The 2015 MLB Draft is now less than a month away, and for the first time in years, the Mariners don't have a first round pick. In a way, you can look at that as a good thing: the Mariners only forfeited their first pick when they signed Nelson Cruz, who had received a qualifying offer from Baltimore after bashing forty homers. If the M's had their first round pick, then they wouldn't have Nelson Cruz, and he could be the difference between this team making and missing the playoffs this year. However his career in Seattle plays out, year one has been a smashing success so far, and nobody should be losing sleep over the draft pick right now.
That said, not having a first round pick hurts the Mariners in two ways. The obvious one is that their position precludes them from nabbing any of the draft's best assets: thanks to the free agent compensation round and a few competitive balance selections, the M's don't get to take a player until the sixtieth pick. That's very low. There's no sure thing in a baseball draft, but there are relatively safe selections who have reasonably high chances of contributing to a big league team in some form; those players will be long gone by the time the Mariners are on the clock.
Second, the new rules from the latest collective bargaining agreement limit the amount of money that teams can offer their draft selections. Money is allocated by the aggregate total value of the recommended signing bonuses for each pick in the first ten rounds -- if your head is swimming, don't sweat the details -- and because the Mariners don't have a first round pick, they have significantly less money to spend than they otherwise would have. They have a lower draft budget than all but two other teams, and their modest $4.18 million pool is blown out of the water by the $17 million that Houston can spend. The upshot here is that the M's can't bank on drafting an impact player with signability concerns (as, for example, Pittsburgh did back in 2011 when they drafted Josh Bell in the fifth round and bought out his commitment to Texas with a last minute $5 million bonus).
Essentially, the Mariners find themselves in a weak position in the 2015 draft. They won't have access to premier players, and the new restrictions limit the amount of dough they can offer a high upside kid who hasn't decided whether he wants to play college football or professional baseball. It's nice that the M's have timed a rainy draft year with what appears to be a pretty underwhelming class, but on the surface, it's a little disappointing that the organization won't be adding an impact prospect to their system this year.
The 'on the surface' caveat is important here. Led by scouting director Tom McNamara, the Mariners have done a tremendous job of drafting after the first round. Five of the players on the twenty-five man roster were taken after the second round -- Kyle Seager, James Paxton, Chris Taylor, Brad Miller, and Carson Smith -- and a sixth, Taijuan Walker, was a sandwich selection. That's remarkable, particularly considering that McNamara has only been with the organization for six drafts.
It's not unusual for teams to have a few non-first rounders on their active roster, but they tend to be middle relievers or bench bats. In Seattle, a quarter of the Mariners roster is currently composed of guys taken after pick forty, and all of them are in key roles on a playoff contender. A quick look at their last six drafts reveals that even more of these types of players could contribute soon:
2009: Seager (round 3), James Jones (4), Anthony Vasquez (18), Brandon Bantz (30).
This was the draft that also netted Dustin Ackley and Nick Franklin. The group has already produced 23 WAR and most of that comes from Seager. Conceivably, Steve Baron, Brian Moran, and James Gillheeney could also see time in the majors too, though they'll probably fall short.
2010: Walker (1s), Paxton (4), Stephen Pryor (5), Stefen Romero (12).
If we don't count Paxton -- a first round talent who fell because of signing bonus concerns -- this might be the weakest of the club's post-round 1 drafts. Considering that they grabbed two members of their current rotation when their first pick was No. 43 overall though, it's hard to call this draft anything but a success. Jabari Blash (8) and Stephen Landazurri (17) could contribute at the major league level in time as well.
2011: Miller (2), Carter Capps (3), Smith (8)
No Danny Hultzen yet, but this draft garnered a super utility player, the club's best reliever, and, through a trade, the starting first basemen. John Hicks (4) and Tyler Marlette (5) could be backup catchers and there are a few potential relievers from this draft that could wind up in the bullpen.
2012: Taylor (1.2), Dominic Leone (16)
Counting Mike Zunino, this draft has already produced three big leaguers with more than 1 WAR less than three years removed from draft day. That's pretty damn good. Additionally, Edwin Diaz (3) is arguably the organization's best pitching prospect, while Pat Kivlehan (4) will almost certainly have a big league career as well.
2013: Tyler Olson (7)
Olson is one of the only 2013 draftees to reach the majors yet, and he's hardly the end of the line in this draft for the Mariners. It's not the deepest group -- big money on D.J. Peterson and Austin Wilson (2) hindered the club's flexibility later on -- but at least one of Jack Reinheimer (5) and Tyler Smith (8) will play in the big leagues, and there's the usual collection of arms that could take a step forward over the next few years.
It's a little too early to evaluate what the Mariners have from their 2014 crop, but the point stands either way: the Mariners have produced an unusual amount of talent from the draft, and from picks after the first round in particular. That bodes well for 2015. The M's may not have any high picks, but their scouting and player development department seems to do pretty well with the rest of the draft, and I'm bullish on their chances of finding another diamond in the rough.
It's impossible to definitively evaluate to what degree the Mariners have been good as opposed to lucky with their picks. For all of the hard work that scouts and executives put into the draft, you don't really know what you have in a player until they get in your system and start facing top competition regularly. That said, the Mariners have a ton of really good people in place on the amateur evaluation side. McNamara is universally respected as a scouting director -- the time he pulled rank to take Seager earlier than expected is one of the biggest feathers in his cap -- and scouts like Garrett Ball, Mike Moriarty, and Rob Mummau have hit big multiple times on the players they've evaluated. We can't really tell exactly what the club's secret sauce is, but the M's might have a sustainable advantage in evaluating second tier amateur prospects. For the sake of our 2015 draft crop, we can only hope that remains the case.