Early Success Doesn't Ensure A Great Draft Class

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CHICAGO—Draft Report Cards are one of our most popular features, and perhaps our most unfortunately named.

If we had a dollar for every time a scout told us it was impossible to evaluate a draft until the players get time to develop, we could have paid the $8 million bonus No. 1 overall pick Gerrit Cole got from the Pirates. Wonderful athletes may be unable to solve professional breaking balls, pitchers may not fulfill their projection, and injuries always waylay their share of gifted prospects.

Our breakdowns aren't so much report cards—we stopped assigning letter grades in the mid-1990s—as they are progress reports. We highlight each team's standouts in 12 different categories and provide an overall summary. The only place we dare prognosticate as to the quality of a club's efforts is in our overview, where we identify the five best drafts.

This year's choice seems obvious. The Nationals had three of the first 34 picks and came away with our top-rated prospect, third baseman Anthony Rendon, along with power-armed righthander Alex Meyer and five-tool outfielder Brian Goodwin. In the third round, they landed lefthander Matt Purke, our No. 3 draft prospect entering the year.

That's a dazzling amount of talent. But if Washington's draftees don't live up to their billing, well, they won't be alone. A look back at the No. 1 classes from Draft Report Cards of the last decade shows positive initial returns don't always result in a long-term payoff.

Marlins, Dodgers Make Good

The Marlins made Adrian Gonzalez the first pick in the 2000 draft, in part because he was willing to accept a below-market $3 million bonus. Gonzalez alone makes that crop stand up over time, and Josh Willingham was a steal in the 17th round. It's worth noting that a big reason Florida earned our best-draft designation was that it spent to add first-round talents Jason Stokes and Rob Henkel, neither of whom reached the majors.

By contrast, the 2001 Tigers didn't come close to justifying our No. 1 ranking. Kenny Baugh, Michael Woods and Preston Larrison were supposed to rejuventate the Detroit farm system, but all the club wound up with was complementary players such as Jack Hannahan, Ryan Raburn and Don Kelly.

The 2002 Blue Jays weren't much better. We lauded them for taking college players who enjoyed immediate success in pro ball, but the only one who had a significant big league career was David Bush, who has a 56-69, 4.70 record.

We did get it right in 2003, when the Dodgers not only had that year's top draft but one of the decade's best. While many teams were in full "Moneyball" mode, Los Angeles scooped up seven high schoolers who would reach the majors, most notably Chad Billingsley and Matt Kemp.

In the next three drafts, we were impressed by clubs with extra picks—almost none of whom panned out. The best of the 2004 Twins' five high picks was Glen Perkins, and Minnesota didn't distinguish itself afterward.

The Marlins also went 1-for-5 in 2005, with Chris Volstad their lone hit, but they got Gaby Sanchez in the fourth round and Logan Morrison in the 22nd. The 2006 Red Sox went 1-for-4 with Daniel Bard in the first and sandwich rounds, yet grabbed Justin Masterson (second), Ryan Kalish (ninth) and Josh Reddick (17th) deeper in the draft.

It's still too early to draw firm conclusions from our more recent top drafts, though it's becoming clear in which direction they're headed.

We loved the Nationals' 2007 crop because they landed high-upside lefties in Ross Detwiler, Josh Smoker and Jack McGeary. None will approach that upside, though Washington did sign Jordan Zimmermann and catching prospect Derek Norris.

The Rangers' 2008 draft also looks less promising than it once did, with Justin Smoak falling short of expectations after getting traded to the Mariners. Robbie Ross and since-traded Joe Wieland are progressing nicely, but Texas didn't sign any difference-makers.

The centerpiece of the Rockies' 2009 draft was Tyler Matzek, who has battled his mechanics and command. Colorado still had a strong effort, as Rex Brothers already has become one of its better big league relievers and Nolan Arenado and Tim Wheeler look like future everyday players.

The Indians gave seven-figure bonuses to No. 4 overall pick Drew Pomeranz as well as Levon Washington, Tony Wolters and Alex Lavisky in 2010. Pomeranz reached the majors this September after a trade to Colorado and Wolters has the makings of a solid regular, but Washington and Lavisky struggled terribly in their first full pro seasons.

It could be argued that any of the Nationals' top four picks would be the favorite to go No. 1 overall in 2012 had they not signed. At the same time, there still are a lot of pitfalls between the draft and the big leagues. Rendon and Purke had shoulder problems last spring, Meyer has a history of inconsistency and Goodwin is more toolsy than polished.

That's what makes evaluating drafts as difficult as putting together a successful one.