Analysis: Draft doesn't always make sense

By: Matt Jones
Published: Monday, June 3, 2019
The rostrum is viewed at the MLB Network prior to the first round of the Major League Baseball draft, Monday, June 3, 2019, in Secaucus, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
The rostrum is viewed at the MLB Network prior to the first round of the Major League Baseball draft, Monday, June 3, 2019, in Secaucus, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

— When former Arkansas infielder Zack Cox was selected by the St. Louis Cardinals 25th overall in 2010, it was 19 rounds higher than he heard his name called in high school.

Five years later, Andrew Benintendi was selected seventh overall by the Boston Red Sox following his national player of the year campaign as Arkansas' center fielder. Out of high school he was a 31st-round pick of his hometown team, the Cincinnati Reds.

Cox and Benintendi both signed after their sophomore season of college. In both instances, their two-year draft improvement might have seemed meteoric to those who didn't understand the process, but in baseball circles they were highly regarded players for years.

It's just the way the draft game is played.

The MLB Draft, which begins tonight, doesn't make sense to baseball outsiders. Unlike the drafts for professional football and basketball, the baseball draft includes high schoolers and college players, and is not based solely on talent and fit, but also on the sign-ability of an individual.

In the months leading up to draft days, draft-eligible players provide franchises with a figure it will take for them to sign professionally. Some hold firm to their "number" and opt to turn down an offer, while others are coaxed to take less money - sometimes significantly less - than they previously said they would.

Franchises base their offers on a variety of factors. Teams have a bonus pool they can offer their picks in the top 10 rounds, and those drafted players have slot values assigned to their position in the draft - flexible figures that can be exceeded by hundreds of thousands of dollars, if necessary.

Picks after the 10th round cannot be signed for more than a $125,000 bonus, or else a franchise will be financially penalized.

If a franchise drafts one or more players who will demand significantly more than their slot in the draft, that franchise might select an easy sign somewhere else in the top 10 rounds. College seniors who have run out of eligibility are prime targets because they can be signed for next to nothing, often as low as $10,000 before taxes.

The process ends up with high draft prospects falling to the draft's final day or going undrafted, and players coming off the radar to be taken in the top 10 rounds.

In 2017, Arkansas pitcher Blaine Knight was a draft-eligible sophomore and rated by most draft analysts to be a high-round pick. But Knight held firm to his number and eventually fell to a spot - the 29th round - that made it obvious he would return to college for another season.

Knight was drafted in the third round during his 2018 All-American campaign and reportedly signed with the Baltimore Orioles for more than $1 million last summer.

Arkansas pitcher Isaiah Campbell expects to see a similar year-over-year draft improvement. Campbell was projected to be a high-round pick last year, but set a high number for a signing bonus and fell to the 24th round.

Campbell might be selected tonight by the end of the second round, as might Arkansas closer Matt Cronin, who was not drafted out of high school.

Campbell and Cronin are among at least six Arkansas juniors expected to go pro this year. Outfielder Dominic Fletcher and pitcher Jacob Kostyshock are projected to be taken on the draft's second day (rounds 3-10), and infielder Jack Kenley and pitcher Cody Scroggins are expected to be drafted high enough that it will be worth their while to sign.

In addition to seniors Trevor Ezell and Zack Plunkett, other Arkansas players who are draft-eligible this year include pitchers Kevin Kopps, Marshall Denton and Collin Taylor, and infielders Jordan McFarland and Jacob Nesbit. A redshirt freshman, Nesbit is eligible for the draft this year because he turned 21 years old on Sunday.

Arkansas signee Jason Hodges, an outfielder from Chicago, is projected to be a second-day selection in the draft and might opt to skip college. Most of the Razorbacks' other top signees either have already said they will play college baseball or have set a draft number that makes them unlikely to be selected high enough to sign.

But every year it seems there is a high school signee who comes off the radar to turn pro.

It never surprises to see an 18-year-old set a lower draft number and be selected higher than expected by a franchise that has shown interest. That player can collect a six-figure paycheck plus a promise from the franchise to pay for college tuition when his professional career ends.

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