Dan O’Dowd will be on the desk for MLB Network’s live coverage of the first round of the MLB Draft tonight (starts at 6 p.m. ET), his fourth consecutive year providing insight and analysis for the network during the event.
O'Dowd, now a regular analyst for the network, is in his fourth decade of involvement with the MLB Draft, though. O’Dowd’s front-office career started with the Orioles, and in 1988 he moved to Cleveland to become the director of player development, then was promoted to assistant GM in 1993. In 1999, he was named general manager of the Colorado Rockies, and he held that post for 15 years.
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So when we wanted insight into the draft, O’Dowd was an easy choice. Our conversation covered a wide variety of topics, from what the MLB Draft can be in the future, to mistakes he (and other GMs) made in the past and what he learned from those, to the player who impresses him the most in this year’s draft.
The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
SPORTING NEWS: It’s pretty obvious you love this stuff, being involved with the draft.
O’DOWD: Oh, I love it. The draft is my favorite time of the year for me. I think it’s the most important time of the year in the game of baseball. I think it’s the most singular important day in the calendar year for every organization. I’ve always felt that way, and this job’s been great because I get a chance to talk about so many different players, from a different point of view completely. I love it. It’s my favorite day of the year. It’s a long day. They might have to put a catheter on me to get me through the six hours they put me on the desk without letting me go to the bathroom.
SN: That’s interesting. How long have you had that opinion, that the draft is the most important day for a baseball franchise? When did that form in your mind?
O’DOWD: Through those Cleveland years, when we had a couple bad drafts. You don’t realize it at the time. It really, really haunted my Colorado tenure. We missed on some guys up top. It’s just amazing the hole that creates within your organization. … Where you get impact is the top end of the draft. You can get good players throughout the draft, but the impact comes from the top end. You know, Ryan, it took me forever in this job to be comfortable in really understanding why I was doing the job, and yet the longer I did it, the more I realized how much more I had to learn about the job. And I still feel that way, to this day. And one of the areas, for me, that I still have so much to learn in is scouting, in particular, and then development on top of that.
SN: When you were in Cleveland and then early on with the Rockies, before MLB Network started, did you ever sit there and think, “This draft should be televised, too, like the NFL and NBA.”
O’DOWD: No doubt. I didn’t think it should just be televised. I thought it should turn into a national event. Now, back in my early days with the Indians, Baseball America was the bible of prospect ranking, and now it’s gone to an extent beyond my wildest imagination. Now, honestly, we live in a game right now where a GM can actually help his resume by having a terrible major-league product on the field, but if their analytical rankings of the prospects within their system is recognized as one of the better in the game, he actually improves his resume by doing that. Years ago, that never would have happened. So the draft itself and the development process has taken on such a life of its own. I mean, I wish we’d televise the first two days of the draft. I wish we’d do it similar to the way the NFL does it, and how the NBA does it. I think our sport has gained that type of traction and we’re ready for the next step in the exposure of this part. I wish there were no games played that day, and I wish the draft was the total focus of the industry on this particular day. To me, personally, it’s that important. It’s more important than any game going on at all.
SN: Is that realistic? Do you see a time when there are no games happening and the MLB Draft takes center stage for the sport?
O’DOWD: Yes. I actually don’t feel like there is a doubt it will take on that type of spectacle. You can see it being done at the College World Series, turn it into an event. You open it up to fans, so you could have basically a thousand people at your draft year in an year out. You can do some really, really cool things with your draft because, if prospects have now gotten to the point where you don’t want to sign a major-league free agent and give up the chance to take a shot at an impact guy in the draft, and it’s now held within our industry at a very high level, the importance of this is held at a high level.
SN: Anytime we do something on draft misses, the All-Stars who could have worn a different uniform, our readers eat that up. They love it. Does that make GMs like yourself lose sleep when you think about it?
O’DOWD: Sure, absolutely. I think the only way you can get better is, I used to call it, doing an autopsy on your decisions. Now, you can’t do an autopsy on the draft the year after the draft. You’ve got to wait three years and then begin to look back. But, objectively, some of the things I learned were not to worry about need, to pick the best player available because you can’t predict the future in the game of baseball. No. 2 is that the most difficult position to project on is high school pitching, and we missed on three high school pitchers in Madison Bumgarner, Clayton Kershaw and Cole Hamels. ... Might have been more problematic because of where we played, a little skittish based upon the venue. But also, it’s difficult to project on high school arms, in particular, and left-handers can sometimes be a little more of an enigma, too. I mean, you’re just constantly learning. Every organization has a set of what I call separators, and I’m going to try and talk about that on air a lot on Monday night. Those are the things that guide you in the decisions you make.
SN: Give me some examples.
O’DOWD: For me personally, I liked hit over power. I didn’t like to gamble on power. I liked to take guys who can hit, and I felt power would come based upon physical strength projection and learning to leverage. I liked taking strike-throwers over great arms who couldn’t throw strikes. I like pitchers over the mound who had an internal clock of balance, rhythm and timing. I loved athleticism at every single position. I like catchers that are 5-10 to 6-2; I didn’t like catchers bigger than that because, one, they didn’t have sustained health and two, for me, it’s one of the most athletic positions on the field and the bigger you get the more athletic it became. Three, the lower pitch in the strike zone is a crucial pitch to get called strikes, and the bigger guys have a tougher time working underneath that pitch, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Those were internal separators for us as an organization in the draft. I did not arrive at those separators until years and years of doing it, mostly based upon the picks.
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SN: Who is one guy in this year’s draft you’re really impressed with?
O’DOWD: Joey Bart, the catcher at Georgia Tech, for me, is the most impactful player in this year’s draft. When I said "impactful," I didn’t say the most talented player — though I do think he might be the most talented, too. Catching, for me, is the most important position on the field. It’s the only position that’s involved in every single play, from the defensive standpoint, night-in and night-out. If you find an elite catcher that has sustainable potential long-term health, that brings elite tools and athleticism to the position, you start with the basis of a competitive advantage. To me, if I was starting from scratch, that’s where I would start. This kid, for me, he’s got the perfect size, he’s got exceptional athleticism, he’s got great hands behind the plate, he’s an exceptional blocker, he’s got 70 arm strength, so he literally shuts down the running game. And he’s been calling his own game at the collegiate level since he showed up on the campus of Georgia Tech. So that means he processes thought quickly, he’s a creative thinker, he’s a problem-solver and he does it all in a matter of split seconds. And, oh by the way, he’s got plus power, and though there are some swings and misses, I believe he’ll tighten that up in pro ball. I think he’ll make enough contact to be an offensive star. He reminds me of the type of impact Buster Posey had with the Giants. I’m not saying he’s a perfect comp to Posey because Posey has the natural hit feel that this guy doesn’t, but this guy has things that Buster didn’t. He’s got better power, better pure arm strength. He’s got, to me, as good athleticism, behind the plate. I believe in my heart he’s got that kind of chance to impact whatever organization he goes to.
SN: I want to ask you about one of your big draft successes, taking Troy Tulowitzki with the seventh overall pick in 2005. Was he a guy you targeted, fingers crossed that he would be there? What was your reaction when you got him?
O’DOWD: We didn’t think we were going to get him. There were two other players we actually were on in that draft, as much or more than Tulo, because simply when you look at the draft board, the way it lined up, we didn’t think he was going to get to us. We thought Ricky Romero would be a guy taken ahead of him, and he was, but there were so many other good players in that year’s draft. If we didn’t take Tulo, our internal debate was Andrew McCutchen or Jay Bruce. We were prepared to go in either direction. We liked both players a ton. Either of those picks would have turned out to be really good picks for us. I think both of those guys would have even played up more in our venue than they would in the venues they ended up in. When the Seattle Mariners took Jeff Clement, we really were excited. We didn’t just like Tulo’s ability; the more we got to know Tulo, he had an intangible combination of competitiveness and leadership that we thought would be perfect for where we were at as an organization and the type of team we would be putting around him. We also thought he’d be quick to the big leagues, which turned out to be the case, too.
SN: Is it agonizing, as a GM, waiting through those last couple picks before your turn, watching the guys you want to grab come off the board?
O’DOWD: When I was young and immature, it was. That’s when I felt like I could control things. I’ve learned to realize I have no control over it. I think one of the most important things you learn, with maturity in the draft, is that there are controllables and there are uncontrollables, and the more you focus on the controllables and let go of all the uncontrollables, the better your draft will be, the cleaner your draft process will be, the more focused your draft room will be. I didn’t like a lot of speculation going on in the room, “Well, we hear this team is going to draft this guy.” I couldn't care less about that. I just wanted to get our guys right. And believe me, I didn’t do a lot of this stuff until near the end of my tenure, honestly, with the Rockies. For me, it takes a long time to figure out what you really want to do in this area. The day of the draft moves so quickly that you really have to have a really sound process in place to be able to replicate decision-making year in and year out, and that doesn’t come easy in our game. As a GM, one of the mistakes I made — amongst the many mistakes — is that I didn’t spend enough time in scouting and development when I took the job in Colorado. All I did in Cleveland, basically, was scouting and development. When I took the job in Colorado, I should have stayed in my strength, but I got out of it and delegated. I jumped back in, hard, my last six years on the job because I didn’t feel comfortable that it was being done in the way it should have been done on my watch from the get-go, and I took full responsibility for that. It’s a hard job, as the GM, because you’re pulled in so many different directions. You don’t necessarily have the time to spend on it, but you have to give up other things to stay focused on these particular areas of the job.
SN: What are some of the specific things you would have to give up?
O’DOWD: Just the player moves at the big-league level night-in and night-out. All the daily conversation that goes on with your manager and your staff day-in and day-out. You just can’t do everything, so you’ve got to be comfortable that your assistant GM, for me in the future, would have a really good understanding of major-league operations and experience to understand how to deal with all those people, and they would be the daily conduit for me moving forward if I did that again with a major-league club. And I would spend a significant part of my time on the infrastructure foundation of the system, because if that’s not done right as the GM, you really ultimately don’t have any chance for success.
SN: Those draft autopsies you talked about, would you do those every single year or do three or four at a time, looking back?
O’DOWD: We’d do them every year. And I wouldn’t turn it into an exercise of torture. I would sit with my leadership team in the scouting area and I would say, ‘OK, what did we learn?’ It could be simple things like when we get our looks early in the summer — because now scouting is a year-round process — let’s create a better set of questions and start following up at an earlier date. Let’s get on top of our question marks quicker. It could be simple things, as it relates to, ‘Hey, there’s a better way to look at the medical reports.’ Or, ‘Let’s try and do a deeper analysis of the injuries to make sure we’re not missing something.’ Or the human analytical part of it; is there a better way to measure what’s inside the package than the way we’re currently doing it. It wasn’t just, ‘Hey, we blew that pick. Why?’ It was more process-oriented, and I would have observations based on just sitting and observing. I wasn’t that active of a participant in the conversations, other than to ask appropriate questions when I deemed necessary. I would never want to undermine my scouting director’s role in the organization, because ultimately he had to feel that sense of accountability and responsibility to his area. But I would try to ask pertinent questions and make observations and notes of things I wanted to address at some point in time after the draft concluded. Now, believe me, if I felt we were going down the wrong way, I would certainly step in, but I wouldn’t step in in front of anybody else in the room. That would always be a private conversation.
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SN: It’s tough to get impact guys after the first few rounds. People love to see 20th-rounders make the major leagues, but the reality is those guys are few and far between. What were you looking for?
O’DOWD: I group players into three categories. For me, your impact players, you really have to try and get in your top three picks of the draft, the top three rounds. And then after that, through rounds three to 10, you can add what I call solid contributors. So in my world that would be like a D.J. LeMahieu, who we got via trade, but a Clint Barmes, for example. And then 11th round on down, as many value players as you can add to your organization. They could simply be guys who are going to come up and fill in for an injury, give you one quality start or fills in for two weeks and catches the ball exceptionally well in the middle of your infield for a DL time. Anybody we could add to those type of positions that would keep us under the negative WAR player and build an organization of incredible depth. That was my challenge to the group all the time.
SN: You talked earlier about constantly learning how to approach the draft and everything that goes with it. How did you change things?
O’DOWD: We did something a little different than we had done it in the past. We brought all of our scouts, once we had our new spring training home built in Salt River, and the cross-checkers and the scouting leadership team would go into the upstairs conference room, and they would have all "contributors" through "impact" players. And then all of the area scouts, beside what they brought in the depth of knowledge on their "contributors" and "impact" players, really where they impact your organization, is they really know the "value" guys they want as part of our organization. So we would put them all in the same room together, they’d go through all their players, present them in front of the other area scouts, then they would have to rank, by position of pref order, those "value" players, to make them feel a sense of accountability, and that would allow the top group to really just define their focus on the players that were going to impact the organization the most each and every year.