(Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts on the Mariners and the amateur draft.)
It’s like going back through the entire seasons of your favorite TV shows for a second or third time: You’ve seen the episode before, you know what’s going to happen, and you still can’t get enough.
For Scott Hunter, the Mariners’ director of amateur scouting, and his crew of scouts across the country, they’ve watched game after game, at-bat after at-bat, inning pitched upon inning pitched of the top college and high-school players in the country in preparation of the upcoming but not officially scheduled Major League draft.
“There’s only so much baseball we have to watch right now,” Hunter said. “And we’re starting to run out of games to watch since there’s only a limited supply.”
And when they run out? They’ll go back through the video again. Because, well, it’s all can they do with all of amateur baseball either shut down or canceled due to the spread of the novel coronavirus.
But at least the work has a purpose. There was some initial fear that Major League Baseball would scrap the 2020 draft altogether with the season on hold, but the recent resolution bargained between MLB and the MLB Players’ Association was to have a draft of at least five rounds that could grow into 10 rounds or more.
“Selfishly, I hope we pick as many rounds as possible just because we pick high in each round and over last few years we’ve had some success,” Hunter said. “And to have a better selection in place where we don’t have to wait for other teams to see what they do for us to be ready to take our player, I really think it’s a great opportunity for us just to continue to add on to, you know, the core group of guys.”
The Mariners have the No. 6 overall pick in the first round — their highest pick since 2014 — followed by a second-round pick at No. 43 overall, a Compensation Round B pick at No. 65 overall and a third-round pick at No. 79. All told, four selections in the first 100 picks of what is considered to be one of the deepest drafts in terms of top-level talent in years.
“The amount of college Friday and Saturday night starters, just the depth of pitching is a lot different than over probably the last three years that I’ve been doing this,” Hunter said. “The college hitting group has really stepped up. This is probably the one year that I feel like we are in a good spot to pick high. You never want to pick high because it means the team hasn’t done well, but this is the year that we’re going to have some really good options that are going to be staring at us that we think can make some real impact with our organization.”
Of course, the concern is that with the NCAA baseball season done just a few weeks after it started and high-school seasons put on hold or ended, the potential of missteps when making selections abound because there are no games or workouts to provide final verification for reports made a year ago or before baseball was shut down.
Thanks to the mistakes of past regimes, the Mariners have built a dubious reputation of such failures under normal circumstances.
The last time the Mariners picked this high, they selected high-school outfielder Alex Jackson with the No. 6 pick in the 2014 draft over pitchers Aaron Nola, Kyle Freeland, outfielder Michael Conforto and shortstop Trea Turner.
But Dipoto and Hunter are trying to change that with solid draft classes over the past three years. They believe the philosophy and procedures in place will allow them to handle the unique situation.
“When you pick so high, we’ve done so much work from last summer through the fall through the early part of the season, I think we’re in a pretty good spot with identifying what the player pool is and who’s at the top of the food chain, especially for where we pick,” Hunter said.
He had been meeting with top players who could potentially be taken with the No. 6 pick since November.
“Getting a head start with that has definitely really helped us,” he said. “It all starts from the day after the one draft ends and it all starts that summer for how we prepare for each spring, and our guys have done a really good job with that.”
Seattle sent scouts and cross-checkers out to all the early college games of the top prospects.
“We saw them all,” Dipoto said. “We had a pretty aggressive program in place with the way we were scouting this year because of where we were picking. We altered a good deal of how we were scheduling our scouting looks. We had schedules going out from the office rather than waiting for the scouts to get to each player. We were trying to maximize the number of looks at the best players in the country. So the guys you would consider top-10 picks, we’ve seen them all, and some of them we saw some of every week. So we feel really comfortable with the group.”
Even with no games, they are still scouting the draft class.
“We’ve made some adjustments, and we knew it was coming,” Dipoto said. “We have done a lot of video work. We are going to rely heavily on kind of the analytical information we’ve developed.”
It’s more than just watching video of college games.
“We’ve had conference calls, how to watch it,” Hunter said. “It’s really to learn how to take what they’re seeing, match it up like connecting the dots with the information in our system in regards to what a player’s done over the last three or four years. You’re actually doing a few more deeper dives — started looking through how he’s done against competition, how’s he done against prospects I’d like, and you can slice up the information a lot of different ways.”
“The difficult thing is just the pure speed of the game,” Hunter said. “It doesn’t show what the guy’s emotions are in between at-bats or after an inning when a guy goes in the dugout. You can watch like the little things that separate players from being good to great that I try to teach our guys. We can all grade out the tools, we can all grade out when things are going well, but try to see these players when things aren’t going well. What do they do when they’re not at their best off? How do they compete, what’s their body language, what kind of teammate they are — the little things that go inside the game that make a big difference in life? And you can’t really catch that on video.”
The amount of video available does favor college players over high-school players. Teams do have some video from MLB’s Player Development Pipeline showcase and some other high-school showcases from last summer. The high-school players projected for the first round won’t be affected as much as the next tier of talent that is wavering between signing or going to college.
“You can watch them in multiple games against the best competition in the country — granted, it was last summer’s work,” he said. “There was a big group of high-school players that I went and actually visited with before we got shut down, and over the winter. But it’s going to be really tough for any team to just go in and take the high-school player that hasn’t played since last summer. You just don’t know where they are physically, if they’ve made a step forward, a step back.”
Given that all they can do is scout on video, the Mariners have also changed up a few aspects on their scouting process.
“You ordinarily have regional scouts or regional cross-checkers who are there to kind of oversee the draft process and guide the area scouts through their season,” Dipoto said. “That’s not as possible in our current setup, because there’s no movement and everybody’s doing this from home. So what we’re doing is effectively asking the West Coast scouts to take a look at players from the central and East Coast scouts to take a look at players from the West.”
It’s a product of using the time under the circumstances.
“Instead of coming in for national meetings and having so many of our high-ranking scouting personnel getting to know or see or hear about these prospects for the first time in that three-week period,” Dipoto said, “now, by the time we get together to build our final draft board, we should have all of our scouting leadership or decision-making group very familiar with all the players coast to coast because we’ve had weeks and weeks and months to pore through the video and the data on these players and really get to know them as best we can despite the fact that we can’t go watch them play live.”
But really this is a modified a version of a plan they were going to use under normal circumstances.
“It was a big plan of ours from the start of the year,” Hunter said. “We were going to have our supervisors be more national guys. Everybody’s going to have regional responsibility, but we were going to spread our guys out a little bit more just to get to eliminate the bias of ‘I saw this guy really good in the northeast, how does he compare to the guy on the west?’ So having our guys cross over, we started early on some of our early looks.”
There is a human element in all of this. Scouts who see players in their area often obviously favor the players they see most often.
“What we’ve seen is not only a good reflection of what the draft pool is, but we’ve eliminated I want to say the bias that in scouting happens,” Hunter said. “So when you’re able to compare, player X to player Y, and they’re from different parts of the country, you get a better understanding of how your player that you’ve seen in person fits. We’ve probably had better, deep, more-thorough conversations than we have in the past.”
Possible Mariners picks
The Mariners have the sixth overall pick in the 2020 draft. Here are some players that should be on their draft board.
Spencer Torkelson, 1B, Arizona State
The most complete hitting prospect in the draft. Torkelson has plus power, a professional and patient approach at the plate and ridiculous bat speed. He also likely won’t be around for the Mariners at No. 6.
Austin Martin, CF/IF, Vanderbilt
With his speed and athleticism Martin can play second base, third base, center field and shortstop, but his best position is hitter. His career on-base percentage at Vandy was .474.
Asa Lacy, LHP, Texas A&M
Before the coronavirus shutdown Lacy was touching 98 mph with an improved slider and a solid change-up. He lacks pitch efficiency in the strike zone.
Emerson Hancock, RHP, Georgia
Once considered the favorite to go No. 1 overall, he struggled to start the 2020 season. There are concerns about his fastball not being a swing-and-miss pitch, and some mechanical issues.
Nick Gonzales, SS/2B, New Mexico State
From walk-on to possible top-five pick in just three years, Gonzales has put up video-game numbers for the Aggies in prime hitting conditions. His MVP performance last summer in the Cape Cod League also helped.
Garrett Mitchell, OF, UCLA
A three-year starter for the Bruins, he has elite speed and is a plus center fielder. At the plate, he has raw power, but his swing can be a hindrance in terms of elevation. Scouts believe he’ll hit for average.
Mick Abel, RHP, Jesuit HS, Portland
Considered the top West Coast high-school pitching prospect by several publications. At 6-feet-5 and 180 pounds, he has a fastball that can touch 97 mph and an outstanding slider. He also hasn’t played a game this spring.
Jared Kelley, RHP, Refugio (Texas) HS
Yet another high-school power arm from the Lone Star State, Kelley has a fastball that runs up to 99 mph with an easy delivery. He has a plus change-up but an inconsistent breaking pitch.
Garrett Crochet, LHP, Tennessee
A big lefty with a fastball that can touch 100 mph, Crochet made just one start this season for the Volunteers after being delayed by shoulder issues. His college resume doesn’t include a ton of starts, which might scare some teams away.
Reid Detmers, LHP, Louisville
He’s considered the most consistent strike-thrower in the draft class. He had 48 strikeouts and just six walks in 22 innings this season. That’s something the Mariners love. He has plus off-speed pitches and a highly competitive nature on the mound.
Austin Hendrick, OF, West Allegheny HS, Imperial, Pennsylvania
The best power profile of the high-school hitters available, offering glimpses at showcases last summer. He profiles as a corner outfielder with a strong arm.
Zac Veen, OF, Spruce Creek HS, Port Orange, Florida
Most agree he has the best swing among high-school hitters in the draft. Add that to his mature approach, discerning eye at the plate and 6-5, 200-pound frame, and you have a likely top-10 pick.
Max Meyer, RHP, Minnesota
His small frame — 5-11, 180 pounds — draws concerns. But he has a fastball that touches 100 mph and a plus slider in the low 90s. Remember the last time Seattle passed on slightly-built, high-stuff college pitcher? That pitcher, former UW star Tim Lincecum, won back-to-back Cy Young Awards for the Giants.