The nature of the MLB Draft causes talented players to fall beyond where they should be selected. Signability is a major concern and for every selection, teams have to weigh the benefit of drafting each player they consider versus the risk that they won’t sign. However, there’s a clear flaw in the system–high bonus demands cause players to fall, and players falling in the draft make them unlikely to sign. When teams draft these riskier signs, they always try to save money elsewhere in the draft and find the money to bring them in, and sometimes they manage to do that. But every year, several deserving players’ draft slots make it too tough for the teams that selected them to give him the bonuses they want, and they end up going to college even if they wanted to sign. We can’t be sure exactly what J.D. Davis’ situation was when the Rays’ drafted him in the 5th round in 2011, but he is looking more and more like a potential impact player who slipped through the cracks.
Coming out of high school, Davis was a 6’3″, 220 third baseman with two flashy tools: his power and his arm strength. His outstanding strength both in his arm and lower body allowed him to tear the cover off the ball at the plate and hit as high as 93 MPH off the mound. There were various concerns–his bat speed was only average and his pitch recognition needed work–but he had the raw ability to be either a star third baseman or a relief weapon who just maybe could start. Davis’ weaknesses may have been too much for him to be a first round pick, but it was hard to imagine him slipping beyond the second or third round based on his abilities alone. Instead, signability issues dropped Davis to the 5th round, when the Rays finally selected him. As the Rays went down to the wire trying to sign their 12 picks before the third round, Davis got pushed down the priority list and the Rays never came up with the cash they would need to sign him. Davis went to Cal State Fullerton instead, and after a mediocre freshman year, he spent his sophomore year and the following summer making the Rays feel plenty of regret.
This season for Fullerton, Davis managed a .318/.407/.436 line with 11 doubles, 4 homers, and 50 RBI in 250 plate appearances. His power did not come out in earnest, but his strikeout to walk ratio was an excellent 37-31. Then for Chatham in the Cape Cod Leauge, he put up more of the same, managing a .311/.402/.447 line with 5 doubles, 3 homers, 19 RBI, and a 25-18 strikeout to walk ratio in 124 PA’s. Meanwhile on the mound, Davis managed a 2.74 ERA, a 17-7 strikeout to walk ratio and just 2 home runs allowed in 23 innings pitched across 16 appearances for Fullerton, and he did not allow a single run in 5 appearances and 4.2 IP for Chatham, striking out 7 while walking 2. Numbers don’t always mean a lot, but in this case, Davis is istarting to signs of breaking out. He has cut down on his swing length and improved his plate discipline, and with time his power will come. At third base, his strong arm does him extremely well and he’s improving his actions. And on the mound, he has added a sharp mid-80′s slider to go along with his fastball that touches the mid-90′s. Baseball America ranked Davis the 12th-best prospect in the Cape Cod League, and with a strong junior season, a first round selection could be in the wings in next year’s draft. By not signing Davis, the Rays may have missed out on a very good player.
The good news is that this doesn’t have to be the end. If the Rays like Davis enough, they could select him with their first round pick in 2014. And even though our line of thinking is that Davis would be just as good had he signed, for some players going to college is exactly what they need to get themselves together. The Rays would have loved to sign Davis back in 2011. But for now, all they can do is see where his career goes and decide whether he’s worth a look in next year’s draft.