June 7, 2004
As you read this, MLB teams are distributing the cream of the amateur baseball talent amongst themselves. It's no secret that this is a difficult year for selecting among that talent; there is no Mark Prior or Rickie Weeks in this pool, but rather a top tier of players, mostly college pitchers, who all seem to have some problem with their curriculum vitae. We know that no team is going to be completely happy with who they pick.
For better or for worse, a draft is judged largely on what happens in the first round. The lion's share of bonus money is handed out to #1 picks, and teams trot their first selections to press conferences and ballparks as a way of showing their fan base the future.
The emphasis on the first round is why teams should be a bit nervous about today's festivities. Four years ago, the player pool was similarly unexciting, and the first 30 picks from the 2000 draft have generated precious little performance, and the players still labeled prospects show little sign of saving the first round of that draft. The first round of that draft appears to be on its way to being labeled a complete disaster.
Just as one measure, take a look at the composite MLB numbers for that group as of this morning:
Hitters (four players): .271 BA, 316 OBP, .400 SLG in 1286 PA. 27 SB, 11 CS
That's not entirely fair as a marker--those players are in just their fourth professional season--but when you look at the names in that first round, you see that those stat lines aren't going to get much better. Adrian Gonzalez, the Marlins' signability pick at #1, is a B prospect at first base. The #2 pick, Adam Johnson, has struggled. Overall, 10 ten of these guys have reached the majors, with the best of them a flawed center fielder, Rocco Baldelli. The bulk of the pitching performance is by Billy Traber, who is out for the year after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Just two players from that first round made our Top 50 Prospects list, both of those (Adam Wainwright and Sean Burnett) in the bottom 10. Gonzalez will probably have a career, and Chase Utley and David Krynzel might. It's possible, even probable, that not one of the players taken in the first round of the 2000 draft will ever make an All-Star team. I can't find a draft, going back to 1989's, in which that was true.
Right now, the 30 players from that group are distributed as follows:
MLB: 3 Triple-A: 8 Double-A: 5 High A: 2 Low A: 1 Not playing this year (injured): 7 Out of organized baseball: 4
Five of the top 10 picks in that draft have yet to play in organized baseball this season. All five of them are high-school pitchers, four of them derailed by injuries, one by...well, I'll leave it to others to sort out blame in the case of Matt Harrington. More than one-third of the first-round picks in the 2000 draft aren't playing baseball for an affiliated team this year. By any standards, that's a disaster.
The total cost for all of this? A mere $57,255,000, or about 1.05 Dreifort. The 11 players who aren't playing this year, just four years after being drafted, combined for about $15 million of that.
This kind of information reinforces the decisions by some teams to employ risk-averse strategies in the draft. Emphasizing college seniors as a strategy to limit bonuses makes sense when you see just how little return teams get for their investments. Emphasizing college players in general means having to deal with far less development time, and getting players who are closer to contributing at the major-league level. If that means passing up a the chance that an 18-year-old gets through the gauntlet, well, it also means putting the odds in your favor that you will actually get a player for your troubles, and not a series of medical bills.
Of course putting the odds in your favor doesn't always help. College players selected in the first round four years ago haven't exactly burned it up; 12 were taken, with Justin Wayne having the best 2004 of the weak group. If the trend towards emphasizing college players continues--with some organizations completely eschewing high schoolers--then you'll likely start seeing some value picks among the teenage set.
The draft is a complicated, intricate process with a high failure rate, and nearly 40 of them haven't made baseball teams a whole lot better at the process. We'll see today how teams adjust to an unimpressive talent pool heavy on college pitching, but it'll be four years, at least, before we can evaluate how they did.