Belated thoughts on the draft: context, history, and Keith Law’s pointed criticism

Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins
Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve written very little about the draft this year so far. There is simply too much ground to cover and too little that is actually interesting to make it worthwhile.

But before it gets too far into the rear view, I do feel like I ought to tackle it a little bit, and there’s no better place to start than with Keith Law’s thoroughly unimpressed reaction to the Jays’ selections in his team-by-team AL breakdown at ESPN.com.

I don’t like giving draft grades, as I note in the lead, or even calling any draft class the “worst,” but I can say this is my “least favorite” of all 30, considering the picks and pool available, as well as the players taken.

That’s just one evaluator’s opinion, of course — the Jays would surely disagree — but he doesn’t exactly say it cavalierly. Law’s notes on the Jays’ selections include criticisms on top pick T.J. Zeuch’s delivery (“you don’t see a lot of successful starters from that arm slot”) and secondary stuff, second-rounder J.B. Woodman’s lack of a hit tool, and the fact that guys taken in the rest of the first six rounds seem to be a collection of ‘tweeners, org guys, and pitchers who profile as relievers.

It’s really only over-slot second-round pick Bo Bichette who escapes major criticism, being tabbed as a player with “the potential to hit for average with 15-18 homers, probably at second base or third.”

Perhaps interestingly, Bichette was one of the few high school players that the Jays picked early (6th-rounder D.J. Daniels was the only other among their first ten selections). That’s in contrast to the last few drafts of the Jays’ Anthopoulos era (under still-in-place scouting director Brian Parker), which were fairly balanced between high school and college players. And it’s starkly different from the early A.A. years, under scouting director Andrew Tinnish, in which the Jays went heavy on high schoolers (and especially pitchers).

At least in terms of this balance, this draft looked a lot like the ones Cleveland had in the mid-to-late aughts, when Mark Shapiro still held the title of G.M. (he was elevated to president of the club following the 2010 season). That’s likely a rather scary thought for those with good memories, given that Shapiro’s draft record isn’t well regarded (though from 2006 to 2010 his drafts did produce guys like Jason Kipnis, Chris Archer, Drew Pomerantz, and Steven Wright), and because we went through a similar experience here with J.P. Ricciardi and his college-heavy drafts.

Back then teams that had gone hard-in on the “Moneyball” approach seemed to be looking at the draft too narrowly. Law was, of course, a part of Ricciardi’s front office for many of these years, and described it as well as I’ve ever heard on an ESPN podcast that I transcribed back in another life:

What we were trying to do was what Oakland had been doing around 2000 or so, and the Red Sox and the Cardinals and the Padres and one or two other clubs– Cleveland– they were pretty clearly adopting some of these same methods. And we were left in the situation– kind of a similar situation to where we were before we even got there, which was that we weren’t innovating fast enough, and the market had become too competitive for the limited type of player we were going for.

It really became apparent to me in the draft room. I remember Tony LaCava– who is still there, who is Alex Anthopoulos’s right-hand man in Toronto– independently had realized the same thing, which was we were killing ourselves, especially in the draft, because we would only take college players with “acceptable” stats. And that’s such a narrow pool, especially when five or six teams are all going for the same type of player. You get to the third or fourth round and you’re done. There’s nobody on the board you think could even be an average regular in the big leagues.

Am I suggesting that this has anything to do with what went on with the Blue Jays this year? Certainly not. That was then. The bottleneck effect on those “college players with ‘acceptable’ stats” has long lifted, and the Jays still have the same scout-heavy infrastructure as they did under Anthopoulos.

I bring it up show that this isn’t the “Mark Shapiro mindset” and that the fears of the club potentially going back to the days of the problematic college-heavy drafts seem unfounded. Or at least undetermined.

One thing we do know about college players, however, is that they’re farther along the development curve than their high school counterparts. I’m certainly not anywhere near the first to have noticed this, but with so many upper-level prospects traded in the twelve months prior to Shapiro’s arrival — and a number of guys from the low minors rushed towards the big leagues at the end of Anthopoulos’s run — the Jays may have looked at this draft as a way to quickly restock the top end of the system by taking players who should be able to get to levels like Lansing or Dunedin fairly quickly.

That may have especially appealed because it’s a draft that relied enough on a foundation built by the previous regime that Shapiro and Ross Atkins should be able to wash the stink of it off their hands, should that become necessary down the line.

They certainly wouldn’t say as much now, though. And indeed, when Atkins spoke to Shi Davidi of Sportsnet about it last week, he seemed to say all the right things — though some of them we know obfuscate what a truly complicated puzzle the draft is. “With him it was unanimous that our evaluators felt like if he was still around for us at that round, we would be absolutely elated,” the GM said of Bichette, as though it’s all quite as simple as taking the best player on the board. But, as I noted at the time, Bichette himself admitted to having “turned down about four offers earlier in the draft because they weren’t good fits.”

To that end, another appealing thing about college players is that they don’t have that kind of leverage. Bichette held over teams the fact that he could go to Arizona State for a couple seasons and reenter the draft. He didn’t feel he had to sign with anybody at this stage, unless the money or the “fit” was right. The college types the Jays seem to have focussed on, however, are guys whose talents you can feel more comfortable about actually getting into your system — something the Anthopoulos-run Jays seemed less concerned about, given the number of high picks who, for whatever reason, went unsigned during his era (Tyler Beede, Phil Bickford, Brady Singer, etc.).

All this in mind, can we really evaluate the Jays’ 2016 draft class the way that we might under more usual circumstances? I suspect Law would say yes, that failure to add the best talent available through the best mechanism at a team’s disposal to cheaply do so can be nothing but a failure — and certainly isn’t justifiable because of a cynical consideration of optics or the fact that a player is farther along in his development and can help restock a somewhat bare cupboard.

But even if that is what has gone on here to an extent, I do kind of get it. Especially because surely the Jays’ class isn’t as grim in everyone’s view as it was for Law. These weren’t egregious, wild, off-the-board selections, and the Atkins-run Jays may simply look at things a bit differently than we’re used to.

For example, Atkins told Davidi that “if you’re close in the end, and you feel you also have that Hall of Fame dad around him, it’s something that certainly factors in and could tip the scales.” Specifically, that was in reference to the Jays’ selection of Cavan Biggio — son of Craig, and one of a few of the club’s high selection to feature notable bloodlines (Shi tells that top pick T.J. Zeuch’s father pitched in the Royals system, that the Jays selected the nephew of former big leaguer Ray Palacios, and there is, of course, Bichette).

I may be wrong, but that doesn’t feel like the kind of comment we’d have heard when Anthopoulos was in charge. It feels like a comment coming from an organization that maybe is looking a bit more at what they’re going to have to do to develop players and get them to the big leagues than one that was more purely focused on tools — perhaps a manifestation of the classic “scouting organization” versus “player development organization” thing that John Farrell warned us about in his first year in Boston.

Maybe this is where the disconnect with Law is as well, but I’m simply guessing.

Only time will tell whether the strategy — whatever the hell it is — will pay off for the Jays. But I do think the big takeaway here should be that we don’t need time to tell us one thing: that this draft was something of a hybrid and an anomaly, or at the very least shouldn’t be taken as defining of what a Shapiro/Atkins draft will always look like. Especially if anybody wants to take Law’s negative comments — entirely fair as I believe they are — and use them to stoke more fear of the filthy, unknown Clevelanders.