When the Cardinals selected college lefty Marco Gonzales with their first draft pick last season and then prep standouts Rob Kaminsky, a lefty, and shortstop Oscar Mercado with their next two, it became clear in hindsight how the trio of selections could be misinterpreted.
They happened to play the positions the major-league club craved.
“Oh, geez,” director of scouting Dan Kantrovitz recalled thinking when he realized that. “They’re all going to say we did this based on need. I understand why people would think that, but really, it may sound cliché by now, we’re looking for the best baseball player. We’re not factoring in need, and we can’t fall into that trap. If need guides you, you might pass up a Shelby Miller or, with the outfielders we have now, a Mike Trout.”
It’s true. Need doesn’t rule the baseball draft.
Major League Baseball’s 50th first-year player draft begins tonight at 6 p.m. (St. Louis time), and the Cardinals will have four of the first 71 picks. The draft, which baseball has increasingly tried to NFL-ize and turn into an event, continues through Saturday.
The reigning National League champs have their first pick at No. 27. The 2014 draft class is not considered as robust as recent years, though there are intriguing pitchers available. The Cardinals have money as an edge and a clear sense of the budding traits they can develop. In short, they know the characteristics they want.
It has been a decade since the Cardinals’ lost draft of 2004, and the team has strengthened its draft prep and spending exponentially. The club has become reliant on the talent gathered through the draft and nurtured in the minor-league system.
The lineup the Cardinals started for Game 6 of last fall’s World Series featured seven players drafted by the team. Eleven of the 16 players who appeared in the game were drafted by the Cardinals, and five players on the roster came from the 2009 draft alone.
They might not draft for need, but they need the draft.
“At this point this draft is starting to come into focus for us,” Kantrovitz said on the eve of today’s first round. “We are focusing on about 10 players who we think will likely be in our wheelhouse. We’re looking for the right pick at the right price.”
The Cardinals enter the draft with a bonus cap of $7,087,200. In each of the past two seasons, they have gone over the cap and paid a penalty but not so far over that they’ve lost a pick in the next year’s draft. The Cardinals’ cap this year is higher than last because of a compensation pick (No. 34) for Carlos Beltran, who signed with the Yankees, and a competitive-balance pick (No. 71).
The Cardinals’ purse is nearly $1.2 million higher than the average cap for the nine other teams in last year’s playoffs.
The Cardinals have the ability to pursue high-bonus players if they slide.
Baseball’s suggested bonuses and cap spending has lessened the influence signability has in the first 10 rounds of the draft, but not eliminated it.
Kantrovitz said there is an “almost old-school” benefit to have the cap space.
“There could be a situation where a player slips and we’re in a position to take a run at him as a result,” Kantrovitz said. “We can be creative.”
Two of the top college pitchers available in this year’s draft, East Carolina’s Jeff Hoffman and Nevada-Las Vegas’ Erick Fedde, already have had Tommy John surgery. California prep righty Luis Ortiz, a dazzling pitcher tied to the Cards through several mock drafts, had a forearm strain earlier this season, according to reports.
General manager John Mozeliak said the team wouldn’t “eliminate anybody for one specific reason,” such as an injury. As the Cardinals evaluated the talent, however, past or recent injuries were a factor when considering the bonus they would be comfortable offering any pitcher. They recognized that surgery or injury could be a reason talent falls to them at No. 27.
Starting with the 2005 draft, the Cardinals have had 22 picks in the first or supplemental-first rounds. Fifteen of them have been from a four-year college. Their past four first picks have been college players, including tonight’s starter Michael Wacha and second baseman Kolten Wong.
An official with the Cardinals said the organization feels it “has a competitive advantage when it comes to looking at college players.” In addition to the scouts in the bleachers, the Cardinals have an intricate statistical algorithm that helps them filter college players for competition, ballparks and myriad of other factors. This, they think, allows them to compare a hitter from Slippery Rock (Matt Adams) to one from Stanford (Stephen Piscotty). This year, the Cardinals have been able to expand this normalization process to junior colleges, and the club feels it is in better position to evaluate and now draft those prospects.
“We give a collective ‘Hurrah!’ when we find a walk to link what we know about some players with what we’ve already been able to learn and the common ground we have with Division I players,” Kantrovitz said.
There are several college players expected to be available for the Cardinals at 27th or 34th, including Stanford’s third baseman Alex Blandino. He has the stats that translate. He also starred in the Cape Cod League — hitting .308 with a wood bat — and that has been a trait shared by past Cardinals’ picks. Kentucky first baseman A. J. Reed and Virginia’s Mike Papi have similar profiles, and have been tied to the Cardinals in Baseball America’s mock drafts.
Boston has the picks immediately before the Cardinals’ No. 27 and No. 34, and Arizona has the two picks sandwiched between the Cardinals’ No. 68 and No. 71.
Asked how much time the Cardinals spend getting intel on those picks, Kantrovitz smiled: “Probably too much.”
This year, Kantrovitz and his staff convened meetings by region, instead of having an overall group. They would report at about 8 a.m. to a hotel’s conference room and they would dive in — discussing players in the region until after dinner. The Cardinals had four of these meetings around the country so that when the scouts reported to St. Louis this week many of the rankings and opinions had already been shared, debated and defended. The Cards have over the past decade and especially in the past five years identified traits they want to draft, even in the later rounds. It’s a draft strategy that has nourished one of the top-rated farm systems.
The success of the farm system does allow for some patience and, thus, risk-taking when the Cardinals have extra picks, as they do this season. Kantrovitz was careful to point out that the “farm system is so fluid with who is healthy and who is not, that you can’t get too cute dovetailing the draft with openings in the system.”
Want always trumps need.
In Wacha, Kantrovitz’s first pick at the helm of the draft, the Cardinals saw what they wanted in a pick. They didn’t know they would need him in the majors in less than 12 months, or that he would be ready.
“It definitely sets the bar high,” Kantrovitz said. “Our scouts realize this and I do, too, that it’s unrealistic to get somebody like Michael Wacha every year. How quickly he reached the big leagues and how well he’s done so far – we’d love to do that. But I don’t think that’s our expectations. If someone takes three or four years to get there and does well then we view that as a really good draft pick.”