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MLB Draft will test Yankees' improvisational skills

The Yankees' Damon Oppenheimer, who scouted and signed

The Yankees' Damon Oppenheimer, who scouted and signed Aaron Judge, and Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, left, present Judge with a crystal gavel to commemorate his historic rookie season with 52 home runs before an MLB game against the Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium on Oct. 1, 2017. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Nobody knows.

It doesn’t make for a snappy TV or radio sound bite or quote that advances a written story, but it’s the only 100% honest appraisal any pundit can make in the immediate aftermath of the crapshoot known as the Major League Baseball Draft.

And it’s especially the case for this year’s draft, which has been cut to five rounds from the usual 40 as a cost-cutting measure because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Yankees have a first-round pick (28th overall) in the draft, which will be held remotely and starts Wednesday night, and have additional picks at No. 99 and No. 129 (second- and fifth-round picks were forfeited after signing free agent Gerrit Cole).

As part of an agreement between the union and management, teams can sign an unlimited number of undrafted players at a maximum of $20,000 per player after the five rounds.

Evaluating players in advance of any draft is a challenge in the best of circumstances — if a team nets even a small handful of big-leaguers in a given year’s 40-round draft, that draft is deemed an overwhelming success — but, as no one needs reminding, speaking globally these are far from the best of circumstances.

Preparing for an MLB Draft unlike any other, league-wide amateur scouting departments, including the Yankees, were forced to improvise in compiling their extensive reports on college and high school prospects.

College baseball seasons were suspended in March and high school players never took the field, meaning no games for scouts — and their radar guns, stopwatches, etc. — to evaluate talent in person. And in-home visits, a tool for teams looking to glean other bits of information, such as a prospect’s makeup, were replaced by Zoom calls.

“It’s definitely a real challenge,” the Yankees' longtime vice president of amateur scouting Damon Oppenheimer told WFAN last week. “We're just trying to do the best we can with the information that we have and trying to create as much information as possible. The data really hasn't changed, so it's just more video and more knowledge of the players. That's about the only way we're able to enhance what we can do.”

Oppenheimer, who has overseen Yankees drafts since 2005, like just about everyone with his job, has his share of draft hits as well as plenty of misses.

For every Aaron Judge (taken in the first round, 32nd overall, in 2013), Brett Gardner (third round, 2005) and Jordan Montgomery (fourth round, 2014), there is a lengthy list of those who have not made it — Cito Culver (a first-round pick in 2010, taken 32nd), Andrew Brackman (2007 first round, 30th overall) and Ty Hensley (2012 first round, 30th overall), just to name a few.

The Yankees' system, while considered middle-of-the-pack in overall talent, draws consistent praise from opposing team scouts when it comes to the arms in it. Oppenheimer and the Yankees have made it a priority to collect as many power arms as possible — in the last two years, 49 of 81 picks have been pitchers.

“It shows,” one opposing team talent evaluator said. “It’s one [power arm] after the other at every level. You like your odds [of some making the majors] when the pool is that deep.”

Though many of the touted pitchers in the minors came via the international draft — righthanders Deivi Garcia, Luis Medina and Yoendrys Gomez are just three — there have been plenty added through the domestic draft. Righties Clarke Schmidt (taken 16th overall in 2017) and Nick Nelson (a fourth-round pick in 2016) are considered close to getting big-league shots, and among the group in the lower levels most often mentioned by scouts are lefthander T.J. Sikkema, picked 38th overall last year, and righty Frank German, a fourth-round pick in 2018.

MLB Draft Order, First Round, 7 p.m. Wednesday on MLB Network and ESPN

1. Detroit Tigers

2. Baltimore Orioles

3. Miami Marlins

4. Kansas City Royals

5. Toronto Blue Jays

6. Seattle Mariners

7. Pittsburgh Pirates

8. San Diego Padres

9. Colorado Rockies

10. Los Angeles Angels

11. Chicago White Sox

12. Cincinnati Reds

13. San Francisco Giants

14. Texas Rangers

15. Philadelphia Phillies

16. Chicago Cubs

17. Boston Red Sox

18. Arizona Diamondbacks

19. New York Mets

20. Milwaukee Brewers

21. St. Louis Cardinals

22. Washington Nationals

23. Cleveland Indians

24. Tampa Bay Rays

25. Atlanta Braves

26. Oakland Athletics

27. Minnesota Twins

28. New York Yankees

29. Los Angeles Dodgers

* Houston forfeited its first-round pick as part of their sign-stealing punishment.

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