Top 100 Draft Flashback: At What Positions Do Top Picks End Up?

While we’re headlong into draft preview mode, we’re also taking a retrospective look at the top draft 100 picks—the cream of the amateur crop—from the 20 drafts from 1989 through 2008. Why draw the lines at 1989 and 2008? We took the last four drafts off the table to allow high school picks more time to establish themselves in the major leagues. For example, the Class of ’08 includes precocious talents like Eric Hosmer and Brett Lawrie, but also plenty of players who are relatively new to 40-man rosters, such as first-rounders Tim Beckham, Kyle Skipworth and Aaron Hicks.

Draft guru Jim Callis pegs the beginning of the modern draft era at 1990—when first-round bonuses jumped by 37 percent over the previous year—but for this exercise we backtrack to ’89, which featured No. 1 pick Ben McDonald’s record-setting deal with the Orioles. The Scott Boras client received a $350,000 bonus and a two-year major league contract from Baltimore.

And why only the top 100 picks? Because that’s where scouting departments focus their attention and the majority of their draft budgets. Sure, many major league stars were drafted outside the top 100 picks—Albert Pujols (13th round), Matt Holliday (seventh round) and Matt Kemp (sixth round) are great examples—but big league success for position players tracks very closely with draft position.

In this installment of the draft retrospective we take a look at which positions clubs should expect their non-pitcher draft picks to settle, based on historical precedent. All prospect watchers understand implicitly that not every high school shortstop will graduate to the big leagues as a shortstop, but we actually wanted to measure it. So we compared each top 100 draft pick’s amateur position with his primary major league position, counting only those players who accumulated at least 100 games in the big leagues. (A few exceptions are made for players with game counts in the high 90s.) This gives us a rough idea of the success rate for various draft demographics—such as high school shortstops or college outfielders—and what range of outcomes a team could reasonably expect when investing a top 100 draft pick in an amateur player. Junior college players are not counted in this exercise because their numbers are too small to be useful. We will consider other factors, such as teams’ success rates in graduating top draft picks to the big leagues, in the next installment of the Top 100 Draft Flashback.

Let’s work our way down the defensive spectrum, saving first and second base until the end. Keep in mind that players are listed in descending order of career totals for Baseball-Reference’s wins above replacement (WAR) metric.

Catcher

Amateur Catchers

 

Among those who reached the majors for 100 games, more than two-thirds of high school catchers (69 percent) and nearly three-quarters of college catchers (74 percent) did it as catchers. Those who shifted positions tended to migrate to first base (where foot speed doesn’t factor) or third base (where arm strength does).

PLAYING THE PERCENTAGES
Primary major league position for players drafted as catchers among top 100 picks of 1989-2008 drafts. Players must accumulate 100 games in the majors to count.
Pos HS WAR COLL WAR
C 69% 175 74% 124
1B 19% 92 9% 13
3B 4% 2 9% 19
Other 8% 29 9% -1
Total 26 298 34 155

Examples of amateur catchers who became first basemen include Paul Konerko (13th overall, 1994), Justin Morneau (89th, 1999), Joey Votto (44th, 2002), Craig Wilson (47th, 1995) and Daric Barton (28th, 2003) among the high school ranks, and Scott Hatteberg (43rd, 1991), Ryan Garko (78th, 2003) and Jeff Clement (third, 2005) among the collegians. Tyler Houston (second, 1989) is the lone high school catcher to move to third base in the majors, while Brandon Inge (57th, 1998), Eric Munson (third, 1999) and Josh Donaldson (48th, 2007) are college players who made the switch.

The two amateur catchers who moved off the position but still landed at other up-the-middle positions were first-round picks in consecutive drafts. The Royals tabbed Mitch Maier with the 30th pick in 2003, but the Toledo catcher caught just 32 games in the Rookie-level Arizona League prior to pinballing from third base in ’04 to center field in ’05. “His receiving skills are suspect, and while he has good arm strength his release is a little slow,” we wrote of Maier prior to the ’03 draft. No such red flags existed for Neil Walker when the Pirates selected him from a Gibsonia, Pa., high school with the 11th pick in the 2004 draft, but Pittsburgh wanted to accelerate his timetable after he reached Double-A at the end of the ’06 season. Walker moved to third base in ’07 and spent three full seasons in the high minors prior to breaking through in Pittsburgh as a rookie second baseman in 2010.

Moving to the corner outfield can’t be considered a high-percentage play for players drafted as catchers. Just three carved out big league careers in our sample, and right fielder Jayson Werth (22nd, 1997) looks like a giant outlier when compared with left fielders Jake Fox (73rd, 2003) and Jason Grabowski (75th, 1997).

Despite their risky reputation, high school catchers who reach the majors as catchers actually occupy five of the top seven spots of a ranking based on career totals for WAR. This suggests that when prep catchers hit, they hit big. In order, those prep receivers are No. 1 Jason Kendall (23rd, 1992), No. 2 Joe Mauer (first, 2001), No. 4 A.J. Pierzynski (71st, 1994), No. 6 Brian McCann (64th, 2002) and No. 7 Mike Lieberthal (third, 1990). Only No. 3 Jason Varitek (14th, 1994) and No. 5 Charles Johnson (28th, 1992) among collegians cracked the top seven, though No. 9 Matt Wieters (fifth, 2007) and No. 10 Buster Posey (fifth, 2008) quickly are gaining ground.

 

Shortstop

Amateur Shortstops

 

It’s easy to see why teams covet athletic high school shortstops. Those who can’t handle the defensive demands of the position have a multitude of fallback options, which makes sense because most high school teams will put their best player at shortstop, without regard to his professional future. As the above table illustrates, they tend to fan out all over the diamond as they establish themselves in the majors. Among those who reach the majors, about half of prep shortstops (48 percent) selected among the top 100 picks make it as middle infielders, but that still leaves a majority who shift to other positions, most frequently third base (20 percent) or center field (11 percent). College shortstops tend not to have as much flexibility. Eighty-five percent of them settle at either shortstop (51 percent) or second base (34 percent) in the majors.

PLAYING THE PERCENTAGES
Primary major league position for players drafted as shortstops among top 100 picks of 1989-2008 drafts. Players must accumulate 100 games in the majors to count.
Pos HS WAR COLL WAR
SS 25% 268 51% 141
2B 23% 54 34% 172
3B 20% 97 11% 5
CF 11% 34
Other 21% 40 3% 8
Total 44 493 35 326

The high school shortstops who became productive big league second basemen are highlighted by Brandon Phillips (57th overall, 1999), Kelly Johnson (38th, 2000), Sean Rodriguez (90th, 2003) and Pokey Reese (20th, 1991). All have at least six career WAR. Using the same cutoff, their college counterparts include Chuck Knoblauch (25th, 1989), Dustin Pedroia (65th, 2004), Brian Roberts (50th, 1999), Aaron Hill (13th, 2003), Adam Kennedy (20th, 1997), Mark Bellhorn (35th, 1995) and Danny Espinosa (87th, 2008).

Though they’re highlighted by Chipper Jones (first, 1990), those high school shortstops who shifted to the more offensively demanding position of third base have not fared nearly so well. Following Jones on the career WAR list are Chris Stynes (94th, 1991), Mike Moustakas (second, 2007), Willie Greene (18th, 1989), Jayson Nix (44th, 2001) and Trevor Plouffe (20th, 2004). The college crop has fared even worse: Kevin Orie (29th, 1993) and Russ Johnson (30th, 1994) are the only two with positive WAR totals. The only other college-shortstop position change in our sample is Michael Tucker (10th, 1992), who spent the majority of his big league time in the outfield and who played the infield only in 1993, his first year in the minors. He moved from second base to the outfield in ’94 and didn’t look back.

High school shortstops tend to move unrestricted around the diamond, even to the mound, where shortstop-turned-righthander Sergio Santos (27th, 2002) reached the majors in 2010 as a reliever, eight years after being drafted. A dozen other prep shortstops reached the majors at positions other than shortstop. Michael Barrett (28th, 1995) and Jose Morales (77th, 2001) did so as catchers, Kevin Witt (28th, 1994) did as a first baseman and Mike Morse (82nd, 2000) and Lou Montanez (third, 2000) did as left fielders.

However, the best landing spots for converted high school shortstops appear to be center field (where speed and range factor) and right field (where arm strength matters). Examples of the former group include Adam Jones (37th, 2003), B.J. Upton (second, 2002) and Preston Wilson (ninth, 1992), while the latter group comprises Justin Upton (first, 2005), Michael Cuddyer (ninth, 1997) and Jason Repko (37th, 1999).

The top two shortstops of the past 20 years in terms of career WAR—No. 1 Alex Rodriguez (first, 1993) and No. 2 Derek Jeter (sixth, 1992)—both entered pro ball as high school shortstops, as did No. 4 Jimmy Rollins (46th, 1999) and No. 6 J.J. Hardy (56th, 2001). College shortstops round out the remainder of the top nine, but beyond No. 3 Nomar Garciaparra (12th, 1994) and No. 5 Troy Tulowitzki (seventh, 2005), you’ll find more modest talents such as No. 7 Stephen Drew (15th, 2004), No. 8 Adam Everett (12th, 1998) and No. 9 Khalil Greene (13th, 2002).

 

Third Base

Amateur Third Basemen

 

Third base has a higher “retention rate” than shortstop, though it’s not as high as catcher. Nearly half of top-100 high school third basemen (47 percent) who reach the majors stay at third base, while just about 60 percent of collegians remain at the hot corner. As we’ll see, players from both groups tend to rank among the most productive in the game, though the value of high schoolers who have to move off third base tends to pale in comparison with college players making similar moves.

PLAYING THE PERCENTAGES
Primary major league position for players drafted as third basemen among top 100 picks of 1989-2008 drafts. Players must accumulate 100 games in the majors to count.
Pos HS WAR COLL WAR
3B 47% 167 59% 161
1B 24% 29 22% 100
LF 6% -1 11% 52
Other 24% 26 8% 5
Total 17 221 27 318

Naturally, the most common position shift that third basemen face is the one across the diamond to first base. Led by Jason Giambi (58th overall, 1992) and Mark Teixeira (fifth, 2001), college third basemen have a pair of leading examples for the third-to-first shift, though the rest of the converted—led by Conor Jackson (19th, 2003), Scott Stahoviak (27th, 1991) and Lance Niekro (61st, 2000)—fell short of profiling as first-division starters. High school third basemen who shifted to first in the majors tended to be much less athletic, e.g. Dmitri Young (fourth, 1991), Billy Butler (14th, 2004) and Brad Fullmer (60th, 1993).

Despite needing the requisite arm strength to play the left side of the infield, the majority of third basemen who move to the outfield move to left field instead of right. The two prime examples are Ryan Braun (fifth, 2005) and Alex Gordon (second, 2005), a pair of college players, though Chris Coghlan (36th, 2006) also fits that description. Chris Aguila (96th, 1997) represents the high school ranks.  The two amateur third basemen who landed in right field in the majors are high schooler Alex Rios (19th, 1999) and collegian Xavier Nady (49th, 2000), though neither ever played a pro game at the hot corner.

The three high school third basemen who migrated to up-the-middle positions in the majors made little impact: catcher Javier Valentin (93rd, 1993), shortstop Andy Fox (45th, 1989) and center fielder Jason Romano (39th, 1997). The lone college third baseman who reached the majors as a second baseman, Logan Forsythe (46th, 2008), has just 519 plate appearances to his credit so far.

Despite ceding stars Braun, Giambi, Gordon and Teixeira to other positions, college third basemen who stay at the position still can boast of an impressive roster of major leaguers. The career WAR ranking includes No. 3 Troy Glaus (third, 1997), No. 5 Evan Longoria (third, 2006), No. 6 Ryan Zimmerman (fourth, 2005), No. 7 Phil Nevin (first, 1992), No. 8 Chase Headley (66th, 2005) and No. 9 Aaron Boone (72nd, 1994). Even still, the most prominent high school alumni overshadow their college counterparts, in this case No. 1 Scott Rolen (46th, 1993), No. 2 David Wright (38th, 2001) and No. 4 Eric Chavez (10th, 1996).

 

Outfield

Amateur Outfielders

 

Clubs that select high school outfielders with top 100 picks and get them to the big leagues for 100 games almost always get outfielders. Those players become center fielders 42 percent of the time, corner outfielders 55 percent of the time and very little else. As with high school shortstops, athletic high school center fielders have fallback options that enhance their overall value. The college outfielder distribution is more scattered: 34 percent land in center, 56 percent on a corner and nine percent elsewhere on the diamond. Regardless of source, the majority of amateur outfielders settle at the corners for the bulk of their careers, either because they outgrow center field or because twice as many corner jobs exist.

PLAYING THE PERCENTAGES
Primary major league position for players drafted as outfielders among top 100 picks of 1989-2008 drafts. Players must accumulate 100 games in the majors to count.
Pos HS WAR COLL WAR
CF 42% 384 34% 211
RF 30% 144 32% 217
LF 25% 190 24% 63
Other 4% 13 9% 32
Total 55 731 71 523

We can address the non-outfielders quickly in this case. Aside from collegian Darin Erstad (first overall, 1995) and high schooler Tony Clark (second, 1990), no outfielders-turned-first basemen have had meaningful careers. High school product Chris Parmelee (20th, 2006) still might turn into something—we don’t know yet for sure—but we can safely close the book on college players such as Joe Vitiello (seventh, 1991), Brian Banks (43rd, 1993), John Bowker (100th, 2004) and Kevin Barker (73rd, 1996).

The two most unique college outfielder journeys belong to Josh Paul (47th, 1996) and Brooks Kieschnick (10th, 1993). Fans of early-aughts baseball will recognize Paul as a career backup catcher who played in the majors from 1999-2007, maxing out at 47 starts for the ’06 Rays. He took to catching full-time in 1997, when he reached Double-A for 32 games. The 10th pick in his draft, Kieschnick busted as a left field prospect, putting up a .701 OPS over 113 games from 1996 to 2001. The Brewers redeemed some value by converting him into a two-way reserve—lefty pinch-hitter/righty reliever—during the 2003-04 seasons. Kieschnick pitched in 74 games, posting a 4.59 ERA and passable peripherals for low-leverage work (1.42 WHIP, 2.6 K-BB ratio), all while batting .286/.340/.496 in 144 plate appearances.

High school outfielders who stick in center field in the big leagues provide some of the greatest return on investment of any draft demographic. A dozen of them have chipped in at least nine WAR for their careers: Carlos Beltran (49th, 1995), Johnny Damon (35th, 1992), Torii Hunter (20th, 1993), Vernon Wells (fifth, 1997), Grady Sizemore (75th, 2000), Josh Hamilton (first, 1999), Carl Everett (10th, 1990), Andrew McCutchen (11th, 2005), Denard Span (20th, 2002), Milton Bradley (40th, 1996), Rocco Baldelli (sixth, 2000) and Corey Patterson (third, 1998). Young active center fielders such as Cameron Maybin (10th, 2005), Colby Rasmus (28th, 2005) and Ben Revere (28th, 2007) may eventually join that group.

Top 100 college outfielders who land in right field tended to have the most value among the four-year college set. Prime examples include J.D. Drew (fifth, 1998), Tim Salmon (69th, 1989), Nick Swisher (16th, 2002), Jeromy Burnitz (17th, 1990), Hunter Pence (64th, 2002), Andre Ethier (62nd, 2003), Ryan Ludwick (60th, 1999) and Jacque Jones (37th, 1996). College center fielders finished right on the heels of right fielders, as typified by the likes of Curtis Granderson (80th, 2002), Randy Winn (65th, 1995), Mark Kotsay (ninth, 1996), Aaron Rowand (35th, 1998), Jose Cruz Jr. (third, 1995), Jay Payton (29th, 1994), Jacoby Ellsbury (23rd, 2005), Doug Glanville (12th, 1991) and Chris Singleton (48th, 1993). But neither group finished in the same ballpark as high school center fielders.

For whatever reason, the bat-first college left fielder hasn’t been a great profile, with Geoff Jenkins (ninth, 1995), Brad Wilkerson (33rd, 1998) and David Murphy (17th, 2003) the only representatives with 10 or more career WAR.

Led by Manny Ramirez (13th, 1991), high school left fielders during this period offered a higher ceiling than their college counterparts. Carl Crawford (52nd, 1999), Rondell White (24th, 1990), Shannon Stewart (19th, 1992) and Adam Dunn (50th, 1998) round out the top five. The high school right-field crowd is nearly as tooled-up as the center fielders, led by Shawn Green (16th, 1991), Trot Nixon (seventh, 1993), Jason Heyward (14th, 2007), Austin Kearns (seventh, 1998), Giancarlo Stanton (76th, 2007), Jay Bruce (12th, 2005) and Jeff Francoeur (23rd, 2002).

Just as we see at catcher, shortstop and third base, high school outfielders may not offer the sheer volume of big leaguers that the college ranks supply, but the upper-end talents tend to be much more productive. (Take that as a positive sign for some of the game’s current top outfield prospects who hail from the high school ranks, such as the Twins’ Byron Buxton, the Marlins’ Christian Yelich, the Cubs’ Albert Almora and the Rockies’ David Dahl.) The top four outfielders by WAR, and six of the top eight, all hail from the high school ranks—No. 1 Ramirez, No. 2 Beltran, No. 3 Damon, No. 4 Hunter, No. 7 Crawford and No. 8 Green. Drew and Salmon represent the college outfielders, occupying the Nos. 5 and 6 spots.

First And Second Base

We’ll dispense with the fancy graphics for these two positions because the samples are just too small and the position distribution too narrow. Amateur first and second basemen tend to be the least athletic position players, so they tend not to have fallback positions in pro ball. This places a lot of emphasis on their bats, which means teams must be sure amateur first and second basemen will hit before investing a top-100 draft pick.

PLAYING THE PERCENTAGES
Primary major league position for players drafted as second basemen among top 100 picks of 1989-2008 drafts. Players must accumulate 100 games in the majors to count.
Pos HS WAR COLL WAR
2B  — 89% 90
SS  —  — 11% 6
Total 0 0 9 96

High school second basemen have few representatives among top-100 draft picks, making them the rarest of birds. Players such as Nick Noonan (32nd, 2007), Charlie Culberson (51st, 2007) and L.J. Hoes (81st, 2008) are the only three to reach the big leagues, though Noonan added shortstop to his résumé and Hoes moved to left field prior to earning their callups. Not one player in our sample went from prep second baseman to major league veteran of at least 100 games—at least not yet.

Most of the value contributed by college second basemen is concentrated in the career of Chase Utley (15th, 2000), though Rickie Weeks (second, 2003) and Todd Walker (eighth, 1994) enjoyed long, productive careers. The results become a bit muddled beyond that trio. Players like Marlon Anderson (42nd, 1995) and Mike Fontenot (19th, 2001) spent multiple seasons in the big leagues, while Jemile Weeks (12th, 2008) and Johnny Giavotella (49th, 2008) still have time to establish themselves. Chris Burke (10th, 2001) will always have the 18th-inning, walk-off home run that won the NL Division Series for the 2005 Astros.

“He is also a solid defender with good footwork and enough arm strength to fill in at shortstop in a pinch,” we wrote of Stanford second baseman Jed Lowrie (45th, 2005) prior to his selection in the draft. Despite his defensive reputation as an amateur, Lowrie had started 220 games at shortstop, 52 games at third and just 26 games at second in the big leagues prior to this season, which he’s spending as the Athletics’ primary shortstop. He’s the one amateur second baseman in our sample to take on a more challenging defensive assignment as a pro.

PLAYING THE PERCENTAGES
Primary major league position for players drafted as first basemen among top 100 picks of 1989-2008 drafts. Players must accumulate 100 games in the majors to count.
Pos HS WAR COLL WAR
1B 69% 123 84% 320
LF 31% 36 16% 22
Total 13 159 19 342

As demonstrated above, teams typically will not hesitate to move amateur third basemen, corner outfielders and catchers to first base, which means that players drafted as first basemen must wage war on several different fronts. Not only are they competing with other first basemen in the organization but also with multiple position-switch candidates at the other three corners (and sometimes catcher).

A number of amateur first basemen made the switch to left field in the majors, though only high schooler Cliff Floyd (14th, 1991) and collegian Pat Burrell (first, 1998) could be classified as unqualified successes. The others include Jack Cust (30th, 1997), Chris Duncan (46th, 1999) and Marc Newfield (sixth, 1990) among the high school ranks and Adam Lind (83rd, 2004) and Brant Brown (81st, 1992) among the four-year college set.

As was the case at second base, the best major league first basemen tend to hail from the college ranks. They hold down seven of the top 10 spots on the career ranking for WAR (though three of them come courtesy of the distant ’89 draft): No. 1 Frank Thomas (seventh, 1989), No. 2 Todd Helton (eighth, 1995), No. 3 John Olerud (79th, 1989), No. 4 Lance Berkman (16th, 1997), No. 7 Mo Vaughn (23rd, 1989), No. 8 Carlos Pena (10th, 1998) and No. 10 Sean Casey (53rd, 1995). Filling in the blanks are three high school products: No. 5 Derrek Lee (14th, 1993), No. 6 Adrian Gonzalez (first, 2000) and No. 9 Prince Fielder (seventh, 2002).

Younger veterans like Ike Davis (18th, 2008), Freddie Freeman (78th, 2007), Eric Hosmer (third, 2008) and Yonder Alonso (seventh, 2008) could make their mark in the above ranking with a few strong seasons.