Q&A with Baseball America's Jim Callis
Strasburg, Boras, and Everything Else You Wanted to Know About the 2009 Draft
When it comes to the First-Year Player Draft, nobody is as wired to what's going on as Jim Callis, the Executive Editor of Baseball America. He talks to general managers, scouting directors, cross checkers, area scouts, college coaches, and agents, gathering valuable information for Baseball America's website and biweekly magazine. With his ear to the ground, Jim's final mock drafts are routinely the most accurate published. Two months before I met up with Jim on a trip to Chicago in the summer of 2005, he predicted the first 18 selections of the draft in the exact order that they were taken.
Born and raised in Virginia, Callis graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in journalism. He began his career with Baseball America in December 1988, left for STATS, Inc. in September 1997, and returned to BA in May 2000. In total, Jim has been covering baseball for more than two decades, including 18 years with Baseball America.
Callis, 41, lives in the Chicago area with his wife and four children. In his spare time, he coaches his oldest son's 7th/8th grade baseball team. Like all of us, Jim is a baseball fan and his favorite team is . . . the Boston Red Sox! You can catch up with Jim about the draft, the Red Sox, baseball in general, and even pop culture in his online chats at ESPN Sports Nation.
Grab a cup of coffee, pull up a chair, and enjoy our discussion about the MLB First-Year Player Draft that begins Tuesday, June 9.
Rich: Hi, Jim. Thanks for taking the time to preview the 2009 First-Year Player Draft with us. How is this draft shaping up in terms of overall talent vs. those of the past?
Jim: It's not a good draft for position players, and it comes right after a draft that was loaded with hitters, so there's kind of a negative vibe about it. But there's talent in any draft. This one has plenty of pitching, college and high school, lefty and righty, whatever flavor you like, starting with arguably the best draft prospect ever in Stephen Strasburg. The college position players fall off a cliff quickly after North Carolina first baseman Dustin Ackley, but Ackley is a very good one. The high school position players are fine, with a lot of catchers and center fielders. It's kind of reminiscent of 2006, which was thought not to be deep in comparison to a hitter-rich 2005 crop, yet had Evan Longoria, Tim Lincecum, Joba Chamberlain and a host of other very talented players. So that's a long way of saying that there's talent in this draft, there's just not much consensus. I actually wrote a column on this, so I'll plug it here, though you need a BA.com subscription to read it.
Rich: The Washington Nationals are the first team to own two of the top ten picks in the same draft. The No. 1 overall choice is the reward for having the worst record in baseball in 2008 while the No. 10 selection is compensation for not signing Aaron Crow with the ninth pick last year. Aside from issues involving health, is there any chance at all that Washington would take someone other than Strasburg with the first pick?
Jim: No chance. Strasburg will be the No. 1 overall pick, barring injury. The track record of pitchers taken No. 1 overall is less than scintillating, but he's still far and away the best talent this year, and that's who you have to take with the top pick. He'll cost a lot of money, but far less than he would if he were on the open market. He also should be able to crack Washington's big league rotation almost immediately, if not immediately. There's no excuse for not taking him No. 1.
Rich: Is the $50 million price tag for Strasburg that has been floated out there simply a strategic ploy on the part of Scott Boras to reset the bar for No. 1s or do you think he will hold to something close to that figure at the risk of not getting Strasburg signed by August 15?
Jim: I'm sure Scott Boras believes in his heart that Strasburg deserves $50 million. I also believe that if all 30 teams could bid on Strasburg, he'd get that money. But the leverage to get that money doesn't exist because Strasburg's only options are to 1) sign with whoever picks him or 2) re-enter the 2010 draft. There's no avenue to free agency. If Scott doesn't get his asking price, he gives the team every chance to up its offer right up until the deadline. So don't look for Strasburg to sign before 11:59 p.m. ET on Aug. 15.
Rich: Nationals president Stan Kasten has been quoted as saying, "We know what No. 1s get and we intend to sign that player...No one's situation is going to change the industry." Doesn't that comment suggest the Nationals are going to draft Strasburg with the intention of offering him an eight-figure contract but much closer to the $8.5M-$10.5M that the top three signees (Mark Prior, Mark Teixeira, and David Price) received than the $52M awarded to Daisuke Matsuzaka, the comp Boras has reportedly used?
Jim: I think that's exactly right. To sign Strasburg, the Nationals need simply to figure out what's the lowest amount they can offer that will be too risky for him to turn down in the end. The draft record for guaranteed money is $10.5 million by Prior, and I'm guessing Washington will come in somewhere between $15 million to $20 million. Matsuzaka's price tag was artificially inflated by the $51.1 million posting fee Boston paid, and his situation isn't analagous to Strasburg's.
Rich: According to Jim Bowden, Crow asked for $4.4M and turned down $3.5M. Do you think he will get that type of money this year?
Jim: I heard Crow wanted $4 million at the end. Those negotiations were botched by both sides, who should have met in the middle at the deadline. I do think he'll get similar money this year, though he doesn't have a ton of leverage. There's no way he can really go back into the 2010 draft at this point. He's pitching well in indy ball, and first-round pitchers who have gone that route have done very well in the draft. He could get one of those $5 million major league contracts. Most teams probably wouldn't give him that much, but there always seems to be one club that will. I think he could go as high as No. 3 to the Padres or No. 4 to the Pirates.
Rich: The other Independent League wild card in this year's draft is Tanner Scheppers. How would you compare and contrast Crow and Scheppers and where do you see the latter going?
Jim: Scheppers probably would have been a top-10 pick last year if he hadn't hurt his shoulder. He hadn't bounced back by the time of the signing deadline for the Pirates to give him big money as a second-round pick. Scheppers has more arm strength, while Crow has more polish and a better health history. Scheppers came out of the gates stronger this spring, but they're pretty even now. They both should factor in the top half of the first round, possibly in the first 5-10 picks.
Rich: Let's talk about what Washington is likely to do in terms of its compensation pick for not signing Crow last year. After you posted your Mock Draft, Version 1.0 two weeks ago, acting Washington general manager Mike Rizzo contacted Baseball America, and said, "We do not have to take a signability pick. We’re going to take the best guy. We’re going to have 10 names up there on the board, and we’ll take the one we like." It seems to me that the Nats have to be careful this time around because they won't get another compensation pick if they fail to sign this particular draft choice. Agree?
Jim: They do have to be careful, because teams don't get compensation for failing to sign a draft pick they got as compensation for failure to sign another. Reading between the lines of what Mike said, they very possibly could take a guy they like but the industry doesn't value as highly as the No. 10 pick, and in that case they could use their leverage to sign him to a below-slot deal. I don't think they'll use the price as their main focus of their pick, but I also don't think they're going to roll the dice on someone like Donavan Tate if he's still there.
Rich: There is an important distinction between ability vs. signability. Which teams are most likely to pay over slot to get the player they want?
Jim: Last year, the industry spent a record $188 million on the draft and 26 of the 30 teams exceeded MLB's bonus recommendations on at least one player. I think teams in general will be more thrifty this year. But the usual suspects, particularly the Yankees and Red Sox, I'm sure will be willing to spend if a talented player falls to them. The clubs generally don't announce this, though.
Rich: How many players that could go in the first couple of rounds are being advised by Boras this year?
Jim: Several. Scott has arguably the best prospect in draft history (Strasburg), the best hitter in this draft (North Carolina first baseman Dustin Ackley), the best high school position player (Cartersville, Ga., HS outfielder Donavan Tate), arguably the best high school pitcher (Westminster Christian Academy/St. Louis righthander Jacob Turner), the best middle infielder (Southern California shortstop Grant Green) and the best college lefthander (Oklahoma State's Andy Oliver). Other top-two-round Boras advisees include Gainesville (Fla.) HS outfielder LeVon Washington, Kentucky lefthander James Paxton, Tennessee outfielder Kentrail Davis and Rocky Mount (N.C.) HS outfielder Brian Goodwin.
Rich: Are there any teams that flat out won't deal with Boras? If so, which ones?
Jim: There are, though everyone at least kicks the tires on his guys and no one will admit to avoiding his players on the record.
Rich: Has MLB sent out guidelines for slot money this year?
Jim: We had early indications that the slot recommendations will be the same as last year, but Murray Chass has reported that Bud Selig wants to roll them back by 10 percent, just like MLB tried to do in 2007. We've since confirmed that. Suffice it to say that no one is happy. I've had agents tell me there's no reason for a first-rounder to sign before Aug. 15, and I had one front-office official describe it as "fucking bullshit." You may edit that quote as you like.
Rich: Those aren't my words, Jim, so I think I'll leave that quote as is. Forget slot recommendations for a minute. Given the economy and the state of baseball, do you expect signing bonuses will be negatively affected at any point in the draft?
Jim: I don't think bonuses will be slashed, but I do think there will be fewer teams who will aggressively sign players for well above the slot recommendations. The last time MLB tried to cut slots by 10 percent, bonuses went up anyway, so I don't think that will have as much of an effect as the economy will.
Rich: Which players stand to get "out of the box" type deals and why?
Jim: Strasburg, obviously, because of his immense talent. The top college pitchers usually get major league deals with a $3 million bonus and a $5 million total guarantee, so that's may be what Missouri's Kyle Gibson and North Carolina's Alex White are looking for. Then again, they haven't lit scouts up down the stretch, so they may be more apt to sign for slot. I bet Ackley will seek a big league contract as well. The three top talents who could fall the most in the first round because of asking price are Tate, who has the leverage of a football scholarship from North Carolina, Turner and Klein HS (Spring, Texas) lefthander Matthew Purke. The numbers we're hearing on those guys are $6 million for Tate, $7 million for Turner and $5 million for Purke. There also are starting to be rumblings that the other elite high school lefty, Tyler Matzek of Capistrano Valley HS (Mission Viejo, Calif.), may not be an easy sign either. There's no number on him yet but teams are thinking he may prove costly.
Rich: The price tag on Turner seems to be based on what Josh Beckett and Rick Porcello received. Is Turner in that same league?
Jim: He's very good, arguably the best high school pitcher in this draft, but I don't think he's in the same class as Beckett and Porcello. He's not far off, but he's not as highly regarded as they were in high school.
Rich: Given Tate's talent and and how the Braves have leaned toward Georgia-based prospects in the past, it wouldn't be unreasonable to assume that he could be atop their board, if available at No. 7. However, management hasn't been known to pay over slot and, as such, do you think Atlanta will forgo Tate for another player who may not be as risky or costly?
Jim: The Braves don't usually draft Scott Boras clients. Their last prominent one was Joshua Fields, and that didn't work out too well. I would be very surprised if Atlanta took Tate.
Rich: Purke has signed a letter of intent to attend TCU and would be a draft eligible sophomore in 2011, which means he could have as much leverage in two years as he does this year. Although I have likened the tall, lanky lefthander with the three quarters delivery to Andrew Miller (not sure if that's as high of a compliment today as it may have been a few years ago), I see him as a gamble for most teams (other than perhaps the Texas Rangers or Houston Astros) at that price tag. Could he slide all the way to the Boston Red Sox at No. 28 or to the New York Yankees at No. 29, a la Porcello in 2007 and Gerrit Cole in 2008? Porcello turned out to be a great selection for the Tigers but Cole rejected the Yankees and opted to go to UCLA instead.
Jim: He could slide that far, sure. I think the Rangers could be tempted by him if Brownwood (Texas) HS righthander Shelby Miller is gone, and I'm not sure the Astros would go that far over slot if Purke holds true to his price tag. My guess is the Yankees would be more likely than the Red Sox to take Purke.
Rich: Let's circle back for a minute. Strasburg is off the board and it's now time for the Seattle Mariners to make their first pick (No. 2 overall). Is Ackley the consensus choice here?
Jim: I think he is. For a long time, the story was this draft was Strasburg and no consensus No. 2. Now I think most teams in the top 10 picks would pop Ackley if they had their choice (assuming Strasburg is gone, of course). I would do the same thing. I think he's a can't-miss bat, should have at least average power and will be able to move to center field. He's the clear No. 2 prospect in the draft for me.
Rich: Some might say that the draft doesn't really begin until the San Diego Padres make their selection at No. 3. Do you think management will take USC shortstop Grant Green a second time (14th round in 2006)?
Jim: I projected the Padres to take Green in my first projected first round two weeks ago, but now I'm hearing that while they like him more than any team in the top 10, he's not in the mix at No. 3. I've heard Tate there, but he doesn't seem to fit their type of guy as a less-polished high school athlete with a huge price tag. I've also heard Crow and Vanderbilt lefthander Mike Minor there, too. Crow would make more sense to me, but may cost more as well.
Rich: If Green slips past the Padres, where do you see him going?
Jim: He's a real wild card. I can't see Boras advertising him as a guy who signs for slot no matter where he falls, and he hasn't lived up to what scouts expected this spring. Maybe he falls all the way to the Yankees, who spent their first-round pick on another USC player under similar circumstances (Ian Kennedy) a few years ago.
Rich: Which players have been climbing the draft boards the most since you put out your Mock Draft a couple of weeks ago?
Jim: Minor is going to go very high after pitching very well in his last two starts, likely in the first 10-15 picks. We have him rated as more of an early sandwich pick, and I think that's where his talent fits, but he'll go higher than that. Of the projected first-rounders from two weeks ago, I think most guys' stock is holding firm for now. Signability may have guys rise or fall but talent-wise, I don't think anyone else is really leaping up. Guys like Lipscomb lefty Rex Brothers and Indiana righty Eric Arnett continue to pitch well, but we had them as mid-first-rounders to begin with.
Rich: Aside from signability issues, whose stock has been dropping the most — and why?
Jim: White hasn't pitched well recently. He entered the year as the No. 2 pitcher behind Strasburg for some clubs, but now I think he probably won't go in the first 10 picks. A lot of teams are backing off of Green. Even if he'd sign for slot, he might last until the middle of the first round. Baylor righthander Kendal Volz had a chance to go in the top 10 but his stock has been dropping steadlily and he might be more of a third-rounder now.
Rich: Are there any debates as to where two-way players are best suited?
Jim: The biggest debate would be over Plant HS (Tampa) shortstop/righthander Mychal Givens. He's very raw but very talented at both positions, and I think it's a 50-50 split on which way he should go.
Rich: The Arizona Diamondbacks have back-to-back picks at 16 and 17. Do you see them taking one hitter and one pitcher or doubling up? Either way, will money get in the way of how the club approaches these selections?
Jim: I don't think they'll do anything beyond take the two best players, even if they're both hitters or both pitchers. They pick again at 35, 41 and 45, so if they double up they could always shoot for balance later. Ideally, I think they'd take a high school bat and a college pitcher. That is a lot of picks to pay, and it remains to be seen if they'll take some money-savers early in the draft.
Rich: After not having a first-round pick in three of the last four drafts, the Angels own the 24th and 25th spots this June, as well as three sandwich selections (40, 42, and 48). How do you see owner Arte Moreno, GM Tony Reagins, scouting director Eddie Bane & Co. handling this year's haul?
Jim: The Angels aren't afraid to spend and their farm system is flagging a bit, so I'd expect them to pay full freight for all five picks. They love athletes and projectable pitchers, and they love to focus on players in Southern California.
Rich: With the 2nd, 27th, and 33rd picks, Seattle is also in a good position this year. How do you see the new regime approaching these choices?
Jim: When he was running drafts in Milwaukee, Jack Zduriencik took the best player available, not caring if it was college vs. high school, pitcher vs. hitter, or what the general consensus on a guy was. The system isn't loaded with arms, so they might lean a little more toward some college pitching after grabbing Ackley at No. 2.
Rich: OK, let's finish with a big surprise. It could be anything. Let 'er rip.
Jim: Hmmm . . . I guess something that has jumped out at me recently is how a lot of the expected best college pitching duos (Baylor's Volz and Shawn Tolleson, Oklahoma State's Oliver and Tyler Lyons, Stanford's Jeff Inman and Drew Storen and Kent State's Brad Stillings and Kyle Smith) have mostly fizzled, with the exception of Storen. Now the two best come from unlikely sources: Kennesaw State's Chad Jenkins and Kyle Heckathorn, and Indiana's Arnett and Matt Bashore. Jenkins and Heckathorn could both go in the first round, as should Arnett (who would be the Hoosiers' first first-rounder since 1966), and Bashore may sneak into the sandwich round.
Rich: Excellent. Thank you, Jim, for taking the time out of your incredibly busy schedule to share your expertise on this year's draft with us.
Jim: No problem. Love your website, and always glad to help.
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Update: Jim posted his Mock Draft, Version 2.0 earlier today.