1. What if the alternating leagues rule still applied?
You may have heard a bit about the 10th anniversary of the Matt Bush draft, but the 2004 draft was notable for another reason. It was the last under the format in which the leagues alternated picks, with the no. 1 pick switching leagues every year. So in the odd years, the worst team in the AL got the first pick, and in the evens, the worst team in the NL got it. That changed starting with the 2005 draft, in which the 2004 MLB-worst Diamondbacks got the Justin Upton pick and not the AL-worst Royals, who would have under the alternating leagues format.
There are a couple of what-ifs in the years that followed, had MLB not changed the system to a straight ranking of teams regardless of league affiliation. The 2009 draft would have been an AL-first year, which would mean the Seattle Mariners as the worst team in the 2008 AL standings would have gotten their shot at Stephen Strasburg rather than settling for Dustin Ackley at no. 2.
More interesting would have been the ruling with the no. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft, which as an odd year would have been an AL-first draft. The Astros were the worst team in the National League in 2012, but at the time of the draft, they were actually an American League team, so MLB would have had a tough ruling on its hands. —Zachary Levine
2. What if the Rockies had selected Evan Longoria instead of Greg Reynolds?
In 2005, Troy Tulowitzki fell to the no. 7 overall draft pick and right into the Rockies laps. In the following season, Tulowitzki would go out and dominate Double-A to the point where he would force his way to the major leagues by late 2006. But while Tulowitzki became one of the game's best prospects, his former college teammate at Long Beach State University did the same.
That would be Evan Longoria, who turned himself into arguably the top amateur player in the country. Fast forward to the 2006 draft, when the stars began to re-align for the Rockies once again. But maybe not. The Rockies would pass on Longoria, opting to draft right-handed pitcher Greg Reynolds out of Stanford instead with the no. 2 overall draft pick. The rest is history. Could you imagine having the chance to pair two of the best all-around players in the game? The Rockies did, and, for one reason or another, they decided not to. No, seriously. —Ronit Shah
3. What if the Nationals had selected Mike Trout instead of Stephen Strasburg?
The Nationals did just fine in the 2009 draft when they nabbed Strasburg with the first-overall pick. Billed by many as "the best pitching prospect" ever in the pre-draft days, Strasburg so far has struggled in that he hasn't become the best pitcher in the game. Other than that, he's been quite good, accumulating 9.7 WARP over 500-plus career innings pitched. Strasburg is still only 25 and should anchor the front of Washington's rotation for years to come, so really, that's a drafting and developmental success.
But Trout went 24 picks after Strasburg, and to this point in his career he's accumulated 23.4 WARP. He's stolen the "best young player of this generation" title that was once presumed to be Harper's and he doesn't look likely to slow down anytime soon, 2014 strikeout rate notwithstanding. Still, this isn't so much about Trout being better than Strasburg as it is about the idea of Trout and Harper manning the same outfield in their primes. It's a scenario that's tough to pull off in fantasy baseball, never mind real baseball, and following that story line would've been endlessly fascinating to baseball fans everywhere.
Strasburg is a fine consolation prize, and at the time, taking Strasburg was absolutely the right move. But a Trout-Harper outfield could've been something we've rarely seen in baseball history. And it might've spared us from Ryan Zimmerman, outfielder. —Ben Carsley
4. What if the Indians had selected Billy Wagner instead of Daron Kirkreit?
In 1993, the Indians used the 11th-overall pick on Daron Kirkreit, a pitcher who never made it to the big leagues. A venial sin, at most, considering the majority of players who get drafted never see The Show, either.
Well, I take that back. It’s a venial sin as long as you don’t look one spot down the draft board, where you’ll find the name of another, slightly more successful pitcher: Billy Wagner.
Wagner, of course, is one of the most effective closers in league history, accruing the fourth-most PWARP by a reliever since the save statistic was officially introduced in 1969. Career achievements aside, though, Wagner would have been the better pick for a more situationally specific reason. In a universe where God (at the very least) tolerates Cleveland, it’s Wagner—not Jose Mesa—that gets the call in Game Seven of the 1997 World Series. Pitching for the Astros that year, Wagner outgunned Mesa in every meaningful statistical category except ERA. Granted, that discrepancy in Mesa’s favor might have led Mike Hargrove to send him out there, anyway. (But remember, this is a scenario in which God and Cleveland are buddies.) Let’s not forget, too, that Mesa did stumble earlier in the series, allowing a run in Game Three and blowing the save in Game Five. Wagner’s getting that damn ball, and he’s delivering Cleveland its first championship since 1948.
Unfortunately, you can only indulge in this pure, innocent revisionist history for a moment before we remember that no, God doesn’t tolerate Cleveland, and no, Russell Carleton doesn’t get what he wants. All because Daron Kirkreit had the audacity to be pretty good in college. The nerve of some people… —Nick Bacarella
5. What if the Royals had selected Clayton Kershaw instead of Luke Hochevar?
In 2006, the Kansas City Royals had the first pick in the draft and picked college pitcher-turned-holdout-turned-indie league pitcher Luke Hochevar. Six picks later, the Los Angeles Dodgers of Los Angeles picked a high school pitcher named Clayton Kershaw. These what-ifs are always unfair to the team that's on the wrong end of them, because a lot of smart people had Kershaw packed together with the five pitchers pitcked before him (Hochevar, Andrew Miller, and Greg Reynolds… yes, that Greg Reynolds, Brad Lincoln, and Brandon Morrow). It wasn't that no one saw the potential in Kershaw, it was that he was a high school arm, and you have to be more wary of that. There's a lot of swing and miss in the draft—from teams.
But indulge the fantasy with me. Part of the pain of having let Kershaw pass (and having to live through what Hochevar eventually became) is that the glaring need that the Royals had for years was reliable starting pitching. In fact, it led them to make a little-noticed or discussed trade in which they obtained James Shields for… I forget who, but I heard he won Rookie of the Year last year. With Kershaw in Royal blue, rather than Dodger blue, that trade doesn't need to happen. Suddenly, that built-in punchline for the Royals front office is gone (yeah, yeah, I know… there's plenty of punch to go around). Not only that, but the Royals have… Clayton Kershaw (and potentially Wil Myers). Last year, for a team that finished only a couple of games out of a playoff spot, that might have made the difference. If it had, would there still be calls for the job of GMDM? Funny how your entire view of a man might turn on the fact that eight years ago, his team reached into what people generally saw as a grab bag and just happened to pull out the wrong guy. —Russell A. Carleton
6. What if the Rays had selected Andrew McCutchen instead of Wade Townsend?
The Rays held the eighth pick in the 2005 draft. Legend has it, their scouting staff wanted to take a toolsy outfielder named Andrew McCutchen. Instead, management took a busted college arm from Rice, Wade Townsend, who would barely top 200 professional innings. The exact blame for the pick is unclear—this came during the murky time when the Rays were changing owners—but it represents an obvious misstep for a franchise that was known for them before recently. —R.J. Anderson
7. What if the Reds had selected Barry Bonds instead of Barry Larkin?
It’s fun to speculate what if Team A took Great Player A instead of Bust Player B, but in 1985 it was difficult to do bad. B.J. Surhoff was the top pick, Will Clark was second, and Rafael Palmeiro went 22nd overall. It was also a great year for Barrys: Larkin, a local boy, was taken fourth overall. The Pirates, who drafted sixth, took another one: Bonds.
Obviously it wasn’t a mistake to draft a Hall of Famer, but it could have been better had Cincinnati taken the best hitter of all time. Bonds ostensibly would have been part of that championship 1990 team, rather than on the squad that lost to them in the NLCS. Maybe it would have been Andy Van Slyke blamed with the poor throw as Sid Bream safely somnambulated to home plate. Riverfront Stadium was also slightly more hitter-friendly than Three Rivers; maybe Bonds would have stayed through his free agent years. (Just kidding, because Marge Schott.) But perhaps with a championship in his trophy case, he would have been less likely to take all the steroids—just some of them. Not enough to be the posterhulk for the PED era. So, way to go, Cincinnati. You could have altered baseball history. —Matt Sussman
8. What if the Padres had selected Justin Verlander instead of Matt Bush?
Only two players selected with the top pick in the major-league draft have retired without playing in the big leagues: Steve Chilcott (1966) and Brien Taylor (1991). A third is in the pipeline: Matt Bush (2004). Actually, he’s in jail. We don’t need to dwell on his sad story anymore. The Padres apparently wanted either Stephen Drew or Jered Weaver, but both were Scott Boras clients and out of the Padres’ price range. So they gave Bush, then a shortstop (converted to a pitcher later), a relatively modest $3.15 million.
The second pick in the draft agreed to a slightly lower bonus of $3.12 million. He was named Justin Verlander, as you probably know. So San Diego could have had him. Two years later, Verlander was the American League Rookie of the Year. The Padres won the National League West. Their starting pitching was good, not great; the bullpen was excellent. (Cla Meredith had a 382 ERA+!) They lost to the Cardinals in the playoffs. The Cardinals would go on to beat Verlander’s Tigers in the World Series.
If the Padres had had Verlander, could they have gone all the way in 2006? What about 2007, when they just missed the playoffs and Justin Germano and 44-year-old David Wells started 45 of their games? If the Padres had won pennants or World Series in either 2006 or 2007, or eked out a playoff berth in 2010, when they finished one game behind Atlanta for the wild card spot and had 51 games started by Kevin Correia and Wade LeBlanc? Could we be looking at a very different franchise than the one we know today, a perennial also-ran in its division? Could the Padres have been a force had they drafted Justin Verlander? —Adam Sobsey
9. What if the Yankees had selected Manny Ramirez instead of Brien Taylor?
With the first-overall pick in the 1991 draft, the Yankees selected Brien Taylor, a North Carolina high schooler who signed for $1.55 million and reached Double-A before injuring his shoulder in a fight.
But what if fourth-year Yankees scouting director Brian Sabean—yes, that Brian Sabean—had taken hometown kid Manny Ramirez? He was playing third base at George Washington High in Manhattan and wound up lasting until the 13th pick, when Indians chose him. Cleveland signed Ramirez for $250,000, and he was in the majors by 1993. He was bludgeoning American League pitching by 1994, when he finished second in the Rookie of the Year vote. By 1995, he was an All-Star and won a Silver Slugger award. Had the Yankees ignored lobbying from owner George Steinbrenner (who was suspended at the time of the '91 draft), Manny surely could have provided the 1995 Bombers with a left-field upgrade over Gerald Williams and Luis Polonia. And with Manny delivering, on average, more than four wins above replacement while in Cleveland, it's downright scary to imagine 20-something Manny hitting in the middle of the order during the Yankees 1996-2001 championship runs. —Jeff Euston
10. What if the Astros had selected Derek Jeter instead of Phil Nevin?
One of the what-if scenarios that always resurfaces around draft day stems from Derek Jeter’s close encounter with another pinstriped team. Coming off a 65-97 finish in 1991, the Houston Astros had the first overall pick in ’92, Jeter’s draft year. The Astros’ Michigan area scout, former Tigers ace Hal Newhouser, told the team to select and sign him at any cost—even $1 million, the sum it was expected to take to persuade Jeter not to attend the University of Michigan.
In some embellished accounts, Newhouser predicted the entirety of Jeter’s career, down to the number of rings he would win and fruit baskets he would bestow. What he actually said, according to Buster Olney’s account from 1999, was that he foresaw “special player” and a “special kid” who would become the “anchor and the foundation of a winning club.” That doesn’t quite compare to the stronger statement from Yankees scout Dick Groch, who reportedly told his team that Jeter was destined for Cooperstown, but even calling someone “special” was out of character for the normally conservative Newhouser. Nevertheless, the Astros didn’t heed his advice. Instead, they drafted Phil Nevin, who signed for $700,000.
Newhouser was so upset about being ignored that he retired in protest after 50 years in the game. (Two months later, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, so his summer of ’92 wasn’t a total loss.) Nevin hit .117 in 60 at-bats for the Astros before accumulating 20 career WARP elsewhere. And Jeter went on to run away with the record for worst career FRAA.
As it turned out, Jeter signed for only $800,000. (In fairness to Houston, four other teams passed on him, too, preferring Paul Shuey, B.J. Wallace, Jeffrey Hammonds, and Chad Mottola.) So what price did the Astros pay for their $100K?
A pretty steep one, potentially. During Jeter’s prime, the Astros fielded several strong teams with weak shortstops. Houston made the playoffs six times in nine years from 1997–2005, but not until Adam Everett’s arrival did they have even an average player at short. Everett’s 2.6 WARP in 2004 was the highest among Jeter-era Astros primary shortstops until Miguel Tejada topped that total in 2009.
The Astros made three consecutive exits in the division series from 1997–9, and another in 2001. In 1998, they won 102 games, with an expected record of 106-56. The Yankees won 114, with an expected record of 108-54. Swap Jeter with Gutierrez, who was worth only 0.9 WARP, and the Astros, not the Yankees, might have been the best team in baseball that year. The close calls continued: In 2003, they finished one game behind the Cubs in the NL Central, missing out on another trip to October. In 2004 they lost the NLCS in seven games, and in 2005, they were swept in the World Series. Most of this success came with the likes of Orlando Miller, Tim Bogar, Ricky Gutierrez, and Julio Lugo playing Jeter’s position.
Had Newhouser gotten his way, Jeter might have signed elsewhere after his first several seasons. Still, it’s not unreasonable to think that replacing a scrub with an All-Star might have made the difference between one of those misses and the franchise’s first title, even without attributing any inspirational qualities to Jeter. In our reality, the Astros had the Killer B’s, but no World Series wins; in an alternate timeline, maybe they would have been the ones with the dynasty. —Ben Lindbergh
11. What if the Rays had drafted Buster Posey instead of Tim Beckham?
I don't know if it's a change in scouting or a change in business practices or what, but no. 1 overall picks didn't used to be quite the prize that they are now. In the first two decades of the draft, there wasn't a Hall of Famer taken no. 1 overall, and the best player taken—Harold Baines, probably—led the league in one offensive category, once, in his entire career. Then in the next decade, from 1985 (B.J. Surhoff) to 2004 (Matt Bush), fourish Hall of Famers (or HOF-caliber players) were popped: Ken Griffey, Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones, Joe Mauer, and perhaps Adrian Gonzalez. There are still misses, where a club talks themselves into a player or where the consensus just flat out misses, but 1:1 has, I'd estimate, about a 15 or 20 percent chance of producing a Hall of Famer.
In 2008, that probably Hall of Famer was available, but the Rays chose Tim Beckham instead. This was the final year that the Rays got to pick high—they actually picked last the next year, and haven't gone higher than 17th since—but instead of a drop-the-mic moment, they kicked off a streak of unsuccessful picks. According to BP's reporting at the time, the choice might have come down to signability: Posey's camp started putting prohibitively high numbers into the ether, though in the end he signed for just $5,000 more than Beckham. The obvious implications are obvious: Rays catchers since 2009 have hit .221/.293/.334. (Posey has hit better. Also, Grant Brisbee has imagined the alternate universe from the Giants' perspective.) But another implication is more subtle.
Imagine that the Rays had Posey all this time. Jose Molina never would have been signed. Does that mean we would never have noticed catcher framing? Obviously not; Mike Fast's seminal article on the topic came out before Molina ever landed in Tampa Bay. But we tend to pay extra attention to what the Rays are doing, and to what it means that they're doing it. It seems plausible that, with Posey in a Rays uniform, we'd be far less aware of how much major-league teams have paid attention to this. Molina himself might have had to scratch to get into even a game a week elsewhere, and the 50-Run Receiver might never had gotten his due (or been studied so extensively for science). Or maybe the Rays would have realized exactly how undervalued Molina was, signed him anyway and shifted Posey to first base years ago. —Sam Miller