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Draft 2010: Lessons from 2009

For those who don’t know, I love the amateur draft. This year, we’ll run an open thread here at Amazin’ Avenue over the draft’s first two days, as I had done at Mets Geek over the past couple years. I’ll contribute my own shadow draft on draft day along with other content, as well as plenty of coverage leading up to the event.

Last year’s Mets draft was nothing short of a disaster. First of all, due to the signing of Francisco Rodriguez, they had no first round pick. They made a solid second-round selection in Steven Matz, a high school lefty with some upside, and followed that up with so-so selections in infielder Robbie Shields and outfielder Darrell Ceciliani. But they utterly failed to sign fifth-round pick Damien Magnifico and sixth-round pick David Buchanan, both high-ceiling pitchers with little refinement. All in all, they spent just $1.86 million on players in the first ten rounds of the draft, a pitiful amount that was only partially due to the lack of a first-round choice. And they didn’t make up for it later on in the draft either; other than 13th rounder Zach Dotson and possibly catcher Nelfi Zapata, they failed to sign a single potential impact player after round ten.

I didn’t dislike the Mets’ top two choices, but it was still a dreadful draft by almost any estimate. And it wasn’t an isolated incident, either. Omar Minaya’s drafts have been maddeningly inconsistent. His first draft was such a success that it resulted in the reassignment of first-year scouting director and friend Russ Bove . This led to the appointment of Rudy Terrasas, who SB Nation draft guru Andy Seiler ranked baseball’s worst scouting director.

At the same time, it’s not impossible for the Mets to have a good draft; their 2008 endeavor, thanks to three first rounders, was an excellent endeavor. But they need to learn from their mistakes, especially the disaster that was 2009. Here are three things I learned:

Don’t take hard-to-sign players just for the sake of taking them.

The Mets reached for hard signs more last year, possibly the result of a conscious effort to avoid past criticism for refusing to go above slot consistently. The end result was the choice of Damien Magnifico in the fifth round (and, to a lesser extent David Buchanan in the sixth). As I’ve mentioned before, Magnifico was a terrible, terrible pick. The short righty could touch the high-90s with his fastball, but he lacked a true breaking pitch, command, or a large frame. There was certainly potential there, but there were so many questions that his future was cloudy even by high school pitcher standards. And to complicate things even more was his price tag; Magnifico, despite no commitment to a major baseball program, had told scouts that it would take seven figures for him to eschew college.

And that’s how the Mets, perhaps hoping to call Magnifico’s bluff, found themselves in a predicament: they had selected a pitcher in the fifth round – a round where you can still find value – who had a price tag that was incommensurate with his current talent level. While you can’t deny that there is talent there, there’s just so many different ways that talent can go at this point in time, making Magnifico a particularly bad bet. Guys like Magnifico typically go in the later rounds of the draft, between rounds 15 and 50. At that point, teams can make the offer they feel is right and not feel too much of a sting if the player doesn’t sign. You just don’t draft a player like that with one of the first 200 picks. I can’t fault the Mets for not signing him, but I can fault them for drafting him in the first place.

If you’re going to draft them, open communications early.

The Mets took junior college pitcher Buchanan in the sixth round, and I was intrigued enough with the selection to make Buchanan my pick in my shadow draft as well. You can find some good value with juco players, and while he had a commitment to Georgia State, he was considered signable compared to, say, Magnifico, asking for a bonus of just $200,000. Armed with good velocity and a promising breaking ball, I thought it a smart pick.

That is, if the Mets had followed through. According to Ken Davidoff, the Mets didn’t call Buchanan until just before the deadline to sign him. At that time, the Mets called with an offer of $185,000, an offer that would have surely resulted in a deal. Except by August, Buchanan had already moved to Atlanta and secured funding for another year of college. At that time, he had given up on the Mets and committed to Georgia State.

This might have been the organization’s worst move. Not because Buchanan was a huge loss, but because it demonstrates negligence and ineptitude on an extremely basic level. We’re not talking about overarching organizational policy here or high-minded draft theory – we’re talking about picking up a phone and communicating with someone you want to do business with. And if the Mets can’t do this with one of their highest draft picks, how many other guys have suffered similarly? You can’t make these kids afterthoughts if you want to endear them to your organization.

If you aren’t going to spend big, you have to choose wisely.

As I said, the Mets didn’t spend a lot last year. Part of that comes from not having a first rounder, but they lagged behind other teams without top selections, too. But you don’t have to spend much to get some interesting talent. In last year’s shadow draft, I specifically tried to keep my costs low, drafting as I anticipated the Mets drafting, and, in that regard I did a fabulous job. Over the draft’s first ten rounds, I spent less than $300,000 more than the Mets and got an extra player signed.

Furthermore, regardless of how these drafts turn out, I don’t think there are many people out there that would pick Terrasas’s class ahead of my own. I’ll go into further detail in a future column, but I grabbed both more high-upside talent and more safe talent than the Mets did. And believe me: that isn’t an easy accomplishment. For the life of me, I really don’t understand why they selected guys like Taylor Freeman, Darin Gorski, Ceciliani, or Magnifico where they did.

Now, if the Mets were going to throw a lot of money at the situation, you wouldn’t need to be as smart. You’d still need to be smart enough not to select Magnifico, but you’d have more room for error. And at the least, you’d get more talent. But not spending big bucks doesn’t have to be your downfall on draft day.

In any event, keep watch over this space. Over the next month, I’ll be posting profiles on potential draftees with the seventh pick, reviewing my past shadow drafts, and posting various other material.