Dipoto and the draft

 One of the biggest complaints that Seattle Mariners fans had with the Jack Zduriencik era — other than the multiple losing seasons — was the inability of the organization to produce top-notch prospects despite owning a top-three selection in three of the first four Major League Baseball (MLB) amateur drafts of Zduriencik’s tenure.

Whether draftees Dustin Ackley, Mike Zunino, Brad MillerDanny Hultzen, Nick Franklin, and Chris Taylor and acquired prospects Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero were bad choices or improperly developed is a debate that still rages on in Seattle. In the end, all that’s certain is that the Mariners’ lack of success in the draft — and the standings — ultimately cost Zduriencik his job.

When the draft gets underway on June 9, the Mariners will have a new general manager — Jerry Dipoto — at the helm for the first time in seven years. The 47-year-old inherits a minor league system that currently ranks number-28 — per Keith Law of ESPN.com — and continues to be a cause of fan angst.

New GM Jerry Dipoto has the unenviable task of keeping the big league club competitive while trying to restock the fallen system. — Keith Law of ESPN.

With that in mind, I thought it might be both fun and informative to review the draft record of Dipoto’s former club — the Los Angeles Angels — during his tenure as their general manager. At first blush, the impression isn’t good.

In the eyes of many Angels fans, Dipoto was a failure at the draft. They point to the fact the organization has zero prospects in the MLB.com top-100 prospect listing. Plus, Law rates the club’s system as the worst in the majors.

From a distance, it appears that Dipoto wrecked the Angels minor league system — that’s what the blogosphere contends. Should the disappointing Angels system be a red flag for Mariners fans? Let’s dig into the Angels draft history to find out.

For starters
Since Dipoto joined the Angels in October 2011 and departed in July 2015, he was present for just four MLB amateur drafts, which brings up a point to consider as we review draft selections. Unless we’re going to venture through a wormhole to the future, enough time hasn’t elapsed to judge the overall success – or lack thereof — for any MLB team’s 2012 draft. Please let me explain.

As of this week, only 69 players drafted in 2012 have spent any time in the big leagues. When I say “any,” I mean enough time to at least have a plate appearance or toe the mound. As you’d expect, even fewer players — 24 in total — have reached the majors from the 2013 and 2014 draft classes and no one from last year’s draft has even had a cup of coffee in “the show.”

Although most 2012 draftees haven’t broken through, there are recognizable names who’ve already spent time on a major league roster. A close look at the following list may help you identify the first significant challenge that Dipoto and his staff faced as they attempted to acquire top-level talent.

Certainly, there are several superb players on the list, including 2015 American League Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa. However, with the exception of just a few of the names, nearly all of the players were selected early in the draft. This is the initial problem that Dipoto faced during his first two years as Angels general manager; his club didn’t have a first round pick.

Hamstrung from the start
In 2012, the Angels lost their first round pick after signing free agent Albert Pujols. As the preceding table illustrates, the St. Louis Cardinals selected starting pitcher Michael Wacha with the number-19 overall selection, which would’ve belonged to the Angels if they hadn’t signed Pujols. Essentially, the Cardinals exchanged Pujols for Wacha.

Not only did the Angels lack a first round pick during Dipoto’s first year on the job, they also forfeited their second round slot by signing free agent starting pitcher C.J. Wilson. When the team finally chose a player in the third round, they selected right-handed pitcher R.J. Alvarez with the number-114 overall draft choice. By that point, all but two of the players listed above were off the draft board.

The following year, the Angels lost their first round choice after signing outfielder Josh Hamilton to an ill-fated free agent deal. Consequently, the club didn’t select until the second round — number-59 overall. Unfortunately, for both player and team, the draftee selected — pitcher Hunter Green from Warren East high school in Bowling Green, Kentucky — just retired due to chronic back problems.

On the surface, drafting later may not seem like a big deal; it is though. Of the 76 players in the MLB.com top-100 who were selected via the draft — the remaining were amateur free agents — 89-percent were either a first or a second round selection. The early rounds matter.

Obviously, it’s not just drafting early that helps an organization. As the Green injury demonstrates, unforeseen circumstances can influence the success of a draft class. However, Dipoto’s Angels started at a major disadvantage during his first two years at the helm.

Another factor that comes into play when considering the Angels’ draft record during the Dipoto years was the use of minor leaguers as trade chips. Some may argue that the club should’ve been more cautious when dealing away prospects. But, it’s never that simple.

Let’s make a deal
Every owner wants to win, but some want it more than others do. Those kind of owners don’t care what it takes to get to the postseason, especially, after they’ve seen their team thrive in the playoffs. Certainly, Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno falls into the “win now” category.

General managers who work for such an owner face the uphill battle of winning right now, while trying to build a controllable, cost-effective foundation for the future. Undoubtedly, Dipoto performed this balancing act throughout his stay in Los Angeles.

Although he didn’t trade away any franchise studs when trying to put his team over the top, Dipoto did have to dig into his already shallow minor league talent pool to get needed help for the big league club. His most prominent deal included the very first draft choice of his tenure.

In July 2014, the Angels dealt Alverez, along with Taylor Lindsey, Elliot Morris, and Jose Rondon, to the San Diego Padres for closer Huston Street and fellow reliever Trevor Gott. Here’s a look at all of the players drafted during the Dipoto regime, who were subsequently flipped in trades. It’s worth noting that several of the deals happened after he left the organization last July.

Dipoto Draft Picks Dealt by LAA
Date Prospect Traded To
Comments Traded For Comments
Jun 2013 Kyle Johnson NYM Class-AA Collin Cowgill Purch by CLE (Dec 2015)
Jul 2014 R.J. Alvarez SDP Traded to OAK Huston Street Current LAA closer
Taylor Lindsey Class-AA Trevor Gott Traded for Yunel Escobar
Elliot Morris AZL Padres  
Jose Rondon #5 SDP
Nov 2014 Mark Sappington  TBR Class-AAA    Cesar Ramos  Free agent (2015)
July 2015  Eric Stamets  CLE Class-AA  David Murphy Free agent (2015)
Nov 2015 Sean Newcomb ATL #19 MLB Andrelton Simmons LAA starting SS
Chris Ellis #14 ATL
Jose Briceno Class-A+
Jan 2016  Kody Eaves  DET Class-AA Jefry Marte Class-AA 

It’s tough to argue with Dipoto’s rationale for trading away minor leaguers for a proven commodity like Street. I suspect that most Angels fans don’t have a problem with this deal since the club went on to win 98 games after acquiring their new closer. Nevertheless, the trade didn’t help the organization’s woefully thin minor league depth.

One transaction that did raise eyebrows was made after Dipoto’s departure from Anaheim. The Angels’ new front office dealt the first player drafted in the first round by Dipoto’s regime — Sean Newcomb — and fellow prospect Chris Ellis, along with veteran shortstop Erick Aybar to the Atlanta Braves for Andrelton Simmons and minor league catcher Jose Briceno.

The Angels got a starting shortstop — Simmons — who’s under team control through the 2020 season. However, they traded away their two top prospects to land the offensively challenged Simmons. While the 26-year-old is an elite defender, his addition — combined with Aybar’s departure — didn’t improve an offense that ranked near the bottom of the American League last year.

Time will determine whether dealing Newcomb and Ellis for Simmons was a wise move by the Angels. But, there’s no denying that the trade weakened an already diminished system.

Hitting rock bottom
As I peel back the Angels’ draft history, it’s clear that the poor standing of the Angels’ minor league isn’t a case of simply doing a bad job of drafting the right players. That’s a factor, but it’s far more complex.

Team ownership spearheaded the signings of several high-priced, overvalued free agents at the cost of payroll flexibility and high-round draft picks. Simultaneously, both Dipoto and new Angels general manager Billy Eppler traded away some of the organization’s future to acquire major league ready talent.

I’m not trying to absolve Dipoto of blame for the moves and draft selections made by the Angels under his stewardship. In the end, he was the man at the top and the buck stops with him. On the other hand, he wasn’t able to employ his baseball philosophy during nearly four years in Anaheim, while he’s already done so with Seattle in just seven months ago.

Turning the page
With the Mariners, Dipoto has complete control over all baseball and personnel moves. As a result, he’s been able bring in his own people and choose who to retain from the Zduriencik regime. Conversely, he inherited field manager Mike Scioscia and scouting director Ric Wilson in Los Angeles.

The history between Dipoto and Scioscia is well chronicled and doesn’t merit repeating. In the case of Wilson though, it’s worth noting that the scouting director is the person who actually runs the draft for an organization — not the general manager.

That’s not to say that Dipoto wasn’t involved in the selection process. Of course, he was involved. However, a general manager has to rely on the scouting director and his staff to do the “heavy lifting” when it comes to actually going out and seeing potential draftees in person on multiple occasions. In Seattle, the scouting director is Tom McNamara — a Zduriencik holdover.

Finally
Dipoto’s tenure with the Angels reminds me of an incomplete novel. The author had a vision, but his publisher didn’t give him enough time or artistic liberty. Consequently, he didn’t get to write the final chapter.

In Seattle, ownership will give Dipoto the opportunity to do a rewrite, on his terms, so he can see his story through to its natural conclusion. Whether Dipoto produces an epic tale that leaves Mariners fans wanting more or he delivers a clunker destined for the discount rack will be determined later. In the interim, I’d suggest that Mariners faithful consider two things.

First, don’t be surprised if Dipoto opts to deal young players to improve his ball club, assuming that the Mariners are in contention at the all-star break. He did it with the Angels and he’s already shown a willingness to part with minor leaguers such as Enyel De Los Santos, Nelson Ward, and Patrick Kivlehan in order to beef up his club’s 2016 roster.

In addition, it’s likely that we won’t see 2016 draftees at the big league level for another four to six years. That’s the typical time it takes prospects to reach the majors. That means that the next President of the United States will be running for re-election before we have any idea on how well Dipoto’s organization has performed in the draft.

If the Mariners general manager is still with Seattle in six years, there’s a good chance that fans will be satisfied with the organization’s draft and player development reputation, plus their win-loss record. Otherwise, they’ll be commiserating with Angels fans and looking for another author to write that non-fiction tale about October baseball set in Seattle.

 

 

 

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Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home. During the baseball season, he can be seen often observing the local team at Safeco Field. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins
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