Scouting directors follow free agent season a little differently than a typical baseball fan. Their interest in who their team adds and subtracts goes beyond the major league roster. Ever since 1978, draft picks have been awarded as compensation for losing top free agents. To a scouting director, there’s nothing better than gaining a horde of first-round choices.
A scouting director like Eddie Bane of the Los Angeles Angels has to be licking his chops this winter. The Angels will add four first-round picks between the losses of Type A free agents Chone Figgins to the Mariners and John Lackey to the Red Sox. Another sandwich first-rounder will come with Type B free agent Vladimir Guerrero signing with Texas.
When you ask scouting directors if they’d rather pick early or pick often, most will tell you they’d rather pick often. Especially if there isn’t a player or two who stands out from the rest. Even if there is, the first pick in the draft is slotted for so much money that he may not be as good a value.
The Arizona Diamondbacks had seven of the first 64 picks in 2009. Combined, the seven first- and second-rounders cost scouting director Tom Allison just over $7 million while the Washington Nationals needed $15.7 million just to ink first overall pick Stephen Strasburg. Will the Diamondbacks end up getting more bang from their buck than the Nationals when we look back 10 years later?
Most scouts would predict “yes”.
It’s a game of attrition and probability and as Branch Rickey used to say, sometimes quality comes out of quantity. Strasburg is an outstanding prospect, but there’s inherent risk in Washington putting all its eggs in his basket. It’s like comparing one booming stock option to a mutual fund made up of seven pretty good ones.
Principle aside, I’ve come to a surprising revelation after looking back on the draft. The mutual funds haven’t turned out. The lone boomer stock has often proved more profitable.
I found 14 clubs between 1986 and 2000 that enjoyed a similar draft bounty to the 2009 Arizona Diamondbacks. This group of 14 each possessed at least six picks within the first two rounds of their respective draft. I’ve reviewed their early draft picks and compared their haul to the draft’s first overall choice as a point of reference.
Though free agent draft compensation began in 1978, it wasn’t until 1986 that the rules became liberal enough to allow a team to gain multiple picks. I cut off at the year 2000 since it was exactly 10 years ago and seems an appropriate timeline for retrospective analysis.
I’ve ranked the 14 draft bounties subjectively. While I’m forced to interject my opinion, most of it is self-evident.
DRAFT BOUNTIES FROM 1986-2000
For some clarity into the rankings, I’ve categorized major league players into four subjective categories (with leeway):
IMPACT: Player was all-star caliber for three years with at least two more as an above-average starter.
SOLID: At least an average starter for five years or a strong backup for 10 years.
ASSET: Doesn’t fit into above categories, but was clearly more than just a filler player.
FILLER: Player who wasn’t a big league asset per se, but did reach the majors for at least a day.
1. 1986 California Angels
1st-round (5), 2nd-round (1)
IMPACT MLB(1): RHP Roberto Hernandez
SOLID MLB(2): OF/1B Lee Stevens, RHP Mike Fetters
MINOR LEAGUERS(3): OF Terry Carr, RHP Daryl Green, C Jeff Gay
FIRST OVERALL PICK: 3B Jeff King, Pirates (SOLID MLB)
The first “draft bounty” was also the best in terms of talent, under then-scouting director Larry Himes. Unfortunately for the Angels, the top three players did their best work elsewhere. Roberto Hernandez was traded as a minor leaguer to the White Sox before he blossomed into a closer. Lee Stevens was traded, reacquired and then sold to Japan before returning stateside as a slugging first baseman for the Rangers. Fetters was dealt to the Brewers. Still, it’s a decent return for six early picks, and if the trio had stayed in Anaheim they would have more than matched what King provided the Pirates. Is this really the best of the 14 bounties? Read on.
2. 1990 Montreal Expos
1st-round (6), 2nd-round (4)
IMPACT MLB (1): OF Rondell White
SOLID MLB (0):
ASSET MLB (3): 3B Shane Andrews, LHP Gabe White, LHP Chris Haney
FILLER MLB (3): RHP Stan Spencer, LHP Ben Van Ryn, RHP Tato Alvarez
MINOR LEAGUERS(3): OF Stan Robertson, SS Michael Hardge, SS Chris Martin
FIRST OVERALL PICK: 3B Chipper Jones, Braves (IMPACT MLB)
Though scouting director Gary Hughes got big league service from seven of the 10, White was the only impact player. Three others helped but were less than regulars. Most GMs will take Chipper Jones alone over the seven Expos big leaguers (if they actually had a choice).
3. 2000 Atlanta Braves
1st-round (4), 2nd-round (2)
IMPACT MLB(1): RHP Adam Wainwright
ASSET MLB(1): 3B Kelly Johnson
FILLER MLB(1): 1B Scott Thorman
MINOR LEAGUERS(3): 2B Aaron Herr, RHP Bryan Digby, RHP Bubba Nelson
FIRST OVERALL PICK: 1B Adrian Gonzalez, Marlins (IMPACT MLB)
Wainwright has become one of the game’s best starting pitchers for the St. Louis Cardinals, where he was traded after 2003. The other pitchers were harder throwers who lacked Wainwright’s feel for pitching. One could argue that scouting director Roy Clark brought in as much talent with his six picks as the Marlins brought in with Gonzalez, but not appreciably more.
4. 1999 Baltimore Orioles
1st-round (7), 2nd-round (1)
IMPACT MLB (1): 2B Brian Roberts
SOLID MLB (0):
ASSET MLB (1): OF Larry Bigbie
FILLER MLB (1): OF Keith Reed
MINOR LEAGUERS (4): RHP Mike Paradis, LHP Rich Stahl, LHP Josh Cenate, LHP Scott Rice
FIRST OVERALL PICK: OF Josh Hamilton, Devil Rays (IMPACT MLB)
Brian Roberts is a star, but there is still a lot of disappointment here. Especially Stahl, who was considered an ace in waiting but proved unable to stay healthy. The Orioles had a run of minor league pitching injuries and would have been better off drafting more hitters like Roberts. Not only did Hamilton go first overall, but Josh Beckett went second, so this would have been a great draft to pick early rather than often.
5. 1999 Kansas City Royals
SOLID MLB(1): RHP Mike MacDougal
ASSET MLB(4): RHP Kyle Snyder, LHP Jimmy Gobble, RHP Brian Sanches, RHP Wes Obermueller
MINOR LEAGUERS(1): RHP Jay Gehrke
FIRST OVERALL PICK: OF Josh Hamilton, Devil Rays (IMPACT MLB)
All but Gehrke made it to the big leagues, which makes this the deepest “bounty” on the list. Still, SD Terry Wetzel was hoping for more impact out of the six pitchers who invariably battled injuries.
6. 1991 St. Louis Cardinals
IMPACT MLB(1): 1B/DH/OF Dmitri Young
ASSET MLB(1): LHP Allen Watson
FILLER MLB(1): RHP Brian Barber
MINOR LEAGUERS(3): RHP Tom McKinnon, 3B Dan Cholowsky, C Eddie Williams
FIRST OVERALL PICK: LHP Brien Taylor, Yankees (MINOR LEAGUER)
Young was taken with the fourth overall pick, which the Cardinals owned independent of free agent compensation. Even excluding Young, they ultimately got more than the Yanks with Taylor, the consensus #1 whose promising career was cut short by injury.
7. 1993 Toronto Blue Jays
IMPACT MLB(1): RHP Chris Carpenter
FILLER MLB(1): LHP Mark Lukasiewicz
MINOR LEAGUERS(4): OF Matt Farner, RHP Jeremy Lee, SS Anthony Medrano, 1B Ryan Jones
FIRST OVERALL PICK: SS Alex Rodriguez, Mariners (IMPACT MLB)
The Blue Jays under GM Pat Gillick and SD Bob Engle liked to gamble on high-ceiling, “unsignable” talents, but they suffered for it in this draft. Carpenter turned into a Cy Young winner for the Cardinals after the J.P. Ricciardi regime released him in 2002. With A-Rod available, this draft clearly had a prospect who stood out from the rest and would have theoretically been worth the price of all six players.
8. 1997 Chicago White Sox
1st-round (6), 2nd-round (1)
ASSET MLB(2): LHP Jim Parque, RHP Rocky Biddle
FILLER MLB(2): SS Jason Dellaero, RHP Aaron Myette
MINOR LEAGUERS(2): RHP Kyle Kane, SS Brett Caradonna
(DID NOT SIGN(1): RHP Jeff Weaver)
FIRST OVERALL PICK: RHP Matt Anderson, Tigers (ASSET MLB)
Nothing exciting, but a couple of pitching assets for SD Duane Shaffer. The extra picks reduced the urgency to sign Weaver, but he proved better than the others in the long run. Matt Anderson was a disappointment for the Tigers, but he was not the consensus #1 as future stars like J.D. Drew, Troy Glaus and Lance Berkman were chosen shortly after.
9. 1990 Oakland A’s
1st-round (4), 2nd-round (3)
ASSET MLB(1): RHP Todd Van Poppel
FILLER MLB(2): RHP Kirk Dressendorfer, C Eric Helfand
MINOR LEAGUERS(4): RHP Don Peters, LHP David Zancanaro, LHP Curtis Shaw, OF Gary Hust
The A’s gambled on a difficult sign by taking Van Poppel partly because they had so many other picks to fall back on. The Braves considered him for #1 overall so SD Dick Bogard couldn’t help but feel he would have his cake and eat it by getting both the big stock and the mutual fund. But Van Poppel turned into a journeyman middle reliever and none of the other picks could do any better.
10. 1999 Chicago White Sox
ASSET MLB(1): RHP Dan Wright
FILLER MLB(1): RHP Matt Ginter
MINOR LEAGUERS(3): RHP Jason Stumm, RHP Brian West, RHP Rob Purvis
(DID NOT SIGN(1): 2B Bobby Hill)
Duane Shaffer and the White Sox gambled on power arms and it didn’t work out. Very little big league production came out of his six early picks. Admittedly, their financial commitment was well below what Hamilton or Josh Beckett each got as the first two picks of the draft.
11. 1998 San Francisco Giants
1st-round (5), 2nd-round (2)
ASSET MLB(1): RHP Nate Bump
FILLER MLB(1): 3B Tony Torcato
MINOR LEAGUERS(5): OF Arturo McDowell, LHP Chris Jones, LHP Jeff Urban, C Eli Serrano, OF Chris Magruder
FIRST OVERALL PICK: OF Pat Burrell, Phillies (IMPACT MLB)
The first two picks made it (Bump and Torcato) briefly while the next five failed to play even a day in the big leagues. No question the Giants would rather go with Burrell alone if they had a chance.
12. 1997 Montreal Expos
1st-round (8), 2nd-round (1)
ASSET MLB(1): RHP T.J. Tucker
FILLER MLB(1): RHP Bryan Hebson
MINOR LEAGUERS (7): RHP Donnie Bridges, RHP Donnie Stowe, SS/3B Scott Hodges, 1B Thomas Pittman, RHP Shane Arthurs, OF Tootie Myers, RHP Kris Tetz
SD Jim Fleming went after high school players and none of them panned out. The eight firstt-round picks were an all-time draft record which makes the end result all the more crushing for the since relocated franchise.
13. 1991 Houston Astros
FILLER MLB(1): RHP John Burke
MINOR LEAGUERS(6): SS Shawn Livsey, C Jim Gonzalez, 3B Mike Groppuso, OF Buck McNabb, RHP Jimmy Lewis, 3B Eddy Ramos
A disappointing effort for Dan O’Brien Jr. who failed to draft a single big league asset out of seven first-two round picks.
14. 1999 San Diego Padres
FILLER MLB(1): LHP Mike Bynum
MINOR LEAGUERS (6): OF Vince Faison, RHP Gerik Baxter, RHP Omar Ortiz, RHP Casey Burns, C Nick Trzesniak, C Alberto Concepcion
Gerik Baxter was the best prospect and he died tragically in a car crash before he could get to San Diego. SD Brad Sloan tried to spread the wealth between college and high school, hitters and pitchers, but none of them turned out.
SO IS IT BETTER NOT TO HAVE A LOT OF PICKS?
The research is stunning and provides quite a conundrum. Surely, the more picks you have, the better chance of hitting the jackpot. But it’s apparent through the results that such teams have underachieved in their quest. Nobody truly hit the jackpot and only six of the 14 were able to add an impact player. No one added two players of impact.
Among the 14 examples, there are really only two cases where the “bounty” team clearly made off better than the team that picked first overall. Those two cases, where Matt Anderson (1997) and Brien Taylor (1991) went first overall, could easily be reversed if the Tigers simply made a better decision or Taylor avoided his freak injury.
The research results turn common sense on its head.
I would suggest that teams with “bounty drafts” simply haven’t maximized their resources on every pick. Since they have so many to fall back on, they tend to gamble more on high-risk/high-reward type prospects. A team with only one first-round pick is considerably more careful with its decision, knowing it’s their only chance to grab an elite prospect.
There have been another 15 clubs since 2001 blessed with six or more picks in the first two rounds. The early returns are mixed and it remains to be seen if they are ultimately more productive than their draft bounty predecessors.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that having a lot of first- and second-round picks doesn’t guarantee a great draft. First and foremost, you have to draft the right players, whether you have seven early picks or none at all.
Thank you to www.baseball-reference.com for providing much of the researched material.