In a matter of a few short hours from now, the 2016 MLB draft will officially get underway. By the time the night comes to an end, the Cardinals will have made not just one potentially franchise-altering decision, but four. That's the number of picks the Redbirds will have on this first night of the draft; four picks of the first 75 belong to the Cardinals. It's not quite an historic bounty of picks, like the Rays had a few years ago (and boy, did that bumper crop ever fail to materialise; Blake Snell looks like he might very well be a big-time hit, but that's twelve selections of the first 89 and no real impact made yet five years on), but it's enough of a potential talent haul to make a huge impact on the direction the organisation is headed.
And, as I believe I've said before, if ever there was a year to have multiple picks in the earlyish going, this might be it. One can only dream and drool at what kind of bounty the Cardinals might be able to haul in if they had twelve picks out of a hundred, but even the four the club actually possesses is enough to get the wheels turning in a big way.
For reference, the Redbirds officially select at number 23, thanks to having the best overall record in baseball last year. Lots of teams forfeited their first round picks this year to sign free agents, and so the round itself is much shorter than most years. They will pick again back to back at 33 and 34, with their compensation selections for Jason Heyward and John Lackey (aka the Original Odd Couple), defecting to the north side. Finally, the Cards close out the second round with pick number 70. Those are all the selections that will be made tonight; when the draft reopens tomorrow the Cardinals will not go on the board until pick 106, and afterward every 30.
Of course, a big point of emphasis for everyone in the fanbase as the draft approaches is that of draft strategy, or perhaps Draft Strategy, as it always feels like a capital-letter plan, even if the reality is probably far more often something along the lines of, "Oh, that guy! Yeah, I remember him! We like him, right? And didn't think he was going to make it here? Sure, pick that guy. Wait, he's not hurt, is he? No? Do it!"
Okay, so there's probably a bit more forethought that goes into it than that, but it's important to remember that, once you get down to the part of the draft where El Birdos typically live, the idea of having a firm plan in place ahead of time is just a bit silly. After all, you have to wait for virtually every other team in the game to make their decision first, and then you may pick your favourite. That being said, there is always some set of preferences and proclivities a team brings with them into the draft room, and reading those tea leaves specific to each franchise is a source of endless fascination and entertainment, if not necessarily enlightenment.
So what I've done here is attempt to put together my final master list of favourite players I would like to see in the Cardinal system, while keeping in mind the types of players the Redbirds tend to go for and where they will be picking. (i.e., it doesn't matter how much I like Mickey Moniak; considering he's almost a mortal lock for the top five picks at this point I'm not going to tell you how awesome he is and how much I want the Cardinals to draft him at 23 after he is magically erased from the minds of 22 other scouting directors for a few hours tonight.) I also want to try and understand what some of the thought process for the Birdos this year might be as they try to restock a farm system that has thinned out in recent years thanks to quick graduations and a much less impressive late-round pedigree of drafting under Dan Kantrovitz than the club had with Jeff Luhnow at the helm toward the end of his tenure.
What complicates that, of course, is the fact the Redbirds once again have a new scouting director at the helm this year; their third director in three years thanks to Kantrovitz leaving for an Oakland promotion and Chris Correa being an asshat. (Albeit an asshat I think did a very nice job in his one shot at directing a draft.) While Randy Flores will certainly not be making these decision on his own -- and no scouting director ever does, obviously, but I think this might be an even more collaborative effort than usual -- the fact there's a new voice at the top of the scouting department org chart means we have a new variable in place that none of us really know the potential value of one way or the other.
Still, we know certain things about the Cardinals as an organisation. They value track record, particularly when it comes to college players whose numbers they feel they can analyse. For hitters, success with wood bats is valued (though not to the extent it seemed to be five or six years ago, for whatever reason), and bat speed appears to have gained some measure of emphasis in recent years. How much is tough to say, but it seems to be one of the things the Cards covet these days.
The club will take occasional health risks when it comes to pitchers, but those risks are typically a little later on and lower priority than the guys at the top. They'll pop a Daniel Poncedeleon in the middle to late round, but have not yet employed anything like the Washington Nationals' strategy of drafting ultra-talented pitchers with either recent or impending elbow surgeries on the books. Pitchers with a feel for changing speeds get some extra credit; velocity is valued but moreso later on when potential relief arms and one-trick type guys are being considered.
The Cardinals have been somewhat unfairly painted with the brush of going solely for high-floor players with very little ceiling, including, I have to admit, at times by yours truly. I'm as guilty as anyone of viewing good as the enemy of great, even when great comes with 70-grade risk attached, while good is a pretty good bet to place much of the time when it's close and relatively sure. I may not always agree with the picks the club makes, but the track record is very, very solid, and the organisation has done beautifully in building a near-continuous pipeline of talent, even if we are currently staring at a slight lull in that flow.
So with all that in mind, our portrait of an ideal Cardinals-y high draft pick goes something like this: if a pitcher, probably has good feel for a changeup. Most likely has not had an arm surgery already. Has above-average velocity, but movement and sink can make up for that. Has performed at a high level in college, Cape Cod success a bonus. Luckily for us, there are several pitchers who fit that profile very well at the top of the draft, so that we shouldn't see a reach for a pitcher who doesn't belong to fit a type.
If the player is a hitter, he likely has above-average contact ability (or at least an ability to moderate his strikeout rate), solid plate discipline, and average or slightly above power. Bat speed probably stands out, but the ability to put balls over walls isn't necessarily what you might expect. In other words, the ideal Cardinal hitting draft pick looks a lot like Matt Holliday (not physically, necessarily, but in terms of profile). Or Stephen Piscotty. That kind of hitter. Again, sad that Nick Senzel played himself into the top ten this year, because he is the most Cardinal hitter in this draft, I think.
High school players will obviously be a little heavier on tools and lighter on skills in general, but there's still an emphasis on maturity and feel for the game. Nick Plummer last year was very representative of the kind of kid the Cards seem to value.
Potential Draft Boards
Obviously, having multiple picks early on gives the club some flexibility, and it would surprise me if we didn't see the Cards exercise some of that flexibility by trying to diversify a bit in their approach. The back to back picks at 33 and 34 are particularly interesting to me, as I expect to see the club perhaps employ a one-to-produce, one-to-project sort of strategy, and try to grab one player they think is a fairly safe bet, and one they think could be a home run down the line.
It also wouldn't surprise me at all to see the club go heavy on college players this year, and such a strategy wouldn't upset me. This draft has tremendous depth in the college ranks, the farm system could use an infusion of more ready-to-go talent, and while the mantra of not drafting for need has been mercilessly drilled into all our heads by now, I would hope, there is also the reality of where the organisation is in terms of its cycle of contention, and that infusion of quicker-moving talent fits the overall needs of the team very well.
So at pick 23, I would expect to see a college player taken, and probably a bat. Obviously, if someone falls from the high school ranks, there might be an opportunistic tack taken, but all things being equal, I would think the Cards will go for the highest surety they can get. If a player like Zack Collins or Will Craig makes it here, I would expect to see them called. And honestly, that would probably be my strategy, as well. Bryan Reynolds from Vanderbilt would be an extremely Cardinaly sort of pick, particularly if the club believed he could play center field long term. I'm a little up and down on that question myself, but I think the profile fits offensively, and I think he moves through a system relatively fast. A player like Buddy Reed will be around later, and certainly stays in center, but the Cards haven't been too quick to take high-end athletes without much feel to hit early on in drafts, at least since the Charlie Tilson -- C.J. McElroy -- Lance Jeffries class failed to really develop offensively.
I could also certainly see the Cardinals going with a pitcher at 23, and there are several who fit the mold. Cody Sedlock, the Illinois righthander who also happens to maybe be my favourite pitcher in the draft, would seem an ideal guy here. Two-seam fastball (though that's less of an emphasis for the org. these days), feel for a change, and just overall very good feel for pitching along with a fantastic delivery. Sounds about right. T.J. Zeuch I expect to be gone, as the big stuff college pitcher tends to move up boards, particularly when he's 6'6", but if he's still there the Cardinals will pounce on him I bet. This is too early for a Logan Shore, I think, and probably a little early for Eric Lauer, as well. Both fit the profile for the Cardinals, and Lauer's name has come up in connection with the club having interest here and there over the past couple months. While Cal Quantrill fits the Cards' type as far as pitchers go, I wonder if they would be willing to spend their first pick on a kid fresh off Tommy John. Jordan Sheffield has become a bit of a personal cheeseball for me over the spring, but has similar concerns attached. The ceiling, though, on Sheffield could be huge.
Moving on to pick 33, obviously we have to consider what happened at 23. If the Cards do indeed take a hitter there, say, Bryan Reynolds, then I believe they'll grab a college arm at 33. Zeuch and Sedlock will both be gone, so you're probably looking at Shore/Lauer/Conor Jones (though please god, not Jones), sort of class. Sheffield could actually be a wild card here; the size, iffy command, and health history could actually see him falling, and if he's here at 33 I definitely believe the Cards would be willing to take a chance with this slot.
If, on the other hand, they grabbed a pitcher at 23, I think they shoot for a productive college bat at 33, and Matt Thaiss out of Virginia fits the team's preferences the best. He doesn't play a premium position (he's not a catcher long term), but the amazing plate discipline numbers this year speak for themselves, and he offers just the kind of doubles power and occasional home run pop the Cards seem to like best. Heath Quinn would feel like an overdraft here to me, but perhaps the club likes him better than I do, and he might come in a little underslot at 33.
For that 34th pick, this is where I'm thinking the Cards maybe take a shot at hitting a home run. Some toolsy high school star, probably on the position side. If I'm making the pick, it's probably somebody like Carter Kieboom, but any of the group of Drew Mendoza/Carter Kieboom/Josh Lowe/Nolan Jones makes sense here. One or two of those guys will probably still be on the board at 34, if not three, and it wouldn't surprise me to see the Cards take the one they like most. Perhaps a player like a Gavin Lux, who I also like a whole, whole lot. Taylor Trammell has made big strides this spring in developing his approach to hitting; perhaps the club takes his athleticism and improving hit tool. Will Benson has incredibly enticing physicality, but has yet to really show much feel for hitting (keeping with the Jason Heyward comp), and so I wonder what the Cardinals think of him.
It's also possible the club could lean on the thing they do best, and double up on college arms here. I would be a little disappointed not to see a potential high-upside bat, but I wouldn't be shocked. If they took Sedlock at 23 and Thaiss at 33, I could see them doubling down on pitching depth and taking a Justin Dunn or Lauer or Logan Shore type. I doubt we see the club take a money-saving guy here so early; that's more likely at 70, I think. But if they grab pitching with 23 and 33, maybe a Jameson Fisher reach to free up money while still getting a guy who should hit is possible. I doubt that's the case, though; the Cards will move money around later on if need be, but I think they'll just go for the players they like best with this early bounty.
Zack Burdi is also an intriguing name at either 33 or 34. Clubs are divided on his future role, but the arm strength and crazy movement/upside are not in question. I don't know if he might be a light money-saver at 33/34, but if he would come in a little underslot to go along with, say, someone like Matt Manning, who will require overslot money to sign, I could definitely see that happening.
At 70, here we might get a money-saving pick. Depending on what the Cardinals do earlier, of course, but if they do take a flier on a guy like Manning (whose name I keep hearing, and never got around to writing up, unfortunately), then definitely here's a spot we could see a Jameson Fisher, or a college reliever. Perhaps Chad Hockin from Cal State Fullerton, or Braden Webb out of South Carolina. There's a kind named Kyle Weatherly from a juco in Texas I really like as a reliever. Three-quarter arm slot, low-90s velocity, and a dominant slider. He'd be a definite reach at 70, but he's the kind of kid I could see getting a feel for his price and bringing him in somewhere in the 3-5 round range to help free up money for a kid up higher you really want to keep away from college.
So if I'm putting together something like the most likely scenario, as I see it, it probably goes something like Bryan Reynolds at 23. The best college pitcher fit on the board at 33, either a guy like Logan Shore/Eric Lauer or maybe the Cards just raid half of Vanderbilt's roster and grab Jordan Sheffield if he falls. A high school signability bet at 34; Matt Manning is the name I've heard most, but Forest Whitley, Joey Wentz, and any of the position players I mentioned earlier make sense as well. Then at 70, an easy sign to keep the money in line. I don't know if the Cards have any interest in Jameson Fisher, but that's the guy I probably like most in the money-saving role around 70 if you need a guy like that. He can really, really hit.
My Personal Board
My own personal preference is fairly in line with what I think the Cardinals might do; I might actually be even a little heavier on college players this year than I think they'll go, and wait to see if one of the high school bats falls to around the fifth round or something.
My dream scenario at 23 is for Zack Collins to fall. I think there's almost no way that happens, now, but I think he's the best offensive producer in this draft, bar none. If he's there, I make my pick literally before the commissioner finishes saying "The St. Aaron Cardinals are now on the clock."
Since I don't expect him to make it here, I would go to my second choice, and probably take Cody Sedlock. At 33, I'm hoping Matt Thaiss is still there, and I'm taking the guy I'm confident will hit. Figure out the position down the road. At 34 in this scenario, I'm either shooting for the moon with a Carter Kieboom or taking Jordan Sheffield if he falls. Yes, that's right, I would take college righthanders with two of my first three picks if I had control of the draft board and things went a certain way.
At 70, I might even continue with the college theme and go with C.J. Chatham, the shortstop out of Florida Atlantic. There's been question in the past about his bat, and he's still not playing in a major conference, but I think he's being underrated offensively, and he's very much grown on me over the course of the spring.
So, for the record, if things work out the way I've outlined above, I would, in this draft that is simply loaded to the gills with high school hitters, take four college players in a row to start off the selections. Strange times we live in.
The Final Favourites List
Okay, everyone, I had planned on putting together an index of all my posts this year, with links to each. However, looking at the time it's now 4:45, and the draft show goes on at five central. I apologise, but I simply am not going to have the time to collect all of them and link everything. Seems like there's never enough time to get everything done. However, the '2016 MLB Draft' label used on this post will take you to all of my draft previews, tagged with that label. (Thanks to Craig for taking care of that a couple weeks back.) Again, I wanted to get it all indexed (and at one point had hoped to have an alphabetised list of players with links to their profiles), but I just can't get everything done.
So anyhow, this is my final list of favourite players for the draft, specifically those I feel should go in the top ~4 rounds.
Cody Sedlock, RHP, U of Illinois
Zack Collins, 1B/C, Miami
Matt Thaiss, C/1B, Virginia
Carter Kieboom, 3B, Georgia High School
Erik Miller, LHP, De Smet High School (St. Louis)
Jordan Sheffield, RHP, Vanderbilt
C.J. Chatham, SS, Florida Atlantic
Gavin Lux, SS, Wisconsin High School
Ben Rortvedt, C, Wisconsin HS
Herbert Iser, C, Florida HS (likely going to a juco, and potentially unsignable due to injury this spring)
Hudson Sanchez, 3B, Texas HS
Andrew Miller, C, Texas HS
Logan Shore, RHP, Florida
Alright, enough is enough. Draft coverage is starting now, so I'm going to go ahead and put this up. I'll be back with analysis of the picks as quickly as I can this evening. I hope you've all enjoyed the trip this year, and feel like I've given you at least some sort of basis heading into the draft to sound smart about the players when people ask you who the Cards took.