We are in the middle of our First Year Player Draft–5 rounds, 24 picks a round–and I have nothing to do. I used all my mid-round picks to scrape up for 1.2 and 1.9 and no one wants my shit in a trade, so I’ve been stuck watching most of the draft, getting frustrated at myself because of my team’s imbalance.
Which is stupid, because it’s unbalanced on purpose. Two weeks ago I had a setup I liked that I blew up to get some extra value, which I did, but now I’m top-heavy (on offense) and no one wants to help me even it back out. This would not be a problem if I was willing to wait it out, but I am not really willing to wait it out. Nor am I willing to make a bad deal to even things up again. The only solution I’ve come up with is complaining about getting the thing I wanted.
This is the third year of my rebuild, and my team is starting to come into focus. Many players have come and gone, some of whom I had pegged as long-term fixtures before I thought better of it. The way I have settled on players reminds me of the clock in WarGames that stops when it figures out a piece of the launch code; I have to just keep acquiring guys until something about them clicks them into place.
For example, I drafted Nick Madrigal sixth overall two years ago. I would have bet my life at the time he’d still be my second baseman, in which case you would have my life by now. Then I (re-)acquired Vidal Brujan and realized I had some room to maneuver. Then I got Luis Garcia (Nationals), and realize I had a *ton* of room to maneuver, and I sent out deals. At some point I had Jeter Downs, but I thought he was going to play shortstop. Anyhow, I traded every last one of them, only to get Downs in one of those recent value-add trades, and with his pending ascendance to second base in Boston, he’s pretty much locked in now. I like East Coast players (so I can set my lineup early), American League hitters, a single star player from each team and, as a Red Sox fan, a player it’s not going to grate at me to own (unlike, say, Andrew Benintendi), and Downs checks off all the boxes. I’d still trade him for crazy value, but I don’t really have plans to to so.
The problem, such as it is, is that I have collected enough middle infield prospects to fill a Tampa Bay farm system, and I need some pitchers and outfielders. On the bright side, several of these middle infielders, all of whom are listed at shortstop, will likely end up in the outfield. There’s a chance not a single one of them ends up at short, but such is the funneling that happens as the best young baseball players, so many of whom play short, are finally imported to the big leagues: C.J. Abrams will be blocked by Fernando Tatís Jr, and seems destined for the outfield; Jeter Downs is blocked by Xander Bogaerts, and will man the keystone, and Ronny Mauricio was just recently blocked at short, where he may have not ended up anyway, when the Mets acquired Francisco Lindor. The surest bet to play short is Pittsburgh’s Oneil Cruz, who might not be good enough to stick there, and might be ticketed for the outfield (or jail, but that seems unlikely at this point).
Again, all of this is by design. I’d much rather be top-heavy in valuable areas and cash out my pieces at top dollar to help grow the rest of the team. The problem is that not everyone else–and sometimes, no one else–is obliged to help. At no time are the relative values of players as flexible as they are than during the draft, when picks, and draft-eligible players, spike in perceived value. I tried to move Mauricio or Cruz at first for a top pick, which, based on their consensus* rankings, was right in line with their value–no takers. Fine. Then I tried to sell them at what I considered a haircut price, just to get a pitcher in the door. No takers! Not only that, people started to get annoyed at the lightness of my offers, which is their right even when they’re wrong, and I was prospect-splained more than once, which I hate with the fire of a thousand suns. I’m sure the feeling was mutual, so that’s enough about that for now, but after Chris Sale was traded for a mid-second round pick I threw my hands up and stop paying attention. The only winning move was not to play.
* One thing I’ve noticed in negotiating trades is that owners want to pooh-pooh the publicly available rankings at convenient times and lean hard on them in others, so to avoid that, I just lean hard them all the time, even when other owners insist they’re “wrong.” They’re just educated guesses, sure, but they’re, like, out there for everyone to see, and strong enough to counter the My Cousin Vinny “Everything that guy just said is bullshit” attack.)
The most interesting part of the draft, given the quickly changing values, are the discrete strategies I’ve seen, which are all viable and, between teams, can co-exist pretty well. Here are the strategies I’ve noticed, all of which have strengths and weaknesses:
1. Sacrifice all other draft assets to get top-15 picks
This has been my strategy for years, and I have no complaints outside of those that are baked into the approach. You’re gonna get good players, but you’re gonna watch a lot of the draft in hysterical frustration when Austin Wells, Heston Kjerstad and Garrett Crochet fall to the late first and early second round, respectively, and you’re SOL to do anything about it. (Part of this strategy is accepting/believing that the price to deal into the late first on draft day is going to be unacceptably high–certainly, my Mauricio and Cruz experiments bore that out in this case). That said, to build a core, there’s nothing better. Playing the later-round lottery is fun, and the MLB draft’s success rate is all over the map, but the fact is that the easiest way to get the people who will be the best players in baseball is to get high draft picks and not biff them. At the very least you’ll have a core of big names to build around, and they shouldn’t be too hard to deal even if they go all Jonny India on you.
2. Focus on the late first round and early second, both now and in the future
One of the teams in our league is notorious for offering his late first round picks in a given year for a first and a second, or just several second rounders, in the future–just loading up on the back end of the top tier of prospects. Another team owner says that “this is where the draft is won.” This is more of a carpet-bombing affair compared to my targeted-strike approach and is, mathematically, probably the best way to go. It’s very Belichickean, but, like Belichick’s teams, still need some greatness to put it over the top.
For this reason I think it’s a great supplementary strategy to good management, but ultimately subordinate to it. It’s great for a team’s floor, but you have to do some other work to finish the ceiling. You can set it and forget it, so to speak, but there’s always more to do.
3. Attempt to wring the most value possible for each pick in a trade before even considering making the choice yourself
We have one owner in our league who does this, and he has made out like a bandit. He was the one who got Sale for a mid-second rounder and two mid-tier outfield prospects, which in a pitching-heavy league like ours is… pretty, pretty good. The results can be pretty. The process can be a little less pretty. In general, ensuring you maximize every deal can lead you to overstate your assets and understate your opponents,’ and eventually what goes around will come back, but the game is the game. I tend to be in favor of just taking the chalk and moving on, but that’s much easier to do in the top 15 than it is down below, so I get it, but it also holds up the whole draft and makes it less fun as an observer–though far more fascinating.
4. Go young
One team in our league has gone into a hilariously unsubtle rebuild, mulching his entire roster into about 20 first round picks spread between this draft and the next one. His goal was plain: Draft for 2024. This means lots of high school players, international players, anyone with a high ceiling. I haven’t seen this approach tried on this level, and it’s only halfway done until next January, but I’m curious as to how it will work out. Again, I’d rather go chalk than go young, but I am not the cosmos.
5. Trade all picks away, and only trade into the draft on draft day, likely to a sense of FOMO
Probably the least efficient option, but also can be the least costly. If the third approach involves selling picks to horny owners willing to overspend, it correctly implies that there are horny owners willing to overspend. This is supposed to be fun, and sometimes you, as a horny owner willing to overspend, want to impulse buy a second or third round pick, especially if you’re otherwise left out; the damage won’t kill you, and you’ll enjoy yourself. It’s like buying a single pack of baseball cards. It’s not the whole damn box, and you earned this, dammit. The world will not end, and you have the rest of the year to make up the value.
Finally, a recap of my projected Top 10 and how it really went.
I projected, at the time I had only 1.2:
Spencer Torkelson, DET
Austin Martin, TOR
Nick Gonzales, PIT
Asa Lacy, KC
Zac Veen, COL
Emerson Hancock, SEA
Max Meyer, MIA
Ha-Seong Kim, SD
Garret Crochet, CHW
Garrett Mitchell, MIL
Instead, with me owning 1.2 and 1.9, it went:
Austin Hendrick, CIN
All of this was still pretty chalky, except Crochet went mid-second, and if Hancock, Meyer and Lacy were all off the board at 9, I would have taken him there. Blows my mind. Not as much as the 11th pick, Slade Cecconi, but I don’t even know where to begin with that one, so I’ll just leave it be and let Blue think about what he’s done.