When it comes to teams making draft picks, one mantra stands out above all others: Take the best player available. Drafting for need or drafting to save money are not things that tend to work out in the long run.
Orioles fans may be particularly scarred by the last “save money” pick from the franchise, when they used the #5 overall selection on Matt Hobgood in 2009. Hobgood was a complete bust, while these were the three player selected after him: Zack Wheeler (10.5 bWAR), Mike Minor (17.7) Mike Leake (16.9).
That was before the current framework that rules over the MLB draft, where slot values that used to just be recommended numbers are now more fixed as limits. There are penalties in place that effectively guarantee that no team will exceed its assigned draft pool by more than 5%.
What this means is that in most years there are high school players with significant talent but also significant draft demands who are there to be picked by a team willing to meet their price. It’s just that in order to get one of them with a later pick - like, say, the 2020 Orioles, picking at #30 - that means a team has to spend less money on its top pick.
Enter Nick Gonzales, the second baseman for New Mexico State University. Gonzales, it must be said, is not a slouch in the draft rankings himself, for the most part seen as a top 5 talent. He’s at #4 as judged by ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel, #5 by MLB Pipeline, and #6 from Fangraphs’ Eric Longenhagen. He seems to be headed for a single digit draft pick regardless of what the Orioles do.
Still, #4 is not #2, and that raises the possibility of the underslot signing. In McDaniel’s mock draft posted last week, he estimated a 40% chance of the Orioles choosing to draft Gonzalez at #2 instead of Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin, with the O’s considering taking some of the draft savings to get players who might slide out of the first round due to bonus demands.
If the Orioles signed Gonzales for #4 pick money ($6.7 million) instead of Martin for #2 pick money ($7.8 million), they can take that $1.1 million and add it to their #30 slot money of about $2.4 million to get a $3.5 million player at #30 - a mid-first round talent. For a team in a rebuild that needs both quantity and quality of talent, that’s nothing to sneeze at - if they manage to draft the right players.
Gonzales, like most players, sounds pretty good if you only take the glowing words in his scouting capsule, like this from MLB Pipeline:
The 5-foot-10 middle infielder has as much pure hitting ability as just about any bat in the 2020 class. He does it with a short and compact swing and a ton of bat speed, controlling the bat head extremely well through the strike zone.
The report also includes “decent speed” and “a solid baserunner” - all of which are fine traits for a player to have. There are, of course, the downsides, namely that his power might be doubles power rather than home run power, and his fielding ability will probably limit him to second base rather than shortstop.
A comparison from both MLB Pipeline and ESPN’s McDaniel is Brewers second baseman Keston Hiura, who was picked #9 in the 2017 draft and batted .303/.368/.570 with 19 home runs in 84 games as a rookie last year. If Gonzales is a Hiura-esque player, that would be a fine outcome indeed.
Even McDaniel, who rates Gonzales the best out of this trio of prospect writers, notes that there’s some risk that Gonzales could turn out with more “fringy speed and defense at second base that could eventually move him to left field.” Just about any team would take a .938 OPS at any position in their lineup, but it’s less interesting in left field compared to second base.
Not that it’s so easy to point to any college prospect and say he will end up like a player who had a successful half-season big league debut. A lot of players do not do that, even ones drafted in the top five picks. Though Gonzales’s college stats are impressive - a .399/.502/.747 overall batting line at New Mexico State - the evaluators caution getting too excited about that. It is a hitter-friendly environment that school gets to play in.
Gonzales’s case for having a quality bat is bolstered, though, by his performance in the Cape Cod League last summer. He batted .351/.451/.630 there. The league uses wood bats and typically draws quality college players, probably better overall than Gonzales would be facing in the Western Athletic Conference. Success there is worth something.
Does all of that mean it would be a good idea to take Gonzales instead of Austin Martin? From my perspective as a person whose knowledge of these players is limited to what I read the mainstream prospect writers say about them, I’d rather have Martin, but if Mike Elias and company judge that their best bet is to go with Gonzales, I’m sure I’d talk myself into that quickly.
A big reason that there’s any talk about the Orioles going under slot with the #2 pick is that the Astros, when Elias was running the draft there, did this in 2012 when they selected Carlos Correa at #1. Correa was not generally seen as the best talent in the draft, or even the top three; he was more like the fifth-ranked prospect. The Astros cut a deal with Correa under slot at #1 and then went overslot with their second pick to get Lance McCullers, a talented player they could otherwise not have signed.
In the rear view mirror, the Astros look like geniuses for having pulled this off, because it has turned out that they saved money and also got the best player they could have gotten. Correa, with 24.5 career bWAR to date, has an edge of 8.8 WAR over any other player in the draft class. Eight years after that draft, there is no one who looks like a better draft pick. That’s some good scouting.
The Orioles drafted a college teammate of Gonzales’s, shortstop Joseph Ortiz, in the fourth round last year. This means they probably had some chances to get some scouting looks at Gonzales when he was a sophomore. They probably scouted his performance on the Cape, or are confident in an algorithm that uses Cape performance to predict pro performance, or both.
So if the Orioles do decide to go with Gonzales, they’ve probably got a good reason. Hopefully, as Elias did with the Astros and Correa eight years ago, the Orioles would end up turning out to be just as right.