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OaklandClubhouse: A number of publications have indicated that this year’s draft class is a little bit deeper talent-wise than last year’s. Have you found that to be the case as you have scouted around the country?
Farhan Zaidi: I think so, yeah. It’s a lot easier to get excited about the draft when we have multiple picks [in the first two rounds], which we are fortunate enough to have this year. We were kind of at the polar opposite end of the spectrum last year when we didn’t have a first round pick and we didn’t have a comp pick, so I think you pay a lot more attention to exactly that: the depth at the top of the draft and the number of quality players available.
What is interesting is that we kind of mentally think about who is going to be there at 26 and who is going to be there at 41 and 59 and 75, I think is our next pick. What is interesting is that a lot times with the players we are thinking about it is not clear whether that would be a guy who you would take at 41 or 59 or 75 because you like the guy enough to take him at 41, but there are so many quality players out there, or at least it seems like there are this year, and there are so many differing opinions on the players. And then you have teams who are more likely to focus on high school players as opposed to college players and obviously you are going to get some differences of opinion there [on whether a player should be drafted at a certain slot].
I think the differences of opinion are a reflection on the depth of the draft. You start to have discussions internally about whether this is a guy that you have to take at 26 or will he be available at 41 or even 59 and I think that is sort of indicative of the depth.
OC: The A’s have taken a lot more players out of high school in the draft in recent years as compared to the five or so years prior to that. Is that trend a reflection of the A’s having a bigger draft budget or is it easier now to scout high school players with the increased coverage of their games?
FZ: I really think that the biggest development in amateur scouting over the past 10 or 15 years is the fact that you know so much more about high school players leading up to the draft and you get a chance to see them in person in showcases and against higher caliber competition. You also have enough money and bigger scouting staffs so that you have multiple people going in there to see the player, from the area scout to the cross-checker to the coordinators and even the scouting directors. This allows you to get multiple looks at the guy and chances to see him against advanced competition, so you just feel better about your evaluation of the player.
The one thing I always say when it comes to the draft is that the only real inefficiency you can create for yourself is if you automatically eliminate one entire group of players from consideration. If you say, ‘we are never going to take a high schooler’ or even if you say ‘we are never going to take a high schooler in the first round,’ I think you are already doing yourself a disservice. I think the last couple of years, we have tried to take a step back and reassess.
I think there might have been a time five or 10 years ago where maybe teams weren’t as aggressive as they should have been about going after more pro-ready college players, but I think you might even make the case that in the last two or three years, the pendulum has swung strongly the other way. There are teams that have been quite dogmatic about taking college players for the first 10 or 15 rounds. It’s interesting, when you watch what happens with those teams. You really get instant dividends when you draft college guys. When they are going through short-season ball and A-ball, those guys tend to just be too good for those levels. You kind of feel pretty good about yourself at that point, but then it is a question of what happens two or three years down the road.
It’s a little bit harder and it takes a little bit more patience when you are drafting high school guys like Matt Sulentic or Trevor Cahill or even a junior college guy like Chad Lee, who has had some injury trouble this year, but I think sometimes patience is a virtue and you hope that these guys pay off and maybe have a higher ceiling in the long run.
OC: When you draft a high school player like Cahill or Sulenic or Jared Lansford, Vince Mazzaro and Craig Italiano in 2005 and then watch them play, do you start to build a program for yourselves for what to look for in younger players based on how your previous high school picks have panned out?
FZ: Yeah, I definitely think it is a learning experience with those players. I think one thing that we are learning – and it is a consequence of the history of how the drafts have gone here over the last few years – is that there is a completely different timetable for high schoolers. With a college guy, you like to be very methodical and you like to move them up a level each year and get them to Triple-A and maybe even a taste of the big leagues in three or four years.
It is just different for high school guys. I go back occasionally and take a look at teams that have drafted high school players more frequently than we have to see how they have treated high school players. You have guys who play in short-season ball for two or three years before they even get to full-season ball after getting drafted. I don’t think we’d ever go to that extreme, but I do think it is a constant evaluation process to determine what is the right rate to move these guys up at.
I think [the learning process] is just a function of the fact that earlier this decade, there was a bigger focus on drafting college-level players and certainly that was a product of the combination of having a smaller budget and having a lot of picks and having a need to spread out whatever budget you have on those picks. Having high school kids with scholarships to hang over your head during negotiations obviously wasn’t the best way to spread out that budget back then.
I also think that you have to draft to your capabilities. Five or 10 years ago, there was very good machinery in place in this organization to draft college players and the scouting department here was really good at evaluating those players. Now I think it is a matter of extending the capability to be able to better identify high school talent and knowing what to look for. Once you open that up, you sort of get better at it every year.
You don’t want to say that [developing high school draft picks] is ‘trial by fire’ or ‘trial by error’ or anything like that, but I would be more inclined to say that it is a learning process and since we maybe don’t have as much experience with high school players, you have to take a look at what other organizations do and every successive class that comes in, you try to apply the lessons you learned from the guys who came in before.
OC: When you are putting together your list of players, how much consideration do you put into the needs of the system as opposed to the overall talent of the player and figuring that having the most talented players is more beneficial than worrying where they will fit into the scheme of the current system?
FZ: You can’t help but think of where the organization has players and where we lack players and thinking about the draft in terms of filling those holes. The stock answer is that all things being equal, you are going to go with the guy who you think fills a long-term need. However, I do think you have to resist the temptation a little bit.
I was actually having a conversation with someone about this the other day. In a perfect world, you would draft the best player available, the guy who you think has the best chance to be a star, regardless of where he plays. If that meant drafting catchers with your first five picks, you would just do that and things would sort themselves out. But actually, I think that one reason why it isn’t a perfect world is that trading is not like this frictionless market where I can take one of those five catchers and after he has a good year in A-ball, trade him for an equal pitching talent. That is just not the way it works. There is too much friction in the market and nobody ever trades prospects. That is a very difficult thing to do.
The one example that I think about is with Tampa Bay and when they took [Evan] Longoria last year. They were an organization that kind of needed pitching. Obviously Longoria is an incredible talent, and he has done nothing but great things in the pros. In a sense, it was the right pick. But they are not going to have the opportunity – and that is a function of the market and not anything that they did – but they won’t be able to spin him for equal pitching talent.
If you could just do that then it would be a no-brainer to just take the best player available at every pick because if we wound up with a surplus of position players or pitchers, we could just trade them and get pitching or get an infielder or whatever we needed. But it doesn’t really work that way because I think that people have become so reluctant to trade prospects over the last few years.
OC: Is that something that you have noticed more frequently over the last couple of years?
FZ: I’ve only been here for three years, so I don’t want to talk like I have some really great perspective on the way that things have been, but you certainly hear the chatter about it a lot. I know that in trade conversations that we’ve had, I have been surprised to see how reluctant other teams have been to trade prospects. I think a lot of that has to do with the economics of the game.
I think that everybody realizes that having guys with zero to two years of service time or even guys with zero to six years of service time allows you to do some things with the rest of your budget. It’s not obvious why that wouldn’t have occurred to people before. I don’t have proof that teams are more reluctant to trade prospects now than they were five or 10 years ago, but it feels like regardless of what it used to be, people are reluctant to that now.
With the high stakes of the first couple of rounds of the draft and with that lack of fluidity in the trade market where you could just trade a prospect for another one if you wound up with a surplus in a certain area, maybe that makes you think a little bit that you should draft a guy that you see as being part of the major league team three or four years down the road rather than just saying ‘let’s just take the best talent and if we wind up with eight left-handed hitting corner outfielders even though we already have plenty of those, we’ll just deal with that.’ You can’t be totally oblivious to your team’s needs, I think.
OC: Almost a year out, how do you feel about the 2006 draft class and how they are progressing?
FZ: Like I said, it has been a learning experience developing younger players. Even the highest collegiate position player we took, Jermaine Mitchell, is a slightly more raw player than the college position players we have taken in the past. Even when we were taking college players last year, we were more open to taking guys who might have a steeper development curve or a steeper learning curve than guys who would come in and you would think would be in Double-A by their second pro season. As much as we have had to learn about the development path for these guys, we’ve also had to take a step back and appreciate that these guys are so young and that you have to be patient with them.
You take a guy like Cahill, and we were all very anxious to see how he would do [in full-season ball] and it was a player development decision to hold him back [in extended spring training] at least until the weather got a little bit better in Kane County. When you take a college guy, he is probably starting the season in High-A ball and you aren’t even worried about things like the weather. With Sulentic, I know our area scout, Blake Davis, spoke to him about a month ago and Matt was basically saying that ‘I have never played in weather like this,’ and he was finding that really difficult. In fairness to him, as much as he has struggled in the early going this year, he was in Kane County last year and he did okay, so there probably is at least a little bit to the issue with the weather.
With Sulentic, Cahill and Jermaine Mitchell, it is going to take a little longer with those guys. At this point, you just want them to be healthy and playing and you want to see some kind of learning curve. Jermaine actually started the season a little bit rough and he has been doing a little bit better. To see Cahill have a nice start the last time out was nice.
With Sulentic, I think it is just a matter of him working his way out of this slump. The interesting thing with Sulentic is that his numbers actually don’t indicate that he is being overmatched right now. It’s not like he is striking out a lot and he is still walking a decent amount. So I think he is going to work his way out of it and be fine, but it is a different experience than drafting college guys and seeing them hit .330 in High-A ball in their first pro year.
I think our player development people are really happy with the class. It’s a longer process and it is a steeper learning curve, but as long as the player development guys are satisfied that these guys are still willing to learn and, at the same time, aren’t getting down on themselves, then that is all you can hope for at this point in their careers.
OC: Are the new rules regarding the signing period changing the way you guys are looking at the end of the draft where you would traditionally take some draft-and-follows?
FZ: I think what it really does is change how you scout junior college players. I think at this point, you are scouting junior college players less on projectability and on where he might be in a year. If you turn in a report on a guy, he has to be a guy that you want to put into the system this year. I think it has changed the dynamic of junior college scouting a decent amount.
As far as the end of the draft goes, obviously with the signing cut-off date now being in August, we might take a few guys who are playing in summer leagues and keep tabs on them, but I think that the change in the rule is going to wind-up shortening the draft quite a bit. We are historically a team that shuts it down in the draft relatively early. We aren’t a team that has taken a ton of draft-and-follow guys anyway, so it doesn’t affect us that much but we may take a few guys who we’ll follow over the summer.
OC: Has there been much talk about how the draft is going to be on TV for the first time and what that will be like?
FZ: I don’t really know the details. I know that there is going to be more time between picks. I don’t know if you have been on the conference call in the past, but it is basically just rapid fire, calling of names. This year, for the first round and the compensation round, there is going to be five or 10 minutes in between each pick, which sounds like an excruciatingly long amount of time. [laughs] I think they are only going to be able to get through, I’ve heard something along the lines of only a few rounds on the first day and then they will have to split the second day into two sessions. I think it is going to make for a really long second day.
I don’t have all of the specifics down. I know for the TV coverage, they are going to spread it out. I think they are going to get representatives from every organization to actually be in Florida, I think is where they are holding it. But beyond that, I really don’t know. I think they are doing this on the fly a little bit, too. They went back and forth about whether or not it was going to be televised or not and they really made the commitment in the last month to televise it.
I think it is a good development. Aside from us twitteling our thumbs a little bit and the fact that the first round is going to take three hours [laughs], I think it is good. There is enough interest in it and I think it will help the minor leagues a little bit, too, if some of these draft picks have some exposure before they come into professional baseball.
OC: What have your responsibilities been this year in relation to the draft? Have they changed much from last year?
FZ: It hasn’t changed that much. For me, I have tried to make a more concerted effort to actually see players live this year versus in the past. The one reason that I have a slight resistance to actually going out and seeing players is that you just get one look at these guys. I actually like going out to see pitchers because when you see a guy start a game, even if he doesn’t have a great outing, you still get a sense of the delivery and some idea of his stuff. I don’t really like the idea of getting just one look at a position player. With pitchers, I try to make an effort to see them. With position players, I tend to trust our scouts, who, over the course of a season, have probably seen these guys a handful of times and have seen them good and have seen them bad and they can make an evaluation somewhere in the middle.
Since I have been here, a big part of my responsibility has obviously been on the statistical-side, making sure that we have all of that information. Just like everyone else, I go through our scouting reports and I have my mental preference list. Once we get into the draft room and start putting the board together, and we are talking about guys in a statistical context, that is usually my area. However, I try not to limit myself just to that.
One thing I have learned in my three years here is that there is a definite limit to college stats and what they mean. One thing that you have to be careful of is nitpicking between that guy who is hitting .400 with 12 homeruns and the guy who is hitting .380 with nine homers.
For me, doing this for the third time now, it’s important to look at the numbers and say, ‘does this guy pass the statistical smell-test?’ ‘Is there a big discrepancy about what the scouts and the stats are saying about this guy?’ And if there isn’t, then there doesn’t need to be any further discussion on that player. And if there is, then maybe we have a little bit of an issue and maybe we have to have a little bit of back-and-forth about it. There is never going to be a situation where we have a guy 30th on the board who is hitting .400 with 12 homers and a guy 25th on the board who is hitting .380 with nine homers and I am going to say that we need to switch those guys because of the slight difference in stats.
There are obvious uses to the stats and there are obvious limitations to them, as well. The longer that I do this, the more I get a sense – and the more that everyone gets the sense – of when it is most appropriate to go to the stats and we get a sense of how much the stats should really fit into the total evaluation of the player.
It’s funny. I think my first year, if I found a guy who had really good stats, I would be a lot more willing to take the stand that maybe our scouting report was really bad on this guy [if the report was negative and the stats were good] because he has such great numbers. Now, when I see a guy with those great numbers and we don’t have such a great scouting report on him, I basically try to reconcile that myself. Once you have seen that once before, you get a better sense of what will happen down the road.
I’m lucky that I have seen these guys perform in pro ball for a few years now and that is what really helps you. With every draft you go through, you remember what you thought of a guy at the time and you see what they wind-up doing in pro ball and you kind of learn lessons as you go about what kind of things to look for and when the stats might not mean as much and that sort of thing.