The MLB draft differs from the other draft held every June. The most famous amateur baseball player isn’t as widely known as the sixth man on Duke’s basketball squad. Baseball has no Zion Williamson. Its version of immediate impact arrives years down the road, which isn’t to say the MLB draft is without impact.
For confirmation, we need only watch the 2019 Atlanta Braves. Their best pitcher is Mike Soroka, the second player they drafted in the first year of their reset. Their best everyday player the past few weeks has been Austin Riley, taken 13 picks after Soroka in 2015. If voting for the National League rookie of the year was held today, they’d finish no worse than second and third. They’re 21 and 22, respectively.
Of the Braves’ top 12 prospects as ranked by MLB Pipeline, seven were taken with picks between 14th and 44th in the 2015, 2016 and 2017 drafts, all overseen by Brian Bridges, then the team’s scouting director. (Soroka wasn’t included because he’d graduated to the majors.) There were two reasons the Braves’ farm system has, for the past four years, ranked among baseball’s best. One was John Coppolella’s manic trading. The other was Bridges and his scouts.
This will be the Braves’ first draft since 2014 without Bridges in charge. His promotion to scouting director was among the first moves made by Coppolella and John Hart when they took power five years ago. Even after Coppolella and Hart were shoved aside by MLB’s investigation and sanctions of the Braves’ misdoings in the international market, Bridges — whose beat is domestic talent — remained in place.
Until Jan. 9, 2019. Shocking the industry, the Braves announced Bridges was out. (Also dumped: famed scout Roy Clark.) Alex Anthopoulos, who’d arrived in November 2017 to sweep up debris, told MLB.com’s Mark Bowman that Bridges is “a pro and a great human being. As a scout and evaluator, he’s one of the best I’ve ever been around.” That seemed an awfully glowing endorsement of a guy he’d just fired.
On Jan. 10, an arbitrator denied Carter Stewart’s grievance against the Braves. Stewart was drafted No. 8 overall last June. Bridges described him as the No. 1 player on the Braves’ board — he’d affixed the same status to Kyle Wright, their top pick in 2017 — and said of Stewart: “He has the best curveball in the draft. You either have it or you don’t.”
The Braves thought they had Stewart. They didn’t. Post-draft X-rays revealed damage in the right-hander’s right wrist. The Braves could have spent $4.9 million in slot money on Stewart. It’s believed they offered $2 million. The No. 1 player on their board never came aboard, opting not to sign before the July deadline. Then his family filed a grievance.
The Stewarts claimed the Braves hadn’t made a competitive offer, which MLB considers 40 percent of slotted money. The arbitrator ruled the Braves had, which is why they hold the No. 9 overall pick in this year’s draft. That’s compensation for Stewart taking his talents elsewhere — first to Eastern Florida State College, since to Japan. He’d have been eligible for re-drafting, but he signed a six-year contract with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. Need we mention that his agent is Scott Boras?
Since the night of his drafting, the Braves have made no public comment on Stewart — nothing about his apparent injury, his failure to sign or his grievance. When Bridges was fired, Anthopoulos told Bowman it was, in the writer’s paraphrase, “not directly related” to Stewart. Still, the confluence of events — highly regarded scouting director gets the gate on Jan. 9; arbitrator’s ruling hits Jan. 10 — made you wonder about the word “directly.”
On Jan. 11, the Braves announced the hiring of Dana Brown as vice president for scouting. He and Anthopoulos worked together with the Expos/Nationals. When the latter was named GM in Toronto, he hired Brown as his assistant. Brown was Washington’s scouting director when the Nats drafted Stephen Strasburg, the closest thing baseball has come to a Zion, No. 1 overall.
Was Brown’s hiring here a case of a GM wanting His Own Man? Was Stewart a breaking point for Bridges? Was the organization having to defend itself before an arbitrator less than a year after the international sanctions more than it could bear?
It’s believed Anthopoulos deemed Bridges a better scout/evaluator than administrator, which is something nobody on the outside can judge. The fruits of scouting and evaluating can be seen every day. The Braves have a splendid young team atop a thriving minor-league system. Bridges’ first draft yielded two keepers. Ian Anderson and Kyle Muller, high school pitchers taken in 2016, have ERAs under 3.30 at Double-A Mississippi. Their teammate Drew Waters, the outfielder from Woodstock taken after Wright in 2017, is hitting .312 with an OPS of .836.
Of Bridges’ four drafts, the Braves took a pitcher first every time. That was what John Schuerholz intended when he commissioned Coppolella and Hart to tear it up and start anew. As Bridges said last year: “You have to commit to something. With pitching, the more volume you have, the more quality, it makes it easier to sustain something once you’ve started winning.”
Kolby Allard, taken 14th overall in 2015, hasn’t panned out. Wright has stalled in Triple-A. Stewart no-showed. That’s the other way MLB’s draft differs from the NBA’s. There are no sure things. You win on strength of numbers, not with superstars. Bridges pumped up the Braves’ volume. Now he’s the national cross-checker for San Francisco. The Giants’ president of baseball operations is Farhan Zaidi, who as Dodgers GM worked with Anthopoulos. Small world.
With Bridges, there was no hidden agenda. “Keep banging those arms,” he said in 2017. And maybe it was only coincidence that the first pick of Brown’s first draft here wasn’t a pitcher. (The Braves took Shea Langeliers, a catcher from Baylor.) Then again, maybe not.
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