Intro: The best and worst first-round picks in franchise history
I feel bad about this. A bit dirty, really.
Hindsight is hypocrisy’s microscope.
I feel a bit like the kid with the magnifying glass, and all the GMs and talent managers throughout history are the ants. I don’t mean it that way. Honestly.
So, I approach this series of articles not as a critique, but as a dive into a fascinating, misunderstood and largely underappreciated challenge: the Rangers’ best and worst 1st-round draft picks, across their history.
The Big Book of Drafts
The recent publication of Baseball America’s Ultimate Draft Book, compiled and edited by Allan Simpson, begins to peel back pages best left weathered and yellowed. The dust, in many cases, covers career-ending foibles, at least far more often than legacy-defining finds.
Using Baseball America’s big book and a lot of time on Baseball Reference, you could eventually score every pick, based on some criteria like Career ascension and WAR, for instance.
I don’t have the time or interest to do that; I merely cite the power of the project Simpson has undertaken.
Capturing every pick, with notes and analysis year-by-year, from 1965 to 2016—it’s Bill James-ian in its impact, or at least a poor man’s imitation. The stats aren’t deep, and are largely counting stats. That said, there will come a day when my children will speak of this book the way I speak of James’ work—as opening their eyes to a broad avenue of analysis. But that’s not why I’m here, either. That’s just props where props are due.
What I am here to do is dive into the history of the Rangers’ first rounders, year by year, and decide on the 10 best and 10 worst, using every bit of hindsight balanced with some boundaries for fairness.
The art of the reveal
Think about how hard it is to predict player performance from one season to another. For every clockwork-consistent Adrian Beltre, there are six or seven times as many guys whose batting average could easily waver 40 points in any direction. There are a majority whose power will, assuredly, wax and wane. There are dozens who will spend their season on the “Triple A shuttle”, or riding the waiver wire.
And those are the best in the world. The proven commodities.
Now, take the uncertainty level of those players, with all the same wild-card factors—injury, psyche, work ethic, character—and ratchet the intensity up by 100.
Finally, crank the uncertainty up to 11.
That’s the amateur draft.
I took on my analysis as straightforward as I could; given that it’s me … that was challenging. But I tried to balance logic and objectivity with the subjective passion of picks here and there. Here’s how I went about it
- Career WAR – straightforward: regardless of team, how did the player do as a big leaguer? The goal of drafting assessment, remember, should center on selection. It can’t involve too much to do with what the team did in terms of sticking with vs moving the player. Unless it’s about value in return, WHO the player achieved success (or failed) with doesn’t matter. That’s a minor league management assessment, not a draft assessment.
- Return value from trades – I said all that above to say this: if the player is a key piece in a trade, I do see that as value from the draft pick. Why weigh that but not detract from a player if he goes onto another team after being moved and has success? Well, we are doing that. But the currency of modern baseball is young, controllable players. So, we have to judge trade value.
If, for example, a Justin Smoak and Blake Beavan can bring back a Cliff Lee, that increases their value. Now, if Justin Smoak then goes on to emerge 7 years after the trade, in Toronto—to use a real-life example—I just don’t see that as a negative. In terms of draft, he DID turn into what you thought he’d be when you drafted him. Because he did it somewhere else doesn’t make him a worse player.
- Difference between pick and best alternate. Now, this is defined as same level (college or HS) and same role — position or pitcher.
I have but one inalienable rule of the draft: you draft the best player available on your board. You do NOT draft for need. That is, if I’ve got a 29-year-old Beltre at 3B, and I have to choose between a blue-chip 3B and a left-handed starting pitcher just a bit below—I take the third baseman, every time.
Why? Because SO many things can happen. Beltre can get hurt. A trade can come up. The 3B can change positions. But mostly, my needs TODAY will change by TOMORROW.
Are there certain things I’ll always need? Such as pitching? Yes. But I do NOT draft for need. I take the best player available who fits my organization’s criteria of best—that is, do we draft on tools and projectability? Do we draft high ceiling, or high floor? Do we draft young and risky, but with more upside, or do we trust the development pipeline of college programs?
These are all legitimate questions to ask in setting our draft strategy.
“We are organizationally thin at 3B” is ALSO a good strategic statement, but if, as I draft, there is always someone clearly better than the best available 3B—someone who checks all my criteria for character, tools, whatever—and I draft the 3B, I have done wrong. Period. That’s just how I feel.
I say that to say this: I’m assuming MOST GMs do not draft this way. Most consider need more heavily. Now, when we look at this category, it’s the classic “Steve Chilcott over Reggie Jackson” scenario (or, more extreme from another sport: Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan).
So, in short: a pick is more valuable if, realistically, there was no one comparable or better picked later in the round. The pick loses value if someone of equal or better value was available and we didn’t pick them.
But, EVEN considering my view on “best available player” versus “organizational need”, I’ve put in a clause in the latter’s favor to be more fair and blur our 20/20 hindsight a bit. We’re looking for best comparable pick, not best overall available, when we compare. A HS position player has to be judged against other HS position players; a college position player vs. a college position player, etc.
The example will prove itself out as we go down the list and you see, for example, why we can’t factor Mike Schmidt or George Brett against David Clyde in 1973. They fail TWO criteria (we’re only looking at the June draft’s first rounders; I’m not giving us credit for seeing that a second-rounder, let alone a 12th-rounder like Nolan Ryan, should go first in 1965. That’s just unfair.
Second, they’re not positionally equal. Clyde is a HS pitcher. Brett is a HS position player. Not equal. In my criteria setup, actually, you can’t even put Brett against Schmidt. Mike was a college 3B at Ohio State. You can’t evaluate college alternatives. We’re assuming the team would have picked a very similar profile player, so there are four categories to lump players into: 1) HS pitcher (I chose not to go so deep as left vs right); 2) HS position player; 3) College pitcher; and 4) College position player.
- Career WAR with Rangers. This doesn’t come into play that often, but let’s say I have two guys who put up roughly the same MLB value. Well, while it flies DIRECTLY in the face of my “judging the draft and not minor league management and player development” rule, I do use WAR for the Rangers as a tie-breaker. It’s far enough down the list that, really, there’s only one category below it in terms of weight, so I can tell you, it never moved a pick onto or off of the list, or shifted anyone more than one spot overall.
And last but not least:
- Subjective opinion as tiebreaker. This is simple enough. I have no scruples. If I am sentimentally attached to Rusty Greer (not a 1st round pick, so he fits nicely as an example), and he’s right on the cusp of the list versus Jim Kern (who wasn’t a Rangers draft choice, so again, great example without spoiling the list), I’m going with Rusty because, darn it, I love Rusty.
Maybe Kern has 3.2 more WAR, or had a higher single-season peak. That’s tough for Jim, because it’s my list, and as objective as I try to make it, every list is subjective. Even those based on a single number, like WAR? Subjective.
One other note: international players, up until very recently, were not subject to the draft. The Rangers, for example, made great moves to sign the likes of Juan Gonzalez, Wilson Alvarez, Sammy Sosa, and Pudge Rodriguez. But they didn’t draft any of them. So, international signings don’t count. This is purely drafted players.
Finally, just to give us SOME runway for evaluation, I cut off my analysis in 2012; I could easily argue going back to 2010 or 2009, because HS players from those drafts would just be hitting their Age 25 prime season and starting to pile up WAR. But, 2012 gives us four full seasons of minor league ball with which to judge players, and gives HS players from that draft time to mature into (admittedly young) big leaguers. So, I went with 2012 as a cutoff. So, the last Rangers draft pick we judge? Lewis Brinson.
So, each time, we’ll cover the best and worst, from each spot, 10 to 1. Some days, both picks will roll in one article. Others, we may have enough for a two-parter on one pick. That’s the fun of this. The stories of some of these guys…well, they get pretty incredible—with what was, and mostly, what might have been.
So, let’s start things off with honorable mentions; we’ll add one every few days and let you know when the piece is up: