Friday, June 3, 2011

Scouts and the draft

Draft Day will be here Monday. This time last year, Tony Gwynn and West Coast Bias tried to end the first-round hex that has plagued the Padres in the June draft. It worked, sort of. Or maybe not. We'll get back to that at the bottom here, if we're all still awake.

The Padres, for their part, have been doing something more substantial than having Mr. Padre pull names out of a cup. Jed Hoyer has hired 10 full-time amateur scouts since he took over as general manager two offseasons ago.

We can talk all day about the difference between this Padres front office and the last Padres front office and not get very far. One huge difference, to be sure, is how they approach the draft. Hoyer and his sidekick Jason McLeod like a big scouting staff. Sandy Alderson and Grady Fuson preferred a small scouting staff. Here's what Hoyer told me a few days ago:

"When I got here, the Padres had 12 full-time amateur scouts -- the lowest in major league baseball. We now have 22 full-time amateur scouts."

Folks, it's not every year that a baseball team nearly doubles a major department. As for the pro scouts who evaluate minor leaguers, the Padres now employ 11 of them full-time, which means they've roughly tripled those ranks, as they had three or four full-timers, Hoyer said, two Novembers ago.

The amateur draft is a mind-bending endeavor. Teams evaluate at least hundreds, maybe thousands of players who are in high schools, junior colleges and colleges in North America and Puerto Rico. A former area scout for the Padres who ran four drafts for the Red Sox, McLeod hit on several picks for Boston, and he has said his Red Sox scouts were crucial to that success. 

When Hoyer and McLeod joined the Padres and got a look at the size of their scouting staffs, let's just say they knew they weren't in Boston anymore. They set about hiring more scouts, several of them, and it appears that Jeff Moorad gave them the money to get the numbers they wanted.

"We have to do well in the amateur draft," Hoyer told me in March 2010, "and getting the staffing levels is important. Jason essentially has taken what we developed in Boston and he's brought it here. It takes time whenever you have change, but we're very confident that it will happen.

"Coming over here," Hoyer said then, "first of all in an area of clear improvement is the amateur draft for the Padres. I think their recent drafts have been better, but certainly there was a dry period, call it '03 to '07 or so where it wasn't a strength. We need to improve on it. We have to be homegrown. We have to develop talent. Having the fewest amateur scouts and the fewest cross-checkers, you're starting at a disadvantage. We wanted to get away from that, and we'll continue to hire scouts." 

At the time Hoyer was hired the Padres had only two national cross-checkers, the scouts who double-check the work of the area scouts. If nothing else, it gave WCB a chance to ask a goofy question. Was two too few? "Understatement of the day," Hoyer said in 2010. He added: "Getting more looks and getting to know the players better, I think it's pretty clear that that can make a big difference. We needed to get away from being the poorest funded in that area."

OK, so that's how the new administration sized it up. If the Padres fail in the draft, it won't be for lack of scouts, right?

Let's hear now from Fuson, who joined the Padres in 2005 and oversaw their scouting and player development -- the job that McLeod now has -- from late 2005 through October 2009. In baseball circles it's said that Alderson hired Fuson for the Padres, but actually it was Kevin Towers who hired him. Reputedly a "scout's guy," the Gunslinger, a former area scout and Padres scouting director, trusted Fuson to shape the scouting staffs. Safe to say, Alderson had final say on the scouting budget and the draft budget.

Did Fuson consider the Padres under-staffed in amateur scouting?

"Certainly not at all," he told WCB in March 2010. "If we thought we needed a lot more scouts, we would've done it a couple of years ago. It can be a Catch 22. You can hire scouts just to hire scouts, or you can hire guys that you know are quality scouts and maybe cover a larger area. Were we a hair light on the area guys? Yeah, maybe a year here or there. We were going to bring in at least one more area guy. Other than that, I don't think we were understaffed."

Fuson said he also had his assistant scouting directors assist with the national cross-checking, and also had Paul DePodesta, a special assistant to Alderson, see dozens of amateurs.

Fuson, like McLeod, has had a lot of success at drafting ballplayers. In his time as Oakland's director of scouting, he took future A's stars such as Barry Zito, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Eric Chavez.. He also drafted Ryan Ludwick for Oakland and ran drafts for the Rangers, so he's seen how three franchises go about it.

"Everybody has a different opinion on how many opinions they want on players when it comes time to pull the trigger in June," he said. "Is it too many opinions? Does it tend to get cluttered? I've always looked at scouting as an art, and there are not that many people on a staff that you consider a great scout. I always wanted my best eyes seeing the most people."

However a club goes about making its draft evaluations, the objective is the same: To get the most value out of the draft.

But maybe there was a minor, fringe benefit for this Padres regime to beefing up the scouting staff.

The major league players association likes to see clubs spend gobs of money on players, but it also wants to see proof that some of the smaller payroll clubs aren't lining their own pockets with the vast sums they get from revenue-sharing. Behind the scenes in recent years, the union has become more outspoken about the spending levels of certain clubs, particularly those that are drawing fat revenue-sharing checks. Two winters ago,  union officials criticized the Marlins for not spending more on their major league payroll. Coincidentally or not, the Marlins later announced a long-term deal for ace Josh Johnson (who recently was shut down because of shoulder inflammation). The Padres are another team that gets plump paychecks from revenue sharing. Meantime, their payroll in Moorad's first two years as CEO and Vice-Chairman ranked in the bottom-2 each time. Michael Weiner, the executive director of the players association, declined comment last summer when West Coast Bias asked if the Padres were on the union's target list, and if investing in scouts was taking heat off them.

Back to Gwynn and breaking the first-round hex. As you probably know, the Padres didn't sign pitcher Karsten Whitson, the player that they took in the first round a few days after Mr. Padre pulled the name Kolbrin Vitek out of a cup of potential draftees.

Did Gwynn break the hex? We'll know more when we see what becomes of the player the Padres choose with the holdover pick they got for not signing Whitson (which isn't to excuse the Padres for not signing Whitson). But Gwynn's hex-busting doesn't appear to have hurt Whitson, who has fared better than did recent Padres first-rounders such as Matt Bush, Allan Dykstra, Nick Schmidt and Donavan Tate in the first year after they were drafted. Apparently, Whitson hasn't been arrested for biting a bouncer, or raised concerns about a bad hip, or blown out an elbow, or busted his jaw in an off-road accident. Apparently, Karsten Whitson is healthy. For the University of Florida, he is 8-0 with a 2.42 ERA in 16 starts.

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