Draft for future, not current needs
Do you ever wonder why teams invariably say they are going to pick the best player available in the First-Year Player Draft, regardless of need?
The simple answer is that you don't know now what you may need later. But it goes way beyond that.
Lets say the Braves have an aging shortstop and no good prospects in the Minor Leagues to replace him. There is a highly regarded shortstop available in the first round when their turn comes around, but they draft a pitcher instead, despite the fact that they have a good young pitching staff in place and some good young pitchers at Triple-A. The team with the next pick chooses that shortstop, even though it already has a good young shortstop and another good prospect at Triple-A.
It doesn't make any sense, but follow along.
The Braves' shortstop is young enough that he can probably play a few more years. If they consider themselves to be contenders now, they are satisfied with a veteran player at this position. If they fall out of the race, they can deal the shortstop to a contending team before the Trade Deadline and they can conceivably get a young shortstop in return. Even if they can't replace their shortstop that way, they can get a good young player or pitcher for him.
This is an extreme example, because good shortstops are hard to find. But the point is that the Draft is not the only way to stockpile talented young players.
Pitchers are hard to find, too. If the Braves have an abundance of young pitchers, they can surely get their shortstop of the future by trading one or two of them.
This year, the Astros selected center fielder George Springer in the first round. I was out at Minute Maid Park the other night and one fan asked me, "What's that all about? We already have a good young center fielder [Michael Bourn], and we have so many other needs."
"It's not about need," I said. "It's about stockpiling. If Springer comes on faster than expected and the team improves in the next few years, Springer can learn to play left or right. Someone will have to replace Carlos Lee by 2013."
Left unsaid is the possibility that the team doesn't improve quickly and that Bourn and Hunter Pence play well enough to get very expensive. How many teams would like to have them? Plenty. So, a trade or two is made and the stockpiling continues.
When the Astros had Jeff Bagwell in his prime, they traded for first baseman Darryl Ward and drafted first baseman Lance Berkman with a first-round pick. Bagwell was a third baseman when the Astros traded for him. But Ken Caminiti was a good young third baseman at the time and the Astros needed a first baseman. So Bagwell learned to play first base. The same thing happened to Albert Pujols.
Berkman moved to the outfield in the Minor Leagues, and so did Ward. Berkman fulfilled his potential, but Ward, though he became a serviceable Major Leaguer, did not become the type of hitter they thought he would become, a player like Prince Fielder is today.
The Astros thought Ward would be a better hitter than Berkman. They were wrong. It happens all the time. The point is that you can't predict the future. But you can have a backup plan.
When Bagwell's career was cut short by an injury, Berkman returned to his natural position. But now he is back in the outfield with the Cardinals because Pujols is entrenched at first base.
Or is he?
The other night, the Redbirds played Pujols at third base, his original position, and Berkman at first.
The reason you take the best athlete or pitcher available in the Draft is that you have to prepare for contingencies -- like Bagwell getting hurt.
If you were heavily invested in Apple, would you sell it and buy Blockbuster stock to balance your portfolio? Probably not. You might even buy another tech company and be prepared to sell it or Apple when the next Blockbuster-type company hit the market.
Baseball is like the stock market in the sense that you have to be agile to maximize your returns. And it doesn't hurt to be creative.
Before Caminiti came along, the Astros had a gaping hole at third base. They had Phil Garner at second base, and although he was a productive hitter, he was losing some range defensively. Denny Walling was an excellent fourth outfielder. He hit for average and walked a lot. He was fast, but not fast enough to steal a lot of bases. He had some power, but was not a home run hitter. So the Astros moved both Garner, a right-handed hitter, and Walling, a lefty, to third base and platooned them. In 1986, when the Astros won their division, they were as good as any team in the league at that position. And they always had a game-ready pinch-hitter on the bench.
George Springer is 6-foot-3 and weighs 200 pounds. In college this year, he hit 12 home runs and drove in 76 runners in 63 games. He also stole 30 bases. When he leaves the dugout for center field, he often does a back flip, like Ozzie Smith.
Chances are, he'll play in the big leagues. But will he be Berkman or Ward? Nobody knows at this point, but he wasn't drafted with this point in mind. Nobody knows what position he will play, or even what team he will play for when he reaches the big leagues. Nobody knows how long it will take him to be ready for prime time. But every scout that watched him this year knows that he will play Major League Baseball unless he sustains a career-ending injury.
This is why teams draft for ability rather than need. And it's only a part of contingency planning -- the future part.
Perhaps the most difficult -- and one of the most important -- aspects of team-building is the composition of the pitching staff and the bench. No team wins a championship without good pitching and a good bench.
These are the contingencies of the here and now. I'll have some thoughts on that next week.
Larry Dierker played 14 seasons for the Houston Colt .45s/Astros and the St. Louis Cardinals. He guided the Astros to four National League Central titles in five seasons as manager from 1997-2001. The two-time All-Star pitcher writes a weekly column for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.