Thursday, June 5, 2008

Draft day

While not nearly as exciting as the NBA's or NFL's versions, Major Baseball's First-Year Player Draft began Wednesday afternoon. It's a time when teams draft exciting, lively young arms with aspirations of righting each and every one of the organization's wrongs. Holes will be filled and futures will be secured. And my massive collection of 1992 Topps Brien Taylor rookie cards will allow me to retire early.

Or not.

It's a 50 round, two day draft, and like other sports, signability can be a huge factor. Also factoring in is the fact that many of the young men drafted today or tomorrow have yet to face any real, tough competition. It can be tough projecting the future of a 19 year old kid who started throwing curve balls at the age of 12.

Sometimes a pick is a no-brainer and works out. Ken Griffey Jr. (1987, Seattle #1 overall) and Alex Rodriguez (1993, Seattle #1 overall) come immediately to mind. Other times, however, that high-ceiling, can't-miss prospect doesn't work out. Let's take a look at some of the 1st round draft day busts of the last 15 or so years...

In 1991, the Yankees selected Brien Taylor #1 overall. He had electric stuff and pitched well early in his minor league career. But after tearing his labrum while defending his brother in a fight he would forever struggle in low level minor league ball. Notable names from later in the round: Manuel "Manny" Ramirez (Cleveland, #13) and Cliff Floyd (Montreal, #14).

In '92, the Astros, Indians, Expos, Orioles, and Reds all passed on a middle infielder from a small town in Michigan: Derek Jeter (Yankees, #7).

In '96, the Twins selected mega-hyped prospect Travis Lee with their first pick (second overall). They did not offer Lee a contract and he would eventually sign on with the Diamondbacks. He's had a respectable career but never quite lived up to expectations, and thus would always be viewed as a bit of a disappointment.

In '97, the Phillies drafted J.D. Drew, who did not sign and is now hated in Philadelphia. It ultimately worked out, I'd say, since Drew has frequented the disabled list throughout his career. If an outfielder was what they desired, the Phillies should have taken a look at either Vernon Wells (Toronto, #5) or Lance Berkman (Houston, #16).

The Devil Rays - who have since shed the "Devil" - selected Josh Hamilton #1 overall in 1999. He was such an extraordinary talent that the pick itself wasn't bad, but off-field issues would keep him out of baseball for years to come. The Rays would go on to select Carl Crawford in the second round.

The Rays were again unlucky with their first pick (6th overall) in 2000 of Rocco Baldelli, who would spend much of his career on the disabled list. I suppose there's a chance he comes back eventually, but more severe illnesses might prevent it. Early comparisons to Joe DiMaggio never panned out, but can you imagine if they had? Combine that with the "what if" that was Josh Hamilton and the Rays would have a modern day outfield that could be among the best of all time... Crawford, Baldelli, Hamilton... scary, and fun to imagine. I realize, though, that the same thing could be said about any number of teams.

In 2001, the Twins passed on selecting Mark Prior, thinking they'd be unable to sign him. Instead, they settled on Joe Mauer. That worked ok, wouldn't ya say?

In 2002 the Pirates selected Brian Bullington #1 overall. To date, he has made 45 big league appearances and is currently struggling in the minors. Any of the following picks would've been a major improvement: B.J. Upton (Tampa Bay, #2), Prince Fielder (Milwaukee, #7), Cole Hamels (Philadelphia, #17), or Jeff Francoeur (Atlanta, #23).

In '04, the Padres took Matt Bush #1 overall, passing on Justin Verlander (Detroit, #2). Verlander would surely help that battered San Diego pitching staff right about now, wouldn't he? Bush was suspended before his first season even began after being involved in a brawl outside of an Arizona night club. He broke his ankle in spring training of '06 while horseback riding, and tore a ligament in his throwing elbow after being converted to a pitcher in 2007. He'll return in 2009.

And finally, in 2005, the Mariners selected Jeff Clement - a catcher out of USC - with the third overall pick in the draft. His career is still young and he could develop into a useful player, but the picks he was surrounded by already have: Justin Upton (Arizona, #1), Alex Gordon (Kansas City, #2), Ryan Zimmerman (Washington, #4), Troy Tulowitski (Colorado, #7), and Jay Bruce (Cincinnati, #12).

It's far too early to tell what the '06 and '07 drafts will produce, but I suspect more of the same. Some picks will hit and others will surely miss. Here's one thing I do know - hold on to those rookie cards of 2008 #1 overall pick Tim Beckham (Tampa Bay) and some day you, too, will be able to retire early.

Just like me and Brien.

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