Posted by Jonah Gardner on May 26, 2017
In just a couple of weeks, Rob Manfred will announce that the Minnesota Twins are on the clock, kicking off the 2017 MLB Draft. There's no shortage of talent in this year's draft pool: one MLB.com writer suggested Hunter Greene might be the best right-handed high school pitcher ever (no HS RHP has ever been drafted #1 overall), while Baseball America thinks Kyle Wright from Vanderbilt University has a better shot of going to the Twin Cities with the top pick.
For the Twins and other teams with high picks, like the Cincinnati Reds, San Diego Padres, and Tampa Bay Rays, this is a big decision. For an example of what nailing a couple of top picks can do for a franchise, just look at the Washington Nationals. It wasn't too long ago that the Nats were a joke, failing to break even 60 wins in 2008 and 2009. However, those records resulted in back-to-back #1 overall picks in the 2009 and 2010 MLB Drafts, which they used on Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. Now, led by those two stars, as well as 2012 first rounder Anthony Rendon, the Nats have the second best record in the National League and lead the majors in runs scored.
It can be hard to evaluate a draft in the moment or even after just a year or two. Unlike the NBA Draft and NFL Draft, where many of the best players are able to make an immediate contribution, it can take a few years for a baseball draftee to work their way up through the minor league system and have an impact on the major league level.
So, rather than look at this year's draft, I thought it might be fun to step in the time machine and take a look back at the aforementioned 2010 MLB Draft. How would those teams handle the draft, knowing what they know now? To figure that out, I'll be looking at a few factors. First, and most obvious, I'll consider what the player has already accomplished in the majors, according to Wins Above Replacement. I'll also consider the player's upside going forward, since someone who's racked up 5-WAR, but been in the majors for just a year or two, may be more valuable than 10-WAR player who's also a five-year MLB veteran. Lastly, I'm applying a bit of hindsight to consider how the player would fit in with the team drafting him. Yasmani Grandal may be a great draft pick, but he probably wouldn't be of much use to the San Francisco Giants, who've gotten far more production out of Buster Posey. Lastly, I'm not counting players like Kris Bryant, who were drafted in 2010 but didn't sign a contract.
Without further ado, let's get in Baseball-Reference's company TARDIS and set the controls to June 2010. On the clock, the Washington Nationals.
#1: Washington Nationals. Actual Pick: Bryce Harper (23.9 WAR). My Pick: Harper
I could try to hot take you and if I were doing this in March, I may have actually gone ahead and done it. Entering this season, Bryce Harper's resume consisted of the best hitting season by a young player since Ted Williams and the only 5-WAR season by a teenage rookie in MLB history, but it would also include sub-2 WAR seasons in two years out of the last three. And Harper had actually struggled more as the season went on, a warning sign that perhaps something was wrong with the young hitter's approach.
Well, so much for that. Harper has basically returned to his 2015 form as a hitter (193 adjusted OPS+), currently ranks 5th in the National League in WAR (2.5), and, oh yeah, he still hasn't turned 25. While he's starting to get expensive, and stands to make enough money that he can build his own Scrooge McDuck swimming pool vault in free agency after 2018, Harper's still a no-brainer choice.
If Taillon hasn't met the expectations for a #2 pick, it's certainly through no fault of his own. Taillon had to miss all of 2014 due to Tommy John surgery and all of 2015 due to a sports hernia. In 2016, he re-emerged, reached the majors, and dominated, posting a 126 adjusted ERA+ in 139 1/3 major league innings pitched while looking like the dominant ace he was projected to be.
Then tragedy struck, as Taillon was diagnosed with testicular cancer, a shocking and gut-wrenching turn. The good news is that Taillon's doctors caught the cancer early and Taillon himself sounds upbeat about the fight ahead (it goes without saying that all of us at Baseball-Reference wish him, as well as Chad Bettis, all the best in the long fight ahead).
However, even beyond Taillon's turbulent last few years, there's reason to believe that, in a 2010 do-over, the Pirates would want a player who was more MLB-ready than Taillon, who was drafted straight out of high school. While the Pirates only won 57 games in 2010, they were on the verge of a dramatic turnaround. Just three years after this draft, Pittsburgh would host postseason baseball for the first time since 1992.
One thing that might have been nice to have for the 2013 NLDS, as well as the 2014 and 2015 Wild Card games, is a second ace to slot in alongside Gerrit Cole. Fortunately, the highest WAR player in this draft just happens to be a college pitcher who's transformed into an ace.
To date, Chris Sale has accumulated the most career WAR of any 2010 draftee. He spent just 11 games in the minor leagues before joining the Chicago White Sox's major league roster as a reliever. In 2012, he turned into a starter and, since then, he hasn't finished worse than 6th in Cy Young Award voting. From 2013-16, Sale racked up 21.7 WAR; excluding Cole, every other Pirates starting pitcher combined for a total of 21.0 WAR in that span. Considering that the Pirates now appear to be heading towards another rebuild, they may have been better off taking a more aggressive, win-now approach to the draft than they did at the time. Then, they could either opt to keep Sale around this year, when he leads all pitchers in WAR, or trade him for the juicy set of prospects that the Boston Red Sox sent to Chicago in exchange for the ace.
However, this draft actually contained three superstars, not two, and perhaps the Pirates should have looked to #3 overall pick Manny Machado instead. You can easily argue that Machado's the better choice than Sale, even though Sale has the higher career WAR. Machado is four years younger, has less risk of the kind of injuries we associate with pitchers, and has already developed into one of MLB's best hitters, even with him starting off 2017 with a bit of a slump. With all of those factors, it's very easy to imagine Machado eventually closing the 8-win gap between himself and Sale.
If you look at just the Pirates' three contending years, it's basically a tie by WAR, with Machado having 16.1 from 2013-15 and Sale having 16.8. One could argue that Machado would actually have beaten that mark in Pittsburgh, given that he'd have most likely stayed at his original position of shortstop, rather than moving down the defensive spectrum to third base. You could even argue that he might not have suffered the injury in 2014 that cost him half of that season under different circumstance, though obviously that's completely unknowable. However, given that the Pirates missed winning the NL Central by three games in 2013 and two games in 2014-15, either player would likely have made up the gap to get the Pirates at least one division title in that span.
Given that either player moves the needle enough to push the Pirates closer to a potential pennant, I'm taking the 24-year-old position player here.
That leaves Sale for Baltimore, which may actually be the better option for the most win-now player, given that the Os have been in the playoff chase every year since 2012. Could they have won the 2012 ALDS against the Yankees if they had Sale pitch once or even twice in the series (depending on the Wild Card game) instead of Joe Saunders? Would they have had a fighting chance in the 2014 ALCS if they didn't start the series with Chris Tillman giving up 5 runs in 4 innings? Could the notoriously tempestuous Sale have brow-beaten Buck Showalter to use Zach Britton in the 11th inning of the 2016 Wild Card game?
The repercussions carry through to this year, even though Sale is no longer with the team that drafted him. Given how the Orioles' 2017 rotation looks below Dylan Bundy and Wade Miley, it's possible that the fact that Sale ended up in Boston instead of Baltimore will end up swinging the 2017 AL East race.
From a WAR perspective, Christian Colon has certainly been a disappointment, but it's tempting to just let the pick ride, given that Colon hit the go-ahead RBI that ultimately won the Royals their first title in thirty years. For all intents and purposes, the Royals got the absolute most out of their recent window of contention, but perhaps they could have extended it if they had reached a little bit to take a lefty out of high school.
A month ago, I'd have been tempted to take Noah Syndergaard second overall, given the utter dominance he's shown in the majors at such a young age. His ERA+ of 137 ranks 26th thru age-24 and only eight pitchers have struck out more hitters in their first sixty games than Thor:
And yet, if you look at some of the names on that list, you can see why I was hesitant to take Syndergaard earlier. Given the troubling injury history of players like Kerry Wood and Tim Lincecum, it's concerning that Syndergaard is now going to miss a significant portion of the 2017 season with a lat tear. While at least it's not an elbow injury, it's hard to have a lot of faith in the Mets' medical staff right now.
Still, when he's been on, Thor has been my favorite player in the entire major leagues to watch and, even if he never pitched again, he'd still represent a much better return for the Royals than they got out of Colon. Given that Syndergaard was 6.3 wins more valuable than Kansas City's 2016 fifth starter, Chris Young, it's even possible that he could have pushed the Royals into a third straight playoff run. And, given the advances in medicine and surgery, it's more than possible that Syndergaard returns to form when he comes back and lives up to his superstar potential.
You may think that it kind of kills my premise that the two top five teams who did the worst in the draft are also the last three American League pennant winners. I'd argue that the way Kansas City and Cleveland's windows opened so suddenly, and seem to be closing with the same speed, shows the importance of good drafting in building a team that can contend for more than a couple of years at a time.
The Indians largely threw this pick away; even though Pomeranz became a solid major leaguer, Cleveland dealt him away for Ubaldo Jimenez in 2011. Jimenez then posted an unspectacular 1.8 WAR in two and a half years in Cleveland before leaving in free agency. The best player remaining on the board by WAR is Andrelton Simmons, but while he's had a solid career so far, it's hard to imagine the Indians improving very much over what Francisco Lindor has given them, especially factoring in Lindor's superstar potential.
Instead, I'll give the Indians the big corner outfield bat they were missing last season, and one who's only 25-years-old to boot. Yelich got by with his glove and eye in his first three seasons, posting 8.5 WAR on the strength of excellent defense and on-base percentage skills without reaching double-digits in home runs. That changed in 2016, when Yelich added 20-HR power to his overall repertoire. The result was a 5-win season at age-24, putting him on this somewhat impressive list of Marlins to break 5 WAR before turning 25:
While Yelich is slumping so far this year, he's still only 25-years-old and, having shown that he can add power to his other tools, it seems like Cleveland could have had a second young star to join Francisco Lindor
To say that Eaton was a lightly regarded prospect at the time of the draft may even be giving him too much credit; he was taken over 400 picks later than Russell Wilson, who, of course, would go on to play a completely different professional sport. Yet, to date, only five players from this draft have racked up more WAR at the major league level than Eaton.
Eaton would represent a much better return for the D-Backs than they got out of Barret Loux, who was last seen pitching for the Sugar Land Skeeters in the Atlantic League. And, while Arizona looks like they're set at the corners with Yasmany Tomas, and David Peralta, the D-Backs could have tried moving Eaton or Peralta to center field, where A.J. Pollock continues to struggle with injury. They also could have traded him and either replenished a depleted farm with a few top prospects like the White Sox did, or acquired a win-now player to help turn their 30-19 start into a serious run at the NL West title.
There are a number of directions I could have gone with for the Mets here. Despite his recent struggles, taking Harvey actually worked out pretty well for New York, as the Dark Knight has racked up a double-digit career WAR while leading the team to win the NL pennant in 2015. However, since then, things have taken a turn for the worse. In 26 starts over the last two seasons, Harvey posted an Earned Run Average over 5.00 and essentially been replacement level, according to WAR.
Instead, I'll give the Mets a different sort of run prevention boost by drafting Kiermaier, who has been perhaps the best defensive center fielder since Andruw Jones. Kiermaier racked up two more wins of dWAR than Juan Lagares (the player he's hypothetically replacing here) while also being a league average hitter, an improvement over Lagares' career OPS+ of 86. Kiermaier's presence in center field would be a huge boost to a Mets' outfield that's had it's share of defensive challenges over the last couple of years and save us all the spectacle of Yoenis Cespedes in center.
What do you get for the team that has everything? The best player available, Andrelton Simmons, probably wouldn't be a great fit for a team that, in 2010, was just a couple of years away from drafting Carlos Correa, who looks like he could be the best all-around young shortstop since Alex Rodriguez. Similarly, while the team eventually found an answer at catcher with Brian McCann, it was tempting to give them framing whiz Yasmani Grandal, who was worth nearly two wins more last year than their 2016 starting catcher Jason Castro.
In the end, however, I decided that the Astros would be best off with a pitcher to slot in alongside Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers. I thought about making that pitcher James Paxton, who has only tallied 5.9 WAR to date, but whose 2.49 FIP since the start of 2016 seems to indicate that the Mariners' starter figured something out. But with Paxton's injury, the safer bet is deGrom. While he never hit the heights of Syndergaard and Harvey, deGrom has been the most reliable Mets starter, breaking three wins in each of his first three seasons and looking to be on pace for a fourth. His strikeout rate is spiking in 2017, as deGrom is fanning 12.3 hitters per 9 innings pitched. If he can get his uncharacteristically high walk rate down a little (3.7 walks per nine IP, up from 2.2 in 2016), he could even take a step forward to become a true ace.
#9: San Diego Padres Actual Pick: Karsten Whitson (N/A). My Pick: Andrelton Simmons (22.9 WAR, 70th pick)
Unlike the Astros and Indians, I had no qualms picking a shortstop for the Padres. San Diego hasn't gotten more than 3 WAR out of a SS since Khalil Greene in 2007, while Simmons has broken that mark in every full season that he's been in the majors. While Andrelton was never able to re-discover the power that, combined with his ultra-elite defense, helped him break 7 WAR in 2013, he's still been a very good player. And, while his defense has taken a step back, he's been better at the plate this season than he was in any season since he first came up to the majors. I took Kiermaier and Yelich ahead of Simmons because I think they have a little more upside going forward, but that makes Simmons an absolute steal for the Padres at 9.
In real life, the Blue Jays took both Sanchez and Syndergaard within five picks of each other, and it's pretty crazy to imagine what that team would have been like last year if they had hung on to both of them. Sanchez had an excellent 2016, posting an ERA+ over 140 and nearly breaking five WAR. However, there were a couple of troubling signs, mainly that he continued walking over three batters per nine innings, while only striking out 7.5. This year, his strikeout rate fell, his walk rate rose, and, most troublingly, his home run rate skyrockets to 1.5 dingers per nine.
Sanchez is currently on the DL with a blister, which can be concerning to anyone who's followed Rich Hill's career. His troubling 2017 briefly made Yasmani Grandal seem like a better option. Grandal is in the midst of what looks to be a career year, pairing an .856 On-Base Plus Slugging with excellent defense and framing skills. However, Grandal is already 28 and has only racked up 10.4 WAR to this point in his career. Given the difficulty of remaining a top catcher after 30, combined with the fact that Sanchez is only 24 and the As are in no hurry to push for wins now, I decided to go with Sanchez's huge future upside over Grandal's present value.