Shadowing the MLB Draft
With each passing year, the MLB Amateur Draft gains a wider audience. Exposure for the event is at an all-time high culminating with several hours of live coverage on the MLB Network this evening. Tens of thousands of baseball, fantasyland, and casual sports enthusiasts will tune in to catch the proceedings.
One man, American baseball writer John Sickels, a minor-league prospects and MLB draft expert, will be watching just like he has been for countless years. But unlike the masses, Sickels will be working his own draft board via the Minnesota Twins selections, a process he has conducted since 1996. He calls his work â€œThe Shadow Draftâ€ and he utilizes the exercise to aide his player research as well as to add a little fun to the experience. The baseball writer doesnâ€™t end with the draft. He monitors his shadow team and moves players throughout his system from rookie ball to the big-league club. Seamheads.com recently caught up with Sickels via email to talk about his Shadow Draft.
Q. Seamheads.com: Do you remember how the idea for the Minnesota Twins Shadow Draft came about prior to your inaugural draft in 1996?
John Sickels: Well, the genesis of this goes back to 1982. I was 13 years old, and I bought a tabletop baseball simulation game called Sherco II. It was not as sophisticated as games like Strat-O-Matic, but the rules were simple, it was easy and quick to play, the player rating system was very adaptable, and the results generated were pretty realistic over the course of a full season.
Around the same time, I started reading Bill James. I figured out how Major League Equivalencies worked, and was soon taking MLEs, turning them into Sherco II ratings, and using guys who were in the minors in â€œmajor leagueâ€ games. It was fun, and many times the results generated turned out to be pretty close to what the player actually DID do in the majors once they got the opportunity in real life.
I was a huge Twins fan, and from 1983 through 1993 played a full season of Twins games, all through high school and college. Each season I would tweak the rules a bit to improve realism, and by the time I got into grad school the system bore only a passing resemblance to the original Sherco system. Usually my results were within 3-4 games of what the real Twins did. It became sort of a parallel universe, the â€œDice Twinsâ€ vs. the â€œReal Twins.â€
By the early ’90s, when I was in grad school and working for Bill James, my interest had switched to minor leagues mostly. The first time I started â€œbuildingâ€ my own farm system was in 1992, when I decided to take the real Twins draft and swap out a couple of players. The last full â€œdice Twinsâ€ season was 1993. After that, with the pressures of real life, work, etc., I no longer had time to play the game.
But I was still attached to the idea of the â€œparallel Twins,â€ and would maintain a sort of parallel roster. In 1996, when the Twins drafted Travis Lee in the first round, I decided that I just didnâ€™t like Travis Lee very much, and figured that if I were the Twins I would have drafted Braden Looper instead. So I said â€œwhat the hell,â€ and did my own draft that year.
It started off as something of a lark, but quickly became a way to focus on the draft, and eventually became something I was comfortable sharing with people and making part of my actual work. Iâ€™ve been doing at least the first 10 rounds in â€œreal timeâ€ since 2004, as the draft itself unfolds. Of course, I canâ€™t pick any player already picked, just like in the real draft, and I try to consider monetary factors. If a player is someone the real Twins canâ€™t afford, I wonâ€™t pick him.
Q. From your assessment, what year was your strongest draft?
Well Looper turned out to be better than Travis Lee in â€™96. The rest of that draft was OK. I agreed with the Twins in the second round and went with Jacque Jones. In the third round I picked Eddie Yarnall instead of a guy named Dan Cey. Yarnall was a hot prospect for awhile but didnâ€™t make it, but he was better than Cey. In the fifth round I went with John Bale instead of Mike Ryan; Bale is still pitching. I drafted Courtney Duncan in the 20th round, a guy I saw pitch in college, and he made it to the majors. I was happy to see that.
In 1997 I drafted David Eckstein in the 19th round, another college guy I saw play and liked a lot. I was proud of 1999. I went with real Twins pick B.J. Garbe in the first round. That was a disaster, but I picked Aaron Harang in the sixth round and Mark Ellis in the ninth, so that would count as a successful draft. Brendan Harris in the fifth round in 2001 was a good pick. 2002 was a good draft; I picked Joe Blanton in the first round and Curtis Granderson in the second. Granderson was another guy I saw play college ball that I really liked.
2005 could be very good eventually. Matt Torra in the first round was a mistake; the Twins made a much better pick in Matt Garza; I picked the wrong college righthander. But the rest of that draft looks good; Mike Bowden in the supplemental round, Kevin Slowey in the second (real pick that I agreed with), Brent Lillibridge in the third round, Jon Meloan in the fourth, Scott Richmond in the eight, Mike Zagurski in the 11th have all made it to the majors. Richmond is interesting. He wasnâ€™t drafted in real life and ended up in Indy ball, but he eventually worked his way to the majors.
The 2008 draft has a lot of potential on the pitching side. In the ninth round I picked Jay Jackson out of Furman, a RHP who has already reached Double-A for the Cubs. I also like J.J. Hoover, a 10th round RHP out of a junior college in Alabama with good stuff. Heâ€™s pitching brilliantly in the Sally League in the Braves system.
I have to say that the thing I really like is when a middle round or late round pick turns out good. Iâ€™m a lot prouder of guys like Eckstein that make it, or even marginal guys like Ed Maysonet, Josh Sharpless, Leo Rosales, Terrmel Sledge, and Courtney Duncan. Picking a good player in the first round, well thatâ€™s nice, but the thing I really love is when the obscure guys make it, even if they donâ€™t last long.
Q. And your weakest?
Oh, there have been some really bad drafts, too. 2007 looks very bad right now; I think I botched the first round pick with Nevin Griffith over Ben Revere. There are some middle round picks that might turn into something, so weâ€™ll see, but Iâ€™m not happy with that draft.
I went pitching heavy in 2004, and right now it looks like the only one who will do anything is Glen Perkins, a Real Twins pick I agreed with. I also drafted several college senior types that year to â€œsave money.â€ Chip Cannon looked good for awhile, but heâ€™s not going to do anything. Ben Harrison might make the majors, but overall this doesnâ€™t look like a good draft at all.
I drafted Justin Wayne over Adam Johnson in 2000. Wayne was at least better than Johnson, but other than Joel Hanrahan in the second round, that draft didnâ€™t produce much. 1998 was really bad. I stuck with real Twins pick Ryan Mills in the first round, but a mixture of college pitchers and hitters I picked after that did nothing.
Q. You have targeted high school players early in the last few drafts? Will you be keeping with this trend or looking towards the collegiate ranks?
Yeah, I picked Lars Anderson in the first round in â€™06, Griffith in â€™07, and Brett Lawrie at the top last year. Ideally Iâ€™d like a college player this time, hitter or pitcher, just to keep the system balanced. Generally I am not afraid to pick a high school guy in the first couple of rounds, even a pitcher, but after that I tend to fill in with college players that Iâ€™ve had an opportunity to see, or who have statistics I can analyze.
The Twins pick 22nd. At this point it is hard to know who is going to be available then. I would like it if LSU outfielder Jared Mitchell is available. I could use a high-ceiling outfielder in the system, heâ€™s very toolsy, and has shown signs of improving his skills this year.
Q. I read that you are looking at Ball State OF Jeremy Hazelbaker and South Carolina OF Deangelo Mack as potential middle-round selections. Could you elaborate on why they are personal favorites?
Both have had strong statistical performances. Mack is somewhat undersized at 5-10, 185, but is a pretty good athlete, at least he looks it on video and TV. Heâ€™s played tough competition and performed well, and thatâ€™s the kind of guy I like to look at in the middle rounds. He reminds me of Matt Lawton, who was one of my favorite Twins players. Hazelbaker is a guy Iâ€™m trying to find out more about. Heâ€™s 6-3, 195, lefty hitter, leading his team in OPS with power and a high walk rate, has stolen 29 in 35 attempts, plays center field. I havenâ€™t seen him and am trying to find out more about him scouting-wise, but given his performance he is very intriguing.
Q. Are you excited to see the MLB network covering the first few rounds on national television this year?
Anything that gets the draft more exposure is a good thing in my opinion.