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“Going Under-Slot:” What is it, Why, and Will Elias Do it in 2022?

Mike Elias on his laptop.
photo: Reddit/orioles-official
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Following the Orioles during draft season can be confusing for fans. It seems like every mock draft you see has them picking someone different. This shows how the Orioles operate the draft. Mike Elias is going into his 4th draft with the Orioles, and overall he has done a great job. Elias has caught some criticism for the moves he makes, but the man can scout talent, and he has a vision for the draft. He operates the draft in a particular way, using a strategy that has caused some concerns from scouts and fans alike.

The strategy is called going under-slot, which entails using the money given to the team based on where they pick, not choosing the best player but picking the fourth or third-best player at a discount. Why would they do this? To save money at the top so the money can be spread around the Draft.  This strategy is not popular with scouts or fans because it leaves a lot of talent on the board and puts a lot of pressure on the GM to hit on those later picks.

Elias has used this strategy twice in Baltimore and famously once when he was in Houston. He likes to do it because he feels he can get the same amount of talent in a draft just by using the money differently than other GMs may. This doesn’t mean it is perfect, as he will see it has flaws like every strategy, but if you are confident in your scouting, the rewards can be huge.

This article explains the pros and cons of this strategy and how it can work wonderfully or fail miserably.

Disclaimer: I am not saying that this strategy is perfect and is the only way to run a draft. I am simply trying to put a method to their madness and show that it can work.

Pros

Going under-slot allows younger and higher upside to enter the farm system. While it is possible to get young raw talent without going under-slot (as we saw in 2019 with Adley, Gunnar, and Hernaiz), it is sometimes impossible to get it without spreading the money around.

Let’s use the 2020 Draft as an example. The Orioles struck a deal with Heston Kjerstad with the second overall pick, instead of going with the bigger names at the time, which included Austin Martin, Asa Lacy, Zac Veen, Max Mayer, or Emerson Hancock. While Kjerstad has had struggles staying on the field for the O’s, he allowed Elias to get some talented high schoolers later on. The Orioles used the money saved on Coby Mayo and Carter Baumler. These two are turning into talented prospects that could play a significant role on the next great O’s team. There is no Baumler and Mayo without Kjerstad taking that pay cut at number two. Would the Orioles be able to get them if they took one of the other names like Martin or Lacy? Probably not.

Here is the next question: is getting Kjerstad + Baumler and Mayo better overall value than using the majority of the money on one of the names listed above, and maybe if you are lucky, one of Baumler or Mayo? Especially considering this was a five-round draft, I would prefer Elias’ rout, even with Kjerstad and Baumler’s injuries. The 2020 draft class has had a tough time adjusting anyway, so Elias didn’t miss out on much, and he was able to get a ton of talent, both young and projectable, and a mix of college bats.

Even if you want to go back in time, you can see a situation where going under under-slot worked out. In 2012, the Houston Astros went against the grain and took Carlos Correa over Byron Buxton, who was the consensus number one prospect in the draft. Correa took an under-slot deal, allowing the Astros to get Lance McCullers Jr. with the money saved. Elias saw how well this worked out for the Astros and has taken notice of it and brought that philosophy over. The 2012 Astros and the Orioles 2020 draft are prime examples of how using the under-slot strategy should work.

Cons

The apparent con is that the team leaves itself in a spot where they have to hit on later picks. If a team cannot do so, the draft becomes a mess, and the team has nothing to show for it. Nowhere can this be seen more than the 2016 Phillies draft. The Phillies tried to copy what the Astros did in 2012, and it blew up in their face. They took Mickey Moniak with the number one pick and saved a ton of money with him. They then spent extra money on a high school pitcher named Kevin Gowdy.

Sound Familiar? A team tries to save money at the top and save for projectible and raw talent later on. It seems similar to the 2012 Astros draft on the surface, but the execution was just off. Philadelphia messed up the development (remember that word) of these prospects. Moniack never developed his raw tools, and while he is still only 24 and is trying to carve out a role with the Phillies, he has not been worthy of a number one pick. Gowdy never pitched with the Phillies in the majors and never pitched to a lower ERA than 4.

This is the worst-case scenario for a team that wants to spread their money around and use it on young projectible talent. This type of talent has a very high miss rate, and with a process like the MLB Draft, you have to be careful with the under-slot strategy, or your haul will end up like the 2016 Phillies Draft.

Conclusion

So what does this mean for the 2022 draft? Suppose Elias prefers to go under-slot. In that case, this probably means he isn’t taking one of the significant three high schoolers and will follow the model of the 2012 Astros and get a Shortstop from high school like Jackson Holliday, or he will follow the 2020 model and get Brooks Lee.

For a refresher on the five guys I think they are choosing from, check out this article.

If Elias can get a projectible high schooler later, assuming he can get Holliday or Lee to take a deal, then the upside is there. The most important aspect of this strategy depends on how good the team’s developmental staff is. Elias has an excellent developmental staff, so this shouldn’t be an issue.

Is this better than taking Druw Jones and still using the 2019 strategy of getting projectible pieces even with a prospect who will demand a lot of money at the top?

What is interesting is that Elias didn’t go under-slot at one in his one opportunity since he’s been in Baltimore, choosing Adley Rutschman in 2019. The O’s have the largest pool of money to spend out of any team in the draft and a ton of picks in the comps round to balance out the money.

So I guess this is prediction time.

Do I think Elias goes under-slot at one next month? Considering all I talked about and how Elias weighs his options, you may be surprised to hear that I don’t expect him to go under-slot this year.

Here’s the point: Elias hasn’t played games, and so far, whenever there has been an actual number one player on the board, he’s taken that player. Druw Jones is this type of talent, so I think Elias fights off the urge to strike a deal just like in 2019, and he gets the best player in the draft.

In conclusion, the under-slot strategy in the MLB Draft is risky, but just like the actual Draft, it can bring a team much fortune or misery if a GM doesn’t play his cards correctly.

Thank you for reading, and come back next week for another draft piece.

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