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MLB Draft 2013: Best players in first-round history

Just what kind of player does history say your team could get in the 2013 MLB draft?


It's hard to contextualize the MLB draft. In the NFL or NBA drafts, you're generally getting players who will, at the least, step into a bench role and work their way towards starting, especially if you're talking about first-round picks. In baseball, though, even the very best tend to spend at least some time in the minors before hitting up the majors, and the time in between signing and debuting tends to cloud just where and when said player came from.

This year's draft is happening later on Thursday, though, so it's time to add some context in for those of you trying to figure out just what your team might end up with. You might not all end up with brand new stars on your favorite team, but, as history tells us, a star player can come out of just about any spot in the first round.

There are 33 picks in the first round of the 2013 MLB draft, so we'll go through the top three players in history from each of the first 33 overall spots in the draft -- not every one of these is a first-round pick, given there used to be fewer teams, but the principle is the same. There are plenty of names you expect, but maybe even more you don't. We'll use Baseball-Reference's version of wins above replacement as a yardstick -- measures like this maybe aren't perfect for certain uses, but in career-spanning looks like this, it's just what we need.

Pick Player Team Year WAR Player Team Year WAR Player Team Year WAR
1 Alex Rodriguez SEA 1993 116 Chipper Jones ATL 1990 85 Ken Griffey Jr. SEA 1987 84
2 Reggie Jackson OAK 1966 74 Will Clark SFN 1985 56 J.D. Drew PHI 1997 45
3 Robin Yount MIL 1986 77 Paul Molitor MIL 1977 76 Matt Williams SFN 1986 47
4 Barry Larkin CIN 1985 70 Kevin Brown TEX 1986 68 Dave Winfield SDN 1973 64
5 Dwight Gooden NYN 1982 53 Mark Teixeira TEX 2001 48 Dale Murphy ATL 1974 46

No first-overall pick has ever been a Hall of Famer, but the three highest-ranking first-overall picks ever should all change that, one after another, in the coming years. All three represent what you always hope a #1 pick will be, but these players wouldn't be rare if things always worked out like that.

For all the negativity lobbed at J.D. Drew throughout his career, he's one of the best-ever #3 picks in history. It's kind of amazing that Dwight Gooden, based largely just on his younger peak years, was able to finish up as the greatest fifth pick ever -- at least until Mark Teixeira finishes creeping up on him, anyway.

Pick Player Team Year WAR Player Team Year WAR Player Team Year WAR
6 Barry Bonds PIT 1985 163 Derek Jeter NYA 1992 72 Gary Sheffield MIL 1986 60
7 Frank Thomas CHA 1989 74 Troy Tulowitzki COL 2005 30 Clayton Kershaw LAN 2006 29
8 Todd Helton COL 1995 62 Jay Bell MIN 1984 37 Jim Abbott LAA 1988 20
9 Kevin Appier KCA 1987 55 Barry Zito OAK 1999 35 Mark Kotsay MIA 1996 23
10 Mark McGwire OAK 1984 62 Robin Ventura CHA 1988 56 Ted Simmons SLN 1967 50

You're not going to find a spot much better than #6 overall, as Barry Bonds is better than a lot of these top threes by himself. The seventh spot hasn't dominated historically, but you could do a lot worse than Frank Thomas in the lead, with the youthful and promising careers of Tulo and Kershaw behind him.

Pick Player Team Year WAR Player Team Year WAR Player Team Year WAR
11 Greg Luzinski PHI 1968 26 Shane Mack SDN 1984 22 Andrew McCutchen PIT 2005 21
12 Nomar Garciaparra BOS 1994 44 Kirk Gibson DET 1978 38 Jered Weaver LAA 2004 30
13 Manny Ramirez CLE 1991 69 Frank Tanana LAA 1971 58 Paul Konerko LAN 1994 29
14 Derrek Lee SDN 1993 34 Tino Martinez SEA 1988 29 Cliff Floyd MON 1991 26
15 Chase Utley PHI 2000 56 Jim Rice BOS 1971 47 Chris Carpenter TOR 1993 35

The Mets are hoping they can do better at #11 than history has -- no offense to Luzinski and Shane Mack, but there are much better careers that came well after their own in the draft. On the plus side, Andrew McCutchen will end up on top of this spot in short order. You're not going to get much different than Nomar, Kirk Gibson, and Jered Weaver, but that didn't stop this trio from topping the #12 pick. Chase Utley's career isn't over, yet here he is ahead of Jim Rice at #15 -- the Phillies' second baseman has had himself a fine, and underrated, career.

Photo credit: Rich Schultz

Pick Player Team Year WAR Player Team Year WAR Player Team Year WAR
16 Lance Berkman HOU 1997 52 Lance Parrish DET 1974 39 Shawn Green TOR 1991 35
17 Roy Halladay TOR 1995 65 Gary Matthews SFN 1968 30 Cole Hamels PHI 2002 30
18 Willie Wilson KCA 1974 46 R.A. Dickey TEX 1996 14.5 Glenn Wilson DET 1980 13
19 Roger Clemens BOS 1983 140 Bobby Grich BAL 1967 71 Alex Rios TOR 1999 28
20 Mike Mussina BAL 1990 83 CC Sabathia CLE 1998 56 Torii Hunter MIN 1993 49

I forgot until compiling this that Shawn Green ever even played for the Blue Jays, despite the fact a lot of his success came there. Apparently that Dodgers' stint was impressionable. Speaking of the Jays, Halladay has more than double the value of the next-in-line at #17, and R.A. Dickey is the second-best at #18. That's not as exciting as it sounds, given his career came on very late, and very recently.

Oh, and some guy named Roger Clemens was picked at #19, beating out a keystoner who should be in Cooperstown. Knowing the Cardinals, they'll probably surprise everyone with someone great at #19, too.

Pick Player Team Year WAR Player Team Year WAR Player Team Year WAR
21 Rick Sutcliffe LAN 1974 34 Jason Varitek MIN 1993 24 Gorman Thomas SEA 1969 20
22 Rafael Palmeiro CHN 1985 72 Craig Biggio HOU 1987 65 Chet Lemon OAK 1972 55
23 Jason Kendall PIT 1992 42 Mo Vaughn BOS 1989 27 Aaron Sele BOS 1991 21
24 Alex Fernandez MIL 1988 29 Rondell White MON 1990 28 Chad Billingsley LAN 2003 17
25 Chuck Knoblauch MIN 1989 45 Matt Cain SFN 2002 32 Bill Buckner LAN 1968 15

You're starting to see vast and consistent differences between the earliest picks and those in the middle, but there are still some serious talents that have been plucked in the 20s. Craig Biggio will be a Hall of Famer, Jason Varitek is probably much better than his value listed here -- as are all fine defensive catchers that played before the era when we could begin to measure what that means. Matt Cain, assuming he rights that ship, could easily be one of the better pitchers in this range when all is said and done.

Pick Player Team Year WAR Player Team Year WAR Player Team Year WAR
26 Alan Trammell DET 1976 70 Dave Henderson SEA 1977 28 Dan Plesac MIL 1983 18
27 Vida Blue OAK 1967 46 Pete Harnisch BAL 1987 18 Todd Jones HOU 1989 11
28 Lee Smith CHN 1975 30 Charles Johnson MIA 1992 23 Darrin Jackson CHN 1981 11
29 George Brett KCA 1971 88 Adam Wainwright ATL 2000 26 Bill Swift MIN 1983 21
30 Mike Schmidt PHI 1971 107 David Wells TOR 1982 54 Jerry Reuss SLN 1967 36
31 Greg Maddux CHN 1984 107 Jarrod Washburn LAA 1995 29 Kirt Manwaring SFN 1986 5
32 Dave Magadan NYN 1983 21 Lee Lacy LAN 1969 20 Justin Thompson DET 1991 13
33 Mike Gallego OAK 1981 17 Dave Burba SEA 1987 17 Milt Wilcox CIN 1968 14

Alan Trammell is arguably a deserving Hall of Famer, and then you've got George Brett and Mike Schmidt, two of the greatest at the hot corner in history, atop #29 and #30. Any team picking in the back-end of the first this year would be thrilled with an Adam Wainwright, Jarrod Washburn, or Bill Swift.

The #31 pick is clearly the weirdest of the bunch, though. Greg Maddux is one of the greatest pitchers of all-time, and Jarrod Washburn is, weird Maddux case aside, the kind of player you hope to get with this pick. Then, there's Kirt Manwaring, who was a bit better than replacement level over a 13-year career, much of it as a backup catcher. Seeing him in the list somewhere isn't weird, but just two spots behind Maddux is oddly unsettling.