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Cubs draft assessment: A different way of looking back at the last few draft classes

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What sort of value have the Cubs gotten out of recent drafts, and what might they get going forward?

Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

When you go down a rabbit hole, you no longer see light. The dirt becomes you. When you finally burrow far enough, and you finally see the light again, you’re changed. With that rather morose start to an article, I initiate a new way to look at a draft that nobody else has (to my knowledge) bothered with.

Not many writers pay much attention to the baseball draft. Many that do are writer/scouts for outfits like Baseball America. That’s not a dig, it’s an assessment. Like a scout in a baseball front office, they decide which games to follow, and update from there.

Some “double-down” as prospect guys. They track the top 100 in the league, and tip a few that might be incoming. They’re an asset, and I track many of them on Twitter.

However, very few are about “assessing a draft” for what sort of value should be gleaned from a specific draft class. Once a draft is concluded, they’re off to prepping for the next draft class, or the July 2 players about to be signed. Nobody has made public any sort of “Draft Assess” premise for a June selection process, that I know about. Which stops today.

As a bit of a background, the draft entirely changed in 2012. Before that, a team could invest as much as they wanted on draft bonuses. Draft $15 million of bonuses in a season? Go ahead. (Though the Commissioner might get beet red over it.) As enough teams (including Theo Epstein’s Red Sox) were red-lining, hard caps were put into play for 2012. Nobody has overplayed to the extent of losing draft picks, since.

As such, teams now have specified amounts they can spend on draft bonuses. Much of that is based on “prior season record,” with a secondary lean on “small market size”.

For instance, this season, the Cubs are allowed to spend $7,517,100 in 2018 on their draft bonuses without penalty. Bonuses on the third day at or below $125,000 per player don’t count against. As such, if the Cubs spend a $125,000 bonus on 28th-rounder Mitchell Parker, his bonus won’t count against the $7.5 million number. If they spend a $175,000 bonus on the New Mexico left-handed pitcher, the final $50,000 goes against the kitty.

As such, the $7.5 million number is a key data point. The Cubs should have a better draft production than the Nationals ($5.6m), but worse than the Rays ($12.4m). That isn’t an assessment of scouting abilities. It’s respecting the value of raw cash.

Spending $7.5 million on a free agent pitcher for a specific season bring specific expectations. A WAR for the season, or maybe two. However, spending the same amount on a draft class in bonuses glazes many eyes over. Because the talent won’t arrive soon.

However, as a futures type of person, if every draft class, every international class, and free agent classes, all churn in synch, the time factor should fade. By 2019, the classes from 2015 ought to be ready to help. By 2022, the present selections should begin to provide value. If every part performs its functions, a draft spending spree should be a nice payout, eventually.

***

Step One is creating a few basics. While you’re welcomed to look at draft classes from the way-back machine, the current draft setup began with the spending limits. You can create your own vision, but I see two primary ways a team can get MLB value from a draft class. (Organizational value exists beyond that, but that’s a different experiment.)

MLB WAR, or

Trade pieces.

As you look to assess a draft class, determine the WAR achieved for the team from the selections, and how many players from the signing class were traded by the team.

That provides a rather crude map, but a map nonetheless. It’s a starting point, if nothing else.

***

2012 Cubs Draft

Rather notably, Albert Almora Jr. was Theo Epstein’s first Cubs draft pick. His current baseball-reference WAR is 3.7.

The next selection was Pierce Johnson, who appeared in one game for the Cubs before being lost on waivers. As such, no value is added either way on Johnson. (If he’d have been traded, instead of lost on waivers, he’d have added a Plus One in the Trade section.)

The third choice was Paul Blackburn, who was traded before his MLB debut. As it happens, the return was Mike Montgomery. However, this method adds no “Super Bonus Points” for fetching a player who save Game Seven in a World Series.

Duane Underwood Jr. sounds ready to debut for the Cubs soon. Or, he might get traded. Or both.

While the assumption might be made that Almora plus Blackburn is the sum for the 2012 Draft so far, that isn’t correct. Third day selections Rashad Crawford (Round 11/Aroldis Chapman) and Justin Amlung (Round 12/Jacob Turner) were also traded. albeit in trades with vastly dissimilar amounts of ramifications.

David Bote (Round 18) is still a live wire in the formula.

As such, Almora + Underwood + Bote +3 (Blackburn/Crawford/Amlung) is the Cubs current 2012 Draft Assess Value. 3.7 + 3.

Is that good? Should they have gotten an ace pitcher that draft?

You can answer those as you will. However, as the Cubs were limited to about $8 million in signing bonuses that season, getting 3.7 WAR plus three trade pieces is a start. Since WAR are in the range of $7 million themselves, the current management team seems to have done rather well in their opening draft, if only Almora is considered. However, they have had more.

2013 Draft

With a pool again in the $7 million range, Kris Bryant broke the expectations on the draft. Bryant’s 21.5 bWAR already has shredded any other class’ perceived value, but don’t take the bait.

Rob Zastryzny has a 0.4 bWAR value for the Cubs.

Third choice Jacob Hannemann was traded for Leonys Martin (and then reacquired). Zack Godley helped fetch Miguel Montero. Trevor Clifton is the next most likely to chip in. As such, the formula for 2013 is Bryant + Zastryzny + Clifton + 2.

Not a bad return on $7 million in bonuses, or so.

2014 Draft

MLB pieces

Kyle Schwarber

Mark Zagunis

A few others who might debut or get traded.

Traded

Dylan Cease (Jose Quintana)

James Farris (Matt Carasiti)

2015 Draft

MLB

Ian Happ

A few others possible

Trades

Donnie Dewees (Alec Mills)

Matt Rose (Jose Quintana)

***

The 2016 through 2018 classes haven’t graduated anything yet, unsurprisingly. However, as players from either classes graduate or are traded, the Cubs add value. June draft classes are about adding value, eventually. Whether anyone else is watching or not, I will be. Regardless the focus on veteran free agency, a team’s real money is made on the draft and international spectra, more so in a “quasi-cap” environment.

By the way: The 2011 class?

Javier Baez + Dillon Maples

Dan Vogelbach (Mike Montgomery)

Tony Zych (Cash, as he was officially traded.)

Rafael Lopez (Manuel Rondon)

The longer you allow your time horizon to be, the more important every opportunity to acquire talent should become. Which is how every June draft or July cycle ought to be considered. Welcome to my rabbit hole. It’s peaceful here. I welcome your refinements of the idea.