By Rob Rains
Randy Flores is fond of saying that each of the years he and his team of scouts have prepared for the baseball draft has been different.
Different does not begin to describe this year’s preparations.
How different? Flores and the rest of the Cardinals’ scouts are spending their days in front of computers watching videos of prospects instead of watching games in person. There are no games to watch because of the coronavirus pandemic, which shut down baseball at all levels in March.
Add in the facts that the date for the draft, originally set to begin on June 10, has not been officially determined, as well as whether the draft will be cut to five rounds or 10 instead of the usual 40, and it is immediately obvious the challenges that Flores and his scouts are facing – just like the other 29 major-league teams.
“We are all in the same boat,” Flores said. “We’re all missing those live looks, those jumps in performance, missing those who might be developing a pitch and didn’t get a chance to be seen live. Luckily, it’s a level playing field because all of us are dealing with those difficulties.
“There’s a lot of unknowns out there.”
What Flores does know for certain is that he and his scouts still have to prepare – even if in a different manner – and rank and evaluate players for whenever the draft is held. Thanks to extra picks because of a competitive balance selection and a compensation pick for losing free agent Marcell Ozuna to the Braves, the Cardinals will have five of the top 93 picks in the draft.
The Cardinals will have the 21st, 54th, 63rd, 70th and 93rd picks in the draft, all in the top three rounds, plus their normal picks – at least in rounds four and five.
While the exact details of the draft have not been confirmed, it appears likely the draft will be cut to five rounds if this major-league season is canceled and 10 rounds if the season is just delayed. Any eligible player not drafted could still sign as a free agent, but with a strict $20,000 cap on a signing bonus.
Scouts have not been allowed to work out players in person since March, when all of the live games stopped and the Cardinals sent their scouts home. In some cases, high school players who were projected as first-round picks had not even begun their season, leaving teams to make draft decisions by relying on a player’s performance from last season and their appearances on the summer showcase circuit.
Under the new scouting landscape, one advantage the Cardinals might have is that they have incorporated video in their evaluation process for several years, and have a database of videos from past seasons to draw from. Flores in fact ran a company which provided videos of players to teams before he was hired as the Cardinals’ scouting director.
“I don’t know if it gives us an edge but it maybe puts us a step or two ahead of the learning curve,” Flores said. “Our baseball development team ramped up its capture of video and the archiving process pre-COVID. We were already using streaming services for conference calls that traditionally were in-person and pivoted a few years ago and went to Facetime … so all of those steps are not foreign to us.”
Flores has been running the Cardinals’ drafts since 2016. His first year, combined with every aspect of his job as the scouting director being new, saw a player they had not expected to still be on the board, Delvin Perez, drop to their selection. In his second draft, Flores had to prepare for a draft that did not include any picks in the first or second round as a result of the team’s former scouting director hacking into the Astros’ computer database.
In 2018, Flores and the Cardinals had to pivot to be able to select Nolan Gorman after he unexpectedly fell in the draft. Flores relies on all of those experiences in his draft preparations, but none of what he has gone through in the past four drafts come close to matching the unusual nature of this year’s countdown to the draft.
“Lo and behold COVID-19 … I think that tops them all,” Flores said.
Flores was at a game in the southeastern part of the country in mid-March when the decision was made to pull the scouts off the road.
“It was late at night and I started trying to change my flight and it was a four-hour plus hold time on Delta and I couldn’t get through,” Flores said. “So the next morning I got in my rental car and drove the 11 hours home and bunkered down.”
Flores immediately told his scouts that just because their work was going to be different this year, the importance wasn’t going to change.
“We got on a zoom call and told everyone we were going to operate under a set of assumptions,” Flores said. “The intent of laying those out was for everyone to really understand that this is going to be different, it’s not just a pause.
“In order to get the type of focus and intentionality on our process moving forward we operated under the assumption there would be no further in person evaluations, no pre-draft staff meetings and that we would be communicating by zoom calls and phone calls. We assumed the draft day will be June 10 so we could keep our timing, our cadence and our momentum and then adjust if any of those assumptions held to be incorrect.”
Flores said he does not know when the final decisions will be made about the date for the draft and how many rounds it will be – but he knows his scouts will be ready.
“This is one of those deals where we learn more each week,” he said. “A month ago you could never have imagined the steps that would happen, that we are all seeing it play out on live TV. That’s why the commissioner’s office is holding off; we get more clarity each week on what the next steps are going to look like.”
A few weeks ago John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations, offered Flores some advice about the challenges he was going to face because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“His counsel was something to the effect that, ‘Look Flo, you are going to try to figure all of this out right now – the draft strategy, signability, where the draft will take place, how you will have meetings – but just pause on that because those answers will come in time. Save the energy for when that’s necessary.’
“We don’t know yet how we will do all that, but I don’t have to. We will be ready when we have some clarity.”
While Flores is focused primarily on this year’s draft, he already knows the pandemic is going to impact the drafts in the next couple of years as well. The Cape Cod League, where the Cardinals have always had an active scouting presence looking at top college players, has been canceled for this summer. Many other leagues also are expected to cancel their seasons, after there was no or only a short spring season, and many of the high-profile scouting summer showcases also likely will not be held.
For now, Flores has been working mostly from home. He has been able to use the time when he normally would have been on an airplane heading to one game or another to watch a top prospect to access more video of players he might not have seen in the past.
When he needed a break in past years from the rigors of the road, if Flores found himself in one of his frequent hangouts, the airport in Atlanta, he would try to spend some time in the rainforest that was built between two of the terminals. If he happened to be in Kansas, he would go out and take a drive on some quiet back roads.
Since he can’t do either now, Flores has found a capable substitute – spending time his two daughters, 10 and 8, and his 2 ½ year old son.
“My mental escape comes from being able to spend some time with them in the spring when I have not been able to do that in any spring of their lives,” he said. “Evening walks with my family provides all the mental break I need.”
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Photo courtesy of Randy Flores