Crash Landing: The Dreams of Drafting #1 Overall and the Reality

The phrase “#1 overall pick” has a peculiar, almost mystical quality to it. As a concept a “#1 overall pick” is almost always Ken Griffey, Jr. or Alex Rodriguez or Chipper Jones. Maaaybe if we’re feeling reasonable “#1 overall pick” only means something like David Price or Stephen Strasburg or Justin Upton — merely All-Star level talents instead of surefire Hall of Famers. One thing is for sure, though, “#1 overall pick” in the abstract never means Delmon Young or Bryan Bullington or Tim Beckham. We’ve been talking about the Phillies #1 overall pick in the abstract for at least a year now and it’s meant nothing but fantasies of greatness, but tonight that all changes. Tonight the “#1 overall pick” gets a name. Tonight it becomes real.

I didn’t expect it the 2016 draft to shape up like this. Two years ago when the Phillies picked seventh overall everybody knew Aaron Nola would be the pick. Sure, there were other possibilities and other names to track, but by the time the draft rolled around there was little-to-no mystery. If Nola was there, the Phillies were going to take him. And, hey, that’s worked out pretty darn well! So, I figured, now that the Phillies have the first pick it’s guaranteed that we’ll know who the pick will be, right? It doesn’t matter what any other team does, the Phillies can pick absolutely anyone they want. If we knew Nola was coming, then of course we’ll know who’s coming with the first pick. It was a given.

Except of course it’s not. It seems so simple on the surface — the Phillies get to pick whoever they want! — and somehow it’s become maddeningly complex. There’s no clear cut #1 overall pick and, with the structure of the draft being what it is, money may well be the deciding factor in a scenario I just didn’t see coming.

Here’s an overly simplistic recap for anyone who needs a refresher on the draft rules and quirks: Each pick in the first ten rounds of the draft is assigned a slot value. Early picks have a higher value than later picks and, as you’d expect, early first round picks are the most valuable of all. (A full list of slot values can be found here.) Add up all of a team’s picks to get their total available bonus pool for that draft. Yes, a team can theoretically spend beyond their allotted pool, but the extensive penalties, including the loss of future picks, are a strong enough deterrent that teams never actually do so. The Phillies have the second highest overall pool in this draft with $13.4 million. The difference between the Phillies’ pool and the lowest pool — the Cubs at $2.2 million — is massive. Consequently, the Phillies are in a stronger position than many other teams to spread meaningful money across picks beyond just the illustrious #1 overall pick.

Because none of the candidates to go first overall have separated themselves from the pack, the Phillies are considering a pool of players with comparable degrees of flaw and risk. This means there could be value in taking the player in that pool willing to sign for the least amount of bonus money. It feels disgustingly cheap to even write that, but it’s undeniably true and rational. If there’s money to be saved up top that can be used to persuade a later round pick with signability concerns to go pro, then that money has real value. Saving money with the first overall pick can essentially give the team the ability to buy two first round talents.

We’ve been told since last summer that there were no apparent generational talents to be had in this draft, but even in a year without a Bryce Harper like player available, the #1 overall pick is still supposed to be about drafting and signing the best player available without hesitation. Well, as it turns out, that’s an idealistic vision of the how the #1 overall pick should play out and it’s a vision that simply never became reality this year. The “best player available” who is a no-brainer pick at #1 simply does not exist.

Of course, this isn’t to say that the #1 overall pick is an unexciting bust before his name is even announced. Two years ago Aaron Nola was an uninspiring “safe” choice and we’ve seen how wonderfully that’s worked out. The Phillies are going to draft an extraordinarily talented baseball player tonight. Maybe it will be a high schooler and maybe it will be a college player. It could be a position player and it could be a pitcher. I don’t think there has been anything disingenuous about the reports this week that the Phillies have been undecided on their top choice. There are a variety of viable paths they could choose tonight.

Reality is almost always less glamorous than fantasy. A year ago, dreams of Draft Day 2016 looked nothing like today. The sexy #1 pick never arrived and it will be years before we know if the Phillies wind up with a Brien Taylor or a Phil Nevin or a Darin Erstad or, sure I’ll say it, even a Griffey. For better or for worse, the time has come to leave the abstract concepts and idealistic dreams behind and face a new reality.

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