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Examining the strategy employed by drafting Nick Yorke

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We can’t judge the pick yet, but we can at least think critically about the process.

2020 Boston Baseball Writers Dinner Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

The Red Sox had the 17th overall pick in yesterday’s draft, their highest selection since the 2016 draft when they had Jay Groome fall down to their pick and they grabbed him. This was obviously an unprecedented draft with such relatively little scouting information on all of the players, but there seemed to be some chance that a similar process would play out here in which a high upside high schooler ranked highly fell to them at 17. The prospect many of us had as our favorite, Mick Abel, got snatched up just a couple picks above Boston’s, but there were still other very good players available when it was Boston’s turn to pick. The Red Sox did not take any of them, though, instead opting for high school shortstop/second baseman Nick Yorke.

The initial reaction from me, and I’m sure many, many other people, was “Who?” Yorke was a player who just barely cracked the top 100 on Baseball America’s list of top prospects and was well below the century mark on most other rankings. That’s not to say public rankings are gospel, of course, but they are what we lean on for better or for worse.

Given the rankings, it’s an easy pick to complain about, but in reality it’s not that simple. This was done with the entire draft class in mind, as Yorke is certainly going to sign a below slot deal, and the Red Sox’s plan is to use those savings to target better players than normally would be available in those later rounds. So, in the spirit of fairness we can’t really judge things until we see exactly what is done with those savings. That being said, we certainly can think critically about the strategy being employed here and whether or not it was a better move than simply taking the best player available to them at number 17.

First, it’s probably worth it just to give a simple overview of how the financial side of the MLB Draft works, because it is sort of convoluted and that leads to confusion with these situations. The simple version is as follows. Every selection in this five-round draft — it’s a little bit different in a normal 40 rounder, but that’s not a concern right now — has a monetary value attached to it. The 17th overall pick had a slot value of $3,609,700, for example. A team has a pool of money available to them for all of their picks equivalent to the sum of their picks’ slot values. The Red Sox total draft pool is $5,129,900, one of the lowest pools in the league due to their being stripped of their second round pick.

While those picks have those slot values, however, the actual selections don’t need to be paid that money. Teams can split their total draft pool up however they see fit. So, they could give straight slot value to every player they select, or they could go big in the first round by going overslot and then picking cheaper players later. Or, they could do what the Red Sox did and draft a player who will sign for less money then use those savings to draft better players in the later rounds. So, as I said, we can’t really judge this specific instance until we see the class in its entirety, but I think it’s worth having a quick discussion about the strategy itself and whether or not that was the right move.

We’ll start with the defense of the strategy, for which there is plenty. The very simple overarching reason to employ this strategy in a draft is to boost up the depth of the draft. You may not get a great top-end talent, but you have a chance to add multiple very good pieces, which may not have been possible otherwise. Considering how small Boston’s draft pool was this year, that would have been an even more difficult endeavor than usual. It’s no secret how hit or miss baseball prospects can be, so there’s a very fair argument that grabbing multiple good to very good prospects is better than one potentially great one.

Now, you may be asking how they’ll be able to get other good players that late in the draft, but that’s another example of why the MLB draft is weird. If a good high school player falls beyond where they thought they would go, suddenly they will start to tell teams that they will attend college unless said teams can afford to pay them well over slot. Only teams who did what Boston did would be able to afford that.

The most famous recent example of this working out extremely well for a team was with the Astros back in 2012. Now, this is not a completely analogous situation because Houston had the top pick in that draft so whoever they picked was going to be highly ranked. That said, Byron Buxton was far and away the top prospect in that class, but Houston selected Carlos Correa with their top pick because they liked him and knew he would sign for below the slot value. Houston also picked 41st in that draft, and so they wanted to grab a high schooler who slipped with that pick and having savings from the highest individual slot value would be a huge boon for that strategy. They ended up selecting Lance McCullers with that 41st pick for an overslot deal, and now both are very good major-league contributors.

American League Championship Series Game 1: Houston Astros v. Boston Red Sox

There’s also the simple fact that the Red Sox clearly like Yorke, which is another somewhat underdiscussed part of this strategy. We’ll never have a true sense of where he was on Boston’s draft board at this point in the night, but when teams employ this strategy part of it is that they value the player they select more highly than other teams. So they are able to grab a player they like a lot — and in this case, a player they didn’t feel they would be able to grab later as they don’t pick again until number 89 overall — and potentially boost the bottom of their draft class as well.

That’s the case for it. There is also a case against this that I think is particularly pertinent for this Red Sox organization. On the con side, I think there are two major points to be made against this strategy. For starters, it’s just plain risky. It’s all well and good to say in a vacuum that you are able to use the savings to get high upside players that you normally wouldn’t be able to land later, but it’s not always that simple in reality. This strategy is particularly risky if the Red Sox have a specific player or just a couple players in mind falling to them, as there are 51 chances for teams to ruin that strategy between now and when the team makes their next pick. This is a weird draft so it’s true that teams may be even more inclined than normal to avoid high schoolers, but it’s really impossible to predict what will happen and there’s a chance the Red Sox end up not being able to pick from any of the higher upside players they were hoping for.

Secondly, I think the state of the Red Sox system should be taken into account here. You never draft for need in the MLB Draft from a positional standpoint, but I think there can be at least some consideration for timeline and ceiling versus floor. In this case, the Red Sox have a lot of solid prospects but not a whole lot of good to very good ones, with just two (maybe three depending on your feelings on Bobby Dalbec) top 100 types and no clear top 50 names. Given that, there’s certainly an argument that they should have gone for a home run with this pick, whether that be a Garrett Mitchell, Jared Kelley, Nick Bitsko or whoever else you liked at that pick. Obviously they have their own scouting reports on any of those guys. There’s big risk in that as you are putting your proverbial eggs in one basket, but I think it can be easy to understate the value that a truly elite prospect has over even a handful of good ones.

I don’t really have an opinion on whether or not, at the end of the day, this was a good strategy for Boston to employ. It does seem that they are genuine in their feelings about Yorke as a hitter, and I think teams will probably be reticent enough about high school talent in this weird draft that good players will fall to the third round and beyond. But while I understand the strategy, I certainly don’t think it’s one that is above criticism, and at the very least it deserves more of an examination beyond, “They clearly know what they’re doing.” I mean, I’m sure they do, but you know what they say about good intentions.