This blog is written under the assumption that MLB teams with a robust amateur scouting system working hand-in-hand with a competent player development system will draft players better than a random guess or Keith Law's prospect rankings. You have been warned.
In the first year of the MLB Draft Lottery, your Minnesota Twins were the greatest beneficiaries of the new system, moving from Pick 13 to Pick 5. Although draft order in MLB does not matter nearly as much as in other major sports, even the most cynical of observers can recognize the value of having the fifth choice in the draft over the thirteenth.
Many times, the first handful of picks is somewhat predetermined, give or take. There are some years, like in 2010 in which there is a consensus #1 overall pick (Bryce Harper). However, in other years, such as 2022, there are a cluster of players who could reasonably be viewed as the best player in the draft (Jackson Holliday, Druw Jones, Termarr Johnson, Elijah Green, Brooks Lee) before a wide gap and the rest of the top 10. In years like that, teams in the top 5 can reasonably be assured that they will have a pick from the cream of the crop. Even the #5 pick can rest easy knowing that they will be able to draft an instant top 50 prospect.
However, the MLB Draft is not nearly so clean. In 2022, the Twins had the good fortune of three teams ahead of them drafting players outside of that group in pitchers Kumar Rocker, Jacob Berry, and Cade Horton. Some may say, "See! They didn't need a top 5 pick to get a top 5 player!" Alternatively, imagine a scenario in which the Twins had the 9th pick. I'm personally not confident that Lee would have fallen another spot to land with the Twins.
There are exceptions to this line of thinking. Perhaps the Twins were deadset on picking another prospect because of their scouting, convinced that they had found a player overlooked by other teams. The Rangers clearly believed this to be the case with Kumar Rocker, who was projected to be a late first round pick or early second rounder. Not willing to wait for their second round pick to come around and lose their chance with Rocker, Texas drafted him #3 overall. More dramatically, in 2020, the Red Sox used the #17 pick on infielder Nick Yorke, who was projected to be a 4th round pick. When you know, you know, I guess.
Even in those situations, there is still value in having a higher pick (beyond preventing a similarly delusional team skipping over you to grab your diamond in the rough). The MLB Draft is set up with monetary values assigned to each pick. The total value of a team's picks determines the maximum amount of money the team can spend on signing bonuses each year, which is important because players (other than college seniors) can return to school if they are not satisfied with the amount of their bonus. Moving up from 13 to 5 allows the Twins an additional 2 million dollars in bonus money.
In 2020, the Red Sox signed Yorke for almost one million dollars under what the pick was worth, and that leftover money went to other players' signing bonuses (Blaze Jordan signed with Boston for over one million more than his pick was worth that same year).
The differences between signing bonus pools is most significant at the top of the draft order, but even those picking later in the draft can have a couple thousand dollars more than they would have had they selected one pick later every round. All of the information covered really seems like it benefits those at the top of each round disproportionally, which is true. However, those at the end of the round also see practical benefits to even being one pick higher.
Each team has a big board (see the picture above of Oakland's big board in Moneyball), on which they order the players in the draft from 1 to 1,500. In the old days, each player was represented by a magnet. Today, the magic of technology likely enables the board to be completely computer-based, saving someone the trouble of peeling and moving magnets around every time Joe Blow moves from #796 to #781.
Sometimes the order is clear:0aAmong the players remaining, the Bloomington Whalers may prefer Giuseppe Giordano to Jimbo Griffin. This is especially true when Giuseppe is ranked #67 on the board, and Jimbo is the next highest ranked at #94. Perhaps the Whalers are higher on Guiseppe than the rest of the league and are happy to take him in the 6th round, no questions asked.
Teams often have wildly different preferences after the first few rounds, which is why every scouting director and GM is so happy that their own version of Guiseppe "fell" to them in the 6th. You will never, ever, encounter a decisionmaker who laments the fact that all of their top 25 players were picked before the 25th pick. It's never happened. Ever.
However, sometimes the selection is not so easy. Say that the Whalers are in the 4th round, with a couple of picks before their own. On their board, #45 Stevie Templeton and #46 Freight Train Figueroa are still undrafted. At this point, there's some disagreement over who is the better prospect, and the room is split. Discussion ensues. Two spot before their pick, Figueroa is drafted. Problem solved; Templeton will be their pick. Except that Templeton was then taken, the pick right before the Whalers.
Pandemonium. Given that it's the 6th round, the Whalers have 60 seconds to call in their pick. They had not planned for this, and they need to act fast. They default instead to pick #68 on their board: Warts Murphey, because he was the next highest ranked player. Had the Whalers had a pick one earlier, they would have had Figueroa. Alas, they settle for Murphey as the decision is forced on them. Rumor has it a similar situation happened to the Twins within the last 10 years with one of their top draft picks, and it's had a marked effect on the big league team.
Although this example does not apply to every round of the draft, each team probably faces the top guy on their board being drafted the pick before their own at least once. Although it may not be of much consequence to the thirteen fans watching the draft at home, it certainly matters to the decisionmakers. Getting access to a tier of players that the team didn't initially expect, additional bonus money, and a lower likelihood of the team getting sniped all amount to legitimate effects on draft day, so even one higher draft pick matters.
But please don't tank. Tanking is for losers.