First-year Phillies scouting director Brian Barber used the word "weird" in describing his preparation for this year's amateur draft, which commences Wednesday night.
That's probably the right word considering this is a draft like no other in the 55-year history of the event.
The game, at all levels, is shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. College seasons were stopped dead in their tracks in mid-March. High school seasons barely got off the ground and in cold weather climes did not at all. Scouting staffs were able to gather just a small amount of fresh intelligence before the shutdown. Other than that, scouts have had to rely on months- or years-old reports and player-submitted video in building talent profiles. That is, if they're still employed. In the wake of the shutdown, some teams have furloughed employees, including scouts, some of the hardest-working, most dedicated people in the game.
"Nobody's been through anything like this," said the 47-year-old Barber, a former big-league pitcher who was the New York Yankees' No. 2 man in amateur scouting for more than a decade before being hired by the Phillies in October. "I don't care how long you've been a scouting director, you weren't prepared for this eventuality.
"It's definitely been different. I mean, not being able to go to the field and see the kids ... that's what we do. We go to the field and we evaluate talent. We try to combine that with a lot of other different things and we're missing that component."
Identifying draft prospects used to be all about a scout using his eyes and his instincts. A stopwatch was about as technological as it got, until the radar gun arrived. Nowadays, teams use all this and then some to put a grade on players. The use of data and analytics has made its way into every phase of the game, including the evaluation of draft prospects. But baseball's shutdown this spring will limit the amount of analytics a team can apply to this draft.
"It might lean a little bit more toward old-school scouting just because you don't have the draft-year data built up on these players that you normally would at this point," Barber said. "Draft year performance is the most important in any analytical model and teams are missing those."
Good scouting staffs start keeping "a book" on potential prospects years before they are draft eligible. Despite not having fresh analytic data, the Phillies have plenty of information on players.
"When I came over here at the end of October, one of the first things that was most impressive to me was the amount of work that these scouts with the Phillies had done over the summer and fall and the history they had built on players," Barber said. "Without that already built in, we would have been in a lot worse of a situation than we're in right now. A lot of times, scouts in the past have just gone out to try to figure out who they were going to scout in the spring, but the scouts here dove in and evaluated the talent over the course of four or five years."
Scouts were pulled from the road because of the health crisis so there were no private workouts for prospects. Players could submit videos to an MLB portal for evaluation by all teams.
In addition to putting a physical grade on every prospect it is considering in the draft, a team must learn as much as it can about that player's character, intelligence, competitiveness and aptitude for learning. It all falls under the category of "makeup." The Phillies were still able to get a read on player makeup through video interview sessions with prospects.
Barber said the Phils scouting staff conducted upwards of 200 of these video meetings.
"Three months ago, I barely knew what Zoom was, now I consider myself sort of an expert on it, and the kids have gotten really good at it, as well," Barber said. "The biggest thing we're trying to find out is what makes them tick, competitiveness, their drive, desire, their want to get better, how they're trying to get better, things they know they need to improve on, different things like that. So, it's not a Zoom call with them throwing a bullpen or taking batting practice, it's getting to know the kids, what makes them tick and where they want to be in the future and how they're going to try to get there."
In light of the shutdown and with revenues down all over the game, baseball has trimmed the draft from 40 to just five rounds. Teams can sign as many undrafted players as they want for a maximum of $20,000. The Phils have the 15th pick in the first round. That pick carries a slot price of $3.88 million. The Phils do not have a second-round pick. They forfeited that after signing free-agent pitcher Zack Wheeler.
Under former scouting director Johnny Almaraz, the Phillies went for college talent (outfielder Adam Haseley, third baseman Alec Bohm, shortstop Bryson Stott) in the first round of the last three drafts and could do so again in the first round this week. Barber said college pitching is the strength of the draft and there are a couple of good ones in Oklahoma right-hander Cade Cavalli and Tennessee lefty Garrett Crochet who could be available when the Phillies pick. The Phils haven't picked a college pitcher, or any pitcher for that matter, in the first round since Aaron Nola out of LSU in 2014.
Picking a high school pitcher in the first round would present more risk because of the lack of evaluating time this spring, but if the Phils went that route, a pair of right-handers, Mick Abel of Portland, Oregon, and Nick Bitsko, a local kid from Central Bucks East, could be intriguing. Some draft-centered media outlets have also connected the Phils to Tyler Soderstrom, a high school catcher from Turlock, California.
With no minor-league season this year, it's uncertain what will happen to drafted players after this week's draft concludes. But at some point, they will be playing baseball again. The Phillies hope to get a difference maker at No. 15.
"It's really tough this year," Barber said. "Unless you're picking in the top five, you don't know for sure who you'll get. I have some comfort in about eight or nine guys for sure that won't be there. After that, it's a group of about 10 to 12 that have a 50/50 chance of being there so we're trying to work through all our scenarios. As in any draft, you're still just trying to pick the best player possible."
If you'd like to read more about Barber and his past, he is profiled here.
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