This year, the Pittsburgh Pirates have the No. 1 selection in Monday's MLB Draft, the event baseball has not-so-charmingly named the "First-Year Player Draft". It will be the sixth consecutive year that the Pirates have had the fourth choice or better and the second time in the last decade that they've chosen first overall.
So the Pirates should be really, really good now, right? Since they've gotten all these great players at or near the top of the draft?
That would be no, unless you're a big fan of Bryan Bullington.
Unlike the NFL or NBA, having the first overall choice in MLB's draft not only is no guarantee of success, but occasionally it leads a team to baseball's version of roadkill. It is a fact that in the 46 years of MLB drafts, since 1965, not one player chosen first overall has made the Hall of Fame. (That will change over the next 10 to 15 years as Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones and Alex Rodriguez are inducted.)
For the first 20 years of drafts, teams whiffed as often as they got a good player with the first choice. For every Rick Monday, there was a Steve Chilcott (who the Mets took instead of some guy named Reggie Jackson). For every Jeff Burroughs, there was a Bill Almon. For every Harold Baines, there was a Danny Goodwin. There were good players, solid everyday regulars, but also guys who completely washed out, like David Clyde, Al Chambers and Shawn Abner.
Scouting has gotten better over the last 25 years; the first-pick players who never made it big failed due to injury (Brien Taylor, Paul Wilson and Ben McDonald) or stupidity (Matt Bush).
In more recent drafts, the "signability" issue has in many seasons dictated who was taken first. For example, in 2001, that wound up benefitting the Minnesota Twins, who had the first overall pick. The consensus No. 1 pick that year was Mark Prior, but his contract demands were too high for the Twins, so they took hometown kid Joe Mauer instead. That's worked out pretty well for them, although Mauer's career now may be derailed by injuries. The Cubs, who took Prior with the No. 2 overall selection, likely would have taken Mark Teixeira if the Twins had taken Prior, instead of Mauer.
And that's where the mystique of picking first breaks down. Or maybe it's scouting. In 2002, would you rather have had Bullington -- or B.J. Upton, who was chosen second overall by the Rays? That year, Zack Greinke and Prince Fielder were taken in the first round -- after Chris Gruler, Adam Loewen and Clint Everts, only one of whom has played a major league game.
It's too early to analyze the major league futures of the last three first-round choices, although Tim Beckham (Rays) is doing just middling in Double-A, Stephen Strasburg (Nationals) won't pitch until 2012 after Tommy John surgery, and Bryce Harper (Nats, again), who is tearing up Low-A ball, still could be two or three years away from the major leagues.
So if you're a Pirates fan, don't groan too loudly regardless of whether the Bucs take Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon, Trevor Bauer, Danny Hultzen or any one of a number of players who could go No. 1. Maybe whoever is taken first will turn out to be Adrian Gonzalez (No. 1 overall, 2000) -- or maybe he'll be Luke Hochevar (No. 1 overall, 2006), and someone taken in the 24th round (as Mark Grace was in 1985 by the Cubs) will become a bigger star.
Because the MLB draft first round -- and especially the No. 1 overall pick -- is much more of a crapshoot than in any other professional sport. Perhaps MLB will, sometime in the near future, allow trading of draft choices as the other sports do. That could help teams with the higher picks improve at the major league level more quickly, and maybe save them some money, too.