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Ranking Top 10 MLB Draft First Rounds Over Last 40 Years

When it comes to the draft, the only certainty is uncertainty.

Rarely is the best player in a draft class the player who is drafted No. 1 overall. Yet the best player in each draft class is almost always a first-round pick, especially in recent times as major league scouting departments have become more sophisticated and more accurate.

To celebrate those first-round success stories, we present the top 10 most talented first rounds since 1981, the year Baseball America was first published and ranking draft prospects.

Want to go even deeper? Visit the Baseball America Draft Database, which has archived draft data starting in 1965. 

First, here are some quick facts by the numbers . . .

34: The average number of players who produced at least 5 WAR in each draft class from 1981 to 2011. The highest total is 47 players in 2006. The low is 24 players in 1983.

4: The number of drafts since 1981 in which the No. 1 overall pick was clearly the best player in his class. In chronological order those players are Ken Griffey Jr. (1987), Chipper Jones (1990), Alex Rodriguez (1993) and Joe Mauer (2001). David Price, the No. 1 overall pick in 2007, has a case for best player in his class. He trails Giancarlo Stanton and Josh Donaldson by a small WAR margin.

3: The number of drafts since 2000 in which the player with the highest WAR total in the class was drafted after the first round. The exceptions are 2003 (Ian Kinsler), 2007 (Giancarlo Stanton narrowly over first-rounder David Price) and 2011 (Mookie Betts). The best player was drafted after the first round 10 times from 1981 to 1999, or essentially every other year. This speaks to how much more efficient scouts and scouting departments have become.

And now, onto the rankings . . .

1. 1985 Draft

First Round: 497 WAR

First Pick: B.J. Surhoff, C, Brewers

First-Round Standouts: OF Barry Bonds, 1B Rafael Palmeiro, SS Barry Larkin, 1B Will Clark, C B.J. Surhoff

2. 2005 Draft

First Round: 365 WAR

This class is notable for how the cream rose to the top. The first (Upton), second (Gordon), fourth (Zimmerman), fifth (Braun), seventh (Tulowitzki) and 11th (McCutchen) overall picks all made big impacts for their drafting clubs.

First Pick: Justin Upton, SS, D-backs

First-Round Standouts: OF Ryan Braun, SS Troy Tulowitzki, OF Andrew McCutchen, 3B Ryan Zimmerman, OF Alex Gordon, OF Justin Upton, OF Jacoby Ellsbury

3. 2011 Draft

First Round: 190 WAR

This draft class was so ridiculously deep that emerging big leaguers like Trevor Story, Blake Snell, Mike Clevinger and Brandon Nimmo are snubbed from the lists below. The Red Sox found MVP Mookie Betts in the fifth round.

First Pick: Gerrit Cole, RHP, Pirates

First-Round Standouts: SS Francisco Lindor, 3B Anthony Rendon, OF George Springer, RHP Gerrit Cole, RHP Trevor Bauer, RHP Jose Fernandez, RHP Sonny Gray, 2B Javier Baez

4. 2006 Draft

First Round: 266 WAR

The Royals squandered a golden opportunity by taking Hochevar in one of the deepest first rounds for college pitchers in the 2000s.

First Pick: Luke Hochevar, RHP, Royals

First-Round Standouts: LHP Clayton Kershaw, RHP Max Scherzer, 3B Evan Longoria, RHP Tim Lincecum, RHP Ian Kennedy

5. 2002 Draft

First Round: 340 WAR

Not without irony will the so-called Moneyball draft go down as one of the best first rounds ever for high school players, particularly high school pitchers.

First Pick: Bryan Bullington, RHP, Pirates

First-Round Standouts: RHP Zack Greinke, LHP Cole Hamels, RHP Matt Cain, OF Denard Span, 1B Prince Fielder, LHP Scott Kazmir


6. 2010 Draft

First Round: 179 WAR

Bryce Harper was a draft prospect for the ages, and while he has claimed an MVP award and has signed a $330 million contract, he has been outpaced by two of his draft peers—with Yelich charging hard behind him.

First Pick: Bryce Harper, OF, Nationals

First-Round Standouts: LHP Chris Sale, 3B Manny Machado, OF Bryce Harper, OF Christian Yelich, C Yasmani Grandal

7. 2009 Draft

First Round: 187 WAR

Stephen Strasburg ranked as one of the best draft prospects ever, but it’s Mike Trout who will be remembered as one of the best players ever. This class also produced Nolan Arenado (second round) and Paul Goldschmidt (eighth).

First Pick: Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Nationals

First-Round Standouts: OF Mike Trout, RHP Stephen Strasburg, OF A.J. Pollock, RHP Mike Leake, LHP Mike Minor

8. 1993 Draft

First Round: 328 WAR

A-Rod stands as perhaps the best draft prospect of all time, and he headlines a first round highlighted by high school talent. The best collegian is Wagner, a Division II player.

First Pick: Alex Rodriguez, SS, Mariners

First-Round Standouts: SS Alex Rodriguez, OF Torii Hunter, 1B Derrek Lee, RHP Chris Carpenter LHP Billy Wagner

9. 1990 Draft

First Round: 324 WAR

A pair of Hall of Famers stand out from this rock-solid first round.

First Pick: Chipper Jones, SS, Braves

First-Round Standouts: 3B Chipper Jones, RHP Mike Mussina, RHP Alex Fernandez, OF Rondell White, OF Carl Everett

10. 1987 Draft

First Round: 306 WAR

Hall of Famers Griffey and Biggio highlight this first round in what is regarded as the first “modern” draft in which all phases were streamlined into one June draft.

First Pick: Ken Griffey Jr., OF, Mariners

First-Round Standouts: OF Ken Griffey Jr., 2B Craig Biggio, RHP Kevin Appier, RHP Jack McDowell, 2B Delino DeShields

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