Much of the last 10 months in the Padres' organizational rebuild has focused on Chris Kemp's work on the international scouting side. And many fans are already tracking the Padres' likelihood of landing the first overall pick in 2018 as the current big league team plays down to expectations as the worst team in the Majors.
But through it all, the 25 local, regional and national scouts who report to Mark Conner - and another half dozen special advisors and senior consultants who weigh in - have been at work identifying the players the club will take in the 2017 draft, to be held June 12-14.
And now, the organization owns the third overall pick, the highest they've selected since the ill-fated choice of Donavan Tate in 2009. While his is a name - along with other high-profile flameouts taken very early in years past - that haunts many Padres fans, the current front office has no connection to those picks and doesn't seem burdened by the history.
We talked with Conner, who assumed the director role in November, 2014 after four seasons as an area scout and one as a regional supervisor with the club, about the processes and systems that go into preparing for the three days next month when the club will call 40 names that they hope will be part of the first World Series championship in organization history.
MadFriars: You have a really different set of conditions to operate under this year compared to last year when your first pick was a little later, but had more picks clustered at the top of the draft. What were your marching orders to your group as they prepared for this year?
Mark Conner: You have to run a thorough process of knowing your area, knowing your region. Go find big leaguers and players you like, and we’ll scout them and take those guys. As long as the process is right - identifying skills, tools, elite makeup – those are the guys we want to see, and those are the guys we’ll end up drafting.
Is it right to assume that picking at number three leads to some different thinking in your seat and the rest of the group?
Mark Conner: Honestly, AJ and the entire group, we know picking at three, our options are going to be a little bit wider than when we picked last year. We’re trying to be very thorough – we’ve been tracking these guys a long time and trying to get to spend time around the guys who are in consideration there – and throughout the draft. Again, it’s about finding the player who best fits what we’re doing here and ultimately bringing a championship to San Diego.
You talk about a long time with the players. Am I right that you were the regional supervisor on McKay when the club drafted him the last time around?
Mark Conner: Yes.
So when was your first look at him and how far back do your notes go?
Mark Conner: It would have been his senior year, probably March of that year. Our area scout at the time, Tom Burns, had identified him as a prospect of interest. When I went up there, he actually got rained out in the game, so his team ended up getting together and playing a little intrasquad game. I had seen him before in the summer in a workout setting, but it was an extremely brief look that didn’t have a lot of detail to it.
How much does that long front-line experience you had in that region – even if the data is three, four, five years old – play into your decision-making now?
Mark Conner: I think any time you have a personal relationship with a kid and know them and have some history with them, it helps. The good thing is, we have a lot of guys around the country on our staff who have histories in their regions and we can build from those. One thing I think is a little bit of a misconception is that [some people think] this is a one spring decision. I’m able to fall back on my knowledge of Brendan McKay from high school and see the progression and ultimately see where he’s at today and take those things where he’s gotten better, things that may have regressed, the physical aspects. And that helps put the puzzle together, because we just get snapshots at the times we see them.
Hunter Greene’s a kid who’s been on the national scene for a long time. Do you have that same experience to draw on from his time at the RBI Academy up to today?
Mark Conner: Yeah, same thing. We have guys – like when Logan White was with the Dodgers, Hunter would come to Dodger Stadium and he’d see him play. And AJ’s seen him play in the Team USA stuff from a very young age. A lot of our guys had. So, for us, it’s history. We can look at where he’s at today and ask how did he get there, what’s different. It’s great to have a full panoramic view of the player instead of just one section.
What do you know in this role that you didn’t when you started?
Mark Conner: Whew, a lot. In this role, it’s a lot about trusting people and understanding that, when you’re in this seat, ultimately I have to make the decision. But the decision I make is truly a group decision. You have to kind of step back and trust the people you work with. Let me think about that.
You’ve got so many people sitting around that room who’ve sat in the chair you have now – AJ, and Logan, and David Post and Duane Shaffer – how does that work for you guys?
Mark Conner: We take everybody’s opinion into account and ultimately, need to make a decision. There’s going to be varying opinions on players, so there’s the combination of players – if we take one guy, who are the guys that could potentially be there next? We have a lot of smart people, and it’s taking into account everything that they say and see, and ultimately trying to pick the best one.
Do you feel like you’re starting to get your hands around the best way to operate in this system and the best way to evaluate taking one player versus another who gives you the opportunity to save on cap allocation?
Mark Conner: We still have a lot of money to work with, and there’s still flexibility. We’re still scouting to figure out who the best players are that are going to fit the organization moving forward. We’re going to do whatever we can to add as many of those players as possible But then again, there’s 29 other clubs that are working hard to identify those players too.
There’s been a lot of noise nationally about Hunter Greene trying to position himself down to you guys at three. What has your reaction been to that?
\Mark Conner: Honestly, I don’t even think about it. I really don’t pay attention to it. People are going to say and write whatever, and my job is to make sure our scouting department is in a good place come June 12 through 14 to make good picks. What people are saying, I don’t even think about it.
In your first two years, you’ve had some solid successes in later rounds of the draft. How many names are your area guys submitting over the course of a year to get down to the list where you can find a Phil Maton or Brett Kennedy in later rounds?
Mark Conner: I don’t know an exact number. They’re looking at all the colleges, high schools, junior colleges. I think those are players those area scouts and regional guys had a huge part in us getting. They are really the lifeblood of the department. They go see these guys and may only get one look at them, run across them and just get a look for a couple of innings. They may have seen them for multiple years. But ultimately, it’s well over 1,000 names we’re starting from.
Over the last few years, you’ve brought in some players for workouts, or staged regional workouts prior to the draft. Are you planning to do that again this year, and if so, when?
Mark Conner: We’ll do some workouts. It’s a big part of our process of getting around the players. We’ll start those some time at the end of May after the college [conference] tournaments are done.
And do you mix both college and high school kids into those?
Mark Conner: Yeah.
What does that time give you different from the chance to see them in a game, where you’re seeing them at the highest level of their current competition?
Mark Conner: I just think it’s a different setting. When you get a chance to get up close to a player and stand next to them, shake their hand, talk to them – and we’ll have a lot of staff members present who can do the same thing – it gives us a little different read on the player. The makeup and personality along with the overall physical side of him. Plus, in a workout setting, you can control some things, in terms of what type of activities they do. And that helps answer some questions. In a game, you may see a player get four at-bats and walk three of them, take one swing and not get a ball hit to him. In a workout setting, you can control what happens.
And do you bring some of the player development guys in for those as well?
Mark Conner: Yeah, some of those guys will come in as well.
You’ve grown your staff pretty significantly. What does that enable you to do, both in your chair and as you share information upward?
Mark Conner: It allows us to dig deeper. We get deeper in with a player. We get more looks at them and it allows for greater information and more snapshots in time with the players to help us make better decisions. Not that more information is always better, but more accurate, detailed, pertinent information is what we’re looking for. That allows me more conviction personally when I’m talking to AJ and when I’ll ultimately have to make a decision.
The sheer volume of information that’s out there about amateur players has grown so much over the last decade. How do you try to bring in some of those new sources of information with drowning in it?
Mark Conner: It’s a little bit of picking and choosing. For me, it’s making sure that the information we have is accurate. So it’s using the staff who are very talented at deciphering the information, in pulling out tidbits and then passing it along so we can use it. There’s no way one person could go through everything that’s out there – the written form and the analytic side – I think it takes the entire group. We have different guys process different parts of it. The area scouts have to be able to do that, and the regional guys, and pass it up.
Is Josh Stein’s team in the room with you? Will they be in the room when you start your organizational prep meetings next week? And what do you look to them to bring to the table?
Mark Conner: Yep. What they bring to the table happens well before the meetings. We’re starting to look at performers for next year already and how we – once this draft is over – can start identifying guys now so that we’re not waiting until we get into the room to start. We want to find those guys now. That’s what those guys do well, making sure we know guys early so our scouts can go see them to see the physical tools, But it’s about people, so we also want our scouts to get around these guys a lot. So if we identify them early, we have that opportunity. If we wait until we’re in the room, we won’t have that opportunity.
There’s so much attention on arm health these days. Presumably, you’ve not yet identified the magic bullet to identify which guys are going to avoid injury?
Mark Conner: [Laughing] No. We have some guys who are very talented evaluators and know a lot of predictors of it. But a lot of the damage is done long before we’ve seen them. That’s a tough part of the game, and hopefully the entire industry can figure out a way to protect these kids more.
But there’s the tension because you keep saying you want more opportunities to get in to see a kid. But the flip side is, if the incentive is there for 15-year-olds to be pitching 10 months a year in the hopes of being seen, how do you find that balance point?
Mark Conner: There really isn’t yet. I think it’s great for kids to play multiple sports. With trying to specialize in the repetitive actions over and over, there’s wear and tear in it. I think it’s incumbent on the kids and their parents a lot. Being smart and giving players rest is important, especially at those younger ages.
Can I go back to that question about what I know now?
Mark Conner: I know how little I knew before. Honestly, that’s probably the best thing. You look in hindsight at how the process is done, and you’re always trying to evolve. Every year, you’re looking back at what you could have done better, and I always find holes. These are ways we can get better. I know now that I didn’t know a lot when I started.
Is there one process thing you’re doing now that you’re excited about that’s come out a hole you identified before?
Mark Conner: Honestly, I think it’s time spent. It’s a pretty simple concept, but spending time with these players. It’s spending time with them before we pick them, but it’s also spending time with them after. Because we’re the ones – our area scouts and our crosscheckers – are the ones who get to know these guys early on. We need to not stop that process. Once they get into our system, we want to continue to spend a lot of time with them. That’s a pretty simple thing, but it’s something we do a lot now that we didn’t when I first started.