I had a conversation with my brother eight years ago that I've been pondering ever since that might be appropriate here with the draft next week. Why eight years ago? That was the summer of 2004, when I was able to attend roughly twenty Fresno Grizzlies games in about a two month span. It was a glorious summer where I got paid to watch and keep score at baseball games. Everyone's dream, right?

As the Giants' triple-A club, the Grizzlies hosted plenty of top tier and not-quite-so-top-tier talent. The names I remember most from that season are Chris Burke, Xavier Nady, Todd Linden, and a slew of other Giants prospects that never quite made it, but the conversation I've been thinking about for eight years was about then-Sacramento River Cat Nick Swisher.

My brother, who had read Moneyball, was excited to hear about Swisher—you know, in the "amateur scouting report" kind of way. I can't say how the conversation reached this point, but I remember saying something along the lines of: "Maybe he'll never be a superstar or anything, but I bet he ends up having a nice productive career. Something along the lines of Ryan Klesko, maybe. Which, when you think about it, isn't all that bad of a return on a first round draft pick."

Klesko, a fifth-round draft pick, played in parts of sixteen seasons, but really only played in anything close to a full season thirteen times. In his career, he hit 278 home runs, slugged an even .500, and accumulated 23.4 WARP. It's a career Klesko can be proud of. Now in his ninth season, Swisher is set to pass Klesko on the WARP charts, having already accumulated 23.0 WARP for the A's, White Sox, and Yankees. That might mean my prediction was a bit off, but the question it raised is still worth debating.

If your favorite team could guarantee a specific return on their first round pick every year with the caveat that the return would never be higher than that level, where would that level have to be in order for you to be happy? Basically, if you could guarantee that your favorite team would get a Ryan Klesko career out of their first round draft pick every single year – no better, no worse – would that be enough to forego the potential of drafting, say, an Alex Rodriguez or Bryce Harper? Remember, it would also mean that you would never have to worry about the team drafting a Matt Bush or Brien Taylor either. And if Klesko is too high of a bar to set, where should it be? Mark Ellis? Mark Kotsay? Or is it higher? Would you require a Mike Mussina or Roy Halladay every year to make that deal? Somewhere in between, like Barry Zito or Bobby Abreu?

I honestly have no idea where I'd set the bar. I would probably want someone who could flirt with the All-Star level every now and then. Who would that be? Melvin Mora? Ben Zobrist, maybe? Rafael Furcal? Even saying those names, I feel like it should probably be better, but it's easy to set the bar too high. Carl Crawford or even Jason Bay are just too much.

What would you say the level should be?

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I posed this question among the BPro staff last night. Maybe they'll chime in here, but the general consensus seemed to be that it'd require a regular All-Star or better to make the deal. A cost-protected superstar is just too valuable to give up otherwise.

That's a fair response, but I still wonder if one Evan Longoria every 10-15 years is worth, say, the Pirates string of first-round picks over that same time. Wouldn't a team of, say, six Nick Swishers ready at approximately the same time (with 2-3 years of each other) be a pretty nice collection of talent?

Bradley Ankrom ran the numbers for us and got this: the average career WARP for a first round hitter who signs and reaches the big leagues is 10.5; it's 5.9 for pitchers. Klesko (23.4) was much better than that. An example of an average hitter is Oddibe McDowell (10.37 career WARP); Paul Wilson (5.9) is about average on the pitchers' side.

And remember, that's the average WARP of first-rounders who actually play in the big leagues. There are scores more who weren't even good enough to properly drag the average WARP down...
Team context is important. Can your team buy superstars as free agents? Do you expect to be drafting in the 20s most years anyway?

A successful big market team should take a guaranteed Swisher/Klesko. And don't forget they still have their other picks to take long shots at stars.

But a small market perpetually rebuilding team really needs to take their chances to get core star players to build around.
What he said.

If I can draft and develop a core of solid players AND THEN add a few stars via free-agency or trades, I'd take the guaranteed return of a Kleskopick.
A very important datum is missing here, namely where in the first round the pick falls. A team that has one of the first three slots and gets nothing more out of them than a Ryan Klesko career cannot be very happy with the outcome. One drafting in slots 20 to 30 (it almost doesn't matter where) would be ecstatic to be guaranteed a Klesko, and would be happy to be guaranteed an Adam Kennedy (16.3 WARP). (Being guaranteed a McDowell may not be good enough, though.)

Even if your ground rules are such that you don't know where your slot will fall in future years, the same kind of variability shows up. Some teams never get high slots. St. Louis hasn't had a top-3 slot since 1996, the Dodgers since 1993, the Braves and Yankees (the Taylor fiasco) since 1991. None of these teams has had a Klesko-sized career out of a late-first-round draft in the last 15 years, although the Dodgers will eventually get there with Chad Billingsley (slot #24). One would have to think they'd be delighted to be guaranteed something Kennedy-ish. Contrast a team like Kansas City, which gets high choices almost as an entitlement -- for all the good it does them. Even they would be happy with a Klesko a year, but no way would they settle for a McDowell, and probably not for a Kennedy.
Assuming you don't put the bar too low, one thing to keep in mind here is that if you're consistently producing at least one MLB regular per year, your chances of ever falling to the depths needed to have a shot at a Harper-level draft pick is almost nil anyway. You're not only guaranteeing your pick, your heavily stacking the odds against putting together a team bad enough to draft at the top of the round, since at the very least you'll have a fair collection of dependable players even if you can't find a star.
This is an excellent point. However, it is instructive to take it to its extreme. If your whole roster is constructed of guys who manage 10 WARP over a 10-year career, like Oddibe McDowell (7 years, but who's counting), your team is going to be chronically mediocre, rarely having enough career years at one time to reach the post season, and occasionally having so many bad years at once as to qualify for a high draft pick. Move the bar up to something like Kennedy, and your analysis becomes right on the mark -- which maybe is telling us that that's where the bar should be.
So let's take a look at this team:

C J.P. Arencibia
1B Carlos Pena
2B Aaron Hill
3B Greg Dobbs
SS Alexei Ramirez
LF Allen Craig
CF Cameron Maybin
RF Jason Heyward

SP Mark Buehrle
SP Tim Hudson
SP Josh Collmenter
SP Dillon Gee
SP Johnathan Sanchez
RP Jordan Walden

I looked at 2011 and threw together about 8 guys who were our "first rounders" over a period of years, all of whom had about 2.2-2.5 WARP last year, and supplemented them with about 3 WARP's worth of other talent to simulate lower round signings, free agency moves, etc. What's the verdict?