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Post-Draft Bonus Talk

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Reviewing the bonuses paid to the Cardinals’ draftees, and what they say about the scouting department.

2020 Major League Baseball Draft Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

I know that I tend to pour quite a bit of adulation on Randy Flores and the Cardinals’ scouting/drafting department around here. Even when I don’t necessarily agree with a move the Cards make in the draft or player acquisition, I almost always feel like the decision was well thought out, planned, and then generally executed with a high level of success. Sometimes moves don’t work out — see Perez, Delvin — but there is usually a great deal of forethought that goes into them all the same. And really, while judging based on results is, ultimately, what tends to happen with scouting departments, not to mention pretty much all other front office positions, the actual best you can expect is to have moves that make sense, well planned out, and executed properly. Planning you can control; the luck you have afterward can bring those plans to brilliant fruition, or make you look like a bumbling fool, even when you went about your business in what seemed to be a smart way.

What I mean to say is this: I’m not trying to lionise this scouting department any more than I already have, but it’s difficult to not be impressed with how the Cardinals handled their business in the draft this year. And I say that as someone who publicly published his own draft board, and not only didn’t really focus on the same players they Cards did, but didn’t even really go in the same direction. My draft strategy would have leaned into the strength of the draft, focusing on pitching, loading up the system with high-probability arms and as much upside as I could manage; Flores and his department, by contrast, went hard against the grain, hitting the high school ranks for pure upside with their first three picks and then gearing down for some money-saving signs (with one notable exception), the rest of the way.

Regardless of how I might have personally differed from the club’s approach, however, I cannot help but be impressed with how they executed on their plan (which was clearly to zag rather than zig, and leverage their extra picks to maximise the potential upside they could pull from this class at the expense of surety), and how they fit it all into a workable bonus framework. The Cardinals had seven picks over five rounds, and four of their seven picks represent either extreme upside bets or tough signability calls for the spot in the draft they made the selection, or both.

So let’s look at how they did it.

The first thing, of course, is literally the first thing, by which I mean the Cards’ first round draft pick, Jordan Walker. Walker represents a really interesting case in this draft, in that he possessed some of the most impressive physical tools, and one of the highest ceilings, of any player in the class, yet did not require the club drafting him to break the bank and go way overslot. Now, there is a reason for that, and it really speaks to the intriguing way in which the Cardinals went about balancing risk and upside in this draft.

The Cards drafted Walker with the 21st pick, which carried with it a draft slot bonus number of $3,132,000. They signed him for a bonus of $2.9 million, netting them a savings relative to the slot number of just over 200K. Now, maybe that seems surprising; high school players, after all, are usually seen as the guys with the most leverage, and particularly when you’re talking about a kid committed to a school like Duke, it would seem that, if anything, you would have to sweeten the pot. So what gives?

Well, the answer is this: the Cardinals took a player ranked at one spot, bet that he should have been ranked at a much higher spot, had the season not been wiped out by a pandemic, drafted him closer to the spot they believed he could have or should have been, and then paid him somewhere in between the reality and their projection.

Here’s what I mean by all that: the slot bonus for the 21st pick was $3.1 million. The slot for the 23rd pick, belonging to the Indians, was $2.92 million, and the slot for the 24th pick (Rays), was $2.83 million. (I’m rounding slightly, just to type fewer numbers.) So the Cards took Walker at 21, and paid him like they picked him between 23 and 24. Which doesn’t sound like a huge difference, except when we consider the magnitude of the monetary differences from spot to spot in the first round, compared to later rounds.

Now, 21st sounds like a reasonable spot for Jordan Walker to get picked to me, simply because I know how impressive his raw physical tools are, how smart he is, and how much the Cardinals value those things. However, and this is key, Jordan Walker was not, according to the public boards we have available, the 21st best player in the draft. On MLB.com’s draft board, he was ranked #33 overall. If we head over to FanGraphs, he was ranked 41st overall. Now, obviously those public boards are not necessarily perfect representations of the industry consensus on players, nor should we think that from team to team there is perfect agreement either. But those boards are a pretty good snapshot, I think, of how the industry as a whole views a guy. There is input from whoever is making up the list, of course, but they’re all pulling from team sources and scouts and anyone else they can contact. Again, an individual club could have a very different opinion on a player, but if we average all teams’ opinions, it’s probably going to look pretty similar to what we get with the publicly available boards. Baseball America, FanGraphs, MLB Pipeline, those are going to tell you in a general way what all teams think of a player as a whole.

So the Cards took a guy who was ranked in the ~38 range, we’ll say. They selected him at 21, and paid him at 24. The player benefits here because, had he been drafted in the mid- to late-30s, like his ranking said he ‘should’ have been, he would have been in line for a bonus in the $1.8 to $2 million range. Jordan Walker grabbed an extra million bucks over where he was ranked, even if he was paid 200K less than what his actual draft slot would seem to dictate. It’s pretty obvious to see how a player would be happy to agree to that, and it actually benefits the team as well.

The question, of course, is whether the Cardinals placed a smart bet in selecting Walker significantly earlier than his ranking would say he should have been. There are a couple considerations here, the largest of which is what we think Jordan Walker’s ranking would have been had he played a whole season this spring. It’s impossible to prove a counterfactual, of course, and so I won’t try. But if Walker had come out this spring and looked like a guy ready to take off, a player making adjustments and improving, it’s entirely likely he would have jumped into the first round very comfortably based on talent. The risk profile of high school players in general was really the thing supressing his stock, as well as some specific long-term position concerns related to Walker’s size relative to most third basemen.

The second consideration is essentially an opportunity cost-based calculation, in that the Cardinals clearly liked Walker, probably liked him more than the consensus, and believed he would have moved up with a full spring. If they wanted him, they either had to take him at 21 or wait and hope he made it through to their next pick, in this case pick 54. Honestly, I don’t think there’s any way Walker lasted through to 54, so if the Cardinals wanted him, they had to take him at 21. Now, if the offseason trade of Randy Arozarena and Matthew Liberatore had not taken place and the Cardinals had pick 37 instead of 63 (they swapped those picks with the Rays as part of the trade), then maybe the calculus would have come out differently. Walker was ranked near that range, depending whose opinion we like most, and there’s a reasonable shot he would have made it there. So maybe the Cards might have waited in that case. Now, would Walker have signed for that ~$2 million slot number at 37? We have no way of knowing.

I hate to bring this player up, because he did not ultimately amount to much (although he did become a major leaguer, which is a huge success story if we’re being realistic), but we do have some parallel here to the Cards’ selection of Pete Kozma back in 2007. At the time, Kozma was seen as an end of the first round type player, a baseball rat with solid tools across the board who played up due to feel for the game and a wide base of skills. I don’t recall where he was ranked specifically, but I believe he was projected in the thirties, either end of the first round or the early part of the compensatory round that used to be right after the first. The Cards took Kozma at eighteen, and most of us paying attention at the time thought they badly reached to get him. Admittedly, a lot of the Kozma disdain had to do with Rick Porcello still being on the board, but there was also just a general feeling that Kozma at eighteen was a stretch, and not in a good way. The thing was, the Cardinals really liked Kozma (and again, he played in parts of nine big league seasons, so it isn’t as if he was a true bust), and had solid information that one of the teams right after them in the draft had their eyes on him as well. (I think it might have been the Blue Jays, but I won’t swear to it.) If they wanted Kozma, they had to take him at eighteen, because they were certain he wouldn’t last until their next pick.

So what the Cardinals did was take a guy they liked and thought could have been ranked higher, considered how likely they were to get another shot at him (I’d say very close to a zero percent chance), shot him a number that benefited the player relative to his ranking and the team relative to the draft slot, and then pulled the trigger. In doing so, they grabbed one of the highest upside bets in the whole of the draft, and saved $200,000 to allocated elsewhere. It isn’t what I did in my hypothetical draft, but I cannot stress enough how smart that approach seems to me.

Next up, the Cards swung for the fences again at 54, taking Masyn Winn, the two-way ultra athlete who presents a real challenge for a player development staff but is every bit as interesting as the old Dos Equis guy. Slot value at 54 was $1,338,500, and it was pretty clear Winn would require a bonus above and beyond that level to forego Arkansas for pro ball. Announcing him as both a pitcher and shortstop probably helped, but money talks. The Cards signed him for $2.1 million, nearly 800K above slot, immediately erasing all the savings they banked with Jordan Walker and more.

Now, it’s probably worth noting exactly how much the Cards had to spend. Their overall bonus pool was just over $7.9 million, and as always, teams can go up to 5% over their pool and pay a penalty, but not lose any picks. The Cardinals have never shied from that 5% overage, but obviously never go so far over they lose picks. (No team does, really.) Calculating that 5% overage brings us to a total pool of $8,296,155. So a little over $350,000 extra they can spend without real penalty. If we take that 350K and add the 200K they saved against slot with Jordan Walker, we can get most of the way to to 800K extra they paid out for Masyn Winn. Not all the way, but most of the way.

Now, Winn signed for $2.1 million, which translates into a bonus right around pick 35, belonging to the Rockies. Winn was ranked exactly 54th on the Pipeline draft board, but all the way up at 39 on FanGraphs’. You may note that’s actually higher than FanGraphs ranked Jordan Walker, which I disagree with, but that should give some idea of how highly Winn’s upside is valued. Winn’s bonus ends up looking much more like what we normally expect from the high upside high school guy you’re buying out of a college commitment. He was drafted down around the bottom edge of his public ranking, but paid out like a very early second round guy. You want the upside, you pay for it.

Next we have Markevian ‘Tink’ Hence, selected at 63. The slot was a little under $1.1 million, he signed for slightly over $1.1 million. He cost the Cards about $40,000 over slot, which is not a huge issue, but is still essentially in the red, so to speak. Hence was ranked 84 and 71 by MLB and FanGraphs, respectively, so actually went a little earlier than industry consensus (and was paid even a little more than slot), and is very much a projection-based bet on upside. The athleticism and arm speed and both big pluses, and again you’re thinking this is a guy for whom the arrow was very much pointing up when the season ended. For whatever it’s worth, I’m totally on board with that assessment, and buying Hence out of his Arkansas commitment (the poor Razorbacks have to be super pissed at the Cards’ organisation right now), was a really smart move in my opinion. There were definitely other moves you could have made here, and maybe going with a college performer you were more sure of might make more sense to some, but this is a really exciting arm and fits with the stars-or-bust mantra the org seemed to be following this draft.

Now we get to the part where you have to pay for those players. You saved 200K with Walker in a really smart way. You then went $800,000 in the hole for Winn, and another ~40K for Hence. You had almost $400,000 extra right off the bat (the 5% overage), plus the $200,000, minus $840,000. That’s about a quarter of a million in the hole. These are round numbers, so the actual totals are a little different, but we’re ballparking things here, okay?

So here comes Alec Burleson at 70, and he saves the Cards a bundle of cash. Slot for the 70th pick was $906,800, and Burleson came on board for 700K. Again, over a $200,000 savings, roughly what the club managed with Jordan Walker, only instead of representing something like a 7% discount relative to slot, it’s about a 22% discount here. Burleson accepted a bonus roughly equal to 86 (Rangers had that pick, though I don’t know why I apparently care which clubs had all these slots), which sounds like a pretty big gap, but if we consider he was ranked 106 by FanGraphs and 138 by MLB.com, he actually still did pretty well for himself. Now, it’s worth asking if Burleson should have been ranked that low, and it’s a tough question to answer. Burleson is a classic college performer, a guy who did nothing but put up numbers in college despite being fairly limited in terms of athleticism. To me, he represents a very smart strategy if you’re looking to save money; he doesn’t have the flashy tools that grab the attention of scouts and industry types all the time, but he has one really impressive ability, and that’s a natural feel for putting the bat on the ball. Drafting Alec Burleson is a lot like signing John Nogowski or Rangel Ravelo; he’s going to be overlooked, probably, but I would just about bet he’ll give you something if you give him a chance. Plus, now we’re back to just about $50,000 in the hole.

Which is somewhat funny, because Levi Prater, the Cards’ pick in the third round, saved them almost exactly $50,000 against slot. (The exact number is $52,900 if you want to be specific.) Prater is another college performer, a guy with middling stuff who just gets outs. I actually thought Prater would save the club a little more than this, and it’s probably the pick I most diverge from the Cardinals on in this draft. I like Prater, but I think he’s a reliever long term, and doesn’t really have an out pitch even in relief. They see more in him than I do, which is fine, but I had several other guys still on the board here I would have preferred. Doesn’t mean I’m upset with the pick, it’s just not the direction I would have gone.

The fourth round is really interesting, because the Cards suddenly took another swing for the fences, albeit in a slightly different way from their earlier picks. This wasn’t a crazy upside play for a high schooler, but rather a calculated gamble on a guy who fell way further than he should have in Ian Bedell out of Mizzou. The Cards nabbed Bedell with pick 122; he was ranked 85th and 88th by FanGraphs and MLB.com, respectively. Getting a guy nearly 40 picks later than his industry ranking is a hell of an opportunity, and the Cards clearly decided it was too good a chance to pass up. Bedell has publicly stated he basically gave up on signing and was planning on going back to school once he didn’t get picked by about the middle of the third round, but the Cardinals called with a number, and he said yes. We’ll get back to that number in just a minute.

First, though, we will consider L.J. Jones, the Cards’ fifth round pick. Jones was not on my radar coming into this draft, and his injury-checkered college career had a lot to do with that. He missed his entire sophomore season at Long Beach State (minus two at-bats), after being hit on the hand with a pitch, and then obviously this spring things went to hell and he barely played because everybody barely played. Here’s the thing: if the Cards had not picked Bedell in the fourth, they would not have picked Jones in the fifth. If they had gone with a player who signed for something closer to slot in the fourth, they would likely have picked a guy in the fifth who was right around slot, maybe a little above, and Jones would have been heading back to school in 2021 in lieu of settling for a $20,000 signing bonus, I would bet.

Teams have lists of guys like this coming into the draft. Every club has a handful of names on a list of players their scouts have turned in as whatever their internal version of my Players of Interest classification is. College seniors who would sign for ten grand but maybe have a high walk rate or something. (Yes, I’m referring to Matt Carpenter.) College pitchers who have been injured but had good stuff and would sign up for pro-level rehab and coaching to get back. One-tool players, guys with no real position, that sort of thing. Jones was on the Cards’ list, and they picked him because they knew he would sign for 100K and has plus raw power. You bet on one tool and you save a nice chunk of money. The slot for pick 152 was $350,300, and Jones took $100,000. Yes, the club saved a quarter of a million, which maybe feels exploitative, but the player was also probably looking at that 100K from the Cards, $20,000 from some team after the draft, or another year in college. Which basically means it was either six figures from St. Louis or back to school.

So let’s get back to Bedell now. I’ve been keeping a rounded total going, but let’s do some specific numbers now. Skyric was nice enough to do a bunch of calculation on bonuses and send them over to me unsolicited, which I greatly appreciate as it saved me the time of doing math, which I never really love, and made this column easier to put together since I didn’t have to jump back and forth from Opera to the calculator on my computer or phone.

The total bonuses paid out to all players minus Bedell come to $7,490,000. Against a bonus pool of $7.9 million that would leave only a little over 400K to sign Bedell, which wasn’t going to be enough. That’s basically the bonus of picks in the 136-138 range, not only well below where Bedell was ranked, but even below his actual draft slot of 122. Not going to get the job done.

As we established earlier, though, the Cardinals have no problem going 5% over, and pretty much always do. So that nets us just under 400K to add on. Now, if the Cards had gone with a slot guy in the fifth round, we’d have another 250K to account for, and even that overage isn’t enough to get Bedell. However, with Jones taking a hundred grand plus the 5%, we end up with a potential bonus for Bedell of $806,154. When he was announced at 122 with $469,000 slot number, I speculated that night that I thought it would take roughly 300K over that to sign him. I just felt like $750,000 was about what I would expect to have to pay a guy like that.

Ultimately, Bedell came in at $800,000 even. On a budget of just under $8.3 million, the Cardinals came away with six thousand dollars left over. If you ever want to question how well this draft was planned and executed, just consider that number for a moment. Bedell’s bonus falls right between picks 77 and 78, pretty well in line with where the industry pegged him. He was very young for a college draftee, maybe putting him in line for a slight bump in leverage, accounting for the extra little bit he got beyond his mid-80s ranking.

In the end, as I’ve already said, this was a remarkably well planned draft. The Cards clearly had an idea in mind of what they were going to focus on — all upside early, then grab some statistical performers that would also help them save bonus space — and they executed on it brilliantly. The deadline to sign players was the first of August; the club beat that date by well over a month. When an opportunity suddenly popped up in the fourth round, Flores and his people were able to pivot instantly to take advantage of it. And, if anything, this particular draft represents a much, much higher level of difficulty than usual, simply because there was far less room to maneuver. In a typical draft with ten rounds of bonuses counting dollar for dollar, grabbing a 400K overage in the fourth round is relatively easy. You could pick two or three college seniors in rounds 8-10 and make up that gap without too much trouble. In a five round draft with just seven available spots, though, the puzzle becomes much harder, despite it having fewer moving parts. That lack of moving parts could handcuff you and kill off any potential flexibility. Instead, the Cardinals not only did exactly what they planned to do, they did something they didn’t plan on, and in doing so executed the plan even better, if that makes sense.

As I said when I began this column, you have to have a little luck when it comes to actually developing the players you draft, and only time will tell if this group of players bring their upsides to fruition and reward the front office’s plan. But from where we sit right now, it would be very difficult for me to argue they could have done any better in how they executed the 2020 draft plan.

I had planned on updating the prospect list with these new players in this column, but it’s obviously already too long as it is. So I’ll do that next time. Until then.