With a half-century of drafts to assess, we’ve chosen a historical top 10 that best reflects what the top of the draft really is: a series of hits and misses, sometimes following a predictable storyline, combining to produce about 100 wins above replacement. The rub is that those 100 wins aren’t distributed anywhere close to equally.
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There was a time when the first overall pick wasn’t all that great a bet to become a star. Before Ken Griffey Jr., teams were pretty awful at finding the superstar: Of the first 22 No. 1 overall picks, the best was probably Darryl Strawberry, the second-best was Harold Baines, and the norm was the pretty good, long career type: Jeff King or Tim Belcher or Shawon Dunston or B.J. Surhoff.
It’s as though Griffey triggered something, though, and the 28 years since have produced at least four players other than Griffey (Rodriguez, Chipper Jones, Adrian Gonzalez, Joe Mauer) with better careers than Strawberry — which isn’t even to mention Bryce Harper, David Price, Stephen Strasburg, Gerrit Cole and Carlos Correa, the players taken too recently to assess.
While there are always the signability picks — and, these days, the save-bonus-pool-money-for-later-picks picks — the first overall pick is still special, a tier unto itself. Three of the four best players (by career WARP) to debut since 1988 came from this spot, which means if you’re not picking first you’re a good deal shut out from such talent. Eleven of the top picks were drafted as shortstops, or, in some cases,”shortstops” – players like Upton who were moved off the position on the way up the ladder and who we can’t even imagine playing the middle infield now.
Of course, expectations are so high that even players who turn out to be sensational, like Upton, carry with them a tinge of disappointment that they weren’t the next Griffey after all.
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There’s another way to get a first-overall talent: hope that the team picking first overall has some unique motivation for its selection, like going cheap or going safe or going with the local hometown hero, and Mark Prior falls to you.
The second spot is filled with guys who were talked up for the first spot, but fell for one reason or another. It’s also filled with pitchers, which is interesting: 23 pitchers, including 11 high school pitchers, have gone here, while only 17 and three have gone first overall. We can understand not wanting to risk the first overall pick on a fragile young arm; we wouldn’t expect so much to change by pick two, though.
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There is, virtually without fail, at least one bust in the first three picks, and lately the third pick has been particularly unresponsive: From 2000-2009, for instance, these were the third-overall picks:
* Luis Montanez
* Chris Gruler
* Kyle Sleeth
* Philip Humber
* Evan Longoria
* Josh Vitters
* Eric Hosmer
* Donavan Tate
The other thing about the third pick is that it’s where elite catchers go. Since the Blue Jays popped Jay Schroeder in 1979, as many catchers have gone third overall (five) as first, second and fourth overall combined. Catchers are valuable! They also have unusual aging curves, and they have an extremely difficult development path that requires them to show all the growth as hitters that, say, right fielders do, while also learning how to manage a staff, call a game, frame a pitch, carve microseconds off their throws to second, and so on. And they get hurt. Of the five catchers take third overall, two were below replacement level for their careers, one never made the majors, one is Mike Zunino, and Mike Lieberthal stands in as the lone hit.
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Remember how GMs have drafted a bunch more pitchers at No. 2 overall than they have at No. 1? From that we can deduce that they all want to take the exciting high-upside pitcher and are restraining themselves because of the risk. By the time we get to No. 4 overall, they just … can’t … hold … back … any … longer. Since the Rangers took Brown in 1986, 20 of the 29 picks in this spot have been pitchers.
The downside to drafting pitchers here is apparent in the histories of these selections: Even the best (like Kerry Wood, Alex Fernandez and Gavin Floyd) have been dogged by injuries, and many of those who had long careers (like Jason Grilli, Billy Koch, Tim Stauffer) did so as relievers. And, of course, there are the Brad Lincolns and Daniel Moskoses of the draft — guys whose failures helped get their signing GMs fired. All the same, fourth overall has been a pretty productive spot in the draft, especially relative to fifth overall.
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Here are the average WARPs per spot so far:
* 1st overall: 19
* 2nd overall: 11
* 3rd overall: 10
* 4th overall: 10
* 5th overall: 7
* 6th overall: 10
It’s been better lately — All-Stars Ryan Braun, Buster Posey, Vernon Wells, Matt Wieters, Mark Teixeira and J.D. Drew have bolstered the spot’s credibility — but this is the highest spot in the draft that has yet to produce a Hall of Famer (assuming we’re fine crediting Chipper and Griffey with future plaques). This has been a trap pick: Barely half of players have made the majors, which is about what you expect from the 20th spot.
In 1981, the Blue Jays took Williams with the fifth pick. The year before, they took shortstop Garry Harris No. 2 overall; he never made the majors. The year before that, they took the catcher Schroeder No. 3 overall; he never made the majors. The year after Williams, they took shortstop Augie Schmidt No. 2 overall; he never made the majors. Four years, four picks in the top five, and they got Williams (the pitcher) and eight innings of a 14.63 ERA. Remember this on draft day: It’s not all hopes and dreams. Some team will completely ruin its future.
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Back to the good picks, though more feast-or-famine than reliably productive. (This is one of only two spots in the top 10, however, in which all 50 players picked have been signed. Third overall is the other one.) Since 1985, there have been four players taken sixth overall who were arguably the best first-rounders taken in their years: Bonds, Derek Jeter, Gary Sheffield, Zack Greinke. All superstars. That leaves 26 players who have been taken sixth in that stretch, and the fifth-best among them is … Rocco Baldelli or Ricky Romero.
These are the stakes here: Your team has a not-irrelevant chance at drafting a 75-win player. The median expectation for this pick, though, is Seth Greisinger, who had a 0.0 career WAR. Or, put another way: Perhaps the greatest Giant in history and the worst Giant in history were both originally drafted sixth overall.
Ever hear the story about how the Dodgers got Kershaw? Sahadev Sharma wrote about it for us at Baseball Prospectus, but the summary is this: L.A. tried to pick Luke Hochevar in 2005, negotiations with Scott Boras broke down, Hochevar decided to re-enter the draft in 2006, and the Royals took him first overall. That bumped all the other pitchers down a spot — or at least, most helpfully, it bumped Andrew Miller (the consensus no. 1 overall talent in that draft) down. The Tigers took Miller at No. 6, one spot before the Dodgers took Kershaw; had Miller not been available, they’d have taken Kershaw.
Short summary shorter: The Dodgers’ failure to sign Hochevar accidentally landed them Kershaw. Good failure to sign! The other pitchers drafted ahead of Kershaw, besides Hochevar and Miller: Brandon Morrow, Greg Reynolds, Brad Lincoln.
The six players taken seventh overall in the past six years are pitchers.
Best pick: Todd Helton
Worst pick: Wade Townsend
Most representative pick: Townsend, did not reach the majors
This feels like a new tier. Like fifth overall (and unlike sixth and seventh), there’s no Hall of Famer here, and other than Helton there’s nobody close. Other than Helton, there’s barely even an All-Star here: Felipe Lopez made one All-Star Game, Jay Bell and made two, and, in 50 years, that’s it.
The average pick here has produced 4 career WARP, down from 6 WARP at pick no. 7, and the average isn’t likely to go up for a while: The best active player taken here is probably Mike Leake or Gordon Beckham. Townsend represents this spot so well that he was drafted here twice, in both 2004 and 2005.
Best pick: Kevin Appier
Worst pick: Billy Rowell
Most representative pick: Karsten Whitson, 0 projected WARP
Like eighth overall, not a good group, and other than Kevin Appier not a sustained, star-level career. The best-case for ninth overall has been, basically, Geoff Jenkins (2005), Mark Kotsay (2006), Michael Cuddyer (1997).
Ninth overall picks have produced fewer wins, as a group, than have 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th, 19th, 20th, 22nd, 29th, 30th, 36th or 39th picks.
There’s obviously nothing about picking ninth that is worse than picking 39th, and it’s a fluke that flops have bundled up together here. But that’s a big part of the point: Franchises are built and bombed in these first 10 picks, and there’s little a club can do to dictate which.
Best pick: Mark McGwire
Worst pick: Chad Hermansen
Most representative pick: Kelly Gruber, 19 career WARP.
This pick has been, for absolutely no good reason we can think of, a little bit magical. More than 80 percent of players taken 10th have appeared in the majors — that rate is 60 percent for eighth and ninth overall — and the average 10th pick has produced more WARP than the average ninth and 11th picks combined.
While a couple of Giants pitchers have carried the load lately — Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner — it is mostly corner infielders to credit. Of the six best players taken No. 10 overall, five were selected as first or third basemen: McGwire, Robin Ventura, Carlos Pena, Tim Wallach and Eric Chavez. Indeed, seven corner infielders have ever been drafted first overall, and they produced 140 wins; nine have been drafted 10th overall, and they produced a bit more than 230 wins.
If your team doesn’t have a pick in the top 10, hey, that’s fine, too. Mike Trout wasn’t taken in the first 10 picks. Giancarlo Stanton wasn’t taken in the first round. Albert Pujols wasn’t taken in the first 10 rounds. But, excluding international signees, more than half of the MVP Awards since 2000 have gone to top 10 picks, and more than a third of Cy Young Awards. These first 10 picks are where you’re likely to first lay eyes on the next great superstar in the game. They’re also where you’ll see, smiling and proud, suddenly richer than his grandparents ever expected he would be, the sport’s next great flop. And, finally, tucked in between, the sport’s next Kelly Gruber.