Thoughts on Draft Strategy and Managing Risk

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The draft is a few days old at this point, and we are still years away from knowing whether the draft was a success or not. A number of experts have had positive things to say about the Cubs and their approach, but many fans were disappointed by the strategy the Cubs employed. A lot of fans were upset that the Cubs were very conservative in their overall draft strategy. The Cubs took a lot of players that lacked that star potential, but instead focused on safer college picks. That focus had me intrigued because it seems like a pattern has developed in Cubs drafts. Here is the breakdown of the Theo Epstein era drafts between college and high school picks.

Epstein-Hoyer Drafts
There are a number of ways to look at draft classes, and that is why I broke down the picks in to various ranges. The Cubs have skewed in favor of college picks no matter what way you slice the data, but the amount the front office has leaned college has varied. The picks 1-25 is a bit of an arbitrary break point, but it was chosen with care. It has been identified in this draft class as the range of picks most likely to sign this year. It is also an area before the various nepotism and long shot draft picks tend to take place in a draft. There are some examples of the latter in the Cubs drafts in this range, e.g. Isiah Gilliam selected 23rd, but these draft picks I think do reveal a strategy as the draft classes in 2013 and 2015 mirror each other nicely.

It goes deeper than that if you look at the actual players taken as well. Ignore the first draft picks taken in each of the draft classes. Those have been analyzed a lot over the previous years, and most fans have a pretty solid understanding of what the Cubs look for in their first overall selections. The 2012 draft class featured a number of high school arms. 4 of the first Cubs 7 picks were high school arms, which is the highest risk group. The Cubs top two college arms were not without risk either as both Pierce Johnson and Josh Conway fell due to injury concerns. Conway was drafted coming off of Tommy John Surgery. The Cubs draft pick of Duane Underwood in the second round and the seven figure bonus for a high risk, high reward is particularly emblematic of the approach the Cubs took in 2012.

The Cubs took a decidedly different approach in 2013. The Cubs instead focused heavily on college pitchers taking 5 in their first 7 picks. The only two non-pitchers taken were the college hitters of Kris Bryant and Jacob Hannemann. Out of the bunch, Hannemann represents the real gamble. The other pitchers taken in that drafted tended to fit the mold of power arms that had the potential to be starters but the fall back option of relief pitchers. This was something noted at the time by John Arguello at Cubs Den. At the time I speculated that the Cubs college focus might have been intended to speed up the rebuild process. The idea being to grab a bunch of arms that could move quickly through the system to supplement the emerging core of bats.

But the Cubs draft class of 2014 made me question that notion. The Cubs shifted back to a focus on upside with the selection of 3 high school pitchers in the first 7 picks. Each one of these picks commanded over a million dollar signing bonus. Dylan Cease needed Tommy John Surgery when he was drafted and again highlights the Cubs focusing on high ceiling picks with more risk than years past.

Then we have the draft of 2015 which seems to have shifted back to the safer upside route. The Cubs bonus pool is likely going to be devoted heavily to a couple of high schoolers taken in the top five, but the draft was noted for the Cubs taking safer college picks throughout the draft. John Sickels noted how the Cubs grabbed several players that could be big league contributors out of the less than flashy picks.

Now the players taken in the draft are surely affected by the players available in the draft pool. The Cubs lack of exciting overslot picks might have more to do with the lack of players worth spending on. John Arguello had at least one source tell him exactly that. But I can’t help but think there is something larger at play given how the Cubs drafts seem to be mirroring an every other year approach shift. There is something else in Cubs amateur talent acquisitions that lines up with this pattern.

The Cubs international amateur approach has followed a pattern of limited spending in 2012 and 2014 and huge investments in 2013 and, at least expected, 2015. The Cubs in 2012 spent heavily on a couple of international amateurs but stayed within the limits of their bonus pools. In 2013, the Cubs blew way past their budget pool invoking the harshest penalties which limited the maximum amount the Cubs could spend in 2014. The Cubs are prepared to do the same in 2015 along with the Dodgers.

There are not a lot of data points and this is certainly a subjective analysis. For example, the Cubs in 2013 did take some high risk picks with high school pitcher Trevor Clifton and Jacob Hannemann. Clifton was taken in day 3, but he received the sixth largest bonus of Cubs picked that year. The Cubs high school draft picks this year may very well receive the second and third highest bonuses of the draft class. However, it does seem like the Cubs in the years where they invest heavily in the international arena are more conservative in the draft. This strategy may also have been copied by the Andrew Friedman led Dodgers.

The rationale for this approach would appear sound on a superficial level. The highest risk group of amateurs are the international amateurs. There are many reasons for that, but the biggest is that teams are scouting 14 and 15 year olds. Ben Badler summed it up nicely here:

A college player’s talent level can change between the time he’s a 20-year-old sophomore and when he’s a 21-year-old junior. High school players have a steeper improvement curve between ages 17 and 18. The growth curve players between ages 15 and 16 is exponentially different, and it presents one of the greatest challenges in scouting. Scouts often remark how much a 16-year-old kid can change in just a couple of months. Not only can their skills or strength improve, but they can grow taller, get faster and significantly alter both their current abilities and future projection.

The Cubs spent heavily on this group of players in 2013. The Cubs have a chance to hit a home run in terms of player development with the likes of Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez. The early returns have been extremely positive to say the least, but those results were hardly guarantees. The Cubs certainly could have been planning against that risk by trying to ensure that the talent acquired in 2013 had higher floors. This is certainly something the Cubs could have planned for as most talent signed in any July 2nd signing period have deals in place well ahead of July 2nd. The Cubs might feel that taking safer draft picks with higher floors manages their risk against the extremely high upside and extremely low floors of the July 2nd signings.

There are certainly many factors the Cubs consider when approaching the draft. However, it seems plausible that the Cubs draft strategy is hedging against the extreme risk of signing 16 year olds.


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