This Is How It Begins
March 30, 2011

It's a little more than 12 hours removed from completing our annual XFL supplemental draft, and to be honest I'm feeling an equal mix of 'meh' and disappointment in my lack of execution.  To be fair, though, this is not an easy group of people to predict so the idea of any plan holding true after the first two or three rounds is pretty much folly. 

To set the stage, I came away from the November draft with a team that was pretty solid although it had some pretty obvious weaknesses due to uncertainty and injuries in the rotation.  This spring, another issue developed when second baseman Chase Utley decided now was the time he would announce to the world that he had been playing the last two seasons without knees.  If only he could have waitied another six or seven months to do something about that.  But I digress...

The one area I really wanted to shore up was starting pitching, and given that this year's amateur draft is loaded with frontline starting prospects, I also wanted to load up for the future as well.  At the top of my list was Michael Pineda and Gerrit Cole.  Pineda is a very promising young right-hander in Seattle who was pretty much assured of appearing in the rotation at some point this season.  His performance this spring locked up that spot right out of the gate.  Some have suggested that Gerrit Cole has as much upside as Stephen Strasburg although I'm not sure I buy that.  Nevertheless, he's still plenty good.  In the middle and the end of the draft I wanted to load up on some low level prospects that looked like they had considerable upside, namely Philadephia's Jonathan Singleton, Kansas City's Will Myers, and a few college arms like Taylor Jungman (Texas), Trevor Bauer (UCLA) and Jed Bradley (Georgia Tech).  There's a lot of buzz around Matt Purke (TCU) and Sonny Gray (Vanderbilt) but I'm not sold on either as legit front of the rotation starters. 

Unfortunately, I could not be assured I would get either one of my two targeted pitchers since I had the third overall pick and Todd Zola, who had the first pick, had made his intentions very clear that he was going to take Pineda #1.  He waffled a bit in conversations that he might consider taking Brandon Belt.  But even if he didn't take Pineda, Steve Moyer was waiting in the #2 spot and I was pretty sure Pineda would never get to me.  Still, I felt uneasy about taking a college pitcher with the third overall pick.  My best guess is that I would end up with a choice of either Pineda, Belt or eventual Rays closer Jake McGee (probably), and that Cole would make it back around to me in the second round. 

Also on my grocery list were a number of pitchers poised for big improvements in their performance.  I tracked Chris Young, Jason Hammell, Derek Holland, Brandon McCarthy, Esmil Rogers, Erik Bedard, Tom Gorzelanny and Fausto Carmona, in that order.  I also needed someone to play middle infield in the interim while Utley heals, some speed (likely from the outfield but Alcides Escobar was very intriguing) and some relievers who had a chance to become closers by season's end, since this winter Rafael Soriano decided he'd rather get a ton of money to set-up rather than just a lot of money to close for the next three years.  Soriano and Rick Ankiel... two blindspots that have caused me a heap of frustration through their up and down careers.  Still, I enjoyed a big pay-off with Soriano last year so I won't have any hard feelings when I drop him sometime this year.  Ankiel has yet to deliver that big year but I'm still optimistic.  Anyway...

The last note in this prologue is that both Doug Dennis and Jeff Erickson had a ton of early draft picks due to well-constructed dump trades last year.  In fact, Dennis would be finished with his draft, all 17 of his reserve spots filled, by the end of the 5th round.  Meanwhile, in an effort to win last year I had traded away my 5th and 7th round picks.  In short, I had tremedous pressure to get my best players in my first four picks before I sat out the draft for what amounted to three rounds.  And with that, here we go...

The Draft

True to his word, Zola took Pineda.  So that left me thinking that Moyer would take Belt and I would end up with the third choice, McGee.  Much to my surprise, Moyer zigged with Manny Machado, leaving me a decision: McGee or Belt.  As would later be evident, Steve had targeted a number of very young players with undetermined but potentially high upside.  He's done this before with mixed success (Felix Hernandez, yes; Tim Beckham, no; Bryce Harper, jury is still out but inclined toward yes).  Actually, I should say it's been very successful because even though Beckham has pretty much been a bust in real baseball, Steve managed to trade him for something useful on the lure of potential.  That said, he would surpass his previous limits of speculation in this draft and grab not only Machado, but also high school phenom Francisco Lindor.  Both guys are probably at least three years away from the majors. 

So, McGee or Belt.  I still have some reservations about Belt this year.  He'll be at least decent, I'm sure, but the opinions about his long-term upside range from JT Snow to Joey Votto, which basically means I have nothing to hang my hat on but a gut feeling.  Still, better to take a hitter than a reliever, right?  The best hitters commonly fetch bids of $35-40 in this league whereas closers rarely top $20.   Long term, my best bet is Belt... and besides, I'd still get Cole on the back side of the draft and all would be right with the world.  Who knows, McGee might even make it back for my pick in the third round.

Here is the big problem with picking early: the character of the draft has yet to be established and by the time it gets back to me, it could be a very different animal that what what I had anticipated.  Sure enough, not only did Cole not make it back to me, neither did Jordan Lyles (a very promising pitching prospect in Houston), Erik Bedard, Alcides Escobar, last year's top pitcher in the amateur draft Jameson Taillon and yes, Jake McGee.  All gone.

As it turns out, Doug's draft plan was to take as many prospects as possible, and it appeared that he was just reading a Baseball America and checking off the top 100 prospects as he took them.  Of course, that left him with no major leaguers on his reserves but he is a brilliant trader particularly when it comes to trading prospects, so even if some of them fail to get out of the gate or fall completely flat I have little doubt that he will be able to extract value from them. 

So there I was contemplating my second pick realizing that much of my draft list had already left the building, and that one of the drafters - the one with a bazillion picks in the next three rounds - was gobbling up every top prospect faster than Shaggy and Scooby go through a box of Scooby snacks... so... to follow the plan and risk not having any future, or grab what I can and head to the rooftop until the water subsides?  I decided to take Jonathan Singleton with the hopes that Will Myers would get back to me in the third round.  Nope.  Just four picks later, there was Doug again taking a top prospect.  In response, with my plan for prospects in shambles, I took Chris Young next because I had to make sure I got at least one starting pitcher before the Big Pause in rounds 5-7.  By the time it got back to me in the fourth round, seven more prospects had been picked, as well as Fausto Carmona.   Jason Hammel was my fourth pick and I had my fingers crossed that Derek Holland's terrible final outing this spring would muss his numbers badly enough to scare off anyone who was considering him.  In the meantime, from the bench I would watch the fifth round, much of the sixth and all of the seventh rounds go by with but one chance to get a player.  In that time, Doug completed his draft taking four more prospects off the board.  He was joined in that crusade by Jeff Erickson, who took two of his own, as well as Randy Wells and, yes, Derek Holland. 

It's my fault he got Holland.  I had a chance in the sixth round to take him but as JJ Putz, Leo Nunez, Jake McGee, Jon Rauch, Kyle Farnsworth, Brandon League, Jose Contreras and Mike Gonzalez had already been taken, I felt that my chances of finding a reasonable number of saves in this draft was quickly evaporating.  So with my 5th pick I took Joel Peralta, who has been surprisingly good the last year and it would not be a shock to me if he ended up with the majority of opportunities in Tampa this year.  I took the chance and crossed my fingers even tighter.  (Note to self: crossing fingers is useless.)

The rest of the draft is a bit of a blur, ending with the ignominy of taking Jerry Hairston Jr as a desperate attempt to find someone with speed who can play middle infield.  I would cross my fingers that the pick turns out better than expected but there's already a mountain of evidence that would be insane (the finger crossing part... oh, ok, the whole enterprise).  In retrospect, I should have taken a chance on a player in this year's amateur draft with my final pick.  Instead, Cole Kimball, who had impressed me with his performance in the AFL and this spring became my last pick.  If I'm being honest it's a bit of a long shot that he ends up closing in Washington.  Still, there's a chance it all works out, right?

As for the future, I did manage to wrangle Trevor Bauer (who some scouts are calling "Tim Lincecum Jr." because of similar delivery and strikeout rate) and Jed Bradley, who might be the most complete lefty in the draft.  Both guys are viewed as at least major league #2s in a good rotation.  That doesn't sate my appetite for a true #1 ace to anchor the staff for years to come.  Maybe Yu Darvish will ease my pain and bring his talent stateside next year.  In the meantime, I'll just hope for career years from the guys I have.

The rosters

(note: players listed in red are players who were drafted before they were promoted to the major leagues and thus whose salaries increase by only +3, instead of the +5 for all other players)

Looking back at previous drafts, I should not have been surprised by the demand for prospects in the early rounds.  That has been an increasing trend in the last few years.  What did surprise me was the force at which it happened: ten players in the first two rounds with several more just missing the playing time cut, making nearly half of all the picks in the first two rounds being viewed as prospects. Given that last year's champ was aggressive in the first few rounds taking major league players that could contribute immediately, this year's trend was a bit counter-intuitive.  Also, the increased demand for prospects meant that more "surprise" major leaguers - that is, players with major league experience who had either not lived up to previous billing or were hoping for a rebound performance - were rostered in this draft rather than floaitng about for a month or two, so the chances of finding early help on the waiver wire just decreased a little.  By how much remains to be seen.  That said, it should make for a very interesting season.