In 2008 Jay Bruce made it to the majors and hit 21 home runs in 413 at-bats, finishing fifth in the Rookie of the Year voting. Bruce was taken one pick after Andrew McCutchen, which had people questioning the selection of McCutchen. At the time, McCutchen was in the middle of a season where he had a .770 OPS in Triple-A.
Bruce remains a good player, but McCutchen has turned into an MVP.
Justin Smoak reached the majors in April of 2010. He also first reached Triple-A in July 2009. Meanwhile, Pedro Alvarez didn’t reach Triple-A until 2010, and arrived in the majors two months after Smoak, despite being taken nine picks earlier. There were other players drafted after Alvarez who reached the majors first, like Gordon Beckham (2009), Brian Matusz (2009), and Buster Posey (late 2009). All of those players arriving before Alvarez had people questioning the pick, much like they did with McCutchen and Bruce.
Alvarez is now that 30+ homer a year guy he was projected to be when drafted, although he’s more of a three true outcomes player than a guy who can hit for average. Buster Posey is probably the better player, but Alvarez is arguably the second best pick in the first round of the 2008 draft.
It’s hard to remember that people were down on McCutchen and Alvarez after the fact, and all for the simple reason that they didn’t arrive in the majors first. But how about a more recent example?
The 2011 draft class had several pitchers vying for the top spot. The Pirates ended up selecting Gerrit Cole, passing up on Trevor Bauer, Dylan Bundy, and Danny Hultzen.
Bauer was rushed through the minors and arrived in the majors in late 2012. It was the same situation with Bundy, who was even more rushed as a player out of high school. Of course that led to the same arguments that Cole was a bad pick, all because Bundy and Bauer arrived first. There was no regard for their numbers. Just the novelty of arriving in the majors was good enough to call them successful and call Cole a bad pick.
That carried over to this year, and only now is that stance starting to look as foolish as it did with McCutchen and Alvarez. Bauer has struggled with horrible control problems in the majors, and finished the 2013 season in the minors, despite Cleveland in a playoff race. Bundy went down with Tommy John surgery this year, which might be due to the fact that he once threw 484 pitchers in a four-day span. And now Gerrit Cole is looking like an ace.
I don’t want to take the opposite approach here and say that Cole is better than Bundy and Bauer because he was good first in the majors. I just want to take this opportunity to point out what the draft is all about, and how NOT to evaluate a draft.
It Doesn’t Matter Who Arrives First
A draft is about the final results, not who arrived first. The Pirates are routinely criticized for promoting their prospects in a slow manner. Sometimes that’s true, and sometimes they’re actually being aggressive, but fans want them to be ultra aggressive (like Dylan Bundy pitching in the majors at 19 after just three starts above A-ball). Those ultra aggressive moves sound exciting, and they give the illusion that a player is phenomenal. But more often than not, those moves end up backfiring. People see a guy coming up extremely fast, then stop paying attention when that player bombs in the majors.
The Pirates have a slow approach, but they also have a pretty good track record of getting players ready for the majors from day one. It only took Gerrit Cole two and a half months to start looking like an ace. Andrew McCutchen was an impact player almost immediately. Same with Starling Marte. Neil Walker came up and had instant success. Jose Tabata was good early on, but has largely been inconsistent in his career. Jordy Mercer was up and down last year, never getting much playing time, but has looked great this year now that he’s actually gotten a chance. Justin Wilson has looked amazing in his first run as a reliever in the majors. Jeff Locke struggled at the end of two seasons, but had a good year this year in his first full season as an MLB starter, although the finish has been poor. Tony Sanchez is looking like a good backup catcher at the moment, and a guy who might make it as a starter once Russell Martin leaves.
The one guy who came up, struggled, and went back and forth between Triple-A and the majors was Pedro Alvarez. He looked great in 2010, but had a horrible up and down season in 2011, with a few trips to Indianapolis and a .561 OPS on the year in the majors. Alvarez turned things around in 2012, with a .784 OPS and 30 homers. This year he has a .760 OPS and 34 homers. Again, more of a three true outcomes player, but still a guy with a lot of value at third base. He was a 2.3 WAR player last year, and this year he’s got a 2.4 WAR.
The Pirates take a slower approach than some teams. They don’t rush pitchers to the majors constantly like the Detroit Tigers, which almost always leads to a lack of control since those pitchers didn’t learn to pitch against upper level talent before being thrown in the deep end of the pool. The Pirates don’t bring up 19 year olds with barely any experience above A-ball like the Baltimore Orioles. That lacks excitement, but you don’t get good players by making exciting moves. The tradeoff here is that when the Pirates promote someone, that player is usually ready. That’s not something that teams like the Tigers or Orioles can say. They get the exciting promotions, and they get players to the majors early, but the Pirates get what is important: players who are ready for the majors.
You Don’t Have to Get the Best, You Just Have to Get a Good Player
The best player from the first round of the 2008 draft looks to be Buster Posey.
Mike Trout is the best player from the first round in 2009, taken 25th overall, and as the second pick by the Angels.
The 2010 class is led by Chris Sale when you look at WAR, although Sale has the advantage of arriving early. Bryce Harper or Manny Machado would be the best of that group in my opinion, with my pick being Harper. Matt Harvey also drew consideration pre-injury.
Gerrit Cole will probably live up to his ace billing, but Jose Fernandez will probably be the best pitcher from the first round of the 2011 draft.
With every draft, people look back and play the “what if” game. That game is played more often when there’s a bad pick. Buster Posey would have been the better pick over Alvarez, but you’re going to get more people pointing at Mike Trout over Tony Sanchez, or Manny Machado over Jameson Taillon (another “first to arrive” situation, as nothing indicates Taillon won’t live up to his billing). You might get Jose Fernandez over Cole just to get the best guy possible. But none of that is the focus in the draft.
The focus of the draft isn’t to get the best player in hindsight. It’s to get a player who will help you in the majors. Obviously you want your guys to finish near the top each year, but no team gets the best player overall each year. If you look at the list above, you’ll see the Giants, Angels, Nationals, and Marlins as the teams with the top picks. Maybe the Pirates could join them one day, but the more important thing is getting good players, even if they’re not the best players.
This kind of goes back to the first point about players being first to arrive. Once a player is drafted, no other player matters. Trevor Bauer and Dylan Bundy arriving in the majors in 2012 has zero impact on Gerrit Cole. It should have zero impact on his upside, and absolutely no impact on how he is moved through the minors. The only focus with Cole at that point is getting him to a point where he can be the best major league player possible. The same goes for Jameson Taillon/Manny Machado, and it goes for other picks like Austin Meadows and Reese McGuire. In the latter cases, the focus shouldn’t be getting those two up as quickly as possible. It should be developing those two as impact players, so when they do arrive they have the chance to be one of the best from the 2013 draft class. Even if they arrive after other players from the same draft.
You do want to look back and review how things have gone, since you need to review how a team is drafting to make sure the management group in place is the right group going forward. But judging that isn’t about getting the best player possible. It’s only about getting good players.
I see these types of arguments all year, every year, whether it’s the “first to arrive” argument, or the “best in the draft” argument. I was reminded of it tonight with Cole, and I have been reminded of that with each start Cole has had in September. It was only a year ago that people viewed Cole as a disappointing pick all because other players from that same draft arrived before him. Looking back now, that’s just silly. This article isn’t going to eliminate those lines of thinking, but if it gives some new perspective on how to view a draft to just one person who previously used the “first to arrive” analysis, I will chalk that up as a win.
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