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Projecting the Picks

By Allan Simpson

It was like when Bill Mazeroski hit his magical home run in 1960, when President John F. Kennedy was shot in 1963 and when man landed on the moon in 1969. I remember exactly where I was when I heard Rick Monday was the first pick in baseball’s first draft on June 8, 1965.

The place was inconsequential, the time too, but the event stuck with me over the years and explains why the draft has been an integral part of Baseball America’s coverage since we debuted in 1981. Others had a fascination for the NFL and NBA drafts; mine was always baseball.

And while it still gets nowhere near the coverage the other drafts receive, the popularity of the baseball draft has surged over the last 20 years, and it remains the single event that Baseball America is most closely identified with.

The draft was a big part of our coverage in year one, when we nailed Mike Moore and Joe Carter as the Nos. 1-2 picks. Our debut also coincided with a swing from a draft dominated by anonymous high school players in the early rounds to one with more recognizable college players. Thirty-two of the first 50 players selected in ‘81 were from the college ranks, double the previous high.

Good Track Record

Over the years, Baseball America has correctly predicted the top pick in the draft 16 of 21 times–though our print deadline for our Draft Preview issue traditionally is two to four weeks before the draft.

We’re proud of our track record because projecting the baseball draft is like predicting no other.

First of all, it’s a moving target. The baseball draft is conducted at the height of the college and high school seasons. By contrast, the football, basketball and hockey drafts all take place in those sports’ offseasons, providing better and more stable scrutiny of players. In baseball, it’s not uncommon for a player’s stock to rise or fall in the days leading up to the draft.

The NFL (seven rounds), NBA (two rounds) and NHL drafts (12 rounds) also have relatively small player pools. The baseball draft, by contrast, has featured anywhere from 50 to an unlimited number of rounds. It combines high school seniors, junior college players, college juniors and college seniors. There’s no declaring for the draft by underclassmen; in baseball, everyone’s eligible at least twice before he’s a college senior.

The baseball draft is all about projection; there are no finished products like in basketball and football. The further away a player is from the big leagues, the greater variance of opinion on that player’s future worth. Even this year, a player who wasn’t on the working draft list of several clubs became a first-round pick.

That’s why teams need 50 rounds to separate the wheat from the chaff. It also explains why just 20 draft picks have gone directly to the big leagues from among the 50,000 or so selections since Monday was the first pick in 1965. As sophisticated as baseball scouting has become, the baseball draft is still inexact. Mistakes are plentiful, as about one of every six drafted players reaches the big leagues.

But all the uncertainty is what makes the baseball draft so intriguing.

Blew Their Cover

The baseball draft also has been the most difficult of the drafts to cover because it has traditionally been surrounded by a veil of secrecy. Until 1999, Major League Baseball held back draft information for fear that it would turn into a recruiting list for college coaches and agents. Can you imagine the outrage if the NFL or NBA tried such a stunt?

When Baseball America launched in 1981, MLB divulged the first two rounds immediately and the remainder of the draft a week later. Several years later, it released only the first round to the public on draft day, and the remaining selections–in alphabetical order–a week later. MLB didn’t divulge the rounds players were selected in until the following October.

Such censorship didn’t deter BA, which normally had the draft figured out long before then. For years, we published the complete draft list in an issue just after the draft.

And BA was instrumental in the draft becoming available immediately for public consumption, thanks to the Internet. In 1998 we offered to fax or e-mail results of the first 10 rounds to anyone willing to pay a small fee within 48 hours of the draft. After hearing about that, MLB decided to relax its longstanding policy, with scouting directors voting 29-1 in favor of making all rounds available immediately to the public. MLB released round-by-round results at the end of both days of the 1998 draft, and coverage has only gotten better in the succeeding years.

With the growth of the Web, Baseball America has been a leader in providing information before, during and after the draft, and MLB has kept pace by now providing round-by-round lists throughout both days of the draft.

BA and MLB worked together to break new ground last year, providing audio coverage of the entire draft on MLB Radio with commentary from Baseball America experts. Our hope is that the coverage of the draft continues to grow.

An Expensive Proposition

Though baseball’s draft picks rarely include a household name, it is similar to football and basketball as a bridge that ties together professional and amateur baseball. It also can shape an organization’s fortunes for years to come.

If anything, the most fascinating way to look at the baseball draft is in hindsight. We did that in 1989 when we published a recap of the first 25 years in what became the definitive history of the baseball draft. No project we’ve ever done has been so monumental–and so rewarding.

Twelve years later, we still believe the best draft ever was 1985 and the most productive by a single team was the Dodgers in 1968.

Most other things have changed along the way, though, notably a tremendous escalation in signing bonuses. It seems hard to believe now that Ken Griffey, probably the greatest No. 1 pick of all, received $160,000 as the top pick in 1987.

With an exponential increase in bonuses since then, it’s not surprising that we may see the most significant shakeup of the draft this offseason as part of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Among things that may be in the draft’s future are trading of draft picks, an international player pool, a cap on bonuses and a fixed signing date.

It may even lead to the draft becoming a televised event for the first time. Now who would ever have thought that back in 1981? Or better yet, 1965?

How we grade out

Since its inception in 1981, Baseball America has made the draft a focal point of its coverage and has pegged the No. 1 selection 16 times in 21 years. Where BA missed its prediction for the top pick, we have indicated where that player was picked as well as where we projected the player that ended up going No. 1.

Year

Club

Projected No. 1

Actual No. 1

1981

Mariners

Mike Moore, rhp

Mike Moore, rhp

1982

Cubs

Jimmy Jones, rhp (3)

Shawon Dunston, ss (2)

1983

Twins

Tim Belcher, rhp

Tim Belcher, rhp

1984

Mets

Shawn Abner, of

Shawn Abner, of

1985

Brewers

B.J. Surhoff, c

B.J. Surhoff, c

1986

Pirates

Jeff King, 3b

Jeff King, 3b

1987

Mariners

Ken Griffey, of

Ken Griffey, of

1988

Padres

Andy Benes, rhp

Andy Benes, rhp

1989

Orioles

Ben McDonald, rhp

Ben McDonald, rhp

1990

Braves

Todd Van Poppel, rhp (14)

Chipper Jones, ss (6)

1991

Yankees

Brien Taylor, lhp

Brien Taylor, lhp

1992

Astros

Phil Nevin, 3b

Phil Nevin, 3b

1993

Mariners

Darren Dreifort, rhp (2)

Alex Rodriguez, ss (2)

1994

Mets

Paul Wilson, rhp

Paul Wilson, rhp

1995

Angels

Darin Erstad, of

Darin Erstad, of

1996

Pirates

Kris Benson, rhp

Kris Benson, rhp

1997

Tigers

Ryan Anderson, lhp (19)

Matt Anderson, rhp (4)

1998

Phillies

Pat Burrell, 3b

Pat Burrell, 3b

1999

Devil Rays

Josh Hamilton, of

Josh Hamilton, of

2000

Marlins

Scott Heard, c (26)

Adrian Gonzalez, 1b (9)

2001

Twins

Joe Mauer, c

Joe Mauer, c

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