On June 3, 1993, Alex Rodriguez was drafted as the first pick in the first round of the amateur draft by the Seattle Mariners. He is the best player taken in that spot since the draft began in 1965. Richard looks at some others.
Although coverage has now increased, the Major League Baseball draft remains far behind its NFL and NBA counterparts for hype. This is because even those MLB draftees who are practically household names the moment they’re drafted—I’m looking at you, Stephen Strasburg—have to spend some time in the minor leagues.
But this time before they make the impact does not mean these players are not important. Some of the game’s best players—Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones—were first overall picks. So this week we will look at the history of those picks—the good, the bad and ugly.
Using Baseball-Reference’s new Wins Above Replacement database—WAR being the measure of the number of wins a player provides over (roughly) an equivalent Triple-A player—the top five first overall picks are A-Rod, Junior, Chipper, Darryl Strawberry and Harold Baines. Obviously the last two are done adding to their total (and Junior announced his retirement yesterday) and are likely to be passed by Joe Mauer sometime in the near future.
WAR is not the be-all and end-all of measuring a player’s contributions, but it is hard to argue with those five as the cream of the crop for first overall picks. But looking at the list, what is remarkable is the overall quality of the players taken first overall. Excluding the 2008 and 2009 picks—still developing as talents and therefore not really fair to include here—more than half the first overall picks earned at least 10 WAR, a number which is only likely to increase as players like Josh Hamilton, Justin Upton and David Price continue their careers.
Of course, it is the success of these picks that makes our next group all the more painful for those teams associated with it.
Again, excluding Stephen Strasburg and Tim Beckham, the last two picks, only three first overall picks failed to at least make it to the majors. The unfortunate trio are Steve Chilcott, Brien Taylor and Matthew Bush. Taylor was taken by the Yankees in 1991 and dominating the minor leagues—striking out more than a man an inning and reaching Double-A at age 21. In an act of incredible foolishness, Taylor got into a bar fight and injured his throwing shoulder; he was never the same thereafter.
|The Kid, an example of when a first overall pick goes right (Icon/SMI)|
For his part, Bush was was doomed almost from the start. The Padres took the San Diego native in lieu of other players taken in the first round in 2004—including Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver and fellow shortstop Stephen Drew—for fear of the signing bonuses they would command. Bush was terribly overmatched in the minor leagues, never reaching higher than Single-A or posting higher than a .659 OPS in any meaningful minor league time. Things got so bad that Bush even tried converting himself to a pitcher. As of this writing he is pitching for the Charlotte Stone Crabs, Tampa Bay’s affiliate in the Florida State League.
As for Chilcott, he managed to reach Triple-A, but that was as close as he would come to the big show. The second-ever first overall pick (the first was Rick Monday), Chilcott could never reach base or hit for enough power to merit a spot on the roster of the team that drafted him, despite his being a catcher. Chilcott also illustrated the risk/reward nature of drafting a high school player; all three of the best drafted players came from high school, but so did the three who failed to make the majors.
While it is tempting to suggest that Chilcott’s and Bush’s high school pedigrees cost them their shot at major league glory, another cause might be the franchises that drafted them. Collectively, the Mets and Padres have had 10 of the 45 first overall picks. Of the 23 players to earn fewer than 10 WAR during their career, the Mets and Friars account for eight of them. Strawberry and Andy Benes are the only picks for each team to have any meaningful success.
Excluding those, for the Mets, in addition to Chilcott they also drafted Shawn Abner, a career .227 hitter taken ahead of Mark McGwire, and Tim Foli, a shortstop selected just two picks ahead of Thurman Munson. (Perhaps the Mets were reluctant to take Munson after their experience with Chilcott.) Maybe the saddest story of the list is Paul Wilson. After dominating the minor leagues—a 2.41 ERA split between Double- and Triple-A in 1995—Wilson was brought up in ’96 and ridden hard by manager Dallas Green. Wilson hurt his arm, and he would not pitch in the majors again until 2000.
On the Padres’ side, besides Benes, their best pick was probably Mike Ivie, a decent-hitting catcher. After that the drop is severe. Even excluding Bush, the Pads ended up with Bill Almon, a shortstop picked before double-MVP Dale Murphy.
Their other choice was Dave Roberts, and no, not that Dave Roberts. This was third baseman Dave Roberts, who hit .239 across more than 700 games. The only real defense the Padres can mount is that the 1972 first round was decidedly unimpressive: Oakland nabbed Chet Lemon with the 22nd pick, but otherwise no player topped 20 WAR and no position player could even reach 10. Probably the most notable pick, with the gift of hindsight, was current Mets skipper Jerry Manuel.
This year the first pick falls to the Nationals, only the second time in history that a team has had back-to-back first overall picks. The Rays, who took Price and Beckham, were the first. Many projections have Bryce Harper, a high school catcher, as the first overall pick. For the Nationals, that would give them an impressive battery when combined with Strasburg. Nonetheless, one would think the Nats will at the least pause and wonder if Harper will prove to be the next Chilcott. For both their sakes, let’s hope not.