All along, most outsiders assumed the pandemic-shortened college baseball season – and the altogether cancellation of the high school schedule – would make the inexact process of scouting amateur players for the Major League Baseball draft even more of a challenge.
Is it possible, though, that the lack of games actually worked to the Phillies' advantage?
- Phillies first-round draft pick Mick Abel’s high school coach says there’s even more to the pitcher than meets the eye
- Phillies bet on unrealized potential with third-round pick of Arkansas shortstop Casey Martin
- Phillies draft high school pitcher Mick Abel, who gets a FaceTime visit from Bryce Harper
First-year scouting director Brian Barber hopes so. At least he thinks it might explain why the best high school pitcher in the country was still available at the 15th overall pick, a college shortstop who once was projected to go in the first round slid all the way to the middle of the third, and an intriguing right-hander with big strikeout numbers remained on the board until the fourth round.
There aren't any guarantees that Mick Abel, Casey Martin or Carson Ragsdale will reach the big leagues with the Phillies. Even if they do, it won't be for several years. That's the nature of the MLB draft.
So, Barber summed up the Phillies’ draft strategy thusly: “We took who was the top player on the board at the time when we selected.” They just didn’t expect that Abel, certainly Martin and even Ragsdale, would be there for the taking.
Draft experts pegged the top of the 2020 class as ripe with collegiate talent. It wasn't particularly surprising, then, that the first seven picks and 11 of the first 14 were college players.
But Abel also didn’t throw a pitch this season for Jesuit High School in Portland, Ore. Risk-averse teams tend to shy away from high school pitchers anyway, and with the most recent looks at Abel coming only through video of throwing sessions at an Oregon baseball academy, the Phillies were able to pluck the 18-year-old right-hander in the first round.
The real surprise, at least to Barber, came in the third round.
Without a second-round pick as a consequence of signing free-agent pitcher Zack Wheeler in the offseason, the Phillies watched 71 players fly off the board before making the 87th overall pick Thursday night. Martin wasn’t one of them.
"We didn't think Casey would have any chance of getting to us when the day started," Barber said Friday, "and we didn't have any intention of letting him get by us."
After a stellar freshman year at the University of Arkansas, Martin’s stock began dropping last year as his strikeout rate (24.5%) and error total (23, most among Southeastern Conference shortstops) soared. Martin struck out 22 times in 71 plate appearances over 15 games this season, scaring off some teams even more.
Barber believes there’s an explanation. Martin had surgery last fall on a broken hamate bone in his left hand and likely was still recovering when this season began. Had he been able to play a full season, the Phillies suspect he’d have bounced back.
“In our conversations with him, we really keyed on that as something that got off to his slow start,” Barber said. “It’s an issue that we talked about with him. We have some different testing that we’ve done with Casey that led us to believe there’s upside.”
As much as anyone, Ragsdale might have been adversely affected by the short season.
A converted first baseman who pitched in relief as a freshman and sophomore, he missed all of last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. He returned exclusively as a pitcher and made four starts before the coronavirus ended this season.
The Phillies had a scout at each of those games. Barber attended Ragsdale's final start, a 10-strikeout, four-inning mastery of the University of Florida, ranked then as the No. 1 team in the country.
It was enough for the Phillies to project Ragsdale in the fourth round. Some other teams likely didn't get to see enough of him to feel quite as bullish.
"To be able to see him compete at that type of level against a quality team as the University of Florida, it probably gave us more comfort with what we had seen in the other starts as well," Barber said. "He might've been one of those guys that, if he had a longer track record of doing this, he might have not been there in the fourth round for us."
The Phillies overlooked Georgia Tech outfielder Baron Radcliff’s (33.3%) strikeout rate and made a bet on his raw power. Radcliff, like the other three picks, received a thumbs-up from Bryce Harper, who retweeted a highlight of the lefty-hitting slugger’s 470-foot homer against the University of Pittsburgh last year.
Harper made headlines Wednesday night by surprising Abel with a FaceTime call. Barber said Harper asked general manager Matt Klentak for Abel's number, then did the same Thursday night with Martin, Ragsdale and Radcliff.
Barber said the Phillies dedicated the draft to Will Brunson, an area scout who died unexpectedly of a heart attack in November. Brunson scouted southern Texas.
Teams have until Aug. 1 to sign their draftees. The Phillies have $5.44 million to spend on bonuses, including $3.885 million for Abel.