Williams: The Biggest Rule For the MLB Draft? Ignore the Rounds

Yesterday morning we heard that Gunnar Hoglund, the 36th overall pick, was at Pirate City on Monday, before being drafted. With day two of the draft, we didn’t have time to confirm the information, but it really didn’t matter, as Hoglund had already been drafted by the Pirates.

However, when a report came out on Tuesday that he had agreed to a deal with the team already, it wasn’t a big surprise to us. That’s most likely what was going on at Pirate City on Monday, with the Pirates making sure they knew his price tag.

That’s the draft these days. It seems with about 99% of the picks taken in the top ten rounds, the team already knows what it will take to sign the player before they draft them. There’s the rare case of a guy like Nick Lodolo in the second round in 2016, where a player falls to a team unexpectedly, and the team figures they have enough money available to reach a deal. The same could apply to the Mark Appel situation in 2012.

But overall, there’s not much mystery as to whether a pick will sign, and not much surprise when they all sign quickly. And because of this, there’s not much point in focusing on the talent by round.

Before this current draft system, teams just took the best players in order. There were some exceptions where they wouldn’t waste a higher pick on a hard-to-sign prep player, which is why most of the over-slot picks for the Pirates in the past would come in rounds 6-10 or later. These days, the player taken in the 11th round is usually better than the players taken in rounds 3-10, and some of those players taken after round 11 are among the best in the draft.

So why don’t the teams take players in order of talent? Because the bonus pool systems create a house of cards, where you have to pick guys in the right order, and you have to know their costs to make it possible to sign guys later in the draft.

Let’s look at last year as an example. The Pirates took Mason Martin in the 17th round and gave him a $350,000 deal. They took Jason Delay in the fourth round and gave him $100,000. So why take Martin a day and 13 rounds later when they valued him more from a price standpoint?

The reason is due to the bonus pool. Delay’s slot value was $450,500, which means the Pirates saved $350,500 by drafting him in the fourth round. On the flip side, teams can sign players after the 10th round for $125,000 before the money counting against their bonus pool. So while Martin signed for $350,000, only $225,000 of that counted against the pool. This means the Pirates still had about $75,000 of Delay’s savings remaining after signing Martin.

Flip that around and take Martin in the fourth round and you only save about $100,000 with the pick. Take Delay in the 17th round and give him the same $100,000 bonus and there is no impact to the pool.

That’s assuming Delay would even be available that late, because every team is taking the same approach, loading up on college guys on day two in order to save slot money for the prep guys after the tenth round. A catcher like Delay, who has the defensive skills to make the majors one day, isn’t going to last beyond the tenth round, and probably won’t even reach the tenth round.

This creates a weird dynamic where you can’t evaluate how the draft is going until after you see which day three guys have signed. In the past, you’d get a good idea of how the draft was going based on the day one and two picks. The day two picks now serve the purpose of setting up for the day three guys.

Yesterday the Pirates took all college players in rounds 3-10. They got some good talent, and I can see a path to the majors for each of those players, with the possibility that one of them becomes more than a bench player or middle reliever. And you can guarantee that the Pirates know what each of them will cost, and already have deals in place, which means they know what they have left to spend today.

Today, the Pirates will take players who have more upside than all of the guys they took on day two. And they probably saved enough money on day two that they’ll be able to sign several of those guys.

Ignore the rounds. Ignore the days. Hold off your evaluations. Day three of the draft is the new day two. And day two of the draft was just the preparation to allow for the signing of the day three picks.

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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