In a normal year, at this late stage of preparation for the MLB Draft, the Mets would have gathered their entire amateur scouting gang — area scouts, crosscheckers, bosses — and other club decision-makers in Port St. Lucie for several days of meetings and strategizing for the department’s most important days of the year.
In this extremely unnormal year, they haven’t been able to do any of that — at least not in person.
Ahead of this year’s draft, which will run for five rounds Wednesday and Thursday nights, the Mets have been fully engaged in “our new virtual reality,” as general manager Brodie Van Wagenen described it. The specifics will sound familiar to many of those working from home these days.
“While we haven’t been able to physically gather, technology has allowed us to remain connected,” Van Wagenen said in an email interview. “We have actually congregated as a group earlier and more frequently than we had previously. We have multiple video meetings per day with groups, large and small, to discuss different subsets of the talent pool. Personally, I have been able to develop deeper relationships with many of our scouts by ‘seeing’ them on a daily basis.”
Forcing everyone to videoconferencing platforms is just one of the ways the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically altered the 2020 draft. The others: no in-person scouting in more than two months and a dramatic reduction in the number of picks per team.
With the former, technology helps again. As the sports world shut down in mid-March, that included college and high school baseball seasons, which meant that scouts who would have spent this period on the road making valuable evaluations of hundreds of amateurs instead had no games to watch. As a substitute, the Mets are relying on a “tremendous amount” of video and data, Van Wagenen said.
Van Wagenen also hailed the additions of veteran talent evaluators Eddie Bane (known best for drafting Mike Trout as the Angels’ scouting director) and Bryan Lambe (an Omar Minaya-era front office member who returned to the Mets) as helpful. And Minaya, a special assistant to the GM, has overseen the expansion of the amateur and international scouting departments in the past year.
“With less travel, more evaluators, and more computer time, we have been able to hone in on each player by sharing the same looks and information,” Van Wagenen said. “As a group, we have also had more access to players for interviews through virtual ‘in-home’ visits. This has allowed us to get to know players better and for them to learn more about the Mets than in a typical year.”
And then there is the matter of how short the draft is this year. As a cost-cutting measure amid massive financial losses for every team, MLB cut the usual 40 rounds to five. The Mets will have six picks — they get an extra between the second and third rounds for losing Zack Wheeler to the Phillies in free agency — starting with No. 19 overall.
As part of the new setup, teams can sign an unlimited number of nondrafted free agents, but those signing bonuses are capped at $20,000 each. That means some players will receive offers in which the money is equal, which puts the Mets in the position of having to sell players on the benefits of their organization. For a team that has an impressive mid-to-late-round homegrown trio of Jacob deGrom (ninth round), Jeff McNeil (12th) and Seth Lugo (34th), that could be an important pool of players.
Led in this arena by Tommy Tanous (senior adviser of amateur scouting) and Marc Tramuta (director of amateur scouting), the Mets for now will focus on the top couple hundred players, those who might go in the draft.
“The importance of each pick is magnified and our focus has been narrowed,” Van Wagenen said. “Our goal is that the attention given to a smaller group of players will positively impact our decision- making.”