The Indians have been getting better and better at both drafting signable players and bringing them into the organization over the last few years. In fact, since the draft shrunk to 40 rounds in 2012, they have consistently increased their number of signed players per draft (34 out of 40 picks in 2019) in addition to making sure that all of the top picks sign. The chart below shows the number of players signed (all out of 40) and the first player not to sign based on draft order.
As you can see, the last top ten draft pick to avoid signing with Cleveland was Ross Kivet in 2013, a Cleveland native who signed with Detroit the following year and never made it past AA. This trend makes it seem highly likely that the Indians will sign all five of their picks in 2020 and has proven valuable already as players like Gionti Turner (round 27 in 2018), Ryder Ryan (round 30 in 2016) and Sam Haggerty (round 24 in 2015) have brought value to the big league team despite their late round selections. That, however, is not what we’re here to talk about today.
While complimenting the front office’s efficiency in the draft room, there are still always going to be misses. Some of these unsigned players have eventually come around, including Ryan who was initially taken in the 40th round in 2014, but signed after being drafted again in 2016. Dillon Persinger, Mike Amditis and Pedro Alfonseca were also drafted by the Indians and didn’t sign only to join up the second time around. The first one to get away that we’re going to look at today, however, was one who was drafted twice by the Indians and still chose to try his luck at a third draft.
Way back in 2013, before the Indians started their sign everyone and hope someone sticks strategy of 2017 and beyond, the Indians used their 31st round pick on a right handed starting pitcher out of Pigeon Forge Tennessee, Wil Crowe. Financially, it makes little sense for any high schooler to sign when being chosen so late in the draft as, barring extreme injury, you are likely to be taken higher when next eligible and this was certainly true in Crowe’s case. He went to the University of South Carolina and had a great freshman season although he struggled a bit in his sophomore year and missed his junior year entirely.
Despite not pitching at all in 2016, the Indians made their second attempt to sign Crowe and took him in the 21st round. This time, Crowe’s stock was lowered by his 2015 Tommy John surgery, but he still declined and came back with a very impressive 2017 season. With his stock back up, he was taken by the Nationals in the second round in 2017 and earned a signing bonus of nearly $1M.
Now 25, Crowe is considered one of the Nationals top pitching prospects and very likely would have made his MLB debut this year had the season gone as initially scheduled. He had a very solid 2019 in AA, although he fell off a bit upon reaching AAA. At the moment, he looks like a back end starter in a big league rotation, which would mean had he signed with the Indians, not only would he be nearly $1M poorer, but he would likely be trade bait or stuck in the doldrums of AAAA. Crowe is one who got away, but that was almost certainly for the best for all parties involved.
This next player is not quite the same case. Out of the gate, the Indians 2015 draft looked amazing, stealing former #1 overall pick Brady Aiken with the 17th overall pick and still getting Triston McKenzie and Juan Hillman early on. In fact, each of the Indians first nine picks looked to be extremely high ceiling options and generally performed at a very high level early on. Now, every single player has stumbled at least once with only Ka’ai Tom and McKenzie having 2020 MLB aspirations.
While it wasn’t obvious previously, it’s pretty clear that the best player drafted by the Indians in 2015 didn’t sign. Cleveland took Nick Madrigal in round 17 out of Elk Grove High School in California, but he chose the school option and played at Oregon State from 2016 through 2018. Following his junior season, Madrigal was made a 1st round pick (#4 overall) and grabbed himself a $6.4M signing bonus.
Following his rookie season, Madrigal was considered a top 50 MLB prospect across the board and has been considered a top 20 prospect by Baseball Prospectus in each of the last two seasons. Given his meteoric rise through the White Sox system (three levels in 2018, then the last two in 2019) his success at every level has been incredible. Specifically, he hit .341/.400/.451 in AA in 2019, then .331/.398/.424 in AAA across 29 games. Madrigal is still just 22 years old, but is knocking on the door to the big leagues and should get a shot some time in 2021 assuming baseball is ever played again.
While this missed opportunity is much bigger than Crowe for Cleveland, it’s hard to fault anyone here either. Obviously, Madrigal made the right decision not to sign as he jumped from the 17th round to the 1st and the White Sox grabbed him so early in 2018 that only Detroit, San Francisco and Philadelphia missed out. That being said, they didn’t really either as Casey Mize, Joey Bart and Alec Bohm are also currently considered consensus top 50 MLB prospects. Looking specifically at the Indians using perfect hindsight, they potentially could have taken him much earlier, but even if he had been taken in the ninth round instead of Devon Stewart, it’s likely he wouldn’t have signed. The risk of taking him earlier was obviously considered too high by both the Indians and every other team in baseball as he would have been taken long before the 17th had it been any other way.
Ultimately, taking a top high school prospect late in the draft is generally used as a way to start a relationship with a player, something that worked out for the Indians in the cases of Amditis, Persinger, Alfonseca and others, but something that is irrelevant should that player’s stock rise so much that they become a top draft pick. That was really the case in both of these situations and there is no reason to fret about what is lost for the Tribe.
Photo: Oregon State