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Inside The MLB Draft Lottery: How The Cleveland Guardians Scored No. 1 Pick In 2024


Image credit: Chris Antonetti (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Cleveland Guardians have never picked at the top of the MLB draft. Cleveland had picked second on four occasions, most recently when they selected righthander Paul Shuey second overall in 1992. But Cleveland has never had the chance to take the first pick.

Now, thanks to the bouncing of a few ping pong balls in the second-ever MLB Draft Lottery and a provision in the collective bargaining agreement, Cleveland will pick first overall.

Of the 1,001 different ping pong ball combinations, Cleveland had only 18 winning combinations. As was true with every team with long odds in the lottery, they had a rooting interest in seeing high numbers pop up.

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The first ping pong ball was an eight. Fifteen seconds later, the ping pong ball that climbed to the top was 14. The third ping pong ball was the 10.

Three ping pong balls, three high numbers. At this point, Cleveland’s odds of winning had gotten better, but they still were relatively slim. If the next ball was a one, the Kansas City Royals would get the first pick. If it was a two, the Rockies would pick first.

If it was a three, the drawing would be a null drawing and they would have to start over (more on that in a minute). 

If it was a four, the Cardinals would pick first. A five, the Angels. A six, the Pirates. A seven would make the Guardians happy. But a nine would be the Giants’ lucky day, and an 11 would mean the Reds would pick first (more on this in a moment as well). The same was true with a 12.

So, with one ping pong ball to go, the team with the best odds were the Reds. It was a seven. Cleveland immediately moved from being slotted to pick 10th to having the first chance to pick a player in the 2024 MLB Draft, and all the financial advantages that provides in terms of an allotted signing bonus pool.

But while everything that described above is how the Guardians won the first pick, it was actually the second drawing. The Washington Nationals actually won the first pick, but because the CBA does not allow a revenue sharing payee to have lottery picks in back-to-back years, the Nationals were ineligible to have a top six pick. The Nationals selected outfielder Dylan Crews’ second overall in 2023.

The Nationals have picked first overall only twice in organization history, including their time in Montreal. Getting to pick Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper with back-to-back No. 1 picks reshaped the franchise, setting the team on a path toward its 2019 World Series title.

MLB had looked at removing the Nationals’ ping pong ball combinations from the draw, but discovered that it would reshape the odds. So instead, the Nationals’ 100 combinations remained, with the provision that if any of them were selected, it would result in a null draw.

That’s exactly what happened with the first drawing. 3-9-11-13 was a Nationals’ combination. A null drawing was called.

So the Guardians won the first pick. With the third drawing of the afternoon, the Nationals won again with a 13-7-5-4 combo.

So the fourth drawing was held, with the second pick still up for grabs. Remember how we said that high numbers would lead to teams with lesser odds having a chance of a high pick? The first ping pong ball was a 10. The second was a 14. The third was an eight. While they were in a different order, those were the same three balls that had come up in the drawing where the Guardians won the first pick. So the same odds applied this time, meaning the Reds had the best odds of landing the pick.

This time, the odds were in their favor. The fourth ball was an 11. The Reds, a team with just eight ping pong combinations, not only landed the second pick, but they did so after having great odds at the first pick as well.

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The draft lottery had truly demonstrated how luck changes the dynamics of who picks at the top. Last year, the Twins climbed from 13th to fifth, becoming the big winners of the draft. This time two teams with less than 3% combined chance landed the top two picks. Instead of picking ninth, the Guardians will pick first. Instead of picking 14th, the Reds will pick second.

The third pick was the first time that one of the three teams with top odds landed a pick. A 14-9-8-2 combination called the Rockies’ number.

With the seventh drawing, the A’s won the fourth pick thanks to an 8-4-1-11 combo. While this does mean the A’s won a lottery pick, it’s a second straight year that the A’s have reason to be disappointed. The A’s have been one of the three teams with the best odds in each of the first two lotteries. Last year, they finished with the sixth and final lottery pick. This year, they won the fourth. Without having a top three pick in either draft, they will not be eligible for next year’s lottery, because revenue sharing recipients cannot have lottery picks in three consecutive drafts.

The eighth drawing (10-14-5-3) called the White Sox’s number. So did the ninth drawing (14-10-13-2), although with three double-digit numbers occurring first, the Mariners, a team with just two winning combinations, would have landed the sixth pick if the final ball had been an 11 or 12. The Yankees, with five ping pong balls, would have won if it had been a nine.

With another null drawing, a ninth drawing was needed to get a sixth lottery pick. This time, the Royals, the other team with the best odds of a lottery pick, were called thanks to a 2-9-7-3 combination.

The four teams with the best odds—the A’s, Royals, Rockies and White Sox—did land lottery picks, but only after two teams with much longer odds received picks.

With everything complete, the team representatives who had come to witness the selection settled in to wait. 

To ensure that the drawing is fair and avoids any appearance of impropriety, MLB videos the drawing and will provide a copy upon request to all eligible teams. MLB’s Bill Francis showed a copy of the Dec. 5 Tennessean on video before the drawing began. MLB invited a Baseball America reporter to serve as a pool observer as well.

The selection of each ping pong ball takes place after 15 seconds have passed since the previous selection—with an MLB employee with a stopwatch ensuring it’s done on time. There are multiple sealed suitcases of identical ping pong balls, with one suitcase being selected at random.

If there had been any problem, there was a spare ping pong ball air hopper ready to step in. If that failed, there was a contingency plan for a manual drawing to back up the contingency plan.There were no problems. But once the drawing is done, the team reps were sequestered in the room, and are not allowed to have any electronic devices. They cannot share the good or bad news with anyone else until the broadcast announced the order to the world.

Food and drink was provided, and MLB had learned from having run a previous lottery. There was also an assortment of board games in case any of the electronic-less sequestees wanted a distraction during the two hours of waiting.

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