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Cautionary Tales from Past Draft Bonanzas

The Diamondbacks have seven pick on day one of the draft, creating a great deal of excitement for the fans of the franchise. Just how excited should they be though?

MLB: NL Wildcard Practice The Arizona Republic-USA TODAY NETWORK

I suppose it’s only right that I give a hat-tip acknowledgement to Baseball America. As I was doing some fact-checking for this article last Wednesday night, I came across a very similar piece which they posted to their site last Tuesday. That almost convinced me to skip this entry in the Snake Pit draft coverage. However, it occurred to me that it is unlikely that many Pit readers are as obsessed with this aspect of the game the way I am and thus, most of the readers may not have regular access to that article. So, here it is, my much shorter cautionary tale of what past draft bonanzas have produced.

The Diamondbacks entered the 2019 season with a farm ranked 21st by Baseball America. I ranked them as 20th. Bleacher Report gave the farm some helium, placing them at number 17. Then there’s Bernie Pleskoff, a well-respected baseball writer who ranked them at #11, putting a strong emphasis on the ceilings of the Diamondbacks young international prospects and also counting both Jon Duplantier and Taylor Widener as high impact pitching prospects who are MLB-ready. Pleskoff is far and away the most bullish about the Arizona farm system. A cursory glance around the INternet shows that far more rank them down around where I did, right along with Baseball America. In other words, most still feel this is a lower-third farm system. The two fastest ways to improve a farm system are to trade a highly regarded MLB player for prospects (see the PhilliesCole Hamels trade) or to draft new prospects.

With seven of the first 75 picks in this season’s draft, it would appear that the Diamondbacks are well on their way to using the latter option to improve their farm system and, by extension, preparing the parent club for sustainable future success. Given the way in which baseball has moved away from the old A/B free agent draft pick compensation which made darranging a draft bonanza a viable mid-season strategy, it would seem that the hardest part is now over. The Diamondbacks have secured themselves a staggering number of picks and the bonus pool capital to go along with them. Alas, that may have been the easy part.

With the way draft compensation has changed it is somewhat difficult to compare most past classes to the classes that are possible now. However, it was only 10 years ago that the Diamondbacks had another draft bonanza. That season’s draft was easily the best draft class in franchise history. It isn’t even close. It also just so happens to be an example of one of the best draft bonanza outcomes ever, despite the Diamondbacks (along with 21 other teams) failing to select the high schooler from New Jersey with limited exposure named Mike Trout.

Here are the draft bonanzas, beginning with the Diamondbacks in 2009.

2009 D-backs

Seven of top 64 picks

3B Bobby Borchering (16)
OF A.J. Pollock (17)
3B Matt Davidson (35)
SS Chris Owings (41)
LHP Mike Belfiore (45)
RHP Eric Smith (60)
OF Marc Krauss (64)

The D-backs had one of the better draft bonanzas by landing three accomplished major leaguers who are still active today. They also picked Paul Goldschmidt (eighth round), Chase Anderson (ninth) and Keon Broxton (third) later in what became a banner draft class.

2010 Blue Jays

Seven of first 80 picks

RHP Deck McGuire (11)
RHP Aaron Sanchez (34)
RHP Noah Syndergaard (38)
RHP Asher Wojciechowski (41)
LHP Griffin Murphy (61)
3B Kellen Sweeney (69)
LHP Justin Nicolino (80).

The Blue Jays drafted two future All-Star righthanders in Syndergaard and Sanchez. None of their other five selections are in the majors today and Syndergaard was traded away before joining the team in exchange for R.A. Dickie in one of the more one-sided trades in recent memory.

2011 Rays

12 of top 89 picks

RHP Taylor Guerrieri (24)
OF Mikie Mahtook (31)
SS Jake Hager (32)
SS Brandon Martin (38)
OF Tyler Goeddel (41)
RHP Jeff Ames (42)
LHP Blake Snell (52)
OF Kes Carter (56)
LHP Grayson Garvin (59)
OF James Harris (60)
CF Granden Goetzman (75)
RHP Lenny Linsky (89).

The Rays whiffed on 11 of their 12 picks in what was the largest draft bonanza of all-time, but their one hit—Blake Snell—just won the 2018 AL Cy Young award, making him a jackpot draftee.

2011 Blue Jays

Seven of top 78 picks

RHP Tyler Beede (21)*
OF Jacob Anderson (35)
RHP Joe Musgrove (46
OF Dwight Smith Jr. (53)
RHP Kevin Comer (57)
LHP Daniel Norris (74)
RHP Jeremy Gabryszwski (78).

*Beede did not sign with the Blue Jays, instead signing with San Francisco Giants in the 2014 draft.

The Blue Jays landed four big leaguers, but the players’ success has largely come elsewhere. Beede did not sign, Musgrove was traded as a minor leaguer, and Norris and Smith Jr. were also traded after short stints in Toronto.

This is the point at which the way draft pick compensation is figured was changed. With the new rules in place, the 2019 Diamondbacks have managed the largest draft bonanza yet. This is also the point at which some of the bonanzas are awaiting final results to see just how strong or weak they were.

2012 Padres

Six of top 70 picks

LHP Max Fried (7)
RHP Zach Eflin (33)
OF Travis Jankowski (44)
RHP Walker Weickel (55)
OF Jeremy Baltz (68)
C Dane Phillips (70).

Fried and Eflin have managed to blossom into rotation staples on playoff contenders and Jankowski has been a solid contributor when healthy. The last three picks of their bonanza are career minor leaguers to date.

2012 Blue Jays

Six of top 81 picks

OF D.J. Davis (17)
RHP Marcus Stroman (22)
LHP Matt Smoral (50)
3B Mitch Nay (58)
RHP Tyler Gonzales (61)
RHP Chase De Jong (81).

Stroman became a team ace at the peak of his performance and De Jong at least reached the majors. None of Toronto’s other four picks advanced past Double-A.

2012 Cardinals

Six of top 86 picks

RHP Michael Wacha (19)
OF James Ramsey (23)
OF Stephen Piscotty (36)
3B Patrick Wisdom (52)
C Steve Bean (59)
C Carson Kelly (86)

This is arguably the strongest result from a draft bonanza since the new system went into place. The Cardinals hit on Wacha and Piscotty. Patrick Wisdom hit the majors in 2018 and performed well, but is now in the Texas Rangers organization trying to force his way onto the 25-man roster. Meanwhile, Carson Kelly was a foundational piece of the Cardinals’ trade for Paul Goldschmidt and is ably demonstrating why he was one of the top catching prospects in all of baseball for a number of years.

2015 Braves

Six of top 89 picks

LHP Kolby Allard (14)
RHP Mike Soroka (28)
3B Austin Riley (41)
C Lucas Herbert (54)
LHP A.J. Minter (75)
RHP Anthony Guardado (89).

The Braves have received promising early returns from their 2015 draft. Soroka is one of MLB’s top young pitchers, Minter has been a part of the Braves bullpen the last three years and Riley is the club’s No. 1 prospect. Allard also reached the majors in 2018 but is currently in AAA, serving as the Braves #2 prospect.

2016 Padres

Six of top 85 picks

RHP Cal Quantrill (8)
3B Hudson Potts (24)
LHP Eric Lauer (25)
OF Buddy Reed (48)
RHP Reggie Lawson (71)
RHP Mason Thompson (85)

Quantrill and Lauer have reached the majors and are part of the young core of arms the Padres are trying to build a contending team around. Potts, Reed and Lawson are in AA and rank among the club’s Top 30 prospects.

What does all this mean?

The long and short of all this is, drafting high impact talent is hard to do, even when a team has numerous opportunities to do so. The boom/bust rate is not encouragins. For ever stacked 2005 or 2009 draft, there are multiple drafts like the 2013 draft, where the vast majority of first round picks are managing to eek out a bit of a positive on the value contributed. Sure, every draft seem to have its share of big-time contributors. However, the biggest accrued WAR from each draft has only come from the first player selected one time in over a decade now, that being Carlos Correa to the Astros at 1:1 in 2012. One has to go all the way back to Joe Mauer in the 2001 draft to find the last time the first overall selection provided the most career WAR. Although, a strong case can be made for Justin Verlander in 2004 who was “selected second” by the Detroit Tigers. The Padres openly admitting he was the best talent on the board and also openly admitting they felt like not spending any money on the draft as they were experiencing significant financial issues. Even under those circumstances, Kevin Towers pushed hard to try and get someone to sign off on selecting Verlander. Thankfully for Arizona, no one agreed to, keeping the future Hall of Fame pitcher out of the NL West.

Drafting impact talent is one of the hardest things for a front office to do. Since the arrival of Mike Hazen, the first round of the draft has not treated the Diamondbacks very well. The first selection was a bust, the second selection failed to sign, the result of which is the biggest contributor to this season’s bonanza, gifting the Diamondbacks the 26th pick in the draft and the accompanying draft bonus pool money.

Next up, examining some potential draft prospects.