It’s no breaking news that the White Sox haven’t always hit on their top draft picks in the last 20 years.
Regardless, Rick Hahn’s front office has put the team on a path to a lengthy, bright future. Nick Madrigal and Andrew Vaughn — the team’s last two first-round picks — hold a lot of promise, but the majority of the work of constructing a team that could evolve into a perennial contender came via trades, international signings, contract extensions and, this past offseason, free agency.
There’s a new man in charge of the draft for the White Sox. But Mike Shirley didn’t know what he was getting into when he took the job. No one did, obviously. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and more specifically the economic toll it has already taken on the sport, has shrunk the 2020 MLB Draft to just five rounds.
That’s down from a usual 40.
Yes, teams, the White Sox included, will have the opportunity to sign an unlimited number of undrafted players for $20,000 apiece. But the best of the undrafted bunch might choose to delay their professional careers until economic circumstances are more favorable. High schoolers set to enter the minor leagues might instead opt to play college ball. College juniors who don’t get drafted might return to their schools.
And then there’s the sheer reality of the level economic playing field when it comes to signing those undrafted players. The White Sox, just like every other team, will have to convince the top remaining talent that they should sign up with them instead of 29 other options.
In other words, in those five rounds in which teams will actually be able to select players, the pressure’s on.
“Obviously, you want to get five right,” Shirley said during a Tuesday conference call, “that's for damn sure.”
For the White Sox, and this isn’t necessarily a phenomenon unique to the South Side, hitting on top picks hasn’t been easy. There’s still plenty of excitement about what Madrigal and Vaughn could turn into, but they’ve yet to reach the major league level. Unfortunately, that was the case for several of their predecessors, as well.
Jared Mitchell, Keenyn Walker, Keon Barnum, Courtney Hawkins, Zack Burdi and Jake Burger were all taken with first-round picks between 2009 and 2017 and have played a combined zero major league games to this point. The 21st century is littered, too, with first-round picks who did reach the bigs but failed to make a great impact. Joe Borchard, Royce Ring, Brian Anderson, Josh Fields, Lance Broadway, Aaron Poreda, Carson Fulmer and Zack Collins all have career WAR under 1.0.
There are grand exceptions, obviously, with Chris Sale on a Hall of Fame trajectory and Tim Anderson emerging last season as the big league batting champion and a true cornerstone of the White Sox long-term future. Gio Gonzalez has yet to throw a pitch for the White Sox, but he proved a successful first-round pick, even if his major league success came playing for other teams. The jury is still out on Carlos Rodon, who has shown flashes of brilliance along with some horrible injury luck.
And that’s just a summation of first-round choices. There are often many, many more, and the success stories get lodged in the collective consciousness. Who could forget that the White Sox took Mark Buehrle in the 38th round? Though picked by other teams, Jim Thome reached the Hall of Fame from the 13th round and Jermaine Dye was the 2005 World Series MVP after being picked in the 17th round. Even current key cogs of the White Sox future were found down in the depths of the draft: Aaron Bummer, for example, was the team’s 19th-round selection in 2014.
But there will be no opportunity for those kinds of diamond-in-the-rough finds this year.
With no fans in the stands due to COVID-19, revenues are expected to dramatically decline. While the owners continue to fight with the players’ union over major league salaries, one cost-cutting measure that didn’t require a pitched battle was lopping off the millions spent annually on signing bonuses for draft picks.
So there will only be five draft picks. With the margin for error 35 rounds slimmer than just a year ago, the White Sox, as Shirley said, better get the picks they do make right.
There’s obviously no guarantee in this sport. As illustrated, the list of first-round flops is a mile long. The deeper in the draft, the harder it is to ensure big league success. So what will the White Sox do with the No. 11 pick? Well, that depends what happens when players start going off the board next Wednesday night.
“I think we've looked at this thing from every angle possible,” Shirley said. “We are down to 15 players that we like. … We have those players in order, and we are ready to target and strike those players. We targeted about 24 players when spring training was still going on, and we've narrowed that down to about 15 players that we do like. Obviously, we feel a bulk of that top end is not going to be available to us.
“We have 15 targets, and at the end of the day, based on who I think is going to be gone, do I think it’s down to four or five players? Yeah, I do. We’re excited about all four or five. They come from all aspects of the draft: high school, college, pitcher, hitter.”
Baseball teams don’t draft for immediate major league need like their football and basketball counterparts. MLB Pipeline’s Jonathan Mayo has the White Sox taking a college catcher in his most recent mock draft. And yet the White Sox just gave a record free-agent deal to Yasmani Grandal. So there are many players who could fit the bill at No. 11.
If the challenges weren’t already steep — having an entire draft squeezed down to five important picks and trying to buck some unfortunate draft history — the White Sox scouting team needs to try to nail these selections after most of the players’ seasons were abruptly canceled due to the pandemic.
Shirley was able to dig up some silver linings, that his team has had more access to speak with college players than usual and that his first year on the job brought so much exuberance that he did some extra work before the world was shut down.
No team ever wants to miss on a draftee. Players are selected for a reason. But there is a certain amount of failure baked into the process because not every prospect hits. A lot of them don’t. A majority of them don’t.
But with only five chances to get it right, the stakes seem even higher than before.