50 Years of the MLB Draft, Part 1
26. Inexact Science: Part I,I
Being drafted in the first round is no guarantee of future major-league stardom, much less even reaching the promised land. Among 1,198 players selected in the first round (June, regular phase only) from 1965-2009, only 827—or 69.0 percent—had ascended to the big leagues by the start of the 2014 season (no provision has been made for first-rounders drafted from 2010-13). Understandably, the success rate for first-round draft picks has climbed through the years as baseball scouting has become more sophisticated. From 1965-74, in the first decade of the draft’s existence, the success rate of first-rounders was only 62.9 percent; in the five-year period from 2005-09, it had jumped to 76.3 percent. But it has not been a steady, upward trend, as 75.2 percent of first-rounders reached the big leagues in the decade from 1985-94, while only 67.7 percent were successful from 1995-2004.
The variance in the latter 10-year period is ascribed to rapidly-escalated bonuses and the penchant for teams to draft more on the basis of signability as opposed to straight ability. Predictably, the success rate of draft picks dips with each descending round beyond the first round. Among 300 players selected as supplemental first-round picks through the years, a practice that began in 1983, 54.7 have ascended to the majors. The chances of a second-rounder playing in the big leagues is documented at 46.5 percent, while third-rounders have historically reached at a 37.8 percent clip, fourth-rounders at 31.3 percent and fifth-rounders at 29.5 percent. Generally, the chances of a drafted player of any kind playing Major League Baseball are approximately 15 percent.
27. Runaway Inflation: Part I
How much has bonus inflation impacted the draft through the years? Consider that in 1965, in the draft’s first year, the average first-round bonus was $42,516, the lowest ever. By 1977, it was still just $48,313. Bonuses started creeping upwards thereafter, and by 1983 the average first-rounder received $87,236; by 1988, the figure was $142,540. But the 1989 draft signaled the beginning of a sharp upturn on the size of signing bonuses, with runaway inflation of between 25 and 45 percent a common annual occurrence over the next 10 years. By 1998, the average first-round bonus was $1,637,667. A decade later, it had jumped to $2,458,714, and finally peaked at $2,653,375 in 2011, before joint measures were finally undertaken by Major League Baseball and the Player’s Association as part of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement aimed at capping bonuses and distributing bonus money more equitably among clubs, with a reversing of the trend a logical outcome.
28. Runaway Inflation: Part 1
When the draft was instituted in 1964, to go into effect in 1965, it was a reactionary measure in large part to the record $200,000 signing bonus paid out that year to Los Angeles Angels outfielder Rick Reichardt. The bonus was so significant, compared to the general financial well-being of a number of major-league clubs at the time, that it was more than double the average 1964 major-league salary of $85,909. As the first pick in the first pick, Rick Monday’s signing bonus of $100,000, while only half of Reichardt’s record amount, still exceeded the average 1965 big-league salary of $81,565.
But that would be the last time that the highest signing bonus in any year topped the average major-league salary until 1991, when the New York Yankees turned the industry upside-down by forking over a record bonus of $1.55 million to that year’s first pick, Brien Taylor—a figure that easily topped the 1991 major-league average salary of $1,116,603. That trend would only continue in the years to come as Taylor’s bonus record would be topped time and again—as many as 17 times altogether. Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Gerrit Cole, the top pick in the 2011 draft, holds the existing signing-bonus record of $8 million, though Washington Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg signed a lucrative major-league contract as the top pick in 2009, which included a $7.5 million bonus but also guaranteed him $15,107,104 overall. Monday’s original draft bonus record of $100,000—and, for that matter, Reichardt’s pre-draft record amount—obviously pale in relation to those figures, regardless of how much simple inflation has climbed over the last 50 years.
29. The 1-1 Mystique
The first-overall pick each year holds a place of special distinction in baseball draft lore, though it’s hardly been one closely-knit fraternity with the varying paths that many of the players have taken in their evolving major-league careers. On one score, Ken Griffey Jr. (1987), Chipper Jones (1990), and Alex Rodriguez (1993) enjoyed unparalleled success as big leaguers, and easily validated their selection as the top talent in their draft class. The same case can be made for Joe Mauer (2001), and possibly even Darryl Strawberry, though he may simply have been the best talent in an otherwise lean 1980 crop. The verdict is still out on first overall picks of more-recent vintage, like Adrian Gonzalez (2000), Justin Upton (2005), David Price (2007), Stephen Strasburg (2009), and Bryce Harper (2010). On the other hand, Steve Chilcott (1966), Brien Taylor (1991), and Matt Bush (2004) never so much as played a day in the big leagues, while Al Chambers (1979), Shawn Abner (1984), Matt Anderson (1997), and Bryan Bullington (2002) never came close to justifying their selection as the no. 1 pick, either, with sparse big-league contributions. Danny Goodwin? He was the no. 1 choice on two separate occasions, in 1971 and again in 1975, and curiously never came close to fulfilling the potential scouts saw in him in four years of college. Goodwin and Tim Belcher (1983) hold the distinction of being the only No. 1 picks to go unsigned. But Bush and Taylor hold an even more dubious distinction, as they ran afoul of the law and ended up serving time in jail.
Strawberry and Josh Hamilton (1999) had their own share of off-field problems, and well-documented substance-abuse issues nearly derailed both their promising careers. In Rick Monday (1965), Floyd Bannister (1976), and Bob Horner (1978), collegiate power Arizona State contributed plenty to the intriguing 1-1 dynamic. Through the years, there has been an even split between college and high-school players, with 24 selections apiece, and the much-publicized Harper stands as the lone junior-college selection. On 12 occasions, the No. 1 pick has been a collegiate righ-thander, but a prep righty has never had the honor of going first. Eight high-school shortstops have gone first overall, compared to just one at the college level. Most No. 1 overall picks were handsomely compensated for the services they were expected to deliver, especially Strasburg and Gerrit Cole (2011) with the existing record contracts they signed, if not the promise for considerably more later in their careers.
Rodriguez has earned more in major-league salary than any player in baseball history. If any first overall pick could make a case for being underpaid or underappreciated at any step along the way, one could be made for Harold Baines (1977) as his paltry $32,000 signing bonus was less than half the amount received by the two players drafted immediately after him—Bill Gullickson ($75,000) and Paul Molitor ($77,500)—and was also little more than half the next-lowest bonus paid out to a top pick (Chambers at $60,000). But Baines got the last laugh as he earned plenty of opportunity to make up for shortcoming on the strength of a 22-year, big-league career that equaled Griffey’s as the longest by a first-overall pick.
30. Inexact Science: Part III
It’s already been documented that just 69 percent of first-round draft picks have reached the big leagues through the years, and that surprisingly-low figure only serves to point out how inexact a science the draft in particular, and scouting of amateur prospects in general can be—especially when a lowly 62nd-round afterthought like catcher Mike Piazza can assemble the equivalent of a Hall-of-Fame career. Piazza was drafted out of Florida’s Miami-Dade CC by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1988 mostly as a favor to long-time Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, a friend of the Piazza family, and yet Piazza went on to hit .308 with 427 home runs and 1,335 RBIs in a 16-year career, primarily with the Dodgers and New York Mets. Not to be outdone, outfielder Al Cowens, who finished second in voting for the American League MVP in 1977 and played 13 years in the big leagues, was a 75th-round find of the Kansas City Royals in 1969.
31. Draft at WAR
As baseball has evolved into a more-sophisticated, analytical age, with an increasing number of tools or measurements to gauge player performance, one of the more-popular and trusted formulas is WAR (Wins Above Replacement, which effectively is an attempt by the Sabremetric community to summarize a player’s total contribution to his team through one, all-encompassing number). The application can conveniently be applied to players in any era, including over the life of the draft, though its value inherently favors players with the service time needed to accumulate a representative WAR score through a period of years. The highest WAR value for a drafted player, as determined by Baseball Reference? Barry Bonds, at 162.5. He has a sizeable lead over Roger Clemens (140.3), who is followed in order by Alex Rodriguez (115.9), Rickey Henderson (110.7), Tom Seaver (110.5), Greg Maddux (106.8), Mike Schmidt (106.5), Randy Johnson (102.1), Cal Ripken Jr. (95.6), and Bert Blyleven (95.4)—all Hall-of-Fame caliber performers. Albert Pujols, a 1999 draft pick, leads all active players (not counting Rodriguez, who was suspended for the 2014 season) with a grade of 93.0, while Justin Verlander (40.8) is tops among players drafted since 2004.
32. Multiple-Sport Options: Part I
Dave Winfield ultimately enjoyed a Hall of Fame career in baseball as a seven-time Gold-Glove winning-right fielder who amassed 3,110 hits and 456 home runs over a 22-year career. But before the San Diego Padres drafted Winfield with the fourth overall pick in 1973 and elected from the start to develop him an everyday player, Winfield’s options as a potential professional athlete were almost unlimited as he was drafted in four different leagues following his graduation from the University of Minnesota—the American Basketball Association, National Basketball Association and National Football League, in addition to baseball. To take his talent one step further, Winfield’s options in his sport of choice were two-fold as his considerable exploits as a pitching prospect while in college were more noteworthy than as an outfielder. Over the life of the baseball draft, there have been few athletes more decorated or talented than Winfield, but he is hardly the only baseball draft pick whose talent has crossed over to a second sport—in Winfield’s case, to a third. He is one of only three documented athletes in American sports analogs who has been drafted in three different sports (baseball, football and basketball), but unlike Mickey McCarty (Indians, 1968) and Dave Logan (Reds, 1972), who both went on to play in the NFL, Winfield stuck to baseball.
Unlike Winfield, who excelled in baseball and basketball at Minnesota but never played football there (despite being drafted in that sport as a prospective tight end by the Minnesota Vikings), Noel Jenke was a three-sport standout for the Gophers. He focused on football and hockey initially, and elected to play baseball only as a junior in 1969, though showed so much promise in that sport that he was drafted in the first round that year by the Boston Red Sox. He was also picked by the home-town Vikings in the NFL draft and is on record as being a draft pick of the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks, though there is no documented proof that actually occurred. Jenke played in the Red Sox system for three years, while also suiting up in the NFL at the same time, but cast his lot with football after reaching only Triple-A.
33. Multiple-Sport Options: Part II
In the 50-year life of the baseball draft, there are plenty of athletes who have crossed over and been drafted in a second sport besides baseball. But only one, Connecticut prep righthander and basketball standout Scott Burrell, has been a first-rounder in two different drafts. As a high-school senior in 1989, Burrell was drafted with the 26th and last pick of the first round by the Seattle Mariners. He didn’t sign, as it turned out, electing instead to pursue a college basketball career at Connecticut. Burrell did, however, spend time in the Toronto Blue Jays farm system a year later when re-drafted in the fifth round, but his professional baseball career amounted to just 14 games. His focus was on playing basketball at UConn, and he subsequently cast his lot with that sport when selected in the first round of the 1993 NBA draft.
When baseball players are drafted into a second sport, it's most often in football, and predominantly with quarterbacks. John Elway has made the greatest combined impact as he was a second-rounder in baseball (Yankees, 1981) prior to becoming the first overall pick in the 1983 NFL draft. He is one of 15 quarterbacks who has been taken in the first round of the NFL draft that was a former baseball draft pick, and the list includes such notables as Archie Manning (Braves/43rd round, 1967), Steve Bartkowski (Orioles/19th round, 1974), Dan Marino (Royals/fourth round, 1979), Michael Vick (Rockies/30th round, 2000) and Jake Locker (Angels/10th round, 2009) . . . Meanwhile, Noel Jenke (Red Sox, 1969), Jay Schroeder (Blue Jays, 1979), Greg McMurtry (Red Sox, 1986), Josh Booty (Marlins, 1994), and Chad Hutchinson (Braves, 1995) are former baseball first-rounders who also played in the NFL . . . Mike Kirkland (Giants/third round, 1972), Schroeder, Bubby Brister (Tigers/4th round, 1981), Chris Weinke (Blue Jays/second round, 1990), Brandon Weeden (Yankees/second round, 2002), Pat White (Angels/fourth round, 2004), Dennis Dixon (Braves/fifth round, 2007), and Russell Wilson (Rockies/4th round, 2010) are on the short list of quarterbacks who were selected in the top five rounds of both the football and baseball drafts.
Seven former Heisman Trophy winners are former baseball draft picks—Mike Garrett (1985), Johnny Rodgers (1972), Bo Jackson (1985), Charlie Ward (1993), Ricky Williams (1998), Weinke (2000), and Jameis Winston (2013) . . . Beyond the relatively modest baseball-basketball exploits of Burrell, Cazzie Russell (Athletics/26th round, 1966) was the first-overall pick in the 1966 NBA draft, while Trajan Langdon (Padres/sixth round, 1994) tested the waters in the Padres system briefly while a basketball player at Duke, before later becoming a first-round selection in the NBA draft. Danny Ainge (Blue Jays/15th round, 1977), who saw significant time as a young infielder with the Blue Jays before giving up baseball to fulfill his potential as an NBA all-star, has probably made the greatest impact of any dual baseball-basketball talent in the baseball draft era; he had obvious first-round talent in both sports, but was a first-rounder in neither
Hockey has occasionally weighed into the two-sport equation. Tom Nevers, a fifth-round pick of the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins in 1989, never gave more than a passing thought to a hockey career after the Houston Astros made his a first-round selection in baseball a year later. The decision was a little more difficult for Tom Glavine (Braves/2nd round, 1984) and Kirk McCaskill (Angels/fourth round, 1982), who were both fourth-round selections in the NHL. McCaskill, a finalist for hockey’s Hobey Baker Award (college hockey’s equivalent of the Heisman), played briefly in the Winnipeg Jets minor-league system before switching his allegiance back to baseball and going on to enjoy a 12-year major league career. The only known baseball drafts ever to actually play in the NHL are Canadian outfielder Paul Manning (Yankees/20th round, 1997), who played in eight NHL games in 2002, and Gary Sargent (Twins/22nd round, 1972), who played in 402 NHL games from 1975-83.
34. On the Fast Track
Unlike in basketball, football and hockey, the baseball draft is normally staged at the height of the college and high-school seasons, and squarely in the midst of the major-league schedule. As such, clubs are usually overly-cautious about promoting draft picks to the big leagues, especially when they haven’t had the advantage of attending a spring-training camp to properly prepare them for the daunting task. There have been some notable exceptions through the years, however. Dave Roberts, the top draft pick in 1972 out of the University of Oregon and one of only 21 players to advance directly to the big leagues, started a game at third base for the San Diego Padres a night after being drafted. Mike Morgan, the fourth overall pick in 1978, debuted in the big leagues faster than any high-school player, a mere five days after he was drafted by the Oakland A’s. Meanwhile, the first drafted player to ever play in the big leagues was lefthander Ken Holtzman, a University of Illinois product who debuted with the Chicago Cubs on Sept. 4, 1965, three months after the Cubs selected him in the fourth round of the first draft. Righthander Joe Coleman was the third overall pick in the same 1965 draft, and became the first drafted high-school player to reach the big leagues when he debuted on Sept. 28 of that year. In contrast, Cliff Speck, a 1974 draft pick, and Alan Cockrell, a 1984 selection, took all of 12 years to reach the big leagues, longer than any first-rounders in the draft era.
35. In Popular Demand
The baseball draft had dueling January and June phases from 1966 until the January segment was abandoned in 1987, and the two-a-year drafts enabled a number of players in the early years to be selected on multiple occasions, depending on their eligibility. Six players were drafted as many as seven times, including future big-leaguers Luis Medina and Pete Varney. Varney was the more noteworthy of the two from the standpoint of draft history because on three occasions he was the very first player taken in his phase. First drafted in 1966, Varney finally signed with the Chicago White Sox in 1971 as a senior out of Harvard. He was the first overall selection in the June, secondary (active) phase that year. Not to be outdone, former major-league left-hander Mark Hendrickson was selected six times—every year from 1992-97, when there was only one phase annually. He remained in demand, despite being primarily a basketball player during that period—first in college at Washington State, then with the Philadelphia 76ers after also being drafted by the NBA (1996/second round). After being reluctant to sign a baseball contract, the 6-foot-9 Hendrickson finally decided to give that sport a try when he signed with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1997 as a 20th round pick. For a time, he combined baseball and basketball careers at the pro level, before finally casting his lot with baseball only. He played for five different major-league teams.
36. Landmark Draft: 1965
The NFL adopted its draft in 1936, the NBA followed suit in 1947 and the NHL jumped on board in 1963, so there was obvious precedent for baseball to adopt its own draft, especially in 1964 when there were warnings signs all around the game that it was careening down a bad path. Signing bonuses were reaching reckless and dangerous levels, with the Los Angeles Angels firing the latest salvo that year by inking University of Wisconsin outfielder Rick Reichardt for $200,000, yet another record deal. By spending upwards of $7 million on bonuses in 1964, major-league clubs were now shelling out more to sign unproven amateur talent than they were on major-league player salaries. Moreover, competitive balance was seriously being threatened. With 14 pennants in 16 years, the New York Yankees were dominating the game in unprecedented ways, and it wasn’t uncommon for the Yankees to simply buy up the best available amateur talents with their deep pockets and lure of playing in a World Series almost annually. Baseball’s once-vibrant minor-league system was also in a decayed state at the time, and almost wholly dependent on the subsidization of major-league clubs for basic survival. If ever there was a time for Major League Baseball to overhaul a broken player-procurement process, this was it. The obvious solution was a draft, and that radical development was ratified by major-league owners at the 1964 Winter Meetings, to take effect the following June. Understandably, there was much uncertainty and anxiety involved with the implementation of one of the most-historic developments in the game’s history when representatives from all 20 big-league clubs gathered at a New York hotel to conduct the first draft in 1965.
Arizona State outfielder Rick Monday, the first of 813 players drafted over a three-day period, was considered a very-representative pick by the assembled masses and validated his selection with a 19-year major-league career. Yet, almost predictably, much of the best-available talent in that first go-around slipped beyond the first round. Among them were four future Hall of Famers: Johnny Bench (Reds/second round), Tom Seaver (Dodgers/eighth round), Nolan Ryan (Mets/10th round), and Carlton Fisk (Orioles/19th round). Though Seaver and Fisk would go unsigned, no draft since has featured the selection of more Hall of Famers. The Kansas City A’s not only had the first overall selection, but appeared to have the best grasp of the new draft process. In addition to picking Monday first overall, they landed Sal Bando in the sixth round and Gene Tenace in the 11th, and drafted 10 players in all that would eventually play in the big leagues—more than any club. Six of the first seven players the A’s selected would play in the big leagues, while Pittsburgh didn’t pick a future big-leaguer with its initial 17 selections. Houston drafted 72 players in all, Boston just 20. And while the Dodgers drafted right-hander Alan Foster, a local product, in the second round and signed the 28th overall pick for $96,000 bonus (the second-largest bonus handed out that year), they inexplicably failed to sign another young right-hander, Seaver, who was also right under their nose at the University of Southern California. Equally compelling, Bench was selected just eight picks after Foster in the second round, yet arguably the greatest catcher in major-league history received the paltry sum of just $6,000 to sign with the Cincinnati Reds.
37. Draft’s Extraneous Phases
The institution of a draft in 1965 as Major League Baseball’s primary means to distribute young high-school and college talent was in the discussion stage for years, but met resistance at almost every step. Even when the procedure was finally ratified, there was a faction of owners who expressed concern, chiefly on legal grounds, that Congress might view a draft as a restraint on freedom of choice, which conceivably could end up jeopardizing baseball’s sacred anti-trust status. Moreover, there was trepidation that Congress might take an adverse stance to a baseball draft on the premise that it would deal primarily with high-school players, or minors. Football, by contrast, had few such concerns at the time as only college athletes were drafted, and between the American and Canadian Football Leagues, players had plenty of options to choose from, rather than potentially be bound, in perpetuity, to the NFL team that drafted them. To counter some of the lingering concerns, a provision was made for two baseball drafts each year (one conducted in June, the other in January), which effectively doubled the opportunity for players to be drafted annually. Moreover, provisions were put in place for players that went unsigned in one draft to be placed in a special pool, or secondary phase, in the following draft, effectively exposing them a wider spectrum of teams. From the start, most draft picks were channeled through the conventional June, regular phase, but the other, more-extraneous phases provided their share of talent for roughly 20 years before the draft was finally consolidated into a single, all-encompassing phase in 1987. By then, there were no longer fears of reprisal by Congress over the legality of a restrictive draft system. If anything, baseball had a perception problem as there was growing concern among big-league officials that four draft phases each year, with four separate first rounds, was artificially providing leverage for draft picks in the lower-profile phases, who were beginning to equate their worth with increasing frequency to players drafted in comparable slots in the more talent-laden June regular phase. All this was manifesting at a time when bonuses were starting to climb at a progressive clip.
The talent produced in the various secondary phases through the years was never as prolific as the mainstream June draft, but the January, regular phase produced two Hall of Famers, Carlton Fisk (Red Sox/first round, 1967) and Kirby Puckett (Twins/first round, 1982), along with established big-leaguers like Moises Alou (Pirates/first round, 1986), George Foster (Giants/third round, 1968), Garry Maddox (Giants/second round, 1968), Curt Schilling (Red Sox/second round, 1986), Ken Singleton (Mets/first round, 1967) and Jim Sundberg (Rangers/first round, 1973). Among 512 first-rounders overall that were drafted in that phase, 106, or 20.7 percent, reached the big leagues . . . Tom Seaver (Braves/first round, 1966) was the most-conspicuous talent ever drafted in the January secondary phase, though his selection was one of the more controversial in draft history. He was signed by the Braves, but the commissioner’s office ruled the transaction illegal, as it occurred after the University of Southern California had begun its spring season. Because he signed a pro contract, the NCAA also determined that Seaver was ineligible to play in college any longer. The commissioner’s office subsequently established a lottery for Seaver’s services, and the New York Mets outbid two other teams to land one of the elite pitchers of the entire draft era. Beyond Seaver, left-hander Chuck Finley (Angels/1st round, 1985) was probably the best big-leaguer to come out of that phase. Of 511 first-rounders produced, 156 (30.5 percent) became future big leagers.
The June, secondary phase was the most fruitful of the three phases, as it yielded 176 big-leaguers from among 517 first-round selections, a 34.0 percent clip. Ron Cey (Dodgerst/3rd round, 1968), Darrell Evans (Athletics/seventh round, 1967), Steve Garvey (Dodgers/first round, 1967), Andy Messersmith (Angels/first round, 1966), and Steve Rogers (Expos/first round, 1971) are some of the more-notable players to come from the June, secondary phase.
38. What If…
…There had been only one, all-encompassing phase over the life of the draft, as presently exists. From 1966 to 1986, the baseball draft was split into four phases—a regular and secondary phase in January, and a regular and secondary phase in June. The June, regular phase has always been the attention-getter, and there’s a strong likelihood that each of the 1967, 1970 and 1971 drafts might have been viewed differently if previously-drafted college players in those years not been subjected to the lower-profile secondary phase. With different eligibility rules in place, such as became the case shortly thereafter as it applied to previously-drafted college players, it’s entirely possible that University of Southern California ace right-hander Mike Adamson, who earned the highest bonus in 1967 ($75,000) as the top pick in the secondary phase and became the first-ever draft pick to debut in the big leagues, would have been the no. 1 selection, and not Georgia high-school first baseman Ron Blomberg. The same scenario might have played out in 1970, too, as USC power-hitting first baseman Dave Kingman, the no. 1 pick in the secondary phase, was seen in some quarters as the superior prospect to Georgia prep catcher Mike Ivie. Kingman’s $80,000 bonus was the largest paid out that year. Dartmouth right-hander Pete Broberg, who went unsigned as the second overall pick in the 1968 draft, would have been the logical selection to go No. 1 in 1971, if a one-for-all draft that year had been in place, but that distinction will always be held by Illinois prep catcher Danny Goodwin. Broberg, the top selection in the secondary draft, highlighted a decidedly-stronger college crop overall that year than existed in high school, and the top of the board in the secondary phase trumped the talent in the high-school-oriented regular phase. Broberg debuted in the big leagues immediately, as did Texas right-hander Burt Hooton and Michigan State infielder Rob Ellis, the second and third selections in the secondary phase. Goodwin, meanwhile, chose not to even sign.
39. Worst Drafts II: 1999-2000
Major League Baseball couldn’t legally force its clubs to reverse, or even restrict the payment of exorbitant bonuses at a time of the most-rampant inflation in the draft’s history, but it put overt pressure on them to toe the line more responsibly—or else bear the wrath of the commissioner’s office. As a result, teams routinely began to let signability, and not raw ability, dictate their selections in the early rounds of the draft, particularly the first round, and the unfortunate result in 1999-2000 was the poorest rate of producing future big-leaguers from the first round over any two-year stretch in draft history. Of a possible 61 first-rounders, only 30—less than half—ever reached the majors. Coincidentally, 31 second-rounders—many of whom had first-round credentials–graduated to the big leagues in that two-year period, the only time in draft history that the second round actually trumped the first.
Acrimony between clubs and player agents often reached new lows, and appropriately, the most-contentious negotiation in draft history, between the Colorado Rockies and first-rounder Matt Harrington, played out in 2000. Harrington, who was in consideration at one point to be the first overall pick that year before sliding to seventh because of significant concerns about his contractual demands, never signed with the Rockies. He left a considerable contract offer on the table, and would never go on to sign a contract with a big-league club, spending all of an undistinguished career in professional baseball in the independent leagues. Big-league clubs soon learned the error of their ways as the 2004, 2005 and 2008 drafts became the most-productive ever with a record-low four first-rounders in each of those years failing to reach the big leagues. That feat had only occurred once before, in 1990.
40. First-Round Compromises
No teams in draft history have had so little to show for more first-round draft picks than the Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees. On seven occasions, the Twins have failed to sign their top selection in the draft (June, regular phase), including the no. 1 overall pick in 1983, right-hander Tim Belcher (the Twins, additionally, didn’t sign the No. 1 overall pick in the corresponding secondary phase that year, Oddibe McDowell). With the no. 2 overall choice in 1996, the Twins went for first baseman Travis Lee, but he became one of four infamous loophole free-agents that year, and went on to sign for $10 million with the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks. The Yankees have twice failed to come to terms with first-rounders, outfielder Tyrell Godwin in 1997, and rigtht-hander Gerrit Cole in 2008, but their opportunity to even draft a player in the first round has been compromised repeatedly because of their aggressive posture in pursuing major-league free agents. On 18 occasions from 1978 to date, the Yankees have been required to forfeit a first-rounder as compensation—far more than any other major-league team. They’ve also coughed up 20 second- and third-round draft choices.
41. Early College Stars Impacted by Changing Eligibility Rules
When Rick Monday, the top pick in the 1965 draft, and Reggie Jackson, the no. 2 selection a year later, both played in college at Arizona State (before eventually becoming teammates with the Kansas City/Oakland A’s), they each spent only a single year on the varsity level for the Sun Devils. College freshmen weren’t eligible to play varsity sports of any kind at the time, and Major League Baseball’s college rule permitted players to be drafted following their sophomore year. Monday was just 19 when he signed with Kansas City. By contrast, top college talents like Danny Goodwin and Dave Winfield were full-fledged college seniors with four years of varsity experience under their belts when they were drafted and signed—Winfield by the San Diego Padres with the fourth overall pick in 1973, Goodwin by the California Angels with the no. 1 selection in 1975. By the time Monday and Jackson left school, and Winfield and Goodwin came along, both sets of college rules had been amended. A change in NCAA rules as they pertained to freshmen eligibility enabled Winfield and Goodwin to play on varsity as freshmen at the University of Minnesota and Southern University, respectively, and yet neither became eligible for the baseball draft until they were seniors. MLB’s amended college rule was aimed at protecting colleges by requiring players to stay in school a year longer, and while most collegians were draft-eligible as juniors, the rule had an additional requirement that players must be age 21 within 45 days of the draft. Goodwin missed the mark as a junior by nearly two months, Winfield by three, and both had little recourse but to wait until they were seniors to be drafted—though Winfield may have stayed until his senior anyway as he was an all-Big 10 Conference power forward in basketball.
The same age clause impacted a number other college stars of the time, and Arizona State shortstop Alan Bannister and Southern California outfielder Steve Kemp, for two, chose to handle their situations differently than Winfield and Goodwin. Bannister, an unsigned first-round pick in the 1969 draft, would have been a slam-dunk first-rounder in 1972 had he been draft-eligible as junior, or even if he had returned to college as senior. Kemp was undrafted as a high-school senior, but improved his stock immeasurably in college and would have been an early first-rounder as a junior. But since both Bannister and Kemp weren’t eligible as juniors, and didn’t want to spend another year in college, their only recourse was to drop out of college during the fall semester in order and become eligible for the lower-profile January draft. Both ended up being taken with the no. 1 overall pick in the regular phase of their respective drafts—Bannister in January 1973, Kemp in January 1976. The college rule was amended once again later in 1976 to permit all college juniors, regardless of age, to become eligible. That rule is still in place today.
42. Double Your Pleasure
Over the 49-year life of the draft, 48 first-round picks in the traditional June phase went unsigned—essentially one a year, on average. That includes 17 players who were subsequently re-drafted in the same first round. The phenomenon is particularly noteworthy in the case of catcher Danny Goodwin, who was the No. 1 overall pick in 1971 (White Sox) out of an Illinois high school, and the no. 1 overall pick again four years later (Angels) as a senior out of Southern University. Despite maintaining his elite-level status over an extended period at the college level, Goodwin was a relative bust in the majors while playing parts of seven seasons. Among the 16 other two-time first-rounders are two recent no. 1 overall picks, right-handers Gerrit Cole, an unsigned first-round selection of the New York Yankees in 2009 who re-surfaced as the top selection for the Pittsburgh Pirates three years later out of UCLA, and Mark Appel, who chose not to sign with the Pirates as a junior out of Stanford in 2012, only to emerge a year later as the 1-1 selection with the Houston Astros as a Stanford senior. In addition to Appel, right-handers Brad DuVall (1987-88), John Burke (1991-92), Wade Townsend (2004-05) and Aaron Crow (2008-09), catcher Jason Varitek (1993-94), and outfielder J.D. Drew (1997-98) were first-rounders in consecutive drafts. DuVall and Townsend hardly justified their status as two-time first-rounders as DuVall never advanced past Class A in two minor-league seasons, while Townsend, who was pegged with the eighth pick two years in a row, went 7-21, 5.59 in a forgettable minor-league career that peaked in Double-A.
43. Draft for The Ages: Part II
The Los Angeles Dodgers’ 1968 draft is generally acclaimed as the best single draft of all-time, but the fruits of that draft never resulted in a World Series triumph for the Dodgers for another 13 years. The Detroit Tigers and New York Mets didn’t have to wait nearly as long for landmark drafts of their own to bear fruit. Detroit’s 1976 draft laid the foundation for their 1984 World Series championship team, while the Mets’ 1982 draft did the same for their 1986 title-winning club. In the 1976 draft, the Tigers selected shortstop Alan Trammell in the second round, and right-handers Dan Petry in the fourth and Jack Morris in the fifth. Eight years later, Trammell led the Tigers in hitting, won his fourth straight Gold Glove and was named the 1984 World Series MVP. Morris, with 19 wins, and Petry, with 18, were the Tigers top two winners that year. All three would enjoy long, productive big-league careers. The Tigers managed to get significant mileage out of the their 1976 draft class, even as first-rounder Pat Underwood had limited success in the big leagues, and outfielder Steve Kemp, who had five productive seasons with the Tigers after being drafted first overall in the January 1976 draft (regular phase) had been traded away by 1984. Detroit might have had a true milestone draft in 1976 had they been able to sign their seventh-rounder that year, future Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith, who chose to return to college for his senior year.
The Mets had a remarkable draft in 1982, on two counts. Their first-round selection (fifth overall) was right-hander Dwight Gooden, who was one of the best pitching prospects ever to come of the draft. The Mets also drafted 29 players that year (June, regular phase), and the remarkable number of 14 reached the major leagues—the best success ratio of any draft in history. Like the Tigers’ 1976 draft, the Mets ’82 draft would have been hailed as one of the greatest ever if they had signed their eighth-rounder, outfielder Rafael Palmeiro. Gooden was the Mets unquestioned ace just four years later as a 21-year-old, while third-rounder Roger McDowell also played a key role for the Mets during their highly-successful 1986 season, going 14-9 with a club-best 22 saves.
44. O, Charlie!
The Kansas City A’s drafted the likes of Reggie Jackson, Vida Blue, Sal Bando, and Gene Tenace from 1965-67, and all became key members of the franchise’s 1972-73-74 World Series championship teams after owner Charles O. Finley relocated the A’s to Oakland in 1968. Finley ended up selling the team in 1981, but the A’s quickly made some key draft acquisitions under a new administration in the early-80s, notably Jose Canseco (1982) and Mark McGwire (1984), and the Bash Brothers led the A’s to another three-year championship run from 1988-90. Those periods of prosperity in Oakland, both triggered by astute drafting, overshadow some very lean periods in the draft in Finley’s unpredictable reign. In 16 drafts under Finley’s watch, the A’s failed to sign 69 of 162 draft picks in the top 10 rounds, but things became especially dire in 1979, when the A’s failed to sign 13 of their first 16 selections in the June regular phase, including both first-rounders, and all 12 picks in the three other phases that year. It all hit rock bottom for the A’s in 1980, when they signed just seven of 39 picks overall in the four draft phases. In anticipation of selling the team, Finley eliminated his entire scouting staff prior to the 1980 draft, and entrusted the responsibility of drafting and signing players on 26-year-old Walt Jocketty, whose only real recourse was to use reports provided by the Major League Scouting Bureau. The A’s drafted 14 future big-leaguers in 1979-80, but were able to sign only two, 27th-rounder Bert Bradley in 1979 and third-rounder Rich Bordi in 1980. Jocketty obviously capitalized on his bizarre role as a one-man scouting staff as he would go on to become a successful major-league general manager, and currently holds that position with the Cincinnati Reds.
45. First-Round Talents, On/Off-Field
Remarkably, nine current big-league mangers are former first-round draft picks. That total stands out because there are only 15 instances in the draft era where a first-round pick has gone on to manage a big-league ball club. The dean of all current skippers is Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia, a first-round pick of the rival Los Angeles Dodgers in 1976. One current general manager, Oakland’s Billy Beane, is also an ex-first rounder. Perhaps most noteworthy, three active managers, along with Beane, came from the same 1980 draft, which in a span of five picks in the first round produced Cubs manager Rich Renteria (Pirates, 20th overall), Indians manager Terry Francona (Expos, 22nd), Beane (Mets, 23rd) and Blue Jays manager John Gibbons (Mets, 24th). The other skippers who were first-rounders in their day are Pirates manager Clint Hurdle (Royals, 1975), Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson (Tigers, 1978), Rockies manager Walt Weiss (Athletics, 1985), Nationals manager Matt Williams (Giants, 1986) and White Sox manager Robin Ventura (White Sox, 1988). Ventura is the only manager currently working for the team that drafted him. The Cubs hired on Renteria as their manager this year to replace Dale Sveum (Brewers, 1982), yet another first-rounder who moved on to become a big-league manager.
46. Risky Demographic II: Catchers
Veteran scouts still contend that catching, with its myriad of physical and mental demands, remains the trickiest position in the draft to project with any degree of accuracy. All evidence in the early years of the draft, in particular, pointed to the high risk involved in selecting catchers, especially in the first round as the flame-out rate was predictably high, but the track record for drafting catchers with premium selections has gotten progressively better through the years. A total of 111 catchers have been taken in the first round in the draft era, and while the overall success rate of catchers reaching the majors has climbed to 63.9 percent overall, it was a decided 50-50 proposition over the first decade of the draft. The first 10 years is noteworthy in dissecting the ultimate draft worth of catchers as some of the most-celebrated failures at the position were selected in that era. In a six-year span from 1966-71, Steve Chilcott (1966), Mike Ivie (1970), and Danny Goodwin (1971) were all scooped up with the first overall pick. Goodwin never signed at the time and was selected No. 1 again four years later, but that trio combined to catch just nine games in the big leagues (all by Ivie). Chilcott endured an injury-plagued minor-league career, Ivie quickly developed a career-changing phobia over the seemingly-simple task of throwing the ball back to the mound and spent almost all of his 11-year, big-league career at first base, while Goodwin’s inadequate defensive skills were exposed to such a degree after turning pro that he was deemed unfit to catch at the major-leave level.
The only other time a high-school catcher was selected first overall occurred in 2001, when the Minnesota Twins plucked hometown kid Joe Mauer, who almost singlehandedly restored the tarnished reputation of prep catchers in the draft with multiple Gold Gloves and batting championships on his resume, though Mauer has since moved permanently to first base. Mauer is undeniably the best all-round prep catcher drafted anywhere in the first round, though Ted Simmons (Cardinals, 1967) had a distinguished 21-year big-league career and Dale Murphy (Braves, 1974) spent almost his entire career in the outfield. The often-complex nature of evaluating the worth of young catchers led to three future Hall of Famers being shortchanged in the draft: Johnny Bench (Reds, 1965) lasted until the second round, Carlton Fisk (Red Sox, January/regular phase, 1967) was an afterthought selection in an obscure winter-time draft and Gary Carter (Expos, 1973) was drafted and signed as an outfielder, and spent his rookie season in the big leagues at that position. Even though his career was shortened by his fatal plane crash, Thurman Munson (Yankees, 1968) is arguably the best college catcher selected in the first round, though Craig Biggio (Astros, 1987) might have made a case had he not played the bulk of his career at other positions. It was rare occurrence for a catcher drafted in the first round in the first 25 years of the draft to play anything but that position, though subsequently moving to another position has happened since with increasing frequency, with White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko (Dodgers, 1994), Pirates second baseman Neil Walker (Pirates, 2004), and Nationals outfielders Jayson Werth (Orioles, 1997) and Bryce Harper (Nationals, 2010) some of the obvious examples. Over the course of draft history, 74 first-round catchers have come from the prep ranks, and just 39 from college, though 11 of the 12 catchers whose pro careers never extended beyond Class A were high-school selections.
47. Ultimate Futility
Henry Aaron may be the greatest player in the history of the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves, but his son Lary was part of one of the most infamous moments in franchise history. A 32nd-round pick of the Braves in 1981, the younger Aaron was a fringe element in what was undoubtedly the most-futile draft in baseball history. The Braves selected 48 players that year, and not a single one played a day in the big leagues—the only time in draft history that a team has whiffed on all its picks. Among 34 players taken in the June, regular phase, only one advanced even as high as Triple-A. It didn’t help the Braves cause that they didn’t have second- or third-round picks that year, but they rolled the dice on their top pick, Washington high-school outfielder Jay Roberts, a University of Washington football recruit who didn’t even play baseball his senior year while partaking instead in track and field. Not surprisingly, Roberts hit just .187 with nine home runs in four minor-league seasons, none above Class A.
Roberts subsequently went on to play football at Washington after his baseball career fizzled, lettering three times as a linebacker, but subsequently ran afoul of the law on repeated occasions and was killed in a 1998 car accident. Coincidentally, the only other time in draft history that all of a team’s picks in the traditional June, regular phase failed to play in the majors also occurred in 1981. Houston didn’t have selections in the first two rounds, and went 0-for-26 with the picks they did make. Coincidentally, the Astros became the first team in draft history that year to select only college players.
48. The Great Debate: Making the the Right Call
Teams entrusted with making the first call in any draft have often agonized over the selection, especially in cases where there is little degree of separation between two or more players. Not only is the future success of a franchise often at stake with the pick, but the merits of the selection are likely to be replayed time and again in the future. Two of the most-astute decisions over which player to draft first involved the Seattle Mariners, who may have literally saved a struggling franchise with their selection of Ken Griffey Jr. in 1986, and added icing to the cake by taking Alex Rodriguez seven years later. In hindsight, the selection of Griffey, a certain future Hall of Famer, was a no-brainer, but the Mariners debated long and hard at the time over whether to draft Griffey or right-hander Mike Harkey, who went fourth overall, and even gave more than passing consideration to Mark Merchant, the second overall pick who would never surface in the big leagues. The selection of Rodriguez in 1993 should have been a slam-dunk choice as he may have been the greatest natural baseball talent signed in the draft era, in the minds of many scouts, with his all-around package of tools and skills, but the Mariners went to the wire before finally deciding to select Rodriguez over Wichita State right-hander Darren Dreifort, who went next to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The most-astute decision that involved a first overall pick may have been made by the Atlanta Braves, who were all set to draft Texas prep right-hander Todd Van Poppel in 1990. The night before they were set to take Van Poppel, though, Braves officials couldn’t get an acceptable handle on his contractual demands, and backed off on their preferred choice. Their compromise ended up being Florida prep infielder Chipper Jones, who was quickly signed to a bonus of $275,000. Van Poppel would last until the 14th pick, and though he was signed to a major-league contract by the Oakland A’s that guaranteed him $1.2 million, including a $500,000 signing bonus, his career never close to matching the Hall of Fame-equivalent one that Jones enjoyed. In 2001, University of Southern California right-hander Mark Prior was all the rage as that year’s draft approached, but the Minnesota Twins had their minds set all along on a local high-school catcher, Joe Mauer. The Twins endured heavy criticism at the time for what was perceived as a compromise selection, especially given Prior’s significant final demands, but the Twins were vindicated when Mauer went on to an All-Star major-league career, while Prior’s was short-circuited by arm problems.
49. The Great Debate: Making the Wrong Call
The misguided decision by the New York Mets to draft Steve Chilcott, and not future Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson with the first overall pick in 1966 has been cited time and again as the colossal gaffe of the draft era. But there have been at least two other egregious decisions made by teams that held all the cards. One also involved the Mets, who narrowed their selection on the top pick in 1984 to Pennsylvania prep outfielder Shawn Abner and University of Southern California slugger Mark McGwire. When McGwire wasn’t forthcoming with his bonus demands, the Mets settled on Abner, whose 11 home runs in an underachieving, six-year major-league career pale next to McGwire’s 583. Twenty years later, the San Diego Padres may have usurped both of the wayward decisions made by the Mets in earlier drafts. When none of their college options for no. 1 were falling into place, the Padres elected at the last minute to simply stay close to home and draft Matt Bush, a two-way talent at a local high school. Bush was only too happy to take the Padres bonus offer of $3.15 million, but almost immediately ran afoul of the law, and his career never got untracked in the process.
Bush hit just .219 with three homers, while committing 76 errors as a shortstop, in 204 games in the Padres system, none above Class A. Two organizations and one Tommy John surgery later, Bush tried his hand at pitching and advanced to Double-A, but the latest in his string of off-field indiscretions landed him in jail, ending one of the sorriest chapters in draft history. Meanwhile, Justin Verlander, the no. 2 pick in 2004 and a player the Padres paid scant attention to all that spring, went on to an All-Star career in the majors, while shortstop Stephen Drew and righthander Jered Weaver, the players the Padres concentrated most of their early-scouting efforts around, also had productive careers—though neither would sign with the clubs that selected them until just before the following year’s draft. The other obvious decision involving a No. 1 overall pick that backfired occurred in 1992, when Houston, against the wishes of key members of its scouting staff, took Cal State Fullerton third baseman Phil Nevin, and not Michigan prep shortstop Derek Jeter. Nevin had a solid big-league career, but nothing like the one enjoyed over the next 22 years by Jeter.
50. Popular Schools
Arizona State won its first College World Series title in 1965, the same year baseball’s draft was instituted. The Sun Devils have continued to be a dominant force in college baseball since, and their dominance in the draft through the years has been unmatched as they have had 422 draft picks overall since outfielder Rick Monday was the first pick in the first draft. Monday is also one of three no. 1 picks overall for ASU, and one of 18 first-rounder in all—both draft records. The Sun Devils have had at least five players drafted every year, except on four occasions, and peaked at 14 twice. Yet as much as Arizona State has dominated the draft process through the years, the number of picks it has accumulated through 49 drafts pales in comparison to Miami-Dade, the nation’s dominant junior-college program over the same run.
Miami-Dade can rightfully lay claim to 489 draft picks overall, though the total is a bit deceiving as the Sharks fielded three separate teams in three different south Florida locations—North, South/Kendall and Wolfson/New World Center–in the sprawling Miami-Dade system until 1998, when everything was consolidated into one team on the South/Kendall site. In 1972 alone, the three Miami-Dade schools combined to yield 25 draft picks. Miami-Dade players also had the advantage of being eligible for both the January and June phases of the drafted through 1986, when the January segment, which was always heavily-populated by junior-college players, was rolled into a single June phase. On its own, Miami-Dade North had a record 143 players drafted in the January drafts. Right-hander Alex Fernandez, the fourth-overall pick in the 1990 draft out of Miami-Dade South, is the lone Miami-Dade player selected in the first round of the June regular phase. At the high-school level, Florida’s Sarasota High has produced the most draft picks, 52, including five first-rounders, the highest being the late Doug Million, the seventh overall pick in 1994. The Sailors hold a narrow lead overall on California’s Lakewood High, which has yielded a total of 51 picks.
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now