By Rob Rains
It was during one of his trips this spring in advance of the amateur draft, perhaps the 12-hour trek through Ohio, when Randy Flores, the Cardinals’ assistant general manager and director of scouting, decided what he wanted for his birthday later this month.
Because of the lingering effects of the pandemic, Flores was usually faced with a shortage of rental cars when he landed at airports as he joined the Cardinals other scouts in preparing for the three-day draft that begins on Sunday.
“Often times when you are traveling at the last second like I am, you’re landing in a spot where the pickings are slim on rental cars,” Flores said. “I got a special bond with a new type of car that I’ve never driven.”
The shortage of rental cars introduced Flores to the minivan.
“I grew to have an affinity for minivans,” he said. “Those two movable electronic doors with the lifting seats and the snub-nosed front that allows you to see the road… It was something I’ve fallen in love with.”
Flores has one requirement for the present he wants from his wife, however. The minivan has to come equipped with Bluetooth.
“I think I was in Ohio, in pretty farm country, driving down the back roads, and I didn’t have Bluetooth on the minivan,” he said. “The jack for any device was only to charge and didn’t provide audio. Several times on that trip I wound up getting lost because I had the phone pressed up against my ear while on a call and simultaneously was using GPS. My cheek would hit the screen and re-route me. That was kind of a mess.”
As he traveled the country in advance of running his sixth draft with the Cardinals, Flores realized that learning to love minivans, even when he got lost, was just part of what he learned this year, something he has tried to pass on to the team’s scouts.
After going through one year, 2017, when the Cardinals didn’t have a draft selection until the third round; to last year, when the draft was stripped to five rounds with virtually no in-person scouting, and now to this year, when the draft is a month later than normal, prompted Flores to realize that each year has its own set of unique challenges.
“What we learned is that you can adapt if you are willing and open-minded to whatever scenario that particular year presents,” Flores said.
Flores believes that same philosophy has guided the Cardinals’ draft selections in recent years, when the organization has landed players such as Nolan Gorman and Jordan Walker, now among the best prospects in the game, because they were not locked-in on a particular player or position for their first-round pick.
“It’s a willingness by the staff, from the analytics staff to the boots on the ground scouts, to not try to steer the boat before seeing where the water takes you,” Flores said. “That’s our job when we pick typically about where we pick – to be able to react to the moving, breathing thing that is a draft in real time.”
The Cardinals saw Gorman drop to their slot, 18th overall, in 2018 and selected Walker – another power-hitting high school player – with the 21st overall pick last year.
The fact that the Cardinals were willing to draft high school players with a big upside, and have now watched them find early success in the minors, instead of a more conversative pick such as a college pitcher – like their first-round choice of Zack Thompson in 2019 – is not an indication of what will happen in this year’s draft, Flores said.
“It’s tricky to rely on the success or lack of success of a player given their draft position as the barometer of whether or not it was a successful draft,” Flores said. “I get that we are in the business of a pipeline and hitting on picks.
“But what you have to lean on is your process, and whether the process and the data points that went into making that selection is something that you can continue to rely on. We are continuing to have confidence and conviction that the process which leads to those selections is built on solid foundations.”
This year’s draft was moved back a month so it could be included as part of the All-Star week activities. The first round will be conducted on Sunday night with rounds 2 through 10 on Monday and rounds 11 to 20 on Tuesday.
The Cardinals will make one selection on Sunday night, the 18th overall pick. They have five of the top 120 picks in the draft, including their second-round pick, 54th overall, and the 71st overall pick, a competitive balance selection between rounds two and three. Their third-round pick is the 90th overall choice, and the fourth round pick will be the 120th overall in the draft.
Flores is like most of the observers of this draft who believe college pitching is the strongest section of talent available, in part because a lot of players who normally would have been drafted in 2020 decided to return to school for another year when the college season was canceled and the draft reduced to five rounds because of COVID-19.
Mock drafts from MLB.com, Baseball America and others have linked the Cardinals to a variety of players but as Flores knows all too well, trying to accurately figure out what 17 other teams will do when they pick ahead of you is virtually impossible.
Among the more intriguing high school players likely to be on the board when the Cardinals make their first pick are Bubba Chandler, a shortstop and right-handed pitcher from Georgia who also is an outstanding quarterback who is committed to Clemson; Benny Montgomery, an outfielder from Pennsylvania; Harry Ford, a catcher from Georgia who could potentially become either an infielder or outfielder, and Will Taylor, an outfielder from South Carolina.
Some of the college pitchers most experts believe will be selected about when the Cardinals pick are Jordan Wicks, a lefthander from Kansas State; Sam Bachman, a right-hander from Miami of Ohio; right-hander Will Bednar from Mississippi State, and right-hander Gunnar Hoglund from Mississippi. Hoglund had been projected as a top 10 overall pick before having to undergo Tommy John surgery earlier this year.
Another unique challenge of preparing for this year’s draft – not just for the first-round but for all subsequent rounds – was the lack of a summer season a year ago, again because of COVID, which usually gives scouts more of a base to begin their analysis of various players.
That was another part of adapting, Flores said, as was the fact teams had the extra month to prepare for the draft which they normally don’t have. How both of those changes will work into the actual draft itself is something Flores is eager to watch starting on Sunday night.
“What the extra month has allowed us to do is often times it’s a sprint to the finish and then you cram,” he said. “What this has allowed is a bit of a pause to dive a little deeper into our lists and to allow conversations and meetings and exercises which you normally don’t have just because the clock runs out and you don’t have time.”
Despite his hectic travel schedule, Flores has always tried to find a few moments when he can find peace and relaxation. It’s happened before driving along dirt roads in Kansas, and on trips like his Ohio journey this spring.
He has frequently in the past found himself changing planes in Atlanta, when he tries to stop by the rainforest between terminals, sometimes taking photos and texting them to the team’s scouts.
That changed this spring.
“The guys were saying, ‘Look if you send me one more picture of the rainforest I am going to block your texts,’” Flores said. “I had to pump the brakes on the rainforest. I thought it was funny at 5:30 in the morning to send a rainforest picture or video, but to a crosschecker on the West Coast they were not enjoying it so much.”
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