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2021 Draft Review No. 1: Scouting and Strategy in the Early Rounds

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Wrapping up the Cardinals’ draft by way of both scouting reports and larger strategic discussion.

Cleveland Indians v Minnesota Twins
Yep, that’s a future scouting director on the right.
Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/Getty Images

The 2021 MLB draft is in the books, for better or for worse, and the Cardinals came away with some players. That is, of course, not a helpful piece of analysis, and so I will endeavour to say more specific, and specifically useful, things in the column which follows.

I think most of us expected the Cardinals to go pitching-heavy in this draft, and they did. They did not, however, do so in the manner I expected, but there will be time to discuss that as we get deeper into this column. Overall, the Redbirds selected 21 players over twenty rounds, twelve of whom were pitchers. It certainly wasn’t as unbalanced a draft as that of the Angels, who drafted literally nothing but pitchers in their 2021 crop, but still, twelve arms in 21 picks is a healthy chunk. It is interesting to consider how much more pitching-heavy the club might have gone had things turned a little differently in the early rounds, but again, time to talk about that later.

Aside from the twelve hurlers selected, the Cardinals also took four outfielders (or players whose primary position is listed as outfielder currently), two third basemen, one first baseman, one catcher, and one shortstop. Only one player, 20th rounder Xavier Casserilla, do I expect not to sign, which would bring the third base haul down to only a single player. Casserilla is a high schooler from Texas, committed to a pretty good baseball program at Wichita State, and isn’t going to sign for whatever the Cards can scrape together in bonus money for the twentieth round, I don’t believe. And I say scrape because, as we will see going forward here, El Birdos made bonus calculations and fitting difficult numbers into tight spots a feature of this draft in a big way, it appears.

I’m going to go through the players, round by round, and talk about both specifics and generalities as we get to players who are important to the overall strategy. I’m going through the first five rounds here, because there’s a lot to talk about in the early part, with much more broad-topic considerations than what will come up later. I’ll talk a little bit more about my feelings toward this class at the end, and then in the next edition of this draft review, I will cover the rest of the players drafted by the Cardinals from rounds six through twenty. Finally, I will once again be conducting my own shadow draft in part three of the review. People seem to be at least somewhat interested in the shadow draft each year, as working through the picks can often offer a different perspective on the way the actual draft played out, and so I consider it worth doing still.

So without further ado, let’s rock.

Round 1, #18: Michael McGreevy, RHP UC Santa Barbara

I’ve already said nearly everything I have to say about Michael McGreevy, after having scouted him earlier in the spring, talked about him in these electronic pages on multiple occasions, including having him very high up my personal favourites at eighteen board, and then writing him up once again after the Cardinals made him their top pick.

The only thing I really haven’t talked about too much at this point in regards to McGreevy is the moderate concern I and others have over his arm slot, specifically as it relates to his curveball. McGreevy throws his fastball, slider, and changeup from about 1:30, if you picture a clock and place his arm on that mental image, while his curveball comes out about 1:00. It’s not a terrible thing, and I don’t know if it’s recognisable enough immediately that even pro-level hitters will read and react to the curve differently, but when you watch a bunch of video of McGreevy it’s definitely noticeable. His curveball, which I like quite a bit, looks different out of the hand compared to his other pitches.

The best solution, of course, is to find some way of bringing those arm slots together, so as to make the curve harder to pick up. There are two ways to do that; either drop the arm slot on the curve, or raise the arm slot of the other three pitches. It would seem, intuitively, that changing the one pitch, rather than three, would be the answer, but I wonder if he would still be able to get on top of the curve if he dropped his slot when throwing it. Weirdly enough, I actually think he might be best served by trying to bring the arm slot on all his other pitches up slightly, as I think it would both make his offerings more difficult to recognise, but also give him even better movement on the changeup, hopefully without compromising the run on his fastball. That might be a difficult change to make, though, and so perhaps we will just have to live with a curveball that is thrown from a suboptimal arm slot, at least as compared to his other pitches. It may be nothing, it could be a factor that hurts his ceiling down the road a bit. Hard to say, really, but it’s a concern that is worth bringing up, even if I’m still a big fan of both McGreevy the pitcher and McGreevy the draft pick.

The other angle that must be covered here is the bonus money angle, which always has to be taken into consideration when it comes to fitting the pieces together in a draft. McGreevy was picked at eighteen, was ranked lower than that on most draft boards (28th on MLB.com, 48 at FanGraphs; worth noting he came in at sixteen on Baseball America’s big board), and was likely not going to get picked up until at least 25, according to most of the scuttlebutt floating around. What that all means is that McGreevy likely agreed, before being drafted, to at least a ballpark number for his bonus that came in lower than the slot value, which was a little over $3.4 million. I’m guessing he got somewhere in the $2.8-3.0 million range, which would put his bonus somewhere between picks 22 and 24. That’s typically how these things go; the team looking to pick the player calls up the agent, says, “We’re pretty sure your guy isn’t going until 25 or 26; we’ll pick him at eighteen, pay him like he went 23rd, and everybody’s happy. Deal?” And then the agent confers with the player, they decide whether they like the deal (quickly, it should be said), and then give the club an answer. If a team is heavy on a specific player or is picking very early, as in they are relatively certain they’ll have multiple specific option on the board, that conversation could very well take place prior to draft day; it’s possible the Cardinals already had some idea of what McGreevy would accept before they went on the clock. They certainly knew what he would take prior to making the pick.

That means, if I’m guessing somewhat correctly, that the Cardinals probably saved in the neighbourhood of half a million dollars in bonus pool space by taking McGreevy with the eighteenth pick. They got a very accomplished pitcher with great polish, albeit one whose perceived ceiling is not ultra high according to some observers (I disagree, but it’s a valid point of view all the same), and they saved a solid amount against slot to use in the future. It turned out to be the very near future, but it didn’t have to be that way, depending on how things broke. The McGreevy pick was very, very smart, I believe, and much as they did in last year’s draft, the Randy Flores-led drafting team managed to draft a very good player while also giving themselves some flexibility for later in the draft. I don’t do letter grades for draft picks, but if I did this one would receive high marks indeed.

Round 2, #54: Joshua Baez, OF, Dexter School (MA)

Like it or not, the success or failure of the Cardinals’ 2021 draft will very largely be determined by what kind of prospect Joshua Baez turns out to be. That’s a lot of pressure to place on one player, one draft pick, but it’s where we are, and the why has everything to do with how this pick positioned the club for the rest of the draft.

I wrote about Baez in a preview post, and so I won’t rehash everything I said there here, but the tl;dr version is this: Josh Baez has enormous raw power, some of the very best in this entire draft, and he’s also an above-average athlete who moves well for his size (he’s already 6’4” and 225 lbs at barely eighteen years old), and could have an enormous ceiling. I made the comparison to Joey Gallo in that column, but you could also comp him to guys like Tyler O’Neill or Yasiel Puig, in terms of his physical tools. He’s not quite as fast as O’Neill, but he is an above-average runner for now, and covers enough ground in the outfield it might even be worth sending him out as a center fielder to see if he can hack it. Right field seems like the most likely long-term outcome, and he fits the physical profile perfectly out there.

Baez could be a star, if he can figure out his swing a bit (I said this in the preview post where I covered him, but I would very much like to see the Cards introduce some type of better timing mechanism into his swing, say, a leg kick or something, because he starts his swing later than I would like, and thus has less time to decide on swinging or not; the fact he still catches up to even good velocity is a testament to his tremendous bat speed, but he could be a much better hitter if he got himself in a hitting position earlier, I believe), and develops into the kind of defender his athleticism suggests he could be. There’s a lot of swing and miss in his game, though, and so the risks are certainly there, but he feels a lot like the Jordan Walker pick from 2020, in that he brings all these big physical tools to the table, has youth on his side (Baez was one of the youngest players in the draft this year, particularly in the early rounds), and could absolutely represent a cornerstone piece of a future contender if things come together for him. He’s also a cold weather hitter, which is an interesting demographic, one the Cardinals most recently explored with Trejyn Fletcher in the 2019 draft. Baez has enormous physical gifts, and the combination of youth and location suggest he has tapped into less of his talent than many other players of a similar level. That’s what the Cardinals are betting on, and it follows the trendline of recent early picks, such as Nolan Gorman, Fletcher, and both Walker and Masyn Winn in 2020.

Now, here’s the thing: the reason Joshua Baez will have such an outsize influence on how this draft is perceived down the road is because Joshua Baez is going to be capital-e Expensive to sign. Remember how I broke down where Michael McGreevy was ranked, where he was believed to be going, and where he was drafted, and how that led to a savings relative to slot? Well, Baez is the literal inverse of that. The Cardinals selected him 54th overall, but he was ranked by both FanGraphs and MLB.com as a better prospect than McGreevy himself; Baez came in at #22 at FanGraphs and #24 on MLB Pipeline. Now, admittedly, that 24-28 split decision via the Pipeline guys essentially means they view Baez and McGreevy as the same level of prospect; there isn’t enough granularity in predicting the future of prospects that two guys in the 20s are substantially different.

The more important point is this: Josh Baez is a high school player with a Vanderbilt commitment who was ranked by the various prospect outlets in the low- to mid-20s. All of that means he is going to need to get paid if you’re going to sign him, and the Cardinals absolutely would not have spent a second round pick on him if they weren’t certain they could figure out a way to get him signed. I would say it will cost at least $3 million to get Baez into the fold, and probably closer to $3.5. The Cardinals’ total bonus pool allotment this year was just $8,167,100; if we add the five percent overage they can go without incurring real penalties (and the Cards have always been willing to spend the extra, so long as they don’t go so far over as to start losing other draft picks, which is sensible), that brings them up to $8,575,455. That is not a bad bonus pool, but it’s also not great, not the kind of top five or seven pool allotment that allows a team to place a bunch of crazy bets.

What that all means is that the Cardinals have already signed Michael McGreevy for close to $3 million, if not three even, and will probably have to go over $3 million for Josh Baez. They are in the $6-6.5 million range already, with just two picks in the book. When you have only two million dollars in bonus space left with which to draft and sign eight more players in the top ten rounds, including the 70th pick, which has a slot value of 900K, that is putting yourself in a very, very tight spot.

The Joshua Baez pick is going to be so important to this draft because, in a very real way, the Josh Baez pick is this draft. Taking Baez at 54, and committing to paying whatever you have to to sign him, affects every other pick you make in the draft, especially in the top ten rounds, where every dollar you spend counts against your bonus pool. The Cardinals essentially decided Josh Baez was so good that it was worth sacrificing part of the value of every other pick they made in the draft to get him. That is a fairly remarkable bit of putting all your eggs in one basket, and to be honest, it’s not the way I would conducted myself had I been the one doing the drafting. (You’ll see that when I get to the shadow draft, but I have a rule in the shadow not to make any of the same selections as the team, because it’s simply not that interesting. In this case, though,) I simply don’t think I would have been willing to sacrifice so many other picks to get this one guy, when I believe it’s better to have multiple good prospects over one great one and a group of players you took as compromise picks.

On the other hand, the fact is the Cardinals came away with two first-round talents in the first two rounds of the draft (well, the FanGraphs guys didn’t see McGreevy as a first-round talent, but most other, including me, disagree), and depending on which boards you want to look at, might have pulled two top twenty-ish guys. What the Cards ended up doing with the 2018 draft class, drafting Nolan Gorman directly and then acquiring Matthew Liberatore, another top 20-25 player in that draft, is essentially what they did right out of the gate this year.

In other words, the Cardinals conducted this draft in a manner that gave them a very good chance at one very good major leaguer, and then a better chance at a superstar than they could have expected with any other draft strategy. As I said, I would not have done it this way, because I wouldn’t have been willing to make the compromises they made going forward to get a Baez deal done, but I have to admit it’s a strategy that both takes incredible intestinal fortitude (not to mention job security), and also gives them a real shot at a franchise-changing player. It’s hard to argue it’s not a well thought out and intriguing strategy, considering all the resources we’ve seen the organisation spend over the past half-dozen years chasing star players. The Cards saved pool space in the first round, then a player they thought they would have no shot at drafting fell to them in the second, at which point they decided to pivot strategically and spend not only what they previously saved but also more to grab that talent. If Baez turns into what he could be, the gamble will look brilliant. If he can’t make contact against professional pitching and burns out, it will look like the Cards gave up half their draft to take one player who turned out to be a bust. It’s a good thing Joshua Baez has broad shoulders, because that’s a lot to put on one draft pick.

Round Comp-B, #70: Ryan Holgate, OF, Arizona

And here is where it begins, where we immediately see the compromises the Cardinals made to get Baez into the fold. Now, I don’t want it to seem like Ryan Holgate was a wasted pick or a bad pick; Holgate is a very talented hitter, and also has an advantage on his side I’ll get to in a minute (other than the advantage of coming from the University of Arizona, I mean, which empirically produces the most beautiful women on earth), but he was also ranked #105 via Pipeline, not in the top 100 according to FanGraphs, and #108 on Baseball America’s draft board. Remember when I said earlier that there is no difference between a guy ranked 24th and 28th? Well, there is a difference between the type of player you see ranked 70th and one ranked 35-40 spots lower. That being said, the difference between 24 and 54 is greater than the difference between 70 and 105, if that makes sense, so maybe you’re coming out ahead in the end anyway.

I did not get to Ryan Holgate in any of my draft previews this year, so I will give you the report now. Ryan Holgate is a very talented hitter, a guy with solid contact skills and plus power, though he’s more of a line-drive hitter who should hit for solid home run numbers and huge doubles totals, rather than a potential 30+ home threat. He’s a left-handed hitter with a very good stroke and good balance in his swing who excels against fastballs, even the best of them, but doesn’t always pick up spin as well as you might hope from a guy who appears so sound mechanically. He does have a history of hitting well with wood bats, having led the Northwoods League in home runs after his freshman season, which has long been a trait the Cardinals value. He is also very young for his draft demographic, having turned 21 in mid-June, so he checks another box for the organisation.

The bad with Holgate offensively is that his plate approach is not quite as strong as I would like; he walked in just over 8% of his PAs this spring, while striking out nearly 19% of the time. Those aren’t terrible numbers, by any means, but that’s also hitting with metal bats against college competition, albeit good college competition in the Pac-12. I have my concerns over what his plate discipline numbers are going to look like in pro ball, though this is where that youth relative to level comes in again as a positive. He has more development time available to him than most of the other guys drafted out of the same demographic, and so maybe more chance for growth.

The other negative you get here is that Holgate simply isn’t going to offer a ton of value beyond his bat. He’s a below-average runner, though not problematically so, and is probably limited to left field or first base long term. He throws left-handed, so there’s no utility potential there, and he has neither the speed for center nor the arm to really fit well in right. You’re buying the bat with Holgate, and hoping that bat is so good it makes up for the other stuff he doesn’t do especially well. The good news is, the bat at least has the chance to be that special. This is a similar draft pick to what the Cards did with Alec Burleson last year, taking a guy they believed would hit, with the caveat you would just have to figure the rest of it out down the road. His history with wood and his youth are both big points in his favour according to the Cards’ tendencies and preferences, and so maybe they didn’t view this pick as quite as much of a compromise as I might, but still, this was a reach dictated by the Baez pick, and the hope is that Holgate’s quiet advantages turn out to make a big difference.

Hey, here’s something fun.

via R McElhaney:

At this point, the Cardinals have made three picks, and all three have been on the extreme end of youth relative to level. Michael McGreevy turned 21 just over a week before the draft, and Holgate hit legal drinking age just about a month prior. Baez turned eighteen in late June, and played against competition that was between four and nine months older than him on average both in high school and on the showcase circuit. There are teams that believe youth relative to level/demographic makes a real difference; the Cardinals are strong adherents to that belief, and they invested heavily in that this year.

Round 3, #90: Austin Love, RHP, North Carolina

Funny thing about this: after talking so much about how heavily the Cardinals emphasize youth in their draft picks, we hit Austin Love, who is on the other extreme end of the curve from someone like Michael McGreevy. To wit, both McGreevy and Love were juniors at major four-year universities this year, so they pitched at the same level, with the same amount of college experience. McGreevy was born in early July of 2000; Austin Love was born in late January of 1999. Love was ranked #137 according to the Pipeline guys; that, combined with that old-for-his-level demerit, will probably make Love a bargain relative to the ~660K bonus for the 90th pick. Again, this isn’t the player I necessarily would have wanted in the third round, but this is the bargain you make for trying to get two first-rounders without a huge bonus pool to manipulate.

That being said, there’s still plenty to like about Austin Love, even if you don’t....love him. (I went to the kitchen picked up the pair of sunglasses I have near the door and put them on just now, I’ll have you know. Hard to see in here, though, so I’m taking them back off.) Love has the look of a reliever to me at the major league level, but he could make an impact with premium stuff if things work out for him. He throws hard, sitting 92-95 and topping out as high as 98, though that’s not super common. He’s been a starter up to this point, though, so he could probably dial the heat up to 96-98 more consistently if he were airing it out for 20-30 pitches instead of 100+. (Speaking of 100+, Love has a lot of wear and tear on his arm from being ridden hard in college. Just a reminder to any amateur pitchers out there, college coaches don’t give two shits about your future, no matter what they tell you.)

Love features a pair of offspeed pitches, and both could be plus offerings down the road. His changeup already is, a mid-80s fader that just disappears when he’s at his best and gets tons of swings and misses from both left- and right-handed hitters. Love has a very short arm action, and it adds deception to all his pitches, but the change seems especially hard for hitters to pick up. The ball kind of comes out of nowhere when he releases it, and the speed differential from fastball to change can be devastating. His other offspeed pitch is a short, tight slider that’s almost a cutter, and it will flash plus at times. He’ll overthrow it, though, and either hang it or bounce the ball at 58 feet. The feel for spin isn’t great, but he’s got plenty of arm speed and creates hard break on the pitch when he’s going good.

As I said, Love looks like a reliever long-term to me. The power stuff, the short-arm delivery, even the demeanor on the mound all feel like a bullpen guy. It’s very good stuff, though, and enough pitches that he could probably be a multi-inning Swiss army knife guy, rather than being limited to shorter outings.

via UNCTarHeelsAthletics:

Round 4, #120: Zane Mills, RHP, Washington State

Since the Baez pick, each of the Cards’ selections have felt like players who have real positive qualities, but would have fit better roughly one round or so later than they were actually selected. Zane Mills continues that trend and actually kicks it up even a notch more; I would have liked him in the seventh round, but the fourth feels like a real reach.

Still, Mills is not without positive qualities, just as Austin Love has plenty to recommend him. Mills is back to being extremely young for his class, just four days older than Michael McGreevy, and he features a very good sinking fastball in the 91-94 range that should break a lot of bats once he’s facing wood instead of metal, which is really quite tough to break no matter how good your fastball is. The pitch has good boring action that naturally runs down and in to right-handed hitters, and they struggle to square up Mills. He also commands the pitch well, locating his fastball down consistently and rarely missing over the middle of the plate.

Beyond the fastball, Mills is a more limited pitcher. He throws a slider and changeup both, but I have yet to see either one flash even average. His changeup has good speed differential, but tends to be flat and he hangs it too much. The slider, meanwhile, has good movement but is a little slow and lazy, and I worry professional hitters will either recognise and ignore it or just murder the poor thing when he tries to throw it for strikes. Mills is built like a starter for sure at 6’4” and 220 lbs, and his sinker fits a starter’s mold better than a bullpen arm, but the offspeed stuff needs a lot of work, I think. He did sign for 375K against a $478,000 slot, so here’s another 100K savings. Still, I’m very lukewarm on this pick, and this is very much the kind of pick why I don’t think I could do the Baez strategy myself.

Round 5, #151: Gordon Graceffo, RHP, Villanova

On the other hand, even if Gordon Graceffo still feels like a reach at 150 — he was ranked 204 at MLB.com — he is also a pitcher I quite like, and could see outperforming his draft position by a large margin. Villanova isn’t exactly a baseball hotbed, but the Big East has solid competition, and Graceffo put up some eye-popping numbers this year as ‘Nova’s Friday night starter.

It’s interesting that the Cardinals appear to have doubled down this year on sinkers in the draft; the recent paradigm of four-seamers uber alles has not been one the Redbirds have subscribed to in general, but it was really clear in this draft that they are zagging while the rest of baseball zigs, focusing on two-seam guys almost exclusively. It leads me to believe they think the crackdown on spin-enhancing sticky stuff and the newly-deadened ball will have the effect of shifting the balance of power in the game back toward ground ball contact and away from exclusively high fastballs thrown for swings and misses. We’ll have to wait and see how that strategy works out for them.

As for Graceffo specifically, he’s another big, physical right-hander with a power sinker — up to 95 consistently, touching 96 at times — that generates tons of weak ground-bound contact and even a reasonable number of swings and misses. His best secondary offering is a sinking changeup (again, stop me if you’ve heard this one before), that tunnels extremely well with his sinker and dives down even more dramatically. The fastball-change combo is potentially a major plus for Graceffo, who throws off some mild Brandon Webb vibes to me when he’s at his best. He throws an average slider, as well, but it’s a little too slow, I think. Still, he locates it well and it doesn’t get hit overmuch, so I’m not complaining.

The best thing about Graceffo is he’s an extreme strike-thrower, just as much as McGreevy is. He’s always had good control, but took it to a higher level this spring, walking under one and a half batters per nine innings in 2021. So, improved stuff + 70 grade control equals, to me, a pitcher with a big up arrow next to his name. He also averaged over seven innings per start this spring, for what it’s worth. I’m a big fan of this pick, even if the rankings say Graceffo was a reach. The bonus value for pick 151 is about $353,000, and I actually expect it to take most of that to sign Graceffo. There may be some savings there, but he’s fairly young for the class and could easily head back to school for his senior season and try his luck with his steadily improving stuff.

So here we are, six picks in, and four of the six players chosen represent, I believe, substantial savings against the bonus pool. Graceffo will be a modest savings at most, I think, but the other four players should all save fairly large chunks of money. Which, of course, is basically necessary, because Josh Baez, whose pick value at 54 is $1.34 million, will require two and a half times that to sign, I would think. (Or close to it.) There is a huge risk in this kind of strategy; if Baez doesn’t pan out, you basically drafted players at least a round to early for the rest of the draft for a bad reason. On the other hand, this is also a high potential reward strategy, and that seems to be the organisation’s focus in the draft right now. They executed the strategy they were going for very well, it seems (we’ll have to wait until all the players are signed to say that for certain, but it looks like the Cards did their homework); it’s just a question of whether the payoff will be worth the compromises.

I’ll be back next time with more scouting reports — though not, I admit, for every player, because there are several of these guys I just can’t find much of anything worthwhile on — and some wrapup thoughts. Until then.