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Analyzing Three of the Most Interesting Signings of the Draft

Hurston Waldrep pitching for the Florida Gators; CC by License 2.0

The deadline for MLB draft picks to sign contracts has officially passed. Draftees who signed with professional teams have been shipped off to rookie ball or other minor league affiliates in hopes of beginning a long journey to the majors. MLB clubs eagerly wait to see if their investments pay off, as a quality prospect pipeline is a huge key to a franchise’s success.

Each pick in the draft is given a suggested signing bonus amount, called a slot value. When negotiating signing bonuses with the players they draft, each team has a predetermined amount of money they can use to sign their picks in the first ten rounds. The total signing bonus pool available to a team is the sum of the slot values for all of their picks within the first ten rounds. Clubs can offer and sign players with whatever signing bonus amounts they want, but they cannot use more than their bonus pool without incurring a tax penalty. Each pick after the tenth round has no slot value, but if a club signs a player with one of those picks for more than $150,000, the overage counts against the bonus pool. Additionally, if a team does not sign a draftee, then the slot value for that pick is subtracted from their bonus pool.

The lack of hard limits on signing bonuses for each pick gives teams the freedom to manipulate their bonus pool however they see fit. Most players do not sign for slot value. Instead, teams can go under-slot (signing a player with a bonus less than the pick’s slot value) for certain players and use the savings to go over-slot (signing a player with a bonus more than the pick’s slot value) for players that surprisingly slide down the draft board. Such strategic maneuvering by clubs leads to a lot of interesting choices, as the best player available is not always selected. Here are three noteworthy selections from the 2023 MLB Draft. These players are all incredibly talented, but their draft slots and signing bonuses add to the intrigue of their picks.

Hurston Waldrep, RHP - Atlanta Braves, Pick 24

Slot Value: $3,270,500

Signing Bonus: $2,997,500

Hurston Waldrep’s college career began as a Golden Eagle with Southern Miss. He pitched well in limited appearances as a freshman before taking a major leap as a sophomore. A stellar 2022 campaign saw him pitch to the tune of 3.20 ERA and 1.156 WHIP in 90 innings while striking out 14 batters per 9 innings, which was third in Division I. Seen as a potential top-10 pick before his junior year, Waldrep transferred to the University of Florida for the 2023 campaign. He put his stellar stuff on display again, striking out 156 batters and setting the UF record for K/9 with 13.8. However, inconsistency with his control led to a 4.16 ERA, 1.397 WHIP, and 57 walks in 101.2 innings pitched. There were times when the Second Team All-American looked unhittable. In his first three starts of the NCAA Tournament, Waldrep gave up only 2 runs while fanning 37 hitters across 21 innings. There were also starts that were brutal to watch. Game 2 of the CWS Championship Series against LSU saw Waldrep exit the game in the 3rd inning after giving up 3 runs, 4 hits, 6 walks, and 2 hit-by-pitches.

From a pure stuff standpoint, Waldrep is the second-best pitcher in the class behind only Paul Skenes. His arsenal begins with a mid-90s fastball that can jump up to 99 mph. It was highly effective up in the strike zone this past season thanks to some cut and ride. However, the movement and spin rates on the fastball are nowhere near elite, leaving the offering flat on occasion.

Off-speed pitches will be Waldrep’s calling card. His secondary arsenal is headlined by an insane splitter that features a nasty cut and fade. It was borderline untouchable, racking up a 65% whiff percentage according to 6-4-3 Charts. Hurston can also land it for strikes when needed, making this pitch one of the best offerings in the class. Waldrep’s upper-80s gyro slider features hard downward action and also looks to be a plus pitch. His arsenal is wrapped up with a mid-80s curveball with great break and some arm-side tail.

Nobody questions Waldrep’s stuff. The issues are with his control and delivery. As mentioned before, command issues plagued an otherwise great junior campaign for Hurston. He issued 57 walks and 9 hit-by-pitches in 101.2 innings. A BB/9 of 5.0 is concerning, but there may be an explanation for some of his control struggles.

Waldrep’s delivery features some moving parts. He tilts his back shoulder back as he begins his stride to the plate. As he throws the ball, he dips his front shoulder down and leans slightly to his left. This gives him an overhand arm slot that plays up his slider and makes it more effective low in the zone. However, this delivery is not easily repeatable. The frequent free passes offered by Hurston suggest that any timing issues affect the location of his pitches for the worse.

The Braves took a huge swing on Waldrep’s upside. He has ace potential, and Atlanta’s propensity to develop starting pitching makes this pairing exciting. Max Fried, Spencer Strider, and pre-injury Michael Soroka all developed into stars with the Braves in recent years. The thought of Hurston Waldrep being the next electrifying starter in the ATL is sure to get Braves fans pumped. His road to the majors got off to a wonderful start in his first A game, giving up only 1 ER and 1BB while racking up 8 Ks in 3 innings.

However, Waldrep needs a repeatable delivery to reach his sky-high potential. The command issues he exhibited in college cannot continue at the professional level if he is to remain a starter. However, there is no way to know how much of the lack of control can be blamed on his funky delivery. The delivery could get cleaned up and Waldrep still just might not be able to find the strike zone. If that is the case, then Hurston will likely only make it to the majors as a reliever.

It seems teams were scared off by Waldrep’s volatile nature. Few expected him to be available at pick 24. The Braves scooped him up and still managed to sign him for $273,000 under-slot. Getting who some consider to be the second-best pitcher in the class at pick 24 and still managing to save money to put toward other picks is an incredible move. Alex Anthopoulos and Co. will be incredibly proud of this pick if Hurston reaches his potential. However, the risky nature of Waldrep makes this pick worth monitoring as he progresses through the minors.

Jacob Wilson, SS - Oakland Athletics, Pick 6

$6,634,000 Slot Value

$5,500,000 Signing Bonus

The pride of Grand Canyon University, Jacob Wilson has torched the Western Athletic Conference for the better part of the last three years. During his sophomore campaign in 2022, he sported a .358/.418/.585 slash line in 59 games, good for a 1.004 OPS. He put his absurd contact skills on display by striking out only 7 times across his 275 plate appearances. Up next was an impressive display with the U.S. Collegiate National Team. Wilson tallied 4 hits, 2 extra-base hits, 2 walks, and a stolen base in 6 games. He came back to GCU with a vengeance in 2023, sporting a .412/.461/.635 slash line and a 1.096 OPS in 49 games. He also drew 19 walks, stole 8 bases, and somehow lowered his strikeout total from last year. No, that is not a typo. Jacob Wilson struck out only 5 times in 217 plate appearances in 2023, giving him a ridiculous 12 strikeouts over the last two seasons. It took him two years to strike out as many times as others do in one week. That ridiculous batting line was coupled with 2023 WAC Defensive Player of the Year honors and consensus All-American status.

Any conversation about Jacob Wilson begins with his hit tool. A smooth swing and great hand-eye coordination lead to incredible contact skills. He puts the ball in play to all fields and rarely swings and misses, as evidenced by his measly 2.7% strikeout rate in his final collegiate season. However, not all of that contact was good contact. His exit velocities in college were not great, and his average launch angle was just a hair above zero degrees, incredibly low for a top college draft prospect. Power will never be his calling card. However, when you make as much contact as Wilson does, you’re bound for extra-base hits at some point. He has shown the ability to drive the ball into the gap, hitting 18 doubles as a sophomore and following that up with 17 doubles and 4 triples as a junior.

Wilson also offers solid defense at shortstop. A combination of good instincts and range on the infield and an above-average arm fuel the belief that he can remain at shortstop in the big leagues. Despite his range on defense, Wilson is, at best, an average runner, and he won’t steal a bunch of bags in the pros. Listed at 6’ 3”, 190 pounds, Wilson still has some room for muscle. He might slow down a bit if he bulks up, but it could help him generate more power.

The decision by the Athletics to pick Jacob Wilson at number 6 overall was surprising to many. However, Oakland’s front office wanted someone they could easily sign for far under-slot. Wilson’s $5.5 million was $1.134 million below slot value, the biggest under-slot deal in the entire draft. They needed the savings because Oakland also agreed to terms with third-round pick Steven Echavarria on the biggest over-slot deal in the draft. Echavarria, a 17-year-old right-handed pitcher with a potential four-pitch mix, signed for $3,000,000, which is $1,994,300 above pick 72’s slot value. Oakland likely could not afford Echavarria had they not taken Wilson at pick 6. Getting both players with realistic major-league upside is a huge win for the Oakland brass.

Jacob Wilson’s big-league outlook depends largely on whether or not he can develop any more power. His hit tool is outstanding, and he will be able to hit for average at the major-league level. He will be fine defensively as well, and developing an aggressive plate approach that plays into his incredible contact skills will suit him well. The burning question is will he be able to offer anything more with his bat than just slap-hitting for singles? If he can generate harder contact, Jacob’s ability to spray the ball to all fields will allow him to find gaps for extra-base hits as he did in college. Filling out his frame could also lead to some pull-side home runs, though they will be few and far between. That added power will give Wilson more value at the plate and keep him at the top of major-league lineups for a long time.

However, should that power never develop, Wilson will be a slap-hitter who will have run into extra-base hits occasionally when he gets a pitch he likes. There is value in a guy who can spray singles all over the field, but doing so at an elite level is difficult. If Wilson cannot generate better contact in the pros and begins falling victim to poor BABIP (batting average on balls in play), his value at the plate is significantly diminished. Not ideal for the number six overall pick.

Yohandy Morales, 3B - Washington Nationals, Pick 40

$2,144,700 Slot Value

$2,600,000 Signing Bonus

Slugging 3B Yohandy Morales has spent the last three seasons sending balls into orbit down in Coral Gables, Florida. A regular starter for the University of Miami his entire collegiate career, he burst onto the scene as a freshman with a .284/.343/.531 slash line and 11 home runs in 53 games. He improved upon that with a solid sophomore season. A .329/.411/.650 slash line, 1.061 OPS, and 18 home runs highlighted his 2022 campaign, and he led the Hurricanes to the number 6 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. Following that was a quick run with the U.S. Collegiate National Team, where he led all players with a .400 batting average and .600 slugging percentage in 7 games. He received first-round buzz going into 2023 and showed why it was warranted. In 61 games, Morales clubbed 20 home runs, tallied 70 RBIs, and slashed .408/.475/.713, good for a 1.187 OPS.

At 6’ 4”, 225 pounds, Morales is a menacing presence in the right-handed batter’s box with double-plus raw power. His powerful swing is highlighted by a strong, steady lower half and quick hands. Great bat speed and barrel control led to crazy exit velocities, with an average of 94.2 mph and a max of 113. He sent moonshots to all fields this year, and any impact he has at the professional level will begin with his power.

However, there are still some things at the plate that need work. Morales improved his swing at Miami, but it is still longer than ideal, leading to some swing-and-miss. He is also trigger-happy in the box and hunts fastballs. While he can punish heaters, this approach amplifies the swing-and-miss concerns. Morales sported whiff percentages of 20% against fastballs and 37% against breaking balls. He also struck out 55 times as a junior while drawing only 30 walks. Improvement on that front is needed if he wants to see pitches to hit and use his mammoth power. Additionally, Morales tends to hit a lot of ground balls and line drives. While hard contact with those results can still lead to base hits, he needs to drive the ball in the air more to reach his full power-hitting potential.

Morales is a solid athlete for someone his size with a strong arm. His quick hands also translate well to the hot corner. He will not be a spectacular defender at third but will be adequate, and he can easily play LF or 1B if needed. His run tool isn’t great, but that’s expected from a 6’ 4”, 225-pound slugger who will make a living sending balls into the stands.

Someone with as much raw power and college production as Yohandy Morales had no business being available at pick 40, and the Nationals were more than happy to scoop him up. It cost them a premium, as they gave Morales a $2.6 million signing bonus, $455,300 over-slot. After giving number 2 overall pick Dylan Crews a $9 million signing bonus and going more than $1.5 million over-slot to sign third-round pick Travis Sykora, Washington drafted a lot of talent early but needed to save a bunch of bonus pool money later to afford their top picks. They supplemented this strategy by taking college seniors in rounds 6-10. Since those players are out of college eligibility, the Nationals signed them all to signing bonuses of $20,000 which totaled $1,113,500 in bonus pool savings. Not a single one of those draftees was among MLB Pipeline’s top 200 draft prospects or Prospects Live’s top 500 draft prospects, so they offer little upside. It is an interesting strategy, but if Crews, Morales, and Sykora are as good as advertised, it will likely be worth it.

The Nats still have some work to do with Morales to get him major-league-ready. The swing-and-miss issues will be concerning if no changes are made to Yohandy’s swing or approach. A trigger-happy batter that is laser-focused on fastballs will be easy to pitch around and unplayable once teams figure out he cannot hit off-speeds. However, slight mechanical changes that shorten his swing will help curtail some of the whiff concerns, as well as refining his plate approach. Morales needs to get better at recognizing breaking balls out of the pitcher’s hand. Noticing off-speeds will allow him to punish mistakes in the zone and lay off bad pitches outside of it. Increased discipline will lead to him seeing more fastballs to hit and allow him to utilize his light pole power. Couple that with his ability to spray hard-hit balls all over the field and Morales looks like an everyday major-league 3B with All-Star potential.

All of these players had incredible college careers. They all need refinement in the minor leagues, but each possesses a double-plus tool that could allow them to have a long MLB career. The financial ramifications of these picks are also notable. The Braves and Athletics got talented players while saving money to use later in the draft, and the Nationals paid a premium early and had to save money with low-upside players later in the draft. Neither strategy is objectively correct, and seeing how both the picks described above and the teams’ whole draft classes pan out will be interesting to monitor moving forward.


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