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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