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May 1, 2012

The Process

Post-Draft Rankings: You're Doing it Wrong

by Bradley Ankrom

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Rankings are always of interest to sports fans, but many analysts are uncomfortable with the notion of slapping grades on players whose real value won’t be known for a number of years. This is particularly true in baseball, where players selected in the annual amateur (Rule 4) draft are further away from the major leagues than those of any other major sport. The majority of players taken in the football and basketball drafts have spent time performing under the bright lights, and against the premier competition, of NCAA Division I athletics, and the transition from amateur to professional is a relative breeze. In baseball, only a small percentage of the 1,500 or so players chosen each year hail from Division I baseball programs.

More than a decade ago, some were critical of the Marlins for allegedly putting signability before talent when they tabbed Adrian Gonzalez with the number-one overall pick of the 2000 draft. Gonzalez was regarded as the most polished high school hitter of that year’s crop, but few considered him the best talent available. As it turns out, Gonzalez has contributed the third-most wins above replacement (28.43) among players who signed that year, trailing only Chase Utley (36.26) and Jason Bay (30.53). Given the health woes of Utley and Bay in recent years, Gonzalez appears likely to usurp them atop the list. Joe Borchard, who received that year’s largest signing bonus ($5.3 million) from the White Sox, has the third-lowest WARP total (-1.55) among players who have reached the major leagues.

Players Receiving Signing Bonuses of
$2 Million or Greater, 2000 Draft

Pick

Team

Player

Career WARP

1

Marlins

Adrian Gonzalez, 1b

28.43

2

Twins

Adam Johnson, rhp

-0.59

3

Cubs

Lou Montanez, ss

-1.36

4

Royals

Mike Stodolka, lhp

DNP

5

Expos

Justin Wayne, rhp

-0.66

6

Devil Rays

Rocco Baldelli, of

9.11

8

Tigers

Matt Wheatland, rhp

DNP

9

Padres

Mark Phillips, lhp

DNP

10

Angels

Joe Torres, lhp

DNP

12

White Sox

Joe Borchard, of

-1.55

14

Orioles

Beau Hale, rhp

DNP

18

Dodgers

Ben Diggins, rhp

-0.38

41

Marlins

Jason Stokes, 1b

DNP

47

Rockies

Jason Young, rhp

-0.11

75

Expos

Grady Sizemore, of

22.90

In its post-draft analysis, Baseball America credited the Marlins, Reds, and White Sox with having the three best drafts and listed the Red Sox class as the weakest. Twelve years later, it’s the Expos draft that has produced the most major-league value, led by Bay, Cliff Lee (fourth round, 25.30 WARP), and Grady Sizemore (third round, 22.90 WARP). The Marlins’ class also ranks among the most fruitful, but not because of the club’s shrewd selections of Jason Stokes and Rob Henkel, premium talents who fell to the second and third rounds, respectively, because of signability concerns. Neither Henkel nor Stokes reached the major leagues, but 17th-rounder Josh Willingham did, and he’s contributed 14 wins above replacement over his nine-year career.

The Reds and White Sox classes have combined for 4.9 WARP, 4.8 of which has come from one player, White Sox third-round pick Mike Morse. The Red Sox class, however, has produced seven major leaguers, led by middle infielder Freddy Sanchez.

* * *

Immediate evaluations of draft picks or classes make for entertaining content but usually prove to be a fool’s errand. It often takes at least three years—and sometimes more—to gain a real understanding of what, if anything,  a player is likely to contribute to a major-league club. The sixth-most-productive player taken in 2000, Mike Napoli, was the 500th player off the board that year, and he toiled in relative obscurity until his 2004 breakout as a 22-year-old in the California League. Napoli didn’t enjoy his first big-league call-up until May 2006, nearly six years after the Angels made the Florida prep catcher their 17th-round draft pick.

Like Napoli, pitcher James Shields took a slow path to the major leagues after being selected by Tampa Bay in the 16th round of the 2000 draft, losing a full year to shoulder tendinitis along the way. Shields made his major-league debut shortly after Napoli in 2006 and has been worth nearly 15 wins above replacement since, trailing only Cliff Lee, Dontrelle Willis, Adam Wainwright, and Brandon Webb in that regard. Of the five most-valuable pitchers, only Wainwright was taken prior to the fourth round.

* * *

The human element ensures that the draft will always be a crapshoot to some degree. Clubs have become more astute in their evaluations of amateur talent in recent years, but there will always be cases where the Joe Borchards and the Jason Youngs of the world are outperformed by later-round afterthoughts like Mike Napoli and James Shields. The ability to recognize potential that may not be immediately apparent is what separates great scouts from the pack. An organization that is able to develop those players is provided with a steady stream of budget-friendly assets that can help it sustain its winning ways.

We may never know whether the Marlins truly saw something in Adrian Gonzalez that made him the top player on their draft board, or if they simply got lucky with a conservative pick. One thing we do know, however, is that their decision has proven correct, and few predicted that to be the case in June of 2000.

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