May 30, 2012

Going to WAR: What to expect from the No. 2 overall pick

Two weeks ago I examined the five players most likely to be the Twins' target with the No. 2 pick, so today I thought it would be interesting to look back at the history of that spot in the draft. Elite-level talent varies wildly from draft to draft and trying to draw conclusions based on 47 players spanning 47 years is silly, so this is mostly just an exercise in curiosity. In other words, Reggie Jackson being the No. 2 pick in 1966 doesn't mean much for the Twins in 2012.

For the purposes of this little investigation I'm going to focus on the 25-year history of the No. 2 pick from 1982 to 2006, because going back any further seems particularly irrelevant to the Twins' current situation and for the most part the players selected since 2006 haven't really had a chance to establish themselves in the majors yet. So here are the 25 players selected No. 2 overall from 1982 to 2006, along with their career Wins Above Replacement totals:

YEAR   NO. 2 PICK           TEAM           WAR
1982   Augie Schmidt        Blue Jays      0.0
1983   Kurt Stillwell       Reds           1.6
1984   Bill Swift           Mariners      19.3
1985   Will Clark           Giants        53.2
1986   Greg Swindell        Indians       28.5
1987   Mark Merchant        Pirates        0.0
1988   Mark Lewis           Indians       -4.0
1989   Tyler Houston        Braves         1.0
1990   Tony Clark           Tigers        10.1
1991   Mike Kelly           Braves         0.0
1992   Paul Shuey           Indians        6.1
1993   Darren Dreifort      Dodgers        6.7
1994   Ben Grieve           Athletics      6.7
1995   Ben Davis            Padres         2.4
1996   Travis Lee           Twins          5.3
1997   J.D. Drew            Phillies      42.4
1998   Mark Mulder          Athletics     18.4
1999   Josh Beckett         Marlins       31.1
2000   Adam Johnson         Twins         -1.0
2001   Mark Prior           Cubs          15.9
2002   B.J. Upton           Rays          11.3
2003   Rickie Weeks         Brewers       11.8
2004   Justin Verlander     Tigers        28.5
2005   Alex Gordon          Royals        11.8
2006   Greg Reynolds        Rockies       -1.4

For some Twins-related context for those WAR totals, consider that Luis Rivas had -2.9 WAR for his career, Jacque Jones had 9.2 WAR for his career, Roy Smalley had 25.3 WAR for his career, Kent Hrbek had 35.7 WAR for his career, and Rod Carew had 76.6 WAR for his career. There are lots of factors, but basically 0-10 WAR is a role player, 10-20 WAR is a regular, 20-35 WAR is a very good regular, 35-50 WAR is a star, and above 50 WAR is Hall of Fame territory.

As you can see, that list of No. 2 picks isn't exactly packed with Hall of Famers. In fact, of the 25 players selected No. 2 from 1982 to 2006 two failed to reach the big leagues at all, three others produced negative WAR when they did, and a total of 13 didn't crack double-digit WAR. In other words, more than half of the No. 2 overall picks were no better than role players or, in a few of those cases, very good players who stumbled on the path to sustained stardom.

There are zero Hall of Famers on that 25-player list, although Will Clark is a fairly legitimate candidate, Justin Verlander may yet get there some day, and Mark Prior seemed headed for Cooperstown before injuries derailed him. Beyond that Josh Beckett, Mark Mulder, J.D. Drew, B.J. Upton, Bill Swift, Greg Swindell, Rickie Weeks, and Alex Gordon are stars, to varying degrees. Still, those 25 produced a lot less career value than I'd have guessed.

None of which is to say that there wasn't much more career value available with the No. 2 pick in those 25 years, because almost every draft class during that time included at least one star-caliber player who didn't go No. 1. For instance, when the Twins got zero value from No. 2 pick Adam Johnson in 2000 the class also included Chase Utley, Cliff Lee, Adam Wainwright, Grady Sizemore, Brandon Webb, Ian Kinsler, and plenty of other familiar names.

Or when the Twins took Travis Lee at No. 2 in 1996, failed to sign him, and watched him have a mediocre career with four different teams the class also included Roy Oswalt, Barry Zito, Jimmy Rollins, Eric Chavez, and Travis Hafner, among others. That isn't fun for Twins fans to think about, but similar stories apply to every draft class during that 25-year span and rarely did the No. 2 pick actually produce the second-best player even when studs were available.

Oddly during the 10 years from 1987-1996 the No. 2 pick produced zero stars and all but one failed to crack double-digit WAR, whereas during the 10 years from 1997-2006 all but two No. 2 picks have already topped 10 WAR and depending on your definition there are as many as eight stars. With only one player per year it's tough to differentiate between randomness and something with predictive value, but maybe scouting and/or decision-making has improved.

As for what that all means for the Twins come June 4 ... I'm not sure. Between the consensus on this year's draft class being that it lacks elite-level talent and the fairly underwhelming history of No. 2 picks from 1982 to 2006 expectations certainly need to be held in check. For every Clark or Verlander there have been several flat-out busts and ultimately snagging a solid but unspectacular player would represent an above-average return from the pick.

Also worth noting is that while we read the glowing scouting reports and dream of this year's top prospects developing into stars history suggests that several of Byron Buxton, Mark Appel, Kyle Zimmer, Mike Zunino, and Kevin Gausman will prove to be busts and zero or one star emerging from that quintet is more likely than three or four. Whatever happens, the Twins can't possibly get less value from this No. 2 pick than they got picking there in 1996 and 2000.

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  • Jimbo92107

    Kyle Zimmer.

  • CBC

    Ummm. Hooray?

  • John P.

    No sure thing, but iit has to be better than picking much lower … or is it?

  • sbg

    I cannot believe that Prior fell to no. 2. :P

  • Andy

    Analysis of baseball drafts ala Football or Basketball seems silly to me. Projection in baseball at this level seems nearly impossible.

  • BR

    Think of how much money the Twins would have saved had they drafted Prior!

  • RTG

    Aaron, I’d love to get your take on Carlos Correa, the 17-year-old shortstop from Puerto Rico. Kevin Goldstein at BP has him number 1 on his draft board.

  • hrunting

    I’m with Jimbo. Kyle Zimmer.

  • FMelius

    I’ll second the request for a take on Correa. I know zilch other than what I read online, but am intrigued by what people say is his high ceiling. Drafting Correa and hoping for a Sano-like growth pattern and then drafting college SPs with the next several picks would make decent sense to me.

  • Breaker

    The draft is such a crapshoot it is almost meaningless to do projections like this. Though I will be the first to admit I love analysis like this – meaningless, but usually filled with a few things that make you go, “Wow, I really didn’t expect that.”

    On an unrelated note…has anyone else noticed that Souhan has actually had two or three blog entries lately that aren’t complete drivel? I’m shocked.

  • Tony in Duluth

    I think the bigger issue is how the Twins minor league system will develop the talent. The lack of success of their recent high picks, and few later round gems is conserning. For example, how is it that Ben Reveve can make it to the bigs and not be able to competently bunt, much less excell at it, given his speed?

  • Craig

    Love the analysis and perspective. Nice work. Also, I think you also help put in perspective what the reality of this draft slot could produce. Keep up the good work.

  • Todd L

    You do a nice job on the Paul Allen show. It’s refreshing to hear an actual relevant baseball opinion from 9-noon for a change.

  • http://mmmrhubarb.wordpress.com Rhubarb_Runner

    I think it would be interesting to see at total WAR for the draft class each year, for context.

  • Brian

    Unfortunately the 2012 draft class is among the weakest in recent history. Any of the top 6 picks of 2011 would be the clear-cut number one pick this year.

    Fortunately, looks like the Twins will have plenty of chances to pick in the top 5 going forward.

  • http://www.knuckleballsblog.com JimCrikket

    “Whatever happens, the Twins can’t possibly get less value from this No. 2 pick than they got picking there in 1996 and 2000.”

    Be careful with statements like that… some in the Twins organization might take it as a challenge and try to prove you wrong.

  • Jeff H

    I understand the premise of this article, mostly agree with it, and have even cited it in conversations with friends trying to lower expectations a bit. There is tons of uncertainty all over the MLB Draft, mostly due to the fact that there’s so much that has to happen with a player between the time he’s drafted and the time he’s ready for the bigs, not to mention there’s usually a period of 2-5 years in there too, during which injuries, etc. can happen.

    But as I look back on that list after several times, the list of guys IS fairly promising, especially during the 2000′s. The “Hall of Fame” standard might be a bit unrealistic, as you’re talking about a very select group of players (and this is the 2nd pick, not the 1st). But going back to 1997, Drew, Upton, Weeks, and Gordon are all very good, if not great MLB position players, and most of the pitchers either ended up pretty good or would have been really good if not for arm problems.

    This just encourages me more that Buxton is the right pick. Drafting the top position player prospect with that pick eliminates the potential for arm blowouts that catchers suffer from, and has a fairly high success rate at producing good major leaguers. Hall of Famers? Maybe not, but let’s slow down just a bit.