The curious case of SF Giants draft process in the Farhan Zaidi era
We are now a couple of days away from the fourth year of the MLB Draft under the helm of SF Giants amateur scouting director Michael Holmes and based on his first three draft classes, this one should be very interesting as well.
The curious case of SF Giants draft process in the Farhan Zaidi era
Ever since Zaidi tapped old buddy Holmes as the captain of the ship come MLB Draft time, the biggest takeaway from the Giants' draft classes has been to spread the bonus pool wealth as much as possible to acquire as many talented prospects as possible. In 2019, the Giants signed four prospects for under slot value in the first eleven rounds (including their first two picks) to pay seven prospects over slot. In the 2020 shortened draft, the Giants essentially gave under slot money to five of their seven selections to sign the remaining two to over slot deals. In 2021, the Giants were not as aggressive in terms of setting up their draft pool allocations but they still signed their first two selections to under-slot deals in a way to pay five of their first eleven picks to exact slot or over-slot value.
This process of manipulating a team's bonus pool money to maximize the amount of talent might look like madness at first but it's actually a stroke of genius in theory. Baseball America did a fantastic article about the average and total WAR comparisons on the first 200 picks and there's hard evidence that even though there is a tier that formed in terms of average WAR per cluster, the variance per pick in every cluster is very high. In simplest terms, the teams are good in terms of determining who are the top seven prospects in the draft and separating them from the number 8-22 prospects to the number 23-50 so on and so forth. However, having the 8th pick in the draft does not guarantee that you will get a much better prospect than having the 22nd pick in the draft (having the 8th pick actually yielded a worse average and total WAR compared to drafting with the 22nd pick). I am sure the Giants have done this study even before the Holmes made his first-ever selection that is why they have chosen to conduct the draft the way that they have conducted it.
How does that approach working out, you may ask. Well, let's start off with 2019 and their seven over-slot prospects. The first ever Michael Holmes draftee who made the Majors is one of them in eighth-rounder Caleb Kilian. Kilian had a fantastic 2021 where he saw his stock skyrocket and was one of the big pieces to acquire Kris Bryant from the Cubs in last year's trade deadline. His development continued with Chicago and he's made his big-league debut last June 4th. Was it worth it trading Kilian (and Alex Canario) for a couple of months of Kris Bryant? Maybe, maybe not. But Zaidi and company missed out on the opportunity to have the first prospect in their era to make the Majors.
What was unique with the Giants is that they are not afraid to pay over-slot value on Day Two college prospects with Armani Smith also getting more than what was deemed slot value and has turned into a true top 30 prospect in the organization with his all-around skill-set and is performing well in Double-A. Tyler Fitzgerald received exactly slot value, had a strong 2021 with Eugene but has struggled with strikeouts this year with Richmond.
For the prepsters, they gave out above slot value money to four prospects, three on hitters in a "throw anything to the wall hoping something sticks" move, and has so far hit on two of them. Grant McCray broke out in his third year of pro ball play, his first in a full-season setting, where he's flashing stellar center field defense while also holding his own with the stick. However, both Dilan Rosario and Garrett Frechette have not developed as expected in this stage of their careers. On the pitching side of things, Trevor McDonald also looked like a legitimate top 30 prospect after taking massive strides in his development during the past offseason. It is rare for a pitcher in the Giants organization to have a full arsenal of pitches and McDonald has that with much improved control.
There have been some success stories as well in the third day of the draft where relievers Chris Wright, Taylor Rashi, Cole Waites and Nick Avila have established themselves as solid relief prospects (stellar for Waites), and a couple of hitters in Brandon Martorano and Carter Aldrete doing pretty well for Richmond and Eugene, respectively.
Those success stories in the second and third day of the draft came at the expense of their first two picks. Hunter Bishop just never seemed to get healthy prior to this season and even though he's looked better of late, he's still a 24-year-old guy with major strikeout issues and has fallen out of favor in plenty of Giants fans' minds. Their second-round pick Logan Wyatt was even worse after an abysmal 2021 season where the only positive thing that he did was draw out walks and even that could be questioned with over-passivity (I'm not sure that's a word but I'll stick with it). He's yet to play this season but it's clear that he's nowhere near Giants' fans minds right now.
That pattern did not exactly pan out on the 2020 draft class given its unique circumstances, but it still emerged as a wacky draft like its older brother. Three of the current top 10 prospects in the organization came from this draft class in second-rounder Casey Schmitt, third-rounder Kyle Harrison, and fifth-rounder Ryan Murphy. If you are a follower of my content, you probably already know a bit too well about the trio but Kyle Harrison's third-round status should come with a caveat as he was given a first-round signing bonus (it should be worth mentioning that McCray, Frechette, Rosario and McDonald all received second to third-round level bonuses). On the other hand, both first-round Patrick Bailey and second-rounder Jimmy Glowenke have struggled to find offensive consistency and, in turn, production this season.
Making the final judgment on the 2021 draft class right now is a fool's errand but so far, it's also turning into a draft class as well. Right now, the best performers have been third-rounder Mason Black who proved right away that he is too good for Low-A ball after flashing improved strike-throwing ability for the San Jose Giants and the Emeralds, twelveth-rounder Landen Roupp whose sharp breaking balls have befuddled Low-A hitters, and tenth-round pick Vaun Brown who we already talked about before. The school and the post-second-round picks have been making an impact this season while their first two rounders Will Bednar and Matt Mikulski have been surprisingly inconsistent through the first half of the 2022 season.
Now that we have a quick look back at the past three drafts, let's assess the overall situation. The Giants have done an excellent job finding talent on both the second and third day of the draft, mostly from small or rather unheralded programs (Waites, Murphy, Brown, etc.), and hit on their prep big-ticket signings (McCray, McDonald, Harrison, etc.) but has seen their plenty of their top two picks not live up to par (Bishop, Wyatt, Bailey, Bednar). As a result, it made the current outlook of the farm system in a unique fashion where it has strong middle-tier depth but does not have a bevy of top-tier talent jockeying for positions. Having organizational depth is nice as it results in a lot of winning at the Minor League level but the vision of having wave after wave of potential stars reaching the friendly confines of Oracle Park looks dim after three years of strong draft position. To coin a quote of a personal friend of mine "the operation is a success, but the patient died."
If I can compare the Giants' situation, it's actually pretty similar to what the Oakland/Las Vegas Raiders underwent during the Gruden-Mayock era. The Raiders are a good team but it's been built on players who are day-two selections such as Maxx Crosby and Hunter Renfrow while their top picks have fizzled out or had massive off-field issues. There are some stories that circulated that Gruden was actually the one making the first two picks while Mayock handled the rest. Like the Raiders, the Giants could have a great farm system if all of their early picks deliver as intended. Unlike the Raiders (or the NFL for that matter), baseball is just a tough sport to consistently nail every draft pick.
As a Giants prospects fan, it feels very nice to follow prospects that have big-league potential but I feel that there has been a bit of a screw-up because as the Baseball America article mentioned, the best spot to draft prospects who will produce the most WAR has always been the prospects in the first two rounds and based on the performance this season, the Giants failed to do so. The Giants invested quite heavily on their player development side from renovating their Spring Training complex with top-of-the-line equipment to providing their prospects with housing and nutrition so it looks like they have very few shortcomings on that end. It's more on the talent and what their models say. The Giants under Holmes do not factor in only talent. Money, organizational role, and others also play into consideration.
It is important to I am not writing off every early-round fizzlers out yet nor do write with the most indelible ink their draft pick success stories because all of them (except for Kilian) have yet to reach the Majors and make an impact there. As Michael Holmes and the entire amateur scouting staff embark on their fourth year together to find the future Giants, looking at the bigger picture and assessing the entire process is the more critical thing instead of focusing on the early-round talent. It should be more obvious this year given their precarious draft position. While it is true that their draft position leaves the Giants in the worst spot to pick every round, their ability to find talent late is one of their strengths and their late position should lessen the impact of an early-round fizzler. It seemed like the Giants prepared for this. For now, let's sit back and enjoy the three days of baseball Christmas.