The 2012 MLB draft kicks off next Monday, and for the third time in four years, the M's will have a top three selection. Seattle picks third in this years edition, and given the lack of consensus about the top players in the pool, the Mariners are in an enviable position, well situated to walk away with one of the most talented players on the board. While this particular class is considered weak by veteran draft experts, my understanding is that the label is more of an indictment on the depth of the draft than the potential of the very top players. And even if this class is significantly weaker than last year's stellar group, there will undoubtedly be a multitude of stars available for the taking.
Of course, it's important to remember that the draft is as much a lottery as anything else. Annually, first round selections flame out while guys picked on the second and third day of the draft buck the odds and enjoy long, productive careers. Even players selected among the first few picks have a surprisingly mediocre professional track record. Of, say, the top ten picks in each draft's history there are many, many more players that never made a lasting impression in the majors (if they got there at all) than than there are all-stars or simply solid, every day players.
Just to illustrate the point, here are the twenty players selected with the number three pick from 1986-2005, with their career WAR (Baseball Reference version) in parenthesis:
1986 Matt Williams, 3B (43.5)
1987 Willie Banks, P (0.4)
1988 Steve Avery, P (12.3)
1989 Roger Salkeld, P (0.0)
1990 Mike Lieberthal, C (13.3)
1991 David McCarty, 1B (-2.6)
1992 B.J. Wallace, P, (-)
1993 Brian Anderson, P (8.2)
1994 Dustin Hermanson, P (9.8)
1995 Jose Cruz, OF (17.1)
1996 Braden Looper, P (7.3)
1997 Troy Glaus, 3B (35)
1998 Corey Patterson, OF (7.6)
1999 Eric Munson, C (-2)
2000 Lou Montanez, SS (-1.4)
2001 Dewon Brazelton, P (-3.5)
2002 Chris Gruler, P (-)
2003 Kyle Sleeth, P (-)
2004 Phillip Humber, P (3.5)
2005 Jeff Clement, C (-1.1)
It's not a terribly inspiring list. Of the twenty names above, three never made it to the majors at all and the group as a whole compiled just 147 total WAR, averaging out to slightly over seven per player. There are arguably two great players on the list, neither of whom are destined for Cooperstown, and just a handful more who were starters for more than a few seasons. The point here is that while an early first round pick certainly provides the Mariners with an opportunity to add an impact player to the organization, the club is hardly guaranteed to land a perennial all-star.
Still, it's hard to look at this list without wondering why teams aren't more successful with early picks. Clubs selecting third have access to all but two amateurs throughout the nation, and yet teams are just as likely to select a star as they are to tab a player destined to spend his career riding buses in the bush leagues. While it might seem strange that the fortunes of these selections are so divergent, there are several reasons that explain such volatility.
First, while there is generally some consensus between clubs on the top amateur prospects, occasionally teams will intentionally select players considered less talented than other available options, usually to save money. Famous examples of this phenomenon include Matt Bush, whom the Padres nabbed in lieu of paying big bucks to Justin Verlander or Jered Weaver, and Rick Porcello, the top pitching prospect in the 2007 draft who slipped to the 27th pick because of concerns about his price tag. The result for the Padres with Bush and many of the teams that passed on Porcello was a top selection in name only, and a player destined to toil in anonymity.
Injuries also take their toll on many top prospects. As you might expect, arm injuries are the primary culprit, and there are too many examples littering the baseball landscape to recount here (the name Ryan Anderson might ring a bell for Mariner fans.) Occasionally, off field injuries ruin promising futures as well, as happened when Yankee phenom Brien Taylor hurt his prized left arm in a bar fight back in 1993.
Other prospects don't survive for a variety of performance related factors too exhaustive to list. Whatever the reason though, the attrition rate among top picks remains very high, meaning that the Mariners' odds of drafting a franchise cornerstone next Monday are relatively slim. With that in mind, I thought it might be worthwhile to profile a few of the less successful players listed above. The purpose of the exercise is to examine what can go wrong with a top choice and what a failed third-pick might look like in hindsight. Without exception, everyone taken with the third overall selection was a gifted ballplayer. But there are a number of risks inherent in developing talent that can derail even the most promising careers, and it's interesting to see where some fell off track.
Kyle Sleeth- RHP, Detroit, 2003
Sleeth is a good example of how a mechanical issue and an injury can destroy a career. In college, Sleeth threw a mid-90's fastball with a hard slider and a good change up, and he struck out nearly a batter per inning at his first minor league stop. Baseball America ranked him the second best college pitcher in the 2003 draft, writing that "[c]onsistency (with his delivery) is all that stands between him becoming a frontline starter in the major leagues." He never got close.
After signing late and delaying his debut until 2004, Sleeth's inconsistent motion led to a battering in double A, causing the Tigers to try to adjust his mechanics. The switch led first to a decline in Sleeth's velocity and stuff, and then to Tommy John surgery. Sleeth sat out the 2005 season and wasn't the same when he returned to the mound. He posted an ERA north of 8 in 115 innings after the surgery and he retired prior to the 2008 season.
Luis Montanez- SS, Chicago NL, 2000
Unlike Sleeth, Montanez had a big league career, one that's not necessarily over yet either, as he's still hanging out in Triple A. Montanez represents the risk associated with players that might have to shift down the defensive spectrum. Drafted as a shortstop, Montanez didn't have the quickness and speed traditionally associated with the position, but scouts projected his good hands, strong throwing arm, and powerful bat to compensate for the difference. Unfortunately, his arm was wild and his lack of range ultimately pushed him to the outfield where his stick (which also advanced worse than expected) didn't profile nearly as well. As a result, Montanez became a tweener: he doesn't have the glove for middle infield work or the bat to start in the outfield. Consequently, he has cycled through several positions and five organizations during his professional career, never earning more than an occasional cup of coffee in the major leagues.
B.J. Wallace- LHP, Montreal, 1992
Wallace's selection demonstrates the danger of drafting signability over talent. Money-tight Montreal opted to select a safe college arm over a high-profile shortstop with a scholarship awaiting him at the University of Michigan. The Expos did save a quarter of a million dollars on the deal, but got a much less heralded player in return. That's not to say that Wallace was a total slouch- he did crack Baseball America's top 100 prospects list after signing with the Expos- but he didn't have a particularly high ceiling for an early draft pick. After a solid but unspectacular minor league debut, Wallace topped out in Double A, ultimately falling victim to a shoulder injury. Wallace dropped off the map after his baseball career ended, resurfacing only last August after he was prosecuted for cooking meth in his house. Oh, and the shortstop? None other than the great Derek Jeter.
Sleeth, Montanez, and Wallace embody the surprisingly likely but still worst-case scenario of top selections. Those three demonstrate that tools can fail to develop, safe players can bust, and top shelf talent can disintegrate. The take home point is that there aren't any guarantees with the draft, particularly in a year without Harper's or Strasburg's. The inevitable first round flops don't look any different coming out of school than the future all-stars. What does it all mean for fans? I suppose it means that it doesn't make too much sense to hope for the M's to take any particular player (we're not scouts, after all.) Instead, root like crazy for whoever the team selects to dodge the injury bug, evade the regression monster, and reach the major leagues. Just getting there is almost victory enough.