Draft Bonanzas Rarely Pay Off
CHICAGO—The Rays give hope to any small-revenue franchise. Despite being in baseball's worst stadium situation and most rugged division, Tampa Bay reached the 2008 World Series and returned to the playoffs last year. No franchise can match the Rays' combination of young talent in the major and minor leagues. Superstars Evan Longoria and David Price are just 25, B.J. Upton is 26 and none of the members of a deep and talented rotation are 30. Their farm system entered the season ranked No. 2 by Baseball America.
Tampa Bay has built primarily through the draft, acquiring Longoria, Upton, fellow regulars Reid Brignac and John Jaso plus its entire rotation. Given the Rays' past success and their unprecedented 12 picks in the first two rounds of a loaded 2011 draft, they're poised to set themselves up for sustained success.
History indicates, however, that a surfeit of draft picks rarely translates into a surplus of talent. Fourteen teams have had seven or more selections in the first two rounds, including the 2007 and '10 Blue Jays and 2009 Diamondbacks, whose crops haven't had much time to develop. The other 11 draft bonanzas produced a total of three all-stars.
Few Success Stories
Before the 2011 Rays, the 1990 Expos held the record for the most top-two-round selections with 10. Much like Tampa Bay today, Montreal was the industry leader in producing quality talent, and it spent the 11th overall pick on Shane Andrews, grabbed Rondell White at No. 24, then landed Gabe White, Stan Spencer, Ben VanRyn and Stan Robertson in the sandwich round and Mike Hardge, Tavo Alvarez, Chris Haney and Chris Martin in the second. Rondell White made one all-star appearance in a 15-year career. Gabe White spent 11 seasons as a lefty reliever, while Andrews and Haney made marginal big league contributions and Spencer, VanRyn and Alvarez earned cups of coffee.
That group may not look spectacular, yet it's as good as any of the bonanzas and Rondell White accomplished as much as any of the players who came out of them.
When it plays out, the 2002 Athletics "Moneyball" draft likely will surpass the 1990 Expos. Nick Swisher (one all-star appearance) and Joe Blanton, the top two choices, have been solid performers who won World Series championships with other clubs. Oakland whiffed on its other two first-rounders, John McCurdy and Ben Fritz, then went cheap and got what it paid for in Jeremy Brown, Steve Obenchain, Mark Teahen and Steve Stanley.
The 1999 Orioles had seven choices in the first and sandwich rounds, scoring with the last of them, two-time all-star Brian Roberts. Baltimore got its other two hitters to the big leagues (Larry Bigbie, Keith Reed) but went 0-for-4 with pitchers (Mike Paradis, Richard Stahl, Josh Cenate, Scott Rice). The Orioles managed to salvage their draft by grabbing Erik Bedard in the sixth round and Willie Harris in the 24th.
And those were the draft hauls with the most lucrative payoffs. The next-best player from any of others was 2005 Marlins first-rounder Chris Volstad. Florida's other premium picks produced marginal big leaguers Ryan Tucker, Sean West and Brett Hayes, though it found Gaby Sanchez (fourth round) and Logan Morrison (22nd) later in the draft.
Plenty Of Disasters
Most of the teams squandered their excess of draft picks, none more than the 1991 Astros. Houston placed a priority on saving money and failed to sign No. 6 overall choice John Burke. None of the Astros' other six selections in the first two rounds spent a day in the majors, and the club signed just two big leaguers among 101 picks: James Mouton (seventh round) and Alvin Morman (39th).
Other budget-minded misfires include the 1997 White Sox, who failed to sign Jeff Weaver and came away with fringy big leaguers Jason Dellaero, Aaron Myette, Jim Parque and Rocky Biddle; the 1997 Expos, who landed just two major leaguers in Bryan Hebson and T.J. Tucker; and the 1998 Giants, whose top-two-rounders were highlighted by Tony Torcato, Nate Bump and Chris Magruder.
Paying market value helps but doesn't guarantee success, as evidenced by the most spectacular crash and burn. The A's kicked off their 1990 draft by taking the Four Aces: Todd Van Poppel, Don Peters, Dave Zancanaro and Kirk Dressendorfer. Van Poppel had the best career but never lived up to the expectations created by a $1.2 million big league contract, Dressendorfer made seven big league appearances and Peters and Zancanaro never got there.
The 1999 Padres had one of the better late-round finds in draft history when they stole Jake Peavy in the 15th round. That made up for their misfires at the top of the draft, where Mike Bynum highlighted San Diego's seven selections in the top two rounds.
The Rays have a tremendous opportunity in the 2011 draft. But cashing in on that opening may prove more difficult than contending on a small budget in the AL East.