The Draft, the Cubs and “tanking”
The Cubs have the fourth overall pick in the 2014 MLB amateur draft, one year after taking Kris Bryant with the second pick. As the Cubs’ 2014 record sits at the bottom of the league, it would appear that another top ten pick will be forthcoming in June of 2015. So that’s good…right? Of course it is…it just means we fans are suffering through another horrendous season. If the Cubs lose 90 games this year…it will be for the fourth straight season! This is a feat they have NEVER accomplished in their history…the worst four year stretch ever! When researching for my book, I was constantly amazed at the futility I uncovered in the teams’ history…like never placing above 5th from 1945 to 1966! Yet, in terms of won-loss record, we are at the nethermost point in the history of the Chicago National League ball club.
Ah, but there is a method to this madness! While Theo, Jed and company may not be directly saying “we are trying to get high draft picks”…even a modest fan recognizes that they have punted the last few seasons. That has left many a Cubs’ fan to question this strategy. Will picks like Albert Almora, picked sixth overall, and Bryant finally lead to sustained success? As Cubs’ fans, we naturally answer… “No!” (Actually, you would use a four letter expletive in front of that “no”.)
The MLB draft is a crapshoot…right? A team is more likely to draft a complete bust as a prospective Hall of Famer. A players’ future ability in baseball is tougher to project than in any other sport. The MLB draft is much different than the NBA or NFL. You have probably heard similar statements over the years, and there is some truth and wisdom to them.
…but it’s changing.
For the Daft Drafts chapter of my book, I researched every single Cub’s draft since the inaugural 1965 edition….and I discovered the Cubs have drafted (wait for it)…you guessed it…badly. Actually “badly” may be too soft, let’s say their draft record as been putrid. (Yeah, that sounds worse!) Just to emphasize this point, here are all top ten picks in Cubs’ history(see how many you remember, and how many you say “Who the hell is that?”): Rick James, Dean Burk, Terry Hughes, Scot Thompson, Brian Rosinski, Herman Segelke, Joe Carter (hey, there’s a good one), Shawon Dunston, Derrick May, Drew Hall, Mike Harkey, Earl Cunningham, Kerry Wood, Corey Patterson, Luis Montanez, Mark Prior (wow, my shoulder actually hurt while I typed that) Ryan Harvey, Josh Vitters, Javier Baez, Albert Almora and Kris Bryant.
Wow…there is a whole lot of nothing in those early years. Here’s the catch though, while the Cubs have historically been awful at drafting (buy my book for more details)…the draft itself has evolved. Most teams draft histories do have their share of busts and WTF’s. It has only been with improved scouting, technology, and research that the draft has now improved for all teams. Therefore, when mistakes are made at the top of the draft, it is now more likely to be a collective mistake. Thus, I state that a top ten pick in 2014 is more valuable than such a pick was just over a decade ago. Can I back these statements up? Well, I will attempt to do so by using the last 25 years of draft history.
Here are players drafted 1-10 from 1990 -2000 who had a career WAR above 10. If you don’t speak Saber, this would essentially be the equivalent to five years as an average MLB player. I am only listing players with a 10+ war…which one would assume a top ten pick would be able to achieve.
1990-Chipper Jones, Mike Lieberthal, Alex Fernandez and Dan Wilson
1991-DiMitri Young and Joey Hamilton
1992-Phil Nevin and Derek Jeter
1993-Alex Rodriguez and Trot Nixon
1994- Dustin Hermanson and Todd Walker
1995-Darin Erstad, Kerry Wood, Todd Helton and Goeff Jenkins
1996-Kris Benson, Mark Kotsay and Eric Chavez
1997-J.D. Drew, Vernon Wells, Troy Glaus, Michael Cuddyer, and Jon Garland
1998-Pat Burrell, Mark Mulder and Carlos Pena
1999-Josh Hamilton, Josh Beckett, Barry Zito and Ben Sheets
2000-Adrian Gonzalez and Rocco Baldelli
Now, here is where I notice a shift…of the players listed from 1990-2000, putting the WAR criteria aside…who would you consider a “franchise” player? I see Hall of Famers Chipper and Jeter, ‘roid King A-Rod, Todd Helton, and Josh Beckett. There may be a couple to quibble about…like Adrian Gonzalez, or Mark Mulder…but that would be eleven drafts which yielded seven to eight great players. Now, let’s look at 2001-2007 using the same WAR criteria.
2001- Joe Mauer, Mark Prior(sigh) and Mark Texiera.
2002-B.J. Upton, Zack Greinke, Prince Fielder and Jeff Francis
2003-Rickie Weeks, Nick Markakis, Paul Maholm and Jon Danks
2005-Justin Upton, Alex Gordon, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki and Andrew McCutcheon
2006- Evan Longoria, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum and Max Scherzer
2007- David Price, Matt Wieters and Madison Baumgarner
Of the players above, I would consider Mauer, Texeira, Greinke, Fielder, Verlander, Tulowitzki, McCutcheon, Longoria, Braun (hrrumph!)Kershaw, Lincecum, Scherzer, Price, and Baumgarner as great players. Let’s look at it this way:
CY YOUNG WINNERS DRAFTED WITHIN THE FIRST 10 PICKS FROM 1990-2000:
2002 Barry Zito
CY YOUNG WINNERS DRAFTED WITHIN THE FIRST 10 PICKS FROM 2001-2007:
2008 Tim Lincecum, 2009 Tim Lincecum, 2009 Zack Greinke, 2011 Clayton Kershaw, 2011 Justin Verlander, 2012 David Price, 2013 Clayton Kershaw and 2013 Max Scherzer.
In the American League four of the last five Cy Young award winners were top ten picks, four out of the last six in the National League. Without a doubt, top pitching is now identified more accurately than in previous years. As we continue to examine the drafts, the WAR criteria now becomes useless as many of the players are too young or still “prospects”…yet there are still some impressive names:
2008-Pedro Alvarez, Buster Posey, and Eric Hosmer
2009-Stephen Strasburg and Zack Wheeler
2010-Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and Drew Pomeranz
Buster Posey has already won an MVP and has two World Series rings. Strasburg, Wheeler, Pomeranz and Cole are proving to be some of the best young pitchers in the game.
Please don’t misconstrue…I hate that the Cubs are as dreadful as they have been lately. It has become a struggle to even watch the current inclination. Yet if recent trends hold true, Bryant, Baez, Almora and whomever the Cubs select on Thursday night has a much better chance at success than the shameful list of Cubs’ top ten guys that were previously listed.
…yes, a low bar indeed.
So is “tanking” a good thing then? Will it be these high picks that finally make the Cubs perpetual winners? Unfortunately we will have to wait a few more years to find out.
(fill in your own clichéd joke about Cubs fans and their patience)