Most of the best major leaguers in the draft era were drafted in the first nine rounds.
-- Pause, for dramatic effect --
It’s this kind of hard-hitting analysis that keeps you coming back. But what about the back end of the draft? The first ten rounds are where a large majority of major leaguers come from, but there are still individual prospects who, against all odds, were able to swim out of the later rounds to infiltrate the egg of the major leagues.
(If you can think of a better analogy, I'd like to read it.)
Here’s an attempt to build the all-time Rounds 10-Through-75 Team. I used Baseball Reference’s WAR as the basis for each pick because it’s the most convenient way to do so, and it avoids internet knife fights with people who want to argue about the merits of Ryne Sandberg vs.
Tom Seaver - 10th round - RHP - Dodgers (didn’t sign) (105.3 WAR)
One of the best pitchers ever, and he went about 30 picks after Orville Hollrah. Seaver was a local product at USC, and he asked for $70,000. The Dodgers politely declined, sparing the National League from an even more dominant Dodgers team in the ‘70s.
Nolan Ryan - 12th round - RHP - Mets (84.8)
Ryan is the all-time leader in strikeouts (and walks) and he pitched until he was 68. The Senators were thinking about taking him with the pick right before the Mets, but they opted for a high-school shortstop named Richard Koslick instead.
John Smoltz - 22nd round - RHP - Tigers (63.9)
For a 22nd round pick out of high school, Smoltz was really rushed. After doing just okay in his professional debut, he started AA at the age of 20, struggled mightily, and was then traded for Doyle Alexander. When he got to Atlanta, the Braves pressed CTRL/ALT/DEL, stopped whatever was making him walk six batters per nine innings, and he became a future Hall-of-Famer.
Orel Hershiser - 17th round - RHP - Dodgers (51.5)
The ultimate better-in-the-majors pitcher, he putzed around in the minors, doing adequately, and repeating both AA and AAA. When he got to the majors, he was one of the best pitchers of his era. Okay.
Bret Saberhagen - 19th round - RHP - Royals (54.7)
Saberhagen is also one of the starters on the If He Could Have Stayed Healthy Team. A two-time Cy Young winner by the time he was 26, he never cracked 200 innings again. In 1994, he pitched 177 innings before the strike, walking only 13 batters. Jonathan Sanchez has walked more in his last 14 innings
Trevor Hoffman - 11th round - RHP - Reds (30.8 WAR)
Hoffman was drafted as a shortstop, but he kept throwing 81-MPH changeups across the diamond. Also, he couldn’t hit a lick. He was converted to a pitcher, selected by the Marlins in the expansion draft, and traded for Gary Sheffield before his 30th game in the majors. He probably didn’t expect to throw his next 900 games with the same team after that.
C - Mike Piazza - 62nd round, 1988 - Dodgers (59.1)
The shining example of why nepotism always, always, always works. Piazza was drafted as a favor to his father, who was friends with Tommy Lasorda. The Dodgers manager suggested that Piazza try catching to improve his chances of making the majors. Then he became the greatest-hitting catcher of all-time.
1B - Albert Pujols - 13th round, 1999 - Cardinals (85.7 and counting)
So, so many teams -- included the Cardinals -- passed on Pujols again and again and again. One Rays scout wanted Pujols so badly, and was so deflated that he was ignored, that he quit scouting to work for a sports agency.
2B - Ryne Sandberg - 20th round, 1978 - Phillies (62.0)
This could have been the toughest competition in the lineup, as Jeff Kent just came up short. Sandberg was then traded to the Cubs for Iván de Jesus, who gave the Phillies three seasons of a 78 OPS+.
SS - David Eckstein - 19th round, 1997 - Red Sox (21.2)
A truism of the draft: you don’t get good starting shortstops late. It’s not that Eckstein was a bad player -- he had a fine career. But he was by far the best shortstop to come after the 10th round. If you project to play a good defensive shortstop, and you don’t hold the bat upside-down, you have a good chance of going in the first ten rounds. Eckstein probably would have been switched to second at some point in his career if his teams had a better shortstop option, but they never did.
LF - Dusty Baker - 26th round, 1967 - Braves (34.8)
For a 26th-round pick, he sure made the majors quickly. He was in the majors when he was 19 for a cup of coffee, though he did his best work for the Dodgers in his 30s. He famously had problems with a minor-league manager -- Johannes Labrum-Tendon -- and he still claims that the rift affects his managerial style to this day.
CF - Kenny Lofton - 17th round, 1988 - Astros (65.3)
If there’s a common thread with most of the players up there, it’s that their tools might have been easier to overlook -- a plus batting eye combined with a smart approach might be the kind of thing a scout can’t pick up on in 10 at-bats. Lofton’s tools must have been obvious after watching him for an inning, but he lasted until the 17th round because didn’t play college baseball until his junior year, focusing more on his role as a backup point guard on an Arizona team that made it to the Final Four. The Astros took a chance on him, and it paid off famously for 29 of the teams that Lofton played on in his career.
RF - Jack Clark - 13th round, 1973 - Giants (55.0)
Clark was drafted as a pitcher, but quickly converted in the minors after hitting .321/.392/.530 in rookie league as a 17-year-old. He also played third base in the minors, committing 109 errors in 247 innings. Other than that, though, I’m not sure why he didn’t stick there.
So there are good players to be found in the lower ends of the draft. Maybe even a great one or two. But these players came out of a group of about 55,000 players who didn’t make it. Don’t worry, though. I’m sure your team found a Hall of Famer in the 43rd round Wednesday. There’s no point in following the draft if you aren’t going to dream big.