The just-completed three-game set between the Orioles and Royals might have been the single most important series in baseball this weekend.
Oh, sure, it didn’t hold playoff implications, but it promised an even greater prize: the No. 1 pick in the 2019 amateur draft.
The Orioles and Royals, the two worst teams in the majors, were already stone-cold locks to claim the top two draft picks. No other team in baseball was within 9 1/2 games of either club when the series began. What wasn’t certain, though, was the order in which the Orioles and Royals would fall. The Orioles, who started the series 2 1/2 games worse in the standings, could’ve moved ahead of the Royals with a sweep, which would’ve put Kansas City in the pole position for the first overall pick.
Well, the Orioles put a decisive end to that possibility with their horrific performance in Kansas City, getting swept in three games to fall 5 1/2 games behind the Royals. The Orioles have now essentially clinched the worst record in baseball — and, with it, next year’s No. 1 pick. The Royals are headed toward the No. 2 selection.
So, just how significant is the difference between holding the No. 1 pick as opposed to No. 2? To find out, I broke down the last 10 drafts and compared the No. 1 and No. 2 picks in each.
No. 1 pick: RHP Casey Mize, Detroit Tigers (career WAR: 0)
No. 2 pick: C Joey Bart, San Francisco Giants (career WAR: 0)
The 2018 draft occurred less than three months ago, so obviously nobody from that class has cracked the majors yet. Mize and Bart, naturally, are both highly ranked prospects on MLB Pipeline’s top 100 list, with Mize at No. 20 and Bart No. 35. Mize has a 3.95 ERA in five professional starts, mostly at High-A Lakeland. Bart has batted .293 with a .943 OPS, 12 homers and 39 RBIs in 49 games split between the Rookie League and short-season Salem-Keizer.
No. 1 pick: SS Royce Lewis, Minnesota Twins (career WAR: 0)
No. 2 pick: RHP Hunter Greene, Cincinnati Reds (career WAR: 0)
Again, no draftees from 2017 have made their way to the bigs so far. Both Lewis (ranked No. 10) and Greene (No. 18) remain highly touted prospects. Lewis has progressed to High-A Fort Myers and, during his 173-game minor league career, has a .291 average, .806 OPS, 18 homers, 101 RBIs and 46 steals in 57 attempts. Greene, who’s spent 2018 at Single-A Dayton, has a 4.95 career minor league ERA but has struck out 95 batters in 72 2/3 innings.
No. 1 pick: OF Mickey Moniak, Philadelphia Phillies (career WAR: 0)
No. 2 pick: 3B Nick Senzel, Reds (career WAR: 0)
A couple of players from the 2016 draft made their major league debuts this season — of which the highest drafted was San Diego Padres lefty Eric Lauer at No. 25 overall — but the top two picks are still marinating in the minors. And in this case, the No. 2 pick has outshined the No. 1 draftee. Senzel is rated the fourth-best prospect in baseball, a dangerous hitter who batted .310 with an .887 OPS at Triple-A Louisville this season and is poised to make his MLB debut next year. Moniak, meanwhile, has lost a lot of luster after back-to-back disappointing seasons in the lower minors, dropping him out of the top 100 list.
No. 1 pick: SS Dansby Swanson, Arizona Diamondbacks (career WAR: 2.6)
No. 2 pick: SS Alex Bregman, Houston Astros (career WAR: 12.1)
Now we’re getting to the good stuff: actual major league players. A pair of college shortstops were taken with the first two picks in 2015, and so far, Bregman has been the better of the duo. Now mostly playing third base, Bregman was a key cog for the champion 2017 Astros, providing sterling offense at the hot corner all year and hitting a walkoff single in Game 5 of the World Series. He’s raised his game to another level in an All-Star 2018 season, batting .291 with a .920 OPS, 25 homers, 86 RBIs and an AL-leading 43 doubles.
Swanson’s ascent to the majors hasn’t been quite as smooth. Traded to the Atlanta Braves in the Diamondbacks’ ill-advised Shelby Miller trade in Dec. 2015, he played well in a brief big league debut in 2016 but has struggled offensively in his two full seasons since. Still, he’s already a strong defender at shortstop and, at 24, has plenty of time to improve with the bat.
No. 1 pick: LHP Brady Aiken, Astros (career WAR: 0)
No. 2 pick: RHP Tyler Kolek, Miami Marlins (career WAR: 0)
Ouch. These are two picks that went terribly awry for their teams, with injuries being the main factor. The Astros, shortly after drafting Aiken, found issues in his physical that prompted them to reduce their reported $6.5 million signing bonus to $5 million. The two sides couldn’t reach a deal, and Aiken became the first No. 1 overall pick in 30 years not to sign with his club.
Still, the Astros turned out fine; by not signing Aiken, they received the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft, which they used on Bregman. Aiken, meanwhile, underwent Tommy John surgery in March 2015 and was drafted by the Cleveland Indians at No. 17 overall in 2015. He hasn’t pitched since 2017, when he went 5-13 with a 4.77 ERA in 27 starts for Single-A Lake County.
Kolek, too, went under the knife for Tommy John in 2016. He has pitched 14 games in the low minors since then, struggling to a 12.67 ERA and a whopping 23 walks in 16 1/3 innings.
No. 1 pick: RHP Mark Appel, Astros (career WAR: 0)
No. 2 pick: 3B Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs (career WAR: 21.0)
The Astros completely whiffed on this one, picking Appel, a strong-armed Houston native, over Bryant, who was considered the best hitter in the draft. The rest is history. Bryant already has a Most Valuable Player award, Rookie of the Year honors and a World Series championship under his belt and is one of the game’s biggest stars at age 26.
Appel, meanwhile, suffered a litany of injuries and never developed in the minors, compiling a 5.19 ERA in the Astros’ system before they traded him to the Phillies in 2015. After another two disappointing seasons in the Philadelphia organization, Appel announced in Feb. 2018 that he was taking a break from baseball.
No. 1 pick: SS Carlos Correa, Astros (career WAR: 18.5)
No. 2 pick: OF Byron Buxton, Twins (career WAR: 6.8)
Look, it’s the Astros again! Their Correa pick turned out much better than the Appel and Aiken selections they made in the two years afterward. Breaking into the majors in 2015, Correa was an instant hit, winning Rookie of the Year that season. In 454 career games, he’s batted .280 with an .842 OPS, 80 homers and 308 RBIs, helping him post two seasons of 6.0 or more WAR, including the Astros’ championship year in 2017. And he’s just 23.
The Twins’ Buxton has shown flashes of brilliance in his brief career, particularly on defense, where he won a Gold Glove in center field last year. All told, though, he hasn’t really put his whole game together on a consistent basis. He’s had a lost season in 2018, playing only 28 big league games while spending most of the season toiling at Triple-A and recovering from injuries.
No. 1 pick: RHP Gerrit Cole, Pittsburgh Pirates (career WAR: 17.3)
No. 2 pick: LHP Danny Hultzen, Seattle Mariners (career WAR: 0)
No. 1 clearly beats No. 2 in this case, as Cole enjoyed a productive five years with the Pirates before being traded to — you guessed it — the Astros, who are all over the place in this article. The now 27-year-old Cole has elevated his game to another level for Houston, racking up 234 strikeouts this season, second in the AL only to his teammate, Justin Verlander. He has a 12-5 record and 2.85 ERA to go along with it, notching his second career All-Star selection this year.
Hultzen’s career was torpedoed as so many pitchers’ are, with lingering arm troubles. In the Mariners’ system, he reached Triple-A in his second professional season before undergoing shoulder surgery that cost him the entire 2014 season. When he returned, he pitched just five games in two minor league seasons before needing another shoulder surgery. The Mariners released him and he spent 2017 earning his bachelor’s degree at the University of Virginia. There could be a happy ending to his baseball story, though; Hultzen is attempting a comeback with the Cubs and was promoted to Triple-A Iowa just a few days ago.
No. 1 pick: OF Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals (career WAR: 27.2)
No. 2 pick: RHP Jameson Taillon, Pirates (career WAR: 6.7)
I’d say this one was pretty decisive. No. 1 trumps No. 2 by a landslide, as Harper has been an All-Star in six of his seven seasons in the majors, along with MVP and Rookie of the Year accolades. His 2015 season, in which he batted .330 with a 1.109 OPS and 42 homers and racked up 10.0 WAR, was one of the best in major league history. He’s poised to cash in on the free agent market this winter at age 26. Still, he’s been only the third most valuable player in that draft, behind No. 13 pick Chris Sale (42.7 WAR) and No. 3 pick Manny Machado (32.7).
Taillon has been a perfectly respectable pitcher for the Pirates, going 24-20 with a 3.77 ERA in 70 starts over three seasons. Still, his career pales in comparison to Harper’s.
No. 1 pick: RHP Stephen Strasburg, Nationals (career WAR: 26.3)
No. 2 pick: OF Dustin Ackley, Mariners (career WAR: 8.1)
Again, the Nationals struck gold on the first overall pick. Strasburg, like Harper a year later, was the consensus No. 1 pick entering the draft, and — despite a checkered health history — he has lived up to the hype. The four-time All-Star is 91-52 with a 3.15 ERA and has averaged 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings during his nine-year career. He and Harper helped build the Nationals into annual postseason contenders after the franchise’s awful first few years in D.C.
Ackley, meanwhile, hasn’t played in the majors since 2016, debuting with a strong rookie season in 2011 but falling off the map after that. He’s currently in Triple-A with the Los Angeles Angels, hoping for another shot at the majors at age 30.
There’s no doubt about it: the difference between holding the No. 1 pick and the No. 2 pick is significant. While there are cases in which the No. 2 pick outshines the No. 1, like Bryant and Bregman, those are isolated examples. Overall, since 2009, No. 1 picks have accumulated 91.9 WAR in the majors, compared to 54.7 for No. 2 picks. That’s a pretty sizable gap.
If you go through the entire history of the June amateur draft, dating back to 1965, the No. 1 picks have combined for 1,044.3 WAR. The No. 2 picks have a 683.7 mark.
Clearly, No. 1 picks have been better, on the whole, than No. 2 picks. And even if they weren’t, logically, it stands to reason that it’s always better to hold the No. 1 pick than not to. After all, when your team chooses first, you have the pick of the litter. The best player in the draft is there for the taking, as long as you can correctly identify him. The Astros could’ve chosen Bryant over Appel for the No. 1 pick in 2013 if they’d wanted to, whereas the 2010 Mariners didn’t have the option of taking Strasburg over Ackley with the No. 2 pick.
All in all, there was plenty riding on this Orioles-Royals series — perhaps more than you’d expect. And, as counterintuitive as it may be, the Orioles may well have taken a step in the right direction by getting swept.