06/09/2010 10:35 AM ET
Salfino: Mets get little things right in draft
Club avoids high school players in making its picks
By Michael Salfino / SNY.tv
Matt Harvey, the Mets' first-round pick pitched so poorly in 2009 that he was demoted to the UNC bullpen. (AP)

The Mets did the little things right in the draft this week and thus, say economists and baseball experts who have extensively studied it, have maximized their chances to realize a positive return on their investments.

Before we get into the specifics on the players, let's review some of the general findings on how draft strategy can allow teams to get a tailwind in achieving their goals. Start with an overview of the long odds players even in the upper reaches of the draft face in becoming stars.

In "Initial Public Offerings of Ballplayers," economists John Burger and Stephen Walters (Loyola University Maryland) say the annual yield on the median first-round pick is 33 percent (as of 2006). That means if you spend $1 million, you can expect to get $1.33 million back. But those gains are concentrated among the relatively few players taken in the upper reaches of the draft who become stars. Their chances are about 1-in-20, on average, according to the authors' interpretation and reworking of research done by Baseball America's Jim Callis.

In the first 10 rounds of the draft, write Burger and Walters, about 8 percent of draft picks should be expected to be big league regulars. The expected yield for a team after Round 10 is one big league regular. Of the eight players per 100 picks who become regulars, one will be a "star" and two will be "good" regulars as measured by stats like Bill James' win shares.

But the story does not end there. Burger and Walters found that college players taken in the first round have at least equal odds of becoming regulars or better. High school players on average cost more to sign as draft picks (about 20 percent more) and also take longer to become big league regulars.

So teams that focus on high school players violate the basic principle of the time value of money.

"There are two assets which generate roughly the same expected cash flow (no significant difference in expected performance of the draftees), but for one of the assets the cash flows begin one or two years later," Burger said in an e-mail. "And yet we find that investors are paying significantly more for the assets with more deferred cash flow! How can this be?"

The Mets did not make this mistake. They maximized their odds and the expected return on their draft-day investments. Any players who do pop will at least pop more quickly and quicker is always better when it comes to investment returns. With all the focus on the Mets' willingness to spend, skeptics who agree with this analysis will say that Mets management merely backed into the right answer because they were too cheap to compete for high school talent, which often requires compensation to make up for a surrendered scholarship.

But that does not wash because first-round pick Matt Harvey, a right-handed pitcher from North Carolina, has already foiled the Angels' attempt to sign him two years ago for a king's ransom. He's represented by Scott Boras. The Mets took only two high schoolers in the draft's early rounds. They say this was not a concerted effort, as they should -- especially if it was because you do not want to tip your hand in subsequent drafts. But don't believe in such level of coincidence.

Looking more closely at the top of their draft -- the Mets lost their second-round pick when they signed Jason Bay -- the Mets grabbed catcher Norm Forsythe (University of Tennessee), outfielder Cory Vaughn (Greg's son, San Diego State), outfielder Matthew Den Dekker (Florida), right-hander Greg Peavey (Oregon State), right-hander Jeff Walters (Georgia), right-hander Ken McDowall (College of Southern Nevada) and right-hander Jacob Degrom (Stetson U). It wasn't until the 302nd pick that they took Charlotte Amalie (U.S. Virgin Islands) High School righty Akeel Morris.

What about the players? We can merely speculate. Harvey was once the most highly regarded high school pitcher in the country. He was so bad in 2009 that he was demoted to the bullpen. This year, he pitched well, but not as well as people expected back when he committed to North Carolina in 2007. He has great velocity and the ability to sustain it deep into games. The comp now is Mike Pelfrey, as Pelfrey has realized his draft-day expectations. But it could just as easily be Brad Holt, another former Tar Heel with a great body and big fastball who is really laboring right now in Double-A, where he has an 8.79 ERA and 20 walks in 28 2/3 innings.

Harvey has just one plus pitch right now, his fastball, which is more sinking than explosive. He may be limited to relief, says an National League scout.

Forsythe was expected to be a much higher pick after a good 2009 season, but slumped badly as a junior (hitting .286). Vaughn, says Baseball America, is a toolsy underachiever. Den Dekker is a defensive standout with some pop but with contact issues. Peavey is also a Boras client -- that is a good sign -- who BA says could be mid-rotation or sixth- or seventh-inning reliever, according to varying scouts. That's about the range for all draft picks and thus not very useful. On the plus side, Peavey has been drafted three times.

Michael Salfino writes for the Wall Street Journal and Yahoo! and is a regular contributor to SNY.tv.
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