In the history of the Major League Baseball draft (and excluding members of the 2006 and 2007 draft classes) only two players taken with the first overall pick have ever failed to make the majors. One is Steve Chilcott, taken by the Mets in 1966, while the other is Brien Taylor, taken by the Yankees in 1990.
Both players had their careers derailed by injuries: Chilcott’s were baseball related while Taylor managed to injure his arm in a bar fight. Chilcott is the more notorious of the choices, probably because he had the misfortune of Reggie Jackson being selected as the number two pick. Jackson’s Hall of Fame career only serves to highlight the Mets’ poor choice. (The best player taken in the first round behind Taylor was Manny Ramirez, but he lasted until number 13, so the comparison isn’t as starkly drawn.)
Despite this, it is unfair to say that Chilcott and Taylor are the only true busts to emerge after being the first overall pick. In fact, while the first overall pick has produced a huge amount of talent (it includes Alex Rodriguez, Joe Mauer and Ken Griffey Jr., among others) there are also a fair number of players who reached the show, but never quite lived up to the standard you would expect from their lofty draft position.
Matt Anderson, for example, was drafted first overall by the Tigers in 1997. Anderson was a 6-foot-4 Rice University product who threw hard. His MLB.com profile describes his radar gun readings as “regularly” topping 100 with a high of 103. At Rice Anderson set school records for wins and saves. All said, the Tigers saw the pick as a way to land a closer for the next 15 years.
Overlooking the imprudence of using the first overall pick on a closer, the pick turned out to be a drastic misstep. After tearing through the low minors—his ERA was 0.65—Anderson made his debut for the Tigers in ’98. He won his Major League debut (albeit after allowing a game-tying sacrifice fly) and would finish the year 5-1. His 3.27 ERA was one of the best in the Tigers bullpen and he struck out a man per inning.
At just 21 years old, he was one of the youngest players in the league and his future appeared very bright. Unfortunately for both Anderson and the Tigers, 1998 would be the zenith of his career, with a lot of downhill yet to come.
Anderson would never again have an ERA under four in any of his remaining six seasons, let alone come close to the mark he set in 1998. Although his strikeout totals remained high—nearly eight per nine innings for his career—Anderson struggled with both his control and keeping the ball in the park. He recorded just 26 career saves, all but a handful coming during his 2001 season with Detroit. He ended his Major League career after a disastrous ten inning stint with the Rockies in 2005.
Of course, it is unfair to single out Anderson as an example of first round busts who made the Majors but otherwise stalled. Being picked in the first round by the Mets appears to be something of a curse. In addition to Chilcott, the Mets first overall selections include Tim Foli, Paul Wilson and Shawn Abner.
Foli was a shortstop who had a long career but never hit. Wilson made his debut in 1996 but suffered so many injuries he did not appear in the Majors again until 2000. Abner was the biggest non-Chilcott bust of all, an outfielder who played in fewer than 400 games with a line of .227/.269/.323. The only Mets’ first overall selection to really reach his potential was Darryl Strawberry, but of course even Straw can’t be said to have made the most of his talent.
The Mariners were wise enough to select Griffey and Rodriguez with the first pick but that suggests nothing more than a new scouting department, as their earlier picks weren’t so great. Having the first pick in 1979, the Mariners took Al Chambers, a high school outfielder. Chambers came to the plate fewer than 150 times and barely hit .200. In 1986 he was released outright by the M’s and drew no interest, an incredible fall.
Of course, if the Mariners had had better scouting—and their heart set on a high school outfielder— the man to take in 1979 was Andy van Slyke, snapped up by the Pirates with the fifth pick.
Danny Goodwin merits special notice for being a bust pick twice. In 1971 he was taken first overall by the White Sox but failed to sign, instead going to Southern University. After his career there, he was taken first overall by the Angels. He went on to have a pedestrian career as a back-up catcher, playing just over 250 games in seven years while batting .236.
Finally, although this column is history oriented, I would be remiss if I did not point out a potential major first overall pick bust in our midst. In 2004 the Padres selected shortstop Matt Bush. Bush was both a local boy and considered more “signable” than the Padres’ other possible choices, which included Stephen Drew and Jered Weaver.
Bush was an almost instant disaster, earning a suspension before he played a game after being arrested at a nightclub altercation. (No word on if he was out partying with Brien Taylor.) Bush proved that while he might have been good at hitting bar patrons, he was not so good at hitting baseballs. His minor league career to this point is summed up by his 2005 season at Single-A Fort Wayne, when Bush hit .221 and made 38 errors at shortstop.
Beginning with the 2007 seasons, the Padres have moved Bush to pitcher, a position he also played in high school. Perhaps Bush can draw on the successful pitcher-to-hitter conversion of Rick Ankiel as inspiration for his going the other way. If he does not, Steve Chilcott and Brien Taylor may soon have some company on their list.