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The Blue Jays’ Draft Strategy

Now that most of the dust from the 2011 draft has begun to settle, one of the more interesting story lines to follow this summer will be how many early picks the Blue Jays will be able to sign. As has been well documented, the Blue Jays came into the 2011 draft with 8 of the first 60 picks, giving them a total of 20 selections in the first 15 rounds. But what is particularly interesting is that of those 20 picks, the Blue Jays used 17 on high school players. That’s a lot of high school players. In fact, since 2000, teams have, on average, selected fewer than 6 high school players in the first fifteen rounds.

Here’s a look at the number of high school players each team drafted in the first fifteen rounds this year.

* I looked at only the first fifteen rounds to limit the sample to draftees teams were likely intent on signing.

As the above graph shows, it’s the Blue Jays, Rays, and then the field. But the graphic above doesn’t do justice to just how rare it is for a team to use such a high portion of their early picks on high school players. Since 2000, only two teams have drafted more than 13 high school players in the first 15 rounds. The Braves drafted 17 in 2000 (also with 20 picks) and the Blue Jays drafted 15 last year (with 21 picks). Now obviously, to draft a lot of high school players, it helps to have a lot of extra picks. But taking a deeper look, it’s not like there have been a lot of teams taking a similar percentage of high school players that have been prevented from reaching the mid-teens by the number of picks they had. Aside from the 2003 Dodgers and the 2011 Rays (who had 25 picks in the first 15 rounds) no team since 2000 has drafted more than 11 high school players in the first 15 rounds.

Here’s a look at the amount of high school players taken in the first 15 rounds by every team over the past two seasons.

The fact that in back-to-back years the Blue Jays have gone all in on high school talent suggests two things. First, the Jays are going to be big spenders on amateur talent. Outside of the first rounds, it takes more money to sign high school players due to the leverage they have from the option of playing college baseball (Joe Musgrove’s under-slot signing not withstanding). Not only that, but the Blue Jays didn’t shy away from tough signs, selecting two of the drafts toughest signs in high school arms Tyler Beede and Daniel Norris. For any team, especially a team playing in the American League East, signing and developing amateur talent is a prerequisite for success. From this standpoint, Jays fans have to be excited that the team appears to be putting such an emphasis on young talent.

But you can make a commitment to acquiring young talent without leaning so heavily on high school players. There are plenty of junior college and 4-year college players who slip in the draft due to signability. The fact that the Jays have selected so many high school players suggests that the they have made a philosophical commitment to the notion that high school players are a better investment than college or junior college players.

The Blue Jays have proven to be pretty sharp in their baseball operations over the past couple of seasons, so if they begin to deviate from the industry norm, it’s worth at least a cursory explanation of what their thought process may be. I think there are two main advantages from going heavy, and while neither is exactly rocket science, I think they are worth stating.

First, although a higher percentage of your picks may never reach the big leagues, after the first couple of rounds, you likely increase your chances of developing above-average major-league players by going the high school route. As players get older, the gap between what they are and what they may become gradually grows smaller. But with 18-year-olds there is still enough of a gap that a lot of players who will grow into good prospects slip through the cracks. Just look at some of this year’s early college picks. Danny Hultzen went in the tenth round out of high school. The Braves took Anthony Rendon in the 27th round out of high school, and George Springer fell all the way to the 48th round. Certainly questions about each of these players’ signabilities contributed to where they went in the draft, but if teams had a better idea of what they would become in three years, it’s unlikely these players would have made it to college. If you draft and sign bunch of high school players in the 5-15 round range, you increase your chances of developing above-average big leaguers, and it’s the ability to develop these types of players that fuels success at the major league level.

Second, by drafting so many high school players you may give yourself a little extra leverage in negotiations. You can go to each agent and say I’ve got $500,000 available for your client, but I’ve got the same offer out to two other players and whoever takes the offer first gets the money. Having other options probably won’t radically alter the course of the negotiations, but the effect is probably not negligible, either.

While I don’t think the Jays have reinvented the way teams will draft in the future. I do think the strategy the Jays seem to be employing is certainly worth monitoring.