One of the ongoing debates that we have had on Lone Star Ball since...well, probably since its inception is about drafting. Specifically, the Texas Rangers draft success (or lack thereof), and whether they would be better off simply drafting based on the general publicly available consensus of who the top player on the board.
You frequently see the suggestion that the Rangers are trying to “get cute” by passing on whoever is perceived to be the top player on the board for someone else, though the reality is that that’s based on how the Rangers rank the available players. MLB teams have boards that diverge and differ dramatically, particularly after the top 20-25 players, and so a guy who one team might have a third round grade on, for example, another team may not have on their board at all.
In any case, I thought it would be a useful exercise to go through some recent drafts and compare who the Rangers picked in the first couple of rounds to who the top player on the Baseball America board was. I decided to start with 2012 because that is when the draft bonus pool system started. I decided to use BA because, well, I had to pick someone’s board, and theirs is the biggest and is generally used as the primary reference point in these sorts of exercises.
Here are the Rangers’ draft picks in the first three rounds in 2016, along with their slot values and what they signed for.
#30 — Cole Ragans — $2,003,400 slot, $2,003,400 signed
#63 — Alex Speas — $1,024,900 slot, $1,024,900 signed
#99 — Kole Enright — $602,400 slot, $675,000 signed
The Rangers went slot for Ragans and Speas, and a little above slot for Enright.
The Rangers lost their first round draft pick in 2016 due to the signing of Ian Desmond as a free agent. They received the #30 pick in the draft as a compensatory selection for losing Yovani Gallardo as a free agent. With that pick they selected Florida prep lefty pitcher Cole Ragans.
Ragans’ pre-draft scouting reports have the “athletic and projectable” descriptor that is so common for high school pitchers the Rangers select. He wasn’t one of those raw guys with great stuff, but a little more polished, and with three pitches. Invoking comparisons to Cole Hamels, he had a solid 2017 campaign in the Northwest League, then missed 2018 to Tommy John surgery. Sadly, in 2019, when he was close to returning, his UCL tore again, and he needed a second Tommy John surgery. He obviously didn’t pitch this year, and is probably right about now at the point where he would be back at full strength. Before his injury, he was fairly well-regarded — he was #4 on the BA Rangers list pre-2018, and the #1 prospect in the Northwest League for 2017 per BA.
Something that jumps out to me in looking at these rankings is that the top guys haven’t worked out real well so far. The top five on the BA board were:
Kyle Lewis looks really good. Puk hasn’t been healthy. Pint has been unable to throw strikes — as in, maybe has Steve Blass Disease not throwing strikes. Groome and Moniak have been underwhelming.
Ragans was ranked #55 on the BA top 500 draft list for 2016. The top player still on the board when the Rangers picked was Taylor Trammell, the high school outfielder who was ranked #13, and went at #35 to the Reds. Trammell signed for a way above slot $3.2M, so he wouldn’t have really been an option for Texas at #30.
Next on the list was Dakota Hudson, a righthanded pitcher from Mississippi State. He was ranked #14 and went to the Cardinals at #34. He hit the ground running, started his first full pro season in AA and ended it in AAA, had a strong 2018 campaign as a starter in AAA and a reliever in the majors, was a top 100 guy coming into 2019, and has been a solid starter for the Cardinals since the beginning of 2019.
Next on the list was Nolan Jones, a high school shortstop who was ranked #19 and was selected #55 by the Cleveland Indians. Jones signed for an above-slot $2.25 million. He is currently the Indians’ top ranked prospect, has been one of their most highly ranked prospects since the end of the 2017 season, and was a top 100 guy in 2019 and 2020.
Next on the list was Jordan Sheffield, a righthanded pitcher out of Vanderbilt, who was ranked #23 and was selected at #36 by the Los Angeles Dodgers. He’s moved to the bullpen and has not been on the Dodgers’ top 30 list since prior to the 2018 season.
Next on the list was Connor Jones, a righthanded pitcher out of the University of Virginia, who was ranked #24 and was selected #70 by the St. Louis Cardinals. He was never highly ranked in the Cardinals system, and moved to the bullpen in 2019 where he put up a 4.66 ERA in the Texas League.
The next two on the list were prep pitchers Kyle Muller and Joey Wentz, ranked #25 and #26. Each ended up getting picked by the Atlanta Braves — Wentz at #40, Muller at #44 — and each signed for well above slot, with Wentz getting $3.05M and Muller $2.5M. Atlanta had extra picks in the first and second supplemental rounds, and went well above slot at #3 in signing Ian Anderson, which allowed them to go well above slot for Wentz and Muller, as well as supplemental second rounder Brett Cumberland, 3rd rounder Drew Harrington and 4th rounder Bryse Wilson. Wentz and Muller have both developed into very solid pitching prospects.
Alex Speas was ranked #41 on the BA board. A prep righty out of Georgia, Speas struggled as a starter, moved to the bullpen in 2018, had success before undergoing Tommy John surgery that year, generated excitement in the Instructional League in 2019 when he supposedly hit 102, and was seen as a candidate for the Rangers’ bullpen this year, though he never got called up. He will likely be added to the Rangers’ 40 man roster this offseason, and is seen as a potential hard-throwing late inning reliever in the majors.
The highest ranked player still on the board when the Rangers picked Speas was Connor Jones, who we discussed above.
The only other player ranked higher than Speas on the BA board was Jared Horn, a prep pitcher out of California who was ranked #32. He dropped out of the top ten rounds because of signability, went to the University of California, and was a 7th round pick of the Rockies in 2019.
Kole Enright, the Rangers’ third round pick, was not on the BA top 500 list at all. He was a switch hitting prep infielder who had good reviews for his bat to ball skills, and was seen as a likely second baseman or third baseman in the majors. Enright didn’t hit at all in his first two full seasons as a professional, and finally hit a little bit in 2019, when he put up a .258/.333/.475 slash line while repeating low-A, where he played left field.
The two highest ranked players on the board were Jared Horn, who we discussed above, and Drew Mendoza, a high school infielder ranked #43 who dropped because of signability and went to Florida State. He went 94th to the Nationals in 2019.
The next highest ranked player on the board was Corbin Burnes, a righthander out of St. Marys, who was ranked #57 overall, and was taken at #111 by the Brewers, signing for around slot. He blossomed as a pro, making the top 100 prospect list prior to 2018 and 2019. He was great out of the bullpen for Milwaukee in 2018, bad in 2019, and has been very good in 2020, starting 9 times and coming out of the bullpen 3 times.
The next highest ranked player on the board was Conner Capel, an outfielder from Katy, who was ranked #62 and went #152 to the Indians, signing for around slot. Capel hasn’t hit much as a pro, was traded to the Cardinals in 2018, and struggled in AA for them in 2019. He wasn’t in their top 30 heading into 2020.
The next highest ranked player on the board was Jameson Fisher, an outfielder from Southeastern Louisiana, who was ranked #64 and was selected at #116 by the White Sox, signing for around slot. Fisher has not hit as a pro, but his picture at BA is pretty awesome:
The next highest ranked player was Jeff Belge, who was ranked #68, fell out of the top 10 rounds due to signability, and went to college, ultimately signing with the Dodgers as an 18th round pick in 2019.
The next highest ranked player was Braeden Ogle, who ranked #69, and fell to the Pirates at #135, signing for an above-slot $800,000. He has moved to the bullpen and isn’t listed as one of their top 30 prospects.
So if the Rangers went chalk in 2016, and didn’t splurge on above-slot guys, their selections would have been:
30 — Dakota Hudson
63 — Connor Jones
99 — Corbin Burnes
This one hurts to look back at. Ragans was looking good before he had Tommy John surgery, and maybe you could argue this would look like a reasonable selection if he had stayed healthy, but he didn’t stay healthy. Hudson, meanwhile — who the Rangers selected in the 36th round in 2013, and didn’t sign — became a quality prospect, and has had success for the Cardinals. One can quibble and say that his 3.17 ERA in the majors is belied by his 4.74 FIP, but any of us would be thrilled to have Dakota Hudson right now. Or if not Hudson, Nolan Jones, who was next on the list, and who the Rangers would have had to go a little above slot to sign, but not dramatically so.
You’d rather have Speas than Jones, but Speas wasn’t a reach at #63, compared to the BA board.
And at #99, of course, Corbin Burnes would have been a home run. The Rangers, with Dakota Hudson and Corbin Burnes, would be in a much different situation right now.
As has become a trend, the later parts of the draft look a lot better. Charles LeBlanc and Kyle Roberts were the 4th and 5th round picks — Leblanc has turned into an org guy and Roberts has been released. And most of the money they saved on below-slot guys in the first ten rounds went to New Hampshire high school outfielder Kobie Taylor, who got $350,000, never hit, and has been released.
But the Rangers’ 6th round pick that year was Kyle Cody (ranked #89), who they got for below slot, and their 7th rounder was Sam Huff (ranked #146). Joe Barlow was drafted in the 11th round. Dylan Bice, who had an impressive season in 2019 as a reliever in A ball, was drafted in the 16th round.
If the Rangers get a decent starting pitcher and a decent starting catcher out of the 2016 draft, along with a bullpen arm or two, that’s a successful draft. Its just kind of maddening that they can’t combine their success in the later rounds with an occasional hit in the early rounds.
I will do 2017 next.