Jeff Luhnow, the St. Louis Cardinals' Vice President of Player Procurement, goes one on one with Brian Walton in an extensive and exclusive interview where he answers 30 questions about the team's thinking behind the draft, including high school vs. college, signability, Scott Boras' clients, risk taking, target positions, focus areas of the country, the international program and much, much more.
Jeff, what were your key objectives coming into the 2006 draft?
Our goal was to bring the best players into the organization, Brian. By "best", I mean those players that have the highest probability of having an impact at the major league level. There are two dimensions to think about when considering future impact – the first is how long it will take a player to reach the big leagues, and the second is the kind of player he will be when he arrives. We've done a ton of work over the past two years both in the front office and with our scouts in the field attempting to identify the type of player that can move quickly through the minors and also have a productive career in the big leagues – especially in the early years before they become eligible for free agency.
At the time of your first draft last year, you said that 2005 draft had a bias toward college players. In 2006, you certainly drafted that way early on – a very different draft from 2005 in make-up. Last year, you selected six high school players in your first ten and 17 overall. Did you come in planning to take fewer high schoolers and more college players this time?
Every draft has a bias towards college players… there are far more of them selected than any other category each year. The media and fans focus on the "high school" versus "college" issue much more than we do internally. What is important is to understand each player's age, their experience, their current baseball tools, and their likelihood of getting better in pro ball. Most studies show that players peak when they are in their late 20s, so even if you get a college senior who is 23, you still have time to take advantage of their best years. There were several high school players that I personally wanted in this draft that we didn't get, either because they weren't there when we picked or they became too expensive. There also were some that we wanted that we did get. I didn't think we would take as many high school players early in the draft this year as we did last year, but then again I didn't think we'd take that many last year.
We did draft some exciting young
players in this draft, and are hoping to sign many of them. Jonathan Edwards is an outfielder from
Did you have to adjust your plan in-draft? I know you do scenario planning in advance. How did that help?
The minute the first player gets taken that you didn't expect to go in the first round, the adjustments begin. Planning helps quite a bit. We did discuss and plan for various scenarios. Once we took three pitchers with our first three picks, we prioritized one or two position players with our last two picks in the first two rounds. Generally, though, we were focused on getting the best player at every pick during the first day.
Which members of the Cardinals' management joined you in the draft room?
Bill Dewitt Jr, Walt Jocketty, Jim
Riggleman, John Mozeliak,
Were you surprised when any particular players fell into your hands? If so, who?
Not really, Brian. We targeted all the players that we
took, it was just a matter of when we needed to take them to get them. I think many of the players we took
would have been gone had we not taken them when we did. I also think that many of the players we
took could easily have been taken earlier based on their talent. Gary Daley is one example. He's the first player I wrote up this
year, after seeing him in late January on a cold night in
How do you balance risk/return when considering players?
Simple… minimize the risk and maximize the return! Seriously, no player is without risk. Even the first pick, Luke Hochevar, has some risk because he is a pitcher (and that, by definition, makes him a significant injury risk) and because he hasn't pitched much since last year's draft. By the time you get to #30 overall, the risk is substantially higher than the first few picks. The key is to understand the type of risk you are taking on, and assess the potential return. That is why Adam Ottavino was interesting to us. Is he a risk? Sure. He's a pitcher. He played at a school that is not a traditional baseball powerhouse. He wasn't listed by any of the publications as a first round player, in fact he was surprisingly far down the list in some cases. What mitigates this risk for us? He's had no arm trouble so far and his mechanics are sound. He has put up great numbers at Northeastern. His makeup is solid. What is the upside with Adam? He's demonstrated the ability to throw the ball very hard, with movement. He has a "deluxe" pitcher's frame and still has room to fill out. He has a good feel for the breaking ball. He's young! Oh, and he's smart. Put that all together and we feel he's an impact big leaguer in the making.
To a casual observer, this may look to be a more cautious draft than 2005. Others see it as the organization is building depth and a stronger pipeline to the majors. Do you agree with either of those characterizations?
You can't be cautious if your objective is to produce impact big league players. We are not looking to find guys that barely make it or simply help out at AA or AAA. I believe this draft will add significant depth and improve the pipeline. I believe last years draft did the same thing.
How does the total budget allocated for signings come into play when making selections?
It didn't impact our draft this year. Ownership is committed to helping us get the best players and we have not been resource constrained in doing so. That doesn't mean we will ‘overpay' for players relative to their value, but the resources are there if we feel the corresponding value is there.
In the past, you've discussed "chance" players. What are they and how many of them did you take in 2006?
Chance players are guys that could be big league players if things come together for them. They have at least one major league tool and/or have demonstrated an exceptional track record of performance. Every single player we drafted and will sign is at least a chance player. We did not draft anyone this year simply to help out in the low minor leagues.
Based on the geographic sources of your players, is your area realignment delivering desired results?
We upped our investment in
Only 25 of your 53 choices were pitchers, but many of them were taken early. What was your strategy?
Get the best pitchers we can! Think about how valuable guys like Wainwright, Thompson, Reyes, and Flores are to our big league club and how Haren was key to bringing in Mulder. Without young arms, it's much harder to compete consistently. I know there is a saying that there is no such thing as a pitching prospect… but many baseball people believe you can never have enough talented young arms in the organization. We just added some more depth to our current assortment of Pomeranz, Parisi, Lambert, McCormick, Garcia, Haberer, Hawksworth, Narveson and others.
It seems like you took a number of athletic, polished, but smaller outfielders. What was your thinking there?
I know our fans are going to grow
to love the college outfielders we took on day 1 - John Jay, Shane Robinson,
Luke Gorsett and Nate Southard.
Why? Because they are great
baseball players! These guys can
all hit, they can all run, they can all throw, and they can field their
position. You might not think they
look like big league players if you ran into them in the grocery store, but
trust me, when you see them on the field you will know why we took them. The Day 1 high school outfielders were
Travis Mitchell and Jonathan Edwards – they do have the prototypical baseball
bodies. If Mark Shorey (Day 2
drafted outfielder) hits in pro ball like he did at
I imagine you were impressed with
your 18th rounder Amaury Cazana Marti this spring and wanted to get
him. But, he is listed at MLB.com
and therefore apparently by the Cardinals with a DOB as
had seen the Cuban web sites back in February when we first worked out
Amaury. Amaury's age had very
little to do with why and when we selected him. His driver's license has him born in
1978 so that is what we go by. It
didn't seem to matter much last night during his Cardinal debut at
What other positions did you particularly want to strengthen? If so, how did you do?
We wanted a bit of everything and I think we accomplished that objective. There was no one glaring position that we needed to strengthen.
How did you assess high school players who had committed to colleges, such as your 16th rounder, Thomas Pham?
I'll answer that if and when we sign Tommy. We'd like him to join our organization, that's why we drafted him. It's a decision each player needs to make – whether to go to school for three years and take their chances with the draft in 2009 or 2010, or whether to start their pro baseball career now.
How important was "roster filling" versus getting the best player available and did that change later in the draft?
Even when we are roster filling towards the end of day 2, we still want the best possible player on the board.
Has your drafting philosophy evolved from year to year or was the approach dictated by the players available?
My own philosophies are constantly evolving – in every area. I learned a ton from the 2004 and 2005 drafts and that impacted my own biases in this draft. We had better information this year than we had last year in certain areas and I used that to guide our decisions. We are getting better every year, but we will always look for ways to improve.
Some equate an analytical-based approach to selection of college players because of better data availability. How do you adjust to ensure a balanced draft?
Analysis does not need to be limited to college players. A scout is analytical when he grades out a player's tools. We are analytical when we review video of a swing or delivery. All of the analysis that we do is intended to provide insight into the future potential of the player. Using the performance history is another important component that we use, but it's not the only area of analysis. The high school teams all keep records so we do have fairly reliable statistics for those players. We have more confidence in the college stats as a predictor of future pro performance, but that doesn't mean we don't look at the high school numbers.
How important was signability in your decision criteria compared to the other factors?
We don't want to take a player that we can't sign. In almost all cases, we have a feel for what it will take to sign the player prior to selecting them. That doesn't mean it will always work out, because we don't start negotiating until after they are done playing, but it generally means we have a good shot of signing them unless they have changed their minds recently.
Last year, the Cardinals signed a very high percentage of your draftees. Do you expect the same this year?
I'd expect that we would sign fewer drafted players this year because we have more players already in the system at the lower levels. This is due to the high school heavy draft from last year and the productivity of the Latin American system. We want to keep as many prospects as possible and make sure that they have adequate playing time to develop.
You're on your way to mini-camp in
Again you have at least two Scott
Boras clients in your top tier of draftees. How do the Cardinals find
We have no problems working with any of the agents. Over time, Mo, Walt and others have built strong trust based relationships with many of the agents and that has served us well and will continue to serve us well over the years.
How many players did you pick with draft and follow plans in mind?
We chose a few that we will follow
over the summer in the
Can one equate the selection of more college players to a desire to have players move up the system more quickly?
Last year we drafted 17 high school players. This year we drafted 14. I don't see that as a dramatic shift in our approach. Either way, we hope the players can move quickly – but most importantly – have an impact when they reach the big leagues.
Is this affected by the pipeline of Dominican and Venezuelan players that is starting to deliver?
The more good players we have in our system, the better. The Latin program is starting to produce players who will compete with the drafted players for spots in the low minors, and opportunities to advance through the system. That kind of competition is healthy and if we make the right decisions, should lead to the best possible combination of prospects in our system.
What is new with the international program, both in terms of getting the processes in place and players emerging from it?
With two teams this summer (VSL
and DSL) we are very busy. There
are some early positive surprises in both leagues. Quincy Martina (from
Which players from
That is still being determined
this week here in
One year later, how do you assess the 2005 draft class, both good and bad? As you know, it generated a lot of excitement at the time.
I am very optimistic about the
2005 draft class. Rasmus is doing
very well at Quad Cities and has been named an All-Star in the league. Greene has struggled some here in
Tell me about your recent travels. Where have you gone and what are you looking for? What is next?
After this week in
Any other points you'd like to make?
I'm glad our fans are interested in the draft and the minor leagues. I enjoy reading the columns on the minor league players. I read the blogs and the message boards. I know our fans care… just be assured that we care as much and we are working hard to get better every day.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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