There are no “sure things” when it comes to drafting major league prospects. To see what I mean, look no further than the 2009 Major League Baseball (MLB) amateur draft when one of the best baseball players on planet earth – Mike Trout – was selected. The 2012 American League Rookie of the Year was overlooked by 21 teams prior to being selected by the Los Angeles Angels with the twenty-fifth overall pick. The uncertainty of the draft process is more apparent when six of the players selected prior to Trout haven’t even reached the majors, including two who are no longer in baseball.
Recently, I discussed other star players who were overlooked early in the 2009 draft – Matt Carpenter, Paul Goldschmidt, Yan Gomes, and J.D. Martinez weren’t selected prior to the sixth round. This motivated me to compile a roster of top active players who were drafted during the sixth round or later since the 2000 MLB amateur draft. The roster that I put together was an impressive squad with many young major league stars, including the Cleveland Indians’ outfielder star Michael Brantley, who was drafted in the seventh round in 2005. There’s only one hitch though – Brantley was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers.
In October 2008, Brantley was sent to Cleveland by Milwaukee as the “player to be named later” to complete a July 2008 deal that originally sent three prospects – pitchers Rob Bryson and Zach Jackson, plus first baseman Matt LaPorta – to the Cleveland for pitcher C.C. Sabathia. At the time of the deal, LaPorta was considered Milwaukee’s top prospect, although he never flourished as a major league player and is now retired at age-30. Ultimately, Brantley turned out to be the best player acquired by Cleveland. In 2014, the son of former Seattle Mariner Mickey Brantley earned his first all-star team selection and Silver Slugger Award, while emerging as one of the top players in baseball. The 27-year-old is under team control through 2018 and is considered the centerpiece to the team’s offense and vital to their postseason aspirations.
Michael Brantley stats
From Cleveland’s perspective, this deal paid off thanks to Brantley’s eventual development despite the fact that Bryson, Jackson, and LaPorta never panned out. How the deal worked out for Milwaukee depends on one’s perspective. The Brewers acquired Sabathia as a “rental player” knowing that he would likely depart as a free agent at the end of the season. But, they were making a playoff push and chose to ship their top prospect to Cleveland for the big southpaw. Sabathia pitched inspired baseball and helped Milwaukee reach the postseason for the first time in 16 years. After the season, Sabathia departed as expected and signed with the New York Yankees. The “Brew Crew” received a compensatory pick for losing Sabathia and selected Kentrail Davis with the 39th overall pick in the 2009 MLB amateur draft. Davis was subsequently selected by the Los Angeles Angels in the 2014 Rule Five draft and the 26-year-old is currently assigned to the Angels’ Class-AA minor league team.
In the end, Milwaukee traded away four prospects for Sabathia and a shot at the postseason, plus their compensatory pick for Sabathia no longer plays in the organization. It’s easy to debate the merits of a deal made in 2008 when wearing 20/20 hindsight glasses in 2015, but the organization capitalized on the value of their prospects to reach the postseason. The manner in which Milwaukee used their prospects is one way to get value from prospects – as trade chips to get major league-level talent like Sabathia. Other teams may have been more hesitant to trade away valued prospects if presented that situation.
The Seattle Mariners have resisted the urge to trade away their two top young pitchers – Taijuan Walker and James Paxton – who were reportedly repeatedly sought after by potential trade partners during this past off-season. The team has chosen to build around some of their key homegrown players, while adding veterans to fill in the gaps.
Another team that’s been more interested in hording talent than trading it away is the New York Mets. Their recent drafted talent includes two emerging stars – pitchers Matt Harvey and 2014 National League Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom. In addition to developing talent, General Manager Sandy Alderson has sought to pick up young, inexpensive talent whenever possible. In 2011, he the acquired sixth-overall draft pick from the Trout draft – pitcher Zack Wheeler – from the San Francisco Giants for soon-to-be free agent Carlos Beltran. So far, the currently-injured Wheeler has won 18 games with a 3.50 earned run average during two seasons in New York. Having prospects who are either coveted by potential trade partners or capable of contributing to the big league club has been paramount for both teams. With that in mind, which teams have been most successful at drafting major league caliber talent in recent years?
In order to get an idea on how teams have fared, let’s see which teams drafted the most and fewest major league players since the 2008 MLB amateur draft. For the purposes of this review, a player is considered a “major leaguer” if they appeared in the majors before the end of the 2014 season. I’m using the FanGraphs version of wins above replacement (fWAR) throughout this article to simplify comparisons between players and teams since WAR quantifies a player’s total contribution to a team with a single value. The first thing that becomes readily apparent is that the number of MLB players drafted by an organization doesn’t necessarily correlate with their win-loss record.
Quantity with little value
More players drafted by the San Diego Padres have reached the major leagues than from any other organization, yet the team has only averaged 75 wins since 2011. The San Diego draftee who has provided the best overall value, regardless of current team, is relief pitcher Nick Vincent who has delivered a total of 2.6 fWAR since his 2012 debut with San Diego.
The Arizona Diamondbacks have also experienced poor results going into 2015. The team’s 23 draftees have provided 41.7 fWAR, but they had the fewest wins in the major leagues last season. Plus, over half that value (22.2 fWAR) came from two players – their two-time all-star first baseman Goldschmidt and pitcher Wade Miley, now with the Boston Red Sox. Both San Diego and Arizona have overhauled their front offices in the last 12 months and have several prospects on the way who may help change their success with developing prospects.
|Most MLB Players Drafted Since 2008 |
|Team||MLB Players ||Total fWAR||2014 Wins|
|San Diego Padres||26||5.3||77|
| Arizona Diamondbacks ||23||41.7||64|
| St. Louis Cardinals || 23 ||39.3||90|
| Detroit Tigers ||22||18.1||90|
| San Francisco Giants ||20 ||38.1||88|
| Seattle Mariners || 19 ||30.5||87|
The St. Louis Cardinals’ commitment to developing their own talent is unmatched and that’s why they’re the benchmark for organizational stability. The team has been to four consecutive League Championship Series and opened the 2015 season with twelve players that they drafted, including infielders Kolten Wong, Carpenter, and Matt Adams, catcher Yadier Molina, and pitchers Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, and Trevor Rosenthal. From time-to-time, St. Louis has added veterans by trading prospects, Most recently, they dealt their 2009 first-round draft choice – pitcher Shelby Miller – to the Atlanta Braves for outfielder Jason Heyward. Once again, the team is expected contend in 2015.
The Detroit Tigers entered 2015 with only three of their 2008-2014 draftees on their 25-man roster, although they do have six minor leaguers from those drafts on their 40-man roster. Detroit has been willing to trade prospects and homegrown major leaguers to contend now. The most notable of General Manager Dave Dombrowski’s many trades brought two-time Most Valuable Player Award winner Miguel Cabrera, along with Dontrelle Willis from the Florida Marlins in exchange for Dallas Trahern, Burke Badenhop, Frankie De La Cruz, Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller and Mike Rabelo. Although Badenhop, Maybin, and Miller are still active players with varying levels of success in the majors, this 2007 deal has helped make Detroit a perennial contender. Last year, Dombrowski continued his trading ways by shipping two former draftees away to “win now” – Drew Smyly to Tampa Bay in a three-way deal that landed them ace David Price and Rick Porcello to Boston in exchange for outfielder Yoenis Cespedes.
It’s hard to dispute the success of the San Francisco Giants after they’ve won three of the last five World Series. During their run, their pitching staff has been anchored by three draftees all drafted before 2008 – two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum, 2014 World Series MVP Madison Bumgarner, and three-time all-star Matt Cain. The most notable players drafted since 2008 are former National Rookie of the Year Buster Posey and shortstop Brandon Crawford. The Giants have reaped a great deal of success from drafted players, but they’ve dealt prospects to add immediate help. Although General Manager Brian Sabean’s trade of Wheeler to the Mets didn’t pan out, he scored when he got outfielder Hunter Pence – who helped the team win two World Series – in exchange for two prospects and outfielder Nate Schierholtz.
Turning a corner
The Seattle Mariners organization had a breakthrough year in 2014 when they registered their first winning season since 2009. The team’s current front office is banking on its minor league system to achieve sustainable success, although the jury is still out on some of the team’s selections since 2008. If the team is going to reach the postseason in 2015, they’ll need contributions from draftees including third baseman Kyle Seager, catcher Mike Zunino, shortstops Brad Miller and Chris Taylor, left fielder Dustin Ackley, and five young pitchers – Paxton, Walker, Dominic Leone, Carson Smith, and Tyler Olson.
|Projected 2015 Value for Seattle Draftees|
| Kyle Seager ||Third base||4.0 |
| Mike Zunino ||Catcher||2.8 |
| Brad Miller ||Shortstop||2.3 |
| Dustin Ackley ||Left field||1.7 |
| Taijuan Walker ||Starting Pitcher||1.4 |
| James Paxton ||Starting Pitcher||1.4 |
| Chris Taylor ||Shortstop|| 0.9 |
| Dominic Leone ||Relief Pitcher||0.1 |
| Carson Smith ||Relief Pitcher||0.1|
|Anthony Vasquez||Relief Pitcher||0.0|
|Tyler Olson||Relief Pitcher||0.0|
|James Jones||Outfield||-0.1 |
|Combined Projected WAR||14.7|
As mentioned earlier, Seattle has been reluctant to part with its top prospects, but they have shrewdly dealt several homegrown players to improve. The results of these trades have been mixed, although they’ve landed four key 2015 contributors – Austin Jackson, Seth Smith, Justin Ruggiano, and Logan Morrison – by trading minor league talent not likely to ever make an impact with the big league club.
|Seattle Mariners Prospect Trade Returns |
|Player||Current Team ||Player (s) Received |
| Matt Brazis ||Class-A+ Myrtle Beach|| Justin Ruggiano |
| Carter Capps || Miami Marlins || Logan Morrison |
| Nick Franklin || Tampa Bay Rays || Austin Jackson |
| Bobby LaFromboise ||Pittsburgh Pirates|| Waived |
|Stephen Pryor||Class-AAA Rochester||Kendrys Morales|
| Brandon Maurer || San Diego Padres || Seth Smith |
|Josh Fields||Houston Astros|| Trayvon Robinson |
The limited financial resources of the Tampa Bay Rays makes a pipeline of young, inexpensive talent absolutely necessary to remain competitive. The team had a winning record between 2008 and 2013 thanks to their strategy of developing homegrown talent and exchanging players for new prospects when the homegrown talent became too expensive. Recent examples include pitchers Price, James Shields and Wade Davis. The team has been willing to flip acquired talent like Ben Zobrist and Wil Myers – acquired for Shields and Davis – when necessary. Recently, the team’s system has been far less fruitful.
|Fewest Active MLB Players Drafted Since 2008 |
|Organization||MLB ||fWAR||Wins||MLB Top-100|
| Tampa Bay Rays || 7 ||5.9||77||2|
|Minnesota Twins|| 7 ||7.1||70||6|
|Baltimore Orioles|| 9 ||17||96||2|
The team that developed many notable players prior to 2008 – Evan Longoria, Price, Shields, Desmond Jennings, Carl Crawford, Melvin Upton Jr, Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, Stephen Vogt, and Jeremy Hellickson – has developed the fewest major leaguers since. Tampa Bay does have some help on the way though. They’ve re-stocked their system by adding prospects Steven Souza and Willy Adames, as part of the Myers and Price deals, plus they have two homegrown players – shortstop Daniel Robertson (64) and catcher Justin O’Conner (60), along with Adames (76) in the MLB.com Top 100 prospects for 2015.
The Minnesota Twins haven’t developed many players and only two – second baseman Brian Dozier and starting pitcher Kyle Gibson – have provided any significant value to in the majors. Dozier has a combined a 6.4 fWAR since his 2012 debut and Gibson delivered 2.1 fWAR during his first full season in 2014. There’s help on the way for the Twin Cities though – they have six prospects in the top 40 of the MLB rankings, including the number one overall prospect, outfielder Byron Buxton.
The Baltimore Orioles have been built by acquiring players via trades and free agency. That philosophy will likely continue since they didn’t have a draft choice in the first two rounds of the 2014 draft after signing two free agents who had received qualifying offers – slugger Nelson Cruz and pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez. Also, most of the organization’s top prospects are at Class-AA or below. Only two of their prospects have cracked the MLB.com Top 100 – right-handed pitchers Hunter Harvey and Dylan Bundy. The team’s strategy has paid off in recent years – the team has registered a winning record the past three seasons and reached the American League Championship Series in 2014.
Assessing an organization’s ability to generate value from their draft selections can’t be solely judged by the quantity of major league players they drafted. The quality of those players and how they’re utilized ultimately determines the winners and losers in the amateur draft process. Teams like the Cardinals, Giants and Tigers have used their prospects in diverse ways to win. Seattle could join these organizations in the winners circle. All that’s left to be done is for the team to translate potential into victories.