Beware the Number one draft pick

As I’ve written earlier there is a lot sport here in the UK could learn from the US. One thing I hope we never have in the UK is the draft – where clubs take their pick of the best young talent. But the young high school/college players don’t have a say in who they sign for. They can refuse to sign – pitcher Mark Appel was drafted by the Pirates in 2012 didn’t sign reappeared in the draft the next year and did sign for the Astros – but can’t go anywhere else. To my mind you should always have the right to choose your employer – but sport is always above the law so that is a pipe dream.

The other thing I don’t like about baseball’s draft is that it rewards failure. The franchises pick in reverse order of their record the previous year. So in 2015 the Diamondbacks – who had the worst record in 2014 – get first pick. I just don’t like the idea of mediocrity being rewarded. An example. The 2003 Tigers stank – they lost 119 games that year. In fact had they not won five of their last six they would have been the worst team in Major League history. Their reward? They got Justin Verlander in the 2004 draft (although as I’ll write later they might not have). In UK sport a team that bad would have been demoted from the division not rewarded with a brilliant prospect.

If I were in charge of baseball I’d copy the National Basketball Association (NBA) and have a lottery. Put the ten worst teams into a draw and decide the first ten picks that way. It means the bad teams still get early picks but there is no incentive to “tank” in order to get the No 1 pick. (I’m not saying that happens. But it could).

One difference between the baseball draft and the (American) Football and basketball ones is publicity. The MLB draft is live in the US – but only on MLB’s own network. While in the UK both the NBA and NFL drafts are on general sports channels but baseball’s not at all. This is partly because even the best talent goes to the minor leagues to learn their trade rather than straight into the majors as happens in the NFL and  NBA. Only one player in the 2014 MLB draft – pitcher Brandon Finnegan of the Royals – played in the majors before 2014 was out. In fact he played in both the College World Series and the MLB one in 2014 and he’ll be remembered for this even if he achieves nothing else in his career.

Whatever I think of the draft I bet there will be a lot of nervous young men on Monday wondering if they will get picked. It must be like waiting for your school exam results to come. And one young man will get a lot of publicity on Monday. Whoever the Diamondbacks pick will be the Number 1 draft pick and his name will get the headlines. I find it fascinating to look at No 1 draft picks for it just shows that – as in all sports – it is hard to guess which youngsters will succeed  – and which ones will fail.

Since the current MLB draft begun in 1965 the Number 1 picks have turned out to be a mixed bunch. Some are famous names – among current players Adrian Gonzalez, Alex Rodriguez Josh Hamilton  (though he never played for the Devil Rays who drafted him No 1 in 1999 and didn’t make his MLB debut until 2007 – for the Reds) Joe Mauer and David Price were no 1 picks who clearly have become stars. In the future Bryce Harper (definitely) and Stephen Strasburg (perhaps) will join them. Among all Number 1 picks none have made the Hall of Fame but with Ken Griffey Jr (drafted in 1987) and Chipper Jones (drafted in 1990)) both in my opinion first ballot certs coming up for election in 2016 and 2018 respectively that will change. But there have been some failures too.

Discounting the last three no 1 picks* three number 1 picks never played in the Majors. Steve Chillcott (1966) and Brian Taylor (1991) plus one of my two favourite draft  stories.

In 2004 for some reason I’ve forgotten (they weren’t the worse team in 2003) the Padres had first draft pick. They could (as I mentioned above) have picked Justin Verlander.  Apparently they wanted Jered Weaver – who turned into an ace for the Angels-  or Stephen Drew – a solid pro who has been part of a World Champion team – the 2013 Red Sox. But to save money – or so it is believed  – they picked local shortstop Matt Bush. A disaster both on the field – he never made it beyond Double A at either the Padres or the Rays despite reinventing himself as a pitcher when his hitting failed – and off the field – he is now inmate number C07392 in Mayo Correctional Institute after a drink driving incident(not his first brush with the law) in 2012. That pick must be one of the biggest mistakes in all sport never mind baseball**.

If that was a mistake by one franchise the 2009 draft was a case of franchises making a collective mistake. Today Mike Trout is considered the beat player in baseball. But in the 2009 draft he was only number 25 pick. Nineteen franchises missed the chance of drafting him. Two other franchises – the Nationals and Diamondbacks – missed two chances to draft him as they had compensation picks for losing free agents. Instead of Trout my team the Rangers drafted pitcher Matt Purke – who didn’t even sign and when he entered the draft again in 2011 the Nationals drafted him in the third round – suggesting the Rangers had over rated him. And we could have had Trout.

Even the Angels were lucky to get him. They had two compensation picks that year for losing free agents. They used their first on…Randal Grichuk. To be fair not a Bush style disaster. He has played in the Majors albeit for the Cardinals. It was with their second compensation pick that they drafted Trout. And this has led to the most interesting counterfactual in baseball.

The pick the Angels used to pick Trout was a compensation for the Yankees signing free agent Mark Teixeira. Now we don’t know if the Yankees would have drafted Trout but he is from New Jersey and Derek Jeter was his childhood hero. So it is at least possible that in a parallel universe Trout signs for the Yankees and is the heir to the likes of Ruth, Mantle Gehrig and Jeter among others. I wonder if they would send Teixeira back to Anaheim if the Angels gave them Trout? I suspect the Yankees would. The Angels I suspect would tell them to get lost.

The point of these stories is that spotting young talent is an inexact science. Can’t miss prospects fail. Little regarded youngsters can become stars. All sport is littered with both examples. Whoever the Diamondbacks draft number 1 on Monday we don’t know if he will be another Ken Griffey Jr…or another Matt Bush.  And that is the great thing about sport. if it was predictable we would never watch it.

*None of the last three Number 1 picks (all drafted by the Astros) have reached the Majors yet but it is clearly too early to judge. The 2012 top pick Carlos Correa will I predict be called up before 2015 is out. But in contrast Appel (picked in 2013) has a 5.20 ERA at AA level and the Astros did not even sign 2014 pick Brady Aiken partly because of health worries. And since he has now become yet another young pitcher to have Tommy John surgery  those worries seem to be justified. So far you would say the score is one out of three. Just proves how hard predicting the future is.

**Update: On Friday 13th May 2016 Matt Bush made his MLB debut for my team the Texas Rangers striking out the reigning AL MVP Josh Donaldson with 97 mph heat.Today he was the winning pitcher in a 7-6 Rangers win over the Blue Jays. Moral of the story : If at first you don’t succeed try try again…

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