If Damon Oppenheimer is any indication, the Yankees felt pretty good on Monday night. In the first round of the amateur player draft, which included 32 primary picks and another 18 supplemental ones, the Yankees had just one selection. They’d make the 32nd pick and call it a night, not choosing again until Pick No. 82, the 32th pick on Day 2. They surely wanted to make that first one count. With all the players with signability issues, the Yanks were sure to have a top-tier talent fall into their laps. That’s exactly what happened when Commissioner Bud Selig announced that they were on the clock.
Here’s the thing about the new draft format: the teams don’t need all that time to make a pick. Without the ability to trade picks, everything is pretty straight forward. Take the player highest on your draft board and move onto the next pick. But because of the draft’s newfound popularity, MLB has tried to turn it into a more NFL-like event. The five minutes between picks is mainly for show. Still, Yankees fans sat in anticipation as the clock ticked down. Which one of the available high-talent players would they take?
When Selig returned to the podium, he announced a name that no one expected. Christopher “Cito” Culver, a shortstop from Rochester, NY, wasn’t on anyone’s mind. Yanks fans were thinking A.J. Cole, Nick Castellanos, Asher Wojciechowski. Instead they got someone whom Baseball America ranked No. 168, meaning they projected him to go somewhere between the fourth and sixth rounds. In BA’s draft report on Culver, Aaron Fitt wrote a line that no one wants to hear about a first round pick: “…some believe he profiles as a utility player down the road.”
Unsurprisingly, the Yankees’ fan base erupted. How could they take a player like Culver with such better talent on the board? Shouldn’t the Yankees, a team with an unfavorable draft slot, take the best player available? That’s the strategy they employed in the past. In 2007 they selected Andrew Brackman, and in 2008 they took Gerrit Cole. Neither of those picks looks great right now. Cole refused to sign, and Brackman, while showing signs of vast improvement lately, is still stuck in the low minors. The Yankees, it appears, have changed strategies. It started last year when they took OF Slade Heathcott with their first pick. The Culver pick seems like a continuation.
* * *
The internet made the draft accessible to more fans. Before outlets like Baseball America started to cover the draft and publish the results, the public was largely unaware of its team’s selections. In the late 80s Topps started to print No. 1 draft pick cards, so fans could find out the best talent their favorite team selected in the previous June’s draft. Other than the scant information available on the backs of those cards, fans knew very little about their team’s draft picks.
That all started to change as the internet evolved. Fans could follow their team’s top prospects through Baseball America and MiLB.com. As more information became available, fans took to blogs, aggregating information about prospects across the league. With a few well-worded searches you could find everything you need to know about any prospect in a system. It seemed like a good thing for baseball. Fans could follow more aspects of the game. That creates a far greater level of interest in the game.
In recent years, this interest in prospects extended to the draft. Fans wanted to know not only which players their teams were selecting, but they wanted to know everything about these players. Can they hit for average? For power? Did they come from a top college program? A prominent high school region? Mostly, teams wanted to see what the scouts saw. What could these players become? They could get plenty of this scouting information from not just Baseball America, but also prospect writers like Keith Law and Jonathan Mayo. We have, it seems, a full gamut of opinions on the best of these amateur players.
* * *
As you saw during the past three days, there aren’t many baseball writers who can cover the draft like Mike. He’s super prepared, and even when something unexpected happens he’s all over it. This year provides a prime example. Leading up to the draft we see various sources connecting players and teams. In order to get a draft profile up minutes after the Yankees make a pick, Mike wrote 20 — twenty — draft capsules last weekend. He got to use none of them. Still, he pounded out a profile of Culver before the night was done. He also penned an excellent article on the upside and arm strength of the Yankees’ crop of draftees.
All of that was not only to praise Mike, but also to frame my own place in this discussion. I am not a prospect expert. I follow the players in the Yankees system, not only through Down on the Farm, but also through scouting reports on Baseball America, Kevin Goldstein’s coverage on Baseball Prospectus, and Keith Law’s scouting articles on ESPN. But I don’t think that merely reading that information makes me an expert. It makes me better informed and gives me colorful information for the articles I write, but I never have, nor never will, profess to be an expert.
The people who can be considered experts all considered Culver a reach pick. Again, he ranked at the bottom of BA’s Top 200, and didn’t even make Keith Law’s. Given those rankings and the available scouting reports, many fans ripped the Yankees for the pick. They had done their homework. They had read plenty about the draft. They knew that there were many more highly ranked players ahead of Culver. Why didn’t the Yankees take one of those players?
No one waited for an explanation from Oppenheimer. The initial reaction was to express displeasure not only with the pick itself, but also with the Yankees organization as a whole. Ignoring the slew of prospects strewn throughout the system, they called the farm system thin. Many, I’m sure, wanted to see Oppenheimer fired, before the man could tell the public why he chose Culver with the No. 32 pick. Surely there had to be a reason why they chose him there when, by pre-draft accounts, he would have been there when they picked at No. 80.
Oppenheimer, of course, did have his reasons. Among them, unsurprisingly, was that they didn’t believe Culver would be there when they picked in the second round. But we’ll get to that in just a minute.
* * *
The reactions flowed in as soon as Selig announced the pick. One of my more level-headed friends thought it was “an, uh, interesting pick.” My super-reactionary, treats every game like the World Series friend called it, unimaginatively, a train wreck. The commenters here filled a thread with overreactions. The consensus, it seems, is that BA, Law, Mayo, et als, know what they’re talking about and the Yankees do not. This I never understood.
Having this information available is great. It means we can make more informed reactions to picks. But no matter the source of the information, no matter how astute the scout, we’re dealing with imperfect information. It’s not imperfect as-is, an assessment of the player as he currently stands. It is, however, imperfect when it comes to projecting major league talent. Most of these players are years away from being major league ready. Even the prodigy himself, Bryce Harper, will spend a few years in the Nats’ system before he joins Stephen Strasburg on the big league squad.
Knowing this, why make a big deal about the pick? I understand the disappointment of not getting one of the consensus top talents. It’s always easier to imagine a player making the majors when we have plenty of positive information about him. But the reality is that we don’t know a damn thing about how any of these players will adjust and develop through the minors. Big-time players can, and often do, bust. Low draft picks can accelerate to the majors. I’m certainly not the first person to point out Albert Pujols’s draft position, 13th round, 402nd overall. Rich Harden went in the 17th round. Kevin Youkilis went in the eighth, which is where the experts projected Culver. Jim Thome was a 13th round pick.
Rather than get worked up and declare the Yankees incompetent, I’d like to see what this Culver kid can bring. That’s the mystique of prospects. Because we don’t have any idea of how they’ll develop, following them becomes most of, if not all of, the fun. Maybe he won’t turn into the next big Yankees homegrown superstar. But you could say the same thing about Cole, Castellanos, and Wojciechowski. The Yankees certainly see something in him — why else would they have taken him so far ahead of where the experts ranked him?
* * *
Apparently, after the Yankees made their selection official Oppenheimer got a call from a rival executive who said that if the Yanks had taken someone else with hopes of Culver dropping to No. 82, they would have been disappointed. That, I think, changes the entire outlook. Yes, you want to maximize the value of your picks. If someone will drop to the third round, why take him in the first? But with the draft you just never know. The Yanks had picked out there guy, and with 49 selections before their next pick they felt they had to pounce on the guy.
Oppenheimer spoke to reporters about Culver the day after the pick. It went just as expected. Oppenheimer discussed why the Yankees chose the guy, and what went into the decision to target him above other more highly ranked talents. One passage in particular stuck out to me.
He has pop in his bat, even with wood. It’s high school, but he’s hitting the ball over the fence in center field with a heavier wood bat than most of these kids we see using. The kid only struck out twice. We saw him all summer against the better stuff, guys throwing hard, and he squared the ball up well during that time so we think he’s going to hit.
A lot of kids falter when they start using wood bats. That Culver has already hit with one, and has succeeded with one, is a good sign. But, then again, that’s all it is.
We all want to be knowledgeable fans. We want to know when our team is doing well and when our team is screwing up. With all the information available right now, it only takes a little time to form competent opinions about not only your favorite team, but all 30 MLB teams. The area where this mass of information does the least good is the draft. If there were some key, some telling aspect that informed a team of whether a player would or would not succeed, they’d use it and the draft would be less of a crapshoot. So far, none exists. Teams scout players, imagine what they can become, and take risks on them. The best odds can still bust. The longshots can turn into stars. That’s just the way the MLB draft works. So instead of expressing displeasure because the draft pundits didn’t like the pick, let’s shift the focus to the mystery of Culver. The kid could actually play in the system this year, unlike many of his first-round brethren. It could make for exciting times in the Yankees system.