The Orioles, as you might have heard, have kind of an important decision to make in Monday night’s first-year player draft.
For the first time since 1989, the Orioles hold the No. 1 overall pick, giving the club a chance to add a potential superstar prospect to bolster their rebuilding effort.
But will the draft be considered a failure if the Orioles’ No. 1 pick doesn’t turn out to be an all-time franchise great? Let’s take a look at the history of No. 1 picks since Major League Baseball’s amateur draft began in 1965.
The previous Orioles pick
The 2019 draft will mark just the second time in franchise history the Orioles have picked first overall. Thirty years ago, they selected right-hander Ben McDonald out of Louisiana State University, where he’d won the Golden Spikes Award as the best amateur in the country. The Orioles expected McDonald to be a future ace, bringing him to the majors three months after the draft. While McDonald flashed brilliance on occasion, he battled inconsistency and arm injuries during his seven years in Baltimore and two in Milwaukee.
While some Orioles fans called the McDonald selection a dud because he didn’t emerge as a frontline starter, he finished with a career record of 78-70 and a 3.91 ERA along with 20.8 Wins Above Replacement (per Baseball Reference). That WAR puts him squarely in the middle of the pack — 21st of 53 — of the No. 1 picks in draft history.
The previous Mike Elias picks
Although this is Mike Elias’ first draft as the Orioles’ executive vice president, he’s a veteran of the process. As the Houston Astros’ director of amateur scouting, he presided over three consecutive drafts from 2012-2014 in which the club held the first overall pick.
While the Astros drafted well overall, Elias hit on only one out of his three No. 1 picks. The club defied expectations by tabbing Puerto Rican shortstop Carlos Correa over more highly touted prospects in 2012, a decision that paid off handsomely when he was named AL Rookie of the Year three years later and became a linchpin for the Astros’ World Series championship in 2017.
Elias followed with two straight misfires. In 2013, the Astros selected Stanford ace Mark Appel, only for the right-hander to stall out in the minors with a career 5.06 ERA and retire in 2017 having never made the majors. A year later, Elias opted for a high school southpaw, Brady Aiken, before the pre-signing physical revealed a congenitally small ulnar collateral ligament in the pitcher’s left arm. When the Astros reduced their offer, Aiken balked, becoming only the third No. 1 pick in history not to sign with the club that drafted him.
Aiken was drafted by the Cleveland Indians with the No. 17 overall pick the following year, but so far he’s failed to advance past Single-A ball. In two appearances in 2019, he’s walked six batters while recording just two outs.
The Astros, it should be pointed out, received a compensation pick after not signing Aiken, and used it to select third baseman Alex Bregman, who finished fifth in the 2018 AL MVP voting and joined Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez and Lou Gehrig as the only major leaguers to produce a season of at least 50 doubles and 30 homers before turning 25.
The Hall of Famers
Now let’s discuss the biggest draft success stories: the players who rode from the No. 1 pick all the way to Hall of Fame induction.
A first-ballot inductee last year, Chipper Jones spent all 22 years of his professional career with the Atlanta Braves after they selected him first overall in the 1990 draft. A high school selection out of Jacksonville, Fla., Jones worked his way up the organizational ladder before joining the Braves for good in 1995. By the time his career ended 17 years later, Jones held a lifetime .303 batting average, .401 OBP, .529 SLG, 468 homers and 1,623 RBIs. He was also an eight-time All-Star and the 1999 National League MVP.
When the Seattle Mariners used the No. 1 pick in 1987 on Ken Griffey Jr., a five-tool talent whose dad played 19 years in the majors, he faced sky-high expectations. I’d say he exceeded them. “The Kid” was already on a Hall of Fame track before he turned 30, starting his Mariners career with 10 All-Star appearances, seven top-10 MVP finishes (including an MVP win in 1997), 10 Gold Gloves, six seasons of 40 or more homers, seven of 100 or more RBIs and four seasons with a 1.000 OPS or better. Even an injury-plagued second half of his career didn’t diminish Griffey’s accomplishments as he sailed into the Hall of Fame.
Getting into the Hall wasn’t as easy for former Oriole Harold Baines, whose election this past December drew criticism from fans and media. Baines was elected by the 16-member Today’s Game Era committee after never being considered a serious candidate by the Baseball Writers Association of America. While his inclusion in Cooperstown might be controversial, Baines delivered a stellar career for a No. 1 draft pick. The Easton, Md., native, selected by the White Sox out of St. Michael’s High School in 1977, played 22 years in the bigs and racked up 2,866 hits, 384 homers and 1,628 RBIs.
I’m also going to include Alex Rodriguez (drafted by the Mariners in 1993) among the Hall of Famers. Yes, I’m aware he hasn’t been elected, and some voters may never include him on their ballots. Still, his numbers are so extraordinary that it’s a decent bet he’ll eventually gain induction, despite his MLB-issued suspension for the 2014 season for the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Rodriguez’s 117.8 career WAR is not only the best of any No. 1 pick, but the 16th best of any major leaguer in history. He was a 14-time All-Star, a three-time MVP, a batting champion and a five-time home run champion, just to scratch the surface of his accomplishments. He’s the best-case scenario for what a No. 1 pick could become — minus the extracurricular activities.
The productive stars
You don’t have to get to the Hall of Fame to be a huge success as a No. 1 pick. A slew of top picks have strung together productive, award-winning careers. The Orioles would be more than happy if their No. 1 pick has the career of, say, Adrian Gonzalez (Florida Marlins, 2000), a 15-year veteran who accumulated 42.2 WAR, five All-Star selections and four Gold Gloves. The Orioles, though, probably shouldn’t follow the example the Marlins did, trading Gonzalez before he ever played a game for them.
Troubled outfielder Darryl Strawberry (New York Mets, 1980) saw substance-abuse issues ruin his once-promising career, in which he won NL Rookie of the Year in 1983 and followed with eight straight All-Star selections. Similarly, Josh Hamilton’s (Tampa Bay Devil Rays, 1999) struggles with drugs and alcohol limited him to nine years in the majors, none with the club that drafted him. He had an incredible run when he was able to stay on the field, though, enjoying five straight All-Star seasons for the Texas Rangers and earning AL MVP honors in 2010.
If the Orioles use tonight’s selection on Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman, the consensus top draft prospect, they can take inspiration from the most recent catcher to be selected first overall: Joe Mauer (Minnesota Twins, 2001). A local kid from St. Paul, Minn., Mauer was a centerpiece of the Twins’ early-2000s resurgence, leading the AL in batting average three times while providing stellar defense behind the plate (three Gold Gloves). Mauer, the 2009 MVP, switched to first base full time in his 11th season and saw his production tail off in his later years. Still, Rutschman could do worse than to emulate Mauer’s 55-WAR career.
Among active players, Justin Upton (Arizona Diamondbacks, 2005), David Price (Devil Rays, 2007), Stephen Strasburg (Washington Nationals, 2009), Bryce Harper (Nationals, 2010) and Gerrit Cole (Pittsburgh Pirates, 2011) have combined for 20 All-Star appearances and more than 150 WAR. Price has a Cy Young award to his name; Harper won both MVP and Rookie of the Year honors.
The long-tenured veterans
Plenty of No. 1 picks, while maybe not stars, stuck around for a good long while in the majors. One that Orioles fans know well is B.J. Surhoff, the top selection in the 1985 draft by the Milwaukee Brewers. Surhoff was an All-Star only once in his 19-year career, but was a dependable veteran who carried a steady bat, fielded a variety of positions and played for four playoff teams. Surhoff’s career featured two stints in Baltimore (1996-2000 and 2003-05), where he was a fan favorite. He was elected to the Orioles Hall of Fame in 2007.
Another 19-year veteran, outfielder Rick Monday, was the No. 1 pick in the inaugural MLB draft in 1965. Selected by the Kansas City Athletics, Monday played for three organizations and was a postseason hero for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1981, when his ninth-inning homer in a sudden-death Game 5 in Montreal advanced his club to the World Series. He also famously saved an American flag from being burned by on-field protestors in 1976.
Fifteen position players picked first overall have played at least 1,500 games in the majors, a list that also includes outfielder and 1974 AL MVP Jeff Burroughs (selected by the Washington Senators in 1969); infielder Tim Foli (Mets, 1968); utility man Shawon Dunston (Chicago Cubs, 1982); three-time Gold Glover Darin Erstad (California Angels, 1995); and two-time World Series winning outfielder Pat Burrell (Philadelphia Phillies, 1998). Three pitchers, meanwhile, have made 400 or more appearances: Floyd Bannister (Astros, 1976), Mike Moore (Mariners, 1981) and Andy Benes (San Diego Padres, 1988).
The mostly unsuccessful
A handful of No. 1 picks, while not total disasters, didn’t live up to their pre-draft hype. Another former Oriole, Delmon Young, headlines this group. When Young was selected first overall by the Devil Rays in 2003, he was a high school superstar who said he was “looking to be like Andruw Jones, Ken Griffey Jr. and A-Rod.”
It’s safe to say Young’s career did not live up to those lofty standards. While he hung around for 10 years and had some memorable moments — including his iconic, go-ahead RBI double for the Orioles in Game 2 of the 2014 Division Series — Young struggled defensively and was mediocre at the plate, leading to a career WAR of just 2.4. He was also arrested in 2012 for misdemeanor aggravated harassment and 2016 for misdemeanor battery, and in 2006 received a 50-game suspension for throwing a bat at an umpire in a minor league game.
Only 18 of 53 top picks have been pitchers, and the fates that befell David Clyde (Rangers, 1973) and Paul Wilson (Mets, 1994) illustrated why pitchers are a risky proposition at the No. 1 selection. Clyde, a can’t-miss high school lefty, was rushed to the majors immediately after the draft, making his debut as an 18-year-old. Though he brought instant excitement to the Rangers’ franchise, injuries and a lack of minor league seasoning ended his career by age 24.
Wilson, meanwhile, was part of a trio of dynamic Mets pitching prospects along with Jason Isringhausen and Bill Pulsipher, but all three were derailed by injuries. Wilson settled for four years as a backend starter with the Devil Rays and Cincinnati Reds.
Two of Elias’ previous picks, Appel and Aiken, join a list of No. 1 picks who flamed out.
Appel was one of only three No. 1 picks in MLB history to end his career without making a major league appearance, joining Steve Chilcott (Mets, 1966) and Brien Taylor (New York Yankees, 1991). In those two previous cases, injuries were to blame. Chilcott, a highly touted catcher drafted out of high school in California, dislocated his shoulder in his second professional season while playing for Single-A Winter Haven. The injury persisted throughout his career, and his playing days were over by age 23. Taylor was an elite talent ranked as Baseball America‘s top prospect after he was drafted, but tore his left shoulder in a fistfight in 1993 and lost his velocity and control.
A few No. 1 picks managed only brief, unsuccessful cups of coffee in the majors before washing out. Prominent among them was catcher-turned-first baseman Danny Goodwin, the only player to twice be drafted with the top pick. The Chicago White Sox selected him No. 1 in 1971 out of high school, but he didn’t sign, electing to attend Southern University. Four years later, after a stellar college career, Goodwin again was selected first overall, this time by the California Angels. But he muddled through an unimpressive 252 big league games with three organizations and compiled a career -1.7 WAR, the worst of any No. 1 pick in history.
The Padres made a franchise-altering mistake in 2004 when they drafted infielder Matt Bush first overall instead of Justin Verlander, who went second to the Detroit Tigers. Bush was plagued by a series of off-field issues, including multiple assaults and drunk driving incidents, and never played for the Padres, though he reinvented himself as a reliever for the Rangers more than a decade after he was drafted.
Other top-pick disappointments include outfielders Al Chambers (Mariners, 1974) and Shawn Abner (Mets, 1984) and right-handers Matt Anderson (Tigers, 1997) and Bryan Bullington (Pittsburgh Pirates, 2002). The quartet combined for -2.6 WAR, and none played a game in the majors past age 29.
So, what can we glean from the history of No. 1 picks? Well, plenty of these players have gone on to accomplish great things, or at least very good things. But it’s not a sure bet by any means. Draft history is littered with teams who have wasted the top pick on underperformers and non-performers. All told, the 53 first picks have averaged a 22.9 WAR, a solid but not spectacular showing.
Which category will the Orioles fall into after tonight’s selection? It’ll be years before we know for sure. But there’s no overstating the importance of this pick to the franchise — and to Elias, who’s angling to redeem himself after a couple of whiffs in Houston. For the club’s sake, their No. 1 pick needs to be more Carlos Correa than Mark Appel.