anything else. What the Cubs are looking for at 24 is a player who is good enough to play as a league starter, or get traded for someone who figures to contribute as one.

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It isn’t ceilings. It isn’t floors. It isn’t projection. Is it reasonable to expect that “this guy” is going to represent well up to the major league level, and represent when he gets there?

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In 2015, Ian Happ was the Cubs’ top pick. Taken ninth overall from the University Of Cincinnati, he was represented as a switch-hitter with power. His defense was the question. He was a possibility in he infield, and his speed was considered good enough for numerous spots on the diamond.

Looking back at the 2015 draft board, nobody drafted shortly after Happ has debuted yet. Walker Buehler was selected 24th that June by the Dodgers. Buehler had had a rather disappointing junior season at Vanderbilt, and the Dodgers pegged him at a great discount. Happ was a perfectly fine pick, even if someone from the range after goes on a tear soon. The information about a player that matters is the information available on draft day.

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Among my preferences for the Cubs at 24 is Jeremy Eierman from Missouri State. A college shortstop, he figures to settle in at third base in the upper minors. Whoever drafts him might well run him out at shortstop for a few seasons, but third seems more likely, eventually.

While other college bats (Jonathan India, Joey Bart, and Alec Bohm) have shot up draft boards with solid junior campaigns, Eierman has stagnated, or even dropped. After a 1.106 OPS last season, when he outhomered teammate Jake Burger, Eierman has only seven homers this season, after 23 last year.

Without watching a scrap of film, do you think it’s possible teams are pitching around Eierman? I figure it’s possible. Also, as I write this, the Cubs are going through yet another rain delay. This one is the day before Mother’s Day. As MLB clubs in the north have had crappy weather this year, college sides have had the same inclement troubles.

The difference is, this is the warm season for teams like Burger’s Missouri State Bears club. While I don’t specifically remember the weather patterns for last year, Eierman’s offense might well be a bit weaker in terrible weather without his co-pilot than with in 2017.

The reality is, though, nobody cares about Buehler’s numbers as a junior, now. The question with the Dodgers’ rising star is as it was. How would he do under the watchful eye of professional coaches? Fairly well.

A thumbnail on Eierman is as follows. The power should be there. Even without the expected major home run numbers so far, his college ISO this year is .232. He’s stolen 42 bases in college, and been caught five times. While I doubt he’ll be a burner on the bases as a pro, he represents being a good base runner. Since he’s been adequate at short, a switch to third shouldn’t be a major problem, whether for the glove or the arm.

As with so many others, it boils to the bat.

If Eierman has reasonable pop, can cover third reasonably well, and can run, how decent of a MLB-type option should he be if he can hit, say, .240 at the big league level? Remember Dietrich. He struggled in college as a junior (in someone’s eyes), and represented well enough to be flipped for a starting position player. If the Cubs coaches can remind Eierman (who has 41 walks this season) that walks are fine, he should traipse through the lower end of the minors.

Am I saying Eierman will be a superstar? No. However, the skills he’s already displayed make him look like a very valid choice at 24 in the most important time frame. The longer one.

When checking on a player for the first round, attempt to discover what is already known. If he’s a pitcher, is he a two-pitch guy now, or a three-pitch guy? How likely is the third (or fourth) pitch to be developed? (If the comment is “He has a developing third pitch,” that likely means he only uses it in games when he’s up by five runs.) Does he have difficulty throwing strikes?

For hitters, how willing is he to wait out a pitcher? Does he have (at least) “doubles power” already? What position does he pencil in at as he rises through the system? Can he hit?

The cool thing about the baseball draft is that it goes 40 rounds. These players, if signed, will be assigned to an affiliate that can test their mettle, and push them to improve. Some will, and some won’t. However, unlike in some professional scenarios, they’ll be able to show their stuff on the field long enough to improve. In some sports, players are released after doing quite well in camp due to number crunches. MLB teams have at least seven affiliates.

If the Cubs get reasonably decent production from the first round, like five WAR or better, the Cubs are on their way to another useful draft.

To which, many will say I’m shooting far too low. As if I want a player who will “only” represent five WAR value. 5.00000000 WAR and not a tenth over.

Not even close. Kris Bryant was “five WAR or better.” Kyle Schwarber is the franchise post-season home-run leader, along with Bryant. To get a player who is going to be very good, he has to be “at least adequate” first.

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People who passionately avoid college baseball are about to become converts for about three or four weeks. They’ll find a piece of film or two, and show you how a player they like “barrels up for power” or has a filthy putaway pitch. Which is phenomenal. I wish it lasted longer than a few weeks.

Feel free to ask them valid, salient questions about now, and into the future. However, questions that don’t require a Doctorate in Crystal Ball Reading.

Is this guy a two, three, or four pitch pitcher? Do you think he’ll add another?

Can he play center field or right field with a reasonable level of skill? Should he stick?

Is the count 1-2 or 2-1 more often with this guy?

Is he a smart base runner?

If it boils down to it in a game in the Midwest League, can he get the runner from second to third by any means necessary?

These are reasonably difficult questions. They require more homework than just checking out a few videos on YouTube. They are also very valid questions.

Before you run away, look back at the list of 24th overall choices through the years. Would you be willing to accept a 5 WAR career? If not, why are you demanding something the has only happened with six of 49 24th picks so far? And what good does it do, anyway?

I’d be perfectly willing to accept a career like Dietrich’s, whether you incorporate the trade or not. The Cubs should be fine into the future if they continue to get value from their first round picks. Even mild value, on occasion.

The international arena and other rounds can help with that. In the first round, don’t miss.

Eierman should be good enough through the system, with pro coaching, to be a borderline or better regular at the MLB level if he stays healthy. Health is much more likely with hitters, which is a reason I have to have someone walk me through why they’re so willing to glom onto a pitcher with the first pick. A pitcher who might throw his best slider in the Carolina League three weeks before surgery.

The baseball draft is about adding talent from wherever available. Junior Colleges. Division Three. The major conferences. A good draft often starts with a first round pick that provides long-term value. Whether the Cubs take a player like Eierman, or a handful of other very tolerable options, getting a degree of value from the first pick prevents a draft from being a failure.

By getting value at 1.24, the Cubs could help upgrade a pipeline that is probably better than perceived.