First, you obviously consider talent. You want to know how good a player is now and can be in the future. But this is fraught with danger. Can you really tell who is better than who right now? Sure, Gerrit Cole is better than the guy available in the third round, but is he really better now than Trevor Bauer? And what about comparing pitchers to position players? How can you tell Cole is better than Rendon, or that Rendon is better than Danny Hultzen? Not only do you have this “present” question, you have to worry about the future. Cole might be better than Dylan Bundy now, but who will be better in 4 years? Who will have the better career? Crossing the pitcher-hitter boundary again, will Rendon be better than Bundy? And what about high schooler vs. high schooler? Will Bubba Starling be better than Bundy in a few years? And which of these (present and future) talent do you weigh more heavily? Do you go with upside or present value? Talent is the most important aspect of drafting a player. You, obviously, want the best player available, but we can’t even decide on who that is.
And teams can’t either. Each of those teams has an army of scouts that go and look at a player, and as much they may try, their opinions are subjective. There’s no way to say how good they’ll be against major-league pitching or hitting until they, you know, face major-league pitching or hitting. But these scouts come back with all these reports on players, and some reports may even conflict over certain players because scouts within an organization may not see the same things as others in the organization. When the front offices try to compile the information, they have to make a decision, and they create a ranking system that tries to put all these players in order. Eventually, this is somewhat of a consensus within the organization, but what about the rest of baseball?
Maybe everyone had Bryce Harper number 1 on their list, but are you sure that Manny Machado and Jameson Taillon weren’t ahead of him on any lists? And which of those two did teams think were better? There may have been more of a consensus with those players because of the time spent scouting them, but when you get to 4th and 5th round players, the talent is more muddled and tiers between players are less distinct. At that point, who is the best player available?
Then, you have to think about price. Sure, price is no object, and drafted players are much cheaper than free-agents. But are you going to tell me money has nothing to do with it? If you have a guy you project to average 3.5f WAR during his career who wants a $1.5 million bonus and another who projects for 4 fWAR but wants $3 million, who are you going to go with? There isn’t an obvious answer, but are you willing to pay the additional $1.5 million for the “best available” player when he may not be that much better?
And what about injury risk? Pitchers get hurt much more than hitters, so does that affect their ranking? If I like Cole a little better than Rendon and think he should be the better player, do I take into account that he’s more likely to get hurt? And if I do, how much does that count off on Cole’s rating? Is it the same for each organization?
As you can see, the phrase “best player available” isn’t always as clear as it seems. It seems so natural and so common sensical, but it’s actually vague and misleading. Taking the best player available is certainly the correct strategy when drafting players, but we have to be careful when criticizing teams over who that player is. I’m guessing teams take the “best available player to them”, but it’s within their own construct of what that means. We may disagree with their construct, scouting, and formulas, but if we do, let’s focus more on with what we disagree. Calling out a team for not taking the best player available is easy, and because of the lack of knowledge about how each individual team drafts, it’s an accusation that doesn’t have to be defended once you’ve made your casual glance through Keith Law, John Sickels, Kevin Goldstein, or Baseball America’s draft lists. You can get mad that your team drafted Law’s 13th best player with the 7th overall pick, and you may feel perfectly justified in doing so because a credible mind told you that there were a few better players than the one your team selected. But in the end, you don’t know that the player wasn’t the best available player on that team’s board (see Culver, Cito). And you can’t use hindsight, either. Teams didn’t have that information when they drafted, and you can’t use it against them. It’s fine to criticize teams and their drafts (you should; constructive criticism is pretty much always good), but let’s be a little better about it than getting mad that they didn’t take the “best player available” because none of us knows what that means.