Draft-and-follows can pay off
Teams sometimes hit paydirt by taking a flyer on a player
When it works, it makes a scouting staff look brilliant, like they saw something in a player no one else spotted. But, truth be told, there might be as much good fortune as good scouting involved when it comes to draft-and-follow prospects.
"People take credit for draft-and-follows," Angels scouting director Eddie Bane said about the process when a team drafts a player late, then follows his progress either in a summer league or the following season before deciding whether to offer him a contract. "I don't think you're going to project; I think you're being a little self-congratulatory when you do that."
Bane certainly should know. He has the rights to the player most see as the top draft-and-follow in the country, Steve Marek. The right-handed pitcher was taken in the 40th round last year based on what scout Tom Kotchman (father of Angels prospect Casey Kotchman) saw in last year's JUCO World Series.
The San Jacinto College reliever was named the series' Most Outstanding Pitcher after striking out 13 and not allowing a run in 10 1/3 inning as San Jacinto finished as the national runnerup.
At the time, Marek was touching 94 miles per hour with his fastball. Now, he's sitting 94-97 every time out and he's added a "plus" curve. The Angels have until May 31 to sign Marek and while nothing has been finalized, it did look like they would be able to bring Marek into the fold.
"He's a premier draft-and-follow in the draft," Bane said. "We got lucky. I really don't think it's you seeing something by scouting.
"It's a case of having Tom Kotchman outworking other people, like he always does. You have to be at the games. I've got a bunch of guys who aren't going to be sitting at home watching "Gilligan's Island." Our guys like getting out there and going after it."
Hard work seems to be a common theme in helping increase the odds of success in draft-and-follows. Two years ago, Dodgers scouting director Logan White took Andy LaRoche out of Grayson Community College in the 39th round. Part of the reason LaRoche was available was a signability issue -- many believed he was going to go to Rice University after his JUCO stint.
But part of it was also that people didn't see everything that was there. White remembered seeing LaRoche when he was just out of high school and wearing a knee brace in his first year at Grayson. He was a nice player, but it wasn't until White got a call from Dallas Baptist coach Eric Newman, a former player White had signed, who told White that LaRoche was tearing the cover off of the ball.
"I think we felt, everyone acts like they knew he was a player," White said. "I don't think he was evaluated right. I think we kind of walked by him as an industry. He was an All-American JUCO player. Signability was a bit of an issue, but that wasn't it."
LaRoche has been on a ridiculous home run tear in the Florida State League. While playing in the pitching-friendly circuit, the third baseman (brother of the Braves' Adam and son of former Major League pitcher Dave) homered in five straight games in May, giving him 13 in the month and a baseball-leading 18 overall.
There was a bit of luck in this draft-and-follow tale as well -- not in LaRoche's sudden development, but that no one else took him earlier. White had planned to select him earlier; he likes taking top-notch draft-and-follows in the first day of the draft, like he did with Joe Savery (15th round) and David Price (19th) last year.
"I saw his name, I couldn't believe he was still on the board," White said. "We took him with the thought that we needed to work with him. We didn't get to see him enough during the year. He went to the Cape Cod League, we scouted him better in the Cape and that's when we realized we needed to sign him."
And that's when the hard work really began. After scouting just about every at-bat in the Cape Cod League, where LaRoche emerged as the best hitter in the summer circuit, the Dodgers put a $1 million bonus offer on the table.
That might have seemed an extraordinary bonus for a 39th-round pick, but the Dodgers believed LaRoche would become a first-rounder if he went unsigned and attended Rice. White and his staff had to convince ownership to take a leap of faith.
"There [was] a lot of hard work involved in getting him signed," White said.
From last year's draft, there are a few players other than Marek who have signed and could be the next LaRoche.
The Mariners were able to sign their 11th-round pick from last year, Michael Saunders. The left-handed-hitting outfielder spent the year at Tallahassee Community College before agreeing to a $237,500 bonus. The Brewers were able to ink one of the fastest players in last year's draft in Darren Ford. The 18th-round pick hit .306 with 45 steals for Chipola Junior College this season and has been rated as an 80 runner on the 20-to-80 scouting scale. And the Indians expect to sign Carlton Smith out of Okaloosa-Walton College, a right-handed pitcher they selected in the 21st round in 2004.
But those are the exceptions, not the rule. Every year, every team drafts high school or junior college players with the hopes of following them and maybe discovering a diamond in the rough. The Dodgers may have hit paydirt with LaRoche, but both Savery and Price went on to four-year colleges, meaning the Dodgers will have to wait until 2007 to try to get them again.
"I thought we had a 50-50 chance of signing [LaRoche]," White said. "We'll take a lot of those kids and the percentage of getting them signed is much smaller than that. It's maybe a five-to-10-percent chance that you get them signed."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.