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A Look Back at the 2001 MLB Draft

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Even though the 2002 "Moneyball" Draft might be the most popular Major League Draft today; a very significant draft took place a year before hand in 2001.  

Many of the today's top positional players today were welcomed into professional baseball.  The widespread belief that high school pitchers are the riskiest draft picks came into play, and the fact college pitchers are no guarantee was also evident.   I will also take a look at a few late-round picks that have made a significant impact at the major league level.

The Good

For the most part, the most successful major league players that were drafted early in 2001 were hitters.

The Minnesota Twins held the first pick of the draft and made a local boy's dream come true, signing 18-year old catcher Joe Mauer out of Cretin-Derham Hall High School located in St. Paul.  Mark Prior was widely regarded as the best player in the draft, but the Twins avoided Prior and his rather "expensive" contract demands and decided to sign the hometown boy instead.  

Today that move is looking like a wise one.  After establishing himself as one of baseball's best backstops in the 2005 season, Mauer broke out with an MVP-Perennial year in 2006, hitting .347/.429/.507 and becoming the first American League catcher to win the batting title.  Mauer displayed remarkable defensive ability behind the plate as well, and at the end of the season, he was worth 8.9 wins above the replacement player.

And for those of you thinking Mauer will significantly regress after his breakout campaign, PECOTA sees otherwise:  They project Mauer to hit .331/.409/.501 and also hit for a .321 EqA next season.

Four picks later the Texas Rangers drafted Georgia Tech third baseman Mark Teixeira in what is widely considered as the best pick of the first round.  Drawing comparisons to Troy Glaus, Teixeira spent one full year in the minors before being named the Rangers starting first baseman at 23 years old for the 2003 season.  Since his major league career began that season, Teixeira has posted two seasons with EqA's above .300, along with winning two gold gloves and making an All-Star appearance.  Whether or not Teixeira is remembered as the best pick of the first round (or the entire draft for that matter) will be told in the coming years, but one can make a strong argument he is the most valuable player drafted from the 2001 draft at this point.

As made famous by the book Moneyball, high school pitcher Jeremy Bonderman was drafted by the Athletics as the 26th overall pick and didn't last too long in the Oakland organization.  After being dealt to Detroit in the deal that sent Ted Lilly to the A's, the Tigers promoted Bonderman to the majors after pitching slightly over 150 minor league innings (all at A-ball).  At 20 years old, Bonderman started 28 games for the 43-119 Tigers and struggled mightily doing so (77 ERA+).  But since then, Bonderman has improved almost every aspect of his game, and established himself as one of baseball's finest peripheral pitchers (3.28 PERA) at 23 years old last season.  Bonderman recently signed a 4-year extension with the Tigers, and if he pitches with similar peripherals again next season, he could contend for the Cy-Young Award.

Other notable first and second round pitchers include Aaron Heilman (Mets, 18th overall), Noah Lowry (Giants, 30th overall), Neal Cotts (A's, 69th overall), and Dan Haren (Cardinals, 72nd overall).

A supplemental pick of the first-round, the New York Mets held the 38th pick of the draft and selected third baseman David Wright out of Hickory High School in Chesapeake, Virginia.  Wright was hailed as one of the best high school hitters in the draft, and John Sickles claimed that Wright "could wind up being a steal in this slot."  Wright developed steadily in the Mets' system for three seasons before being called up in 2004 for a 69 game stint with the major league club.  He hasn't looked back since. Wright is a career .306/.375/.527 major league hitter and has established himself as one of baseball's best third baseman at 24 years old.

The Bad

To me, what's interesting about the 2001 draft was the number of pitchers drafted that haven't made much of a major league impact-many not even tasting the big leagues.  24 pitchers were drafted in the first-round (supplemental picks included).  Of the 24 drafted, two high school pitchers (Jeremy Sowers, and Alan Horne) committed to a college university.  

Of the 22 pitchers who were drafted and signed, 14 were college pitchers and 8 were high school pitchers.  Of the 14 college pitchers, 9 have seen major league play.  Of the 8 high school pitchers, only 3 have seen major league play.  10 first rounds pitchers drafted and signed in 2001 haven't seen major league play and most of those that have haven't made significant contributions.

The 2001 draft featured arguably the greatest college pitcher ever in Mark Prior.  Prior was simply amazing during his two seasons at USC.  In 2001, his last college season, Prior went 15-1, posted a 1.70 ERA and a 202/18 K/BB ratio in 138 innings.  There was no reason for the Cubs not to draft Prior after Mauer was taken first.  The Cubs of course drafted Prior, signed him, and after watching him dominate 51 innings of minor league ball, called him up.  Since then Prior's career has been an emotional rollercoaster for the Cubs and their fans.

After showing great strides at 21 years old with the Cubs in 2002, Prior emerged as one of the majors most dominating starters in baseball during the Cubs 2003 dream season.  Prior went 18-6 for those Cubbies, his ERA+ was 175 and he was 3rd in National League Cy Young voting.  Cubs fans, especially Steve Bartman, remember how their 2003 "dream season" ended, but the future was still plenty bright with a guy like Prior.

This is where things started getting a little messy.  He suffered an Achilles tendon injury prior to the 2004 season limiting him to just 118.2 innings that year.  Prior's 2005 started the same way: On the DL.  Upon returning he was effective, but then suffered a compression fracture after taking a liner off the elbow from the Rockies' Brad Hawpe, once again putting Prior on the DL for an extended period of time.  The 2006 season was arguably Prior's worst.  A 1-6 record and a 7.21 ERA coupled with multiple DL stints due to tendonitis leave Prior's future up in the air.

To call Mark Prior a major league success is a bit much for me.  He showed flashes of dominance, 2003 in particular, but since then he's been known for Achilles tendon injuries, liners off the elbow and shoulder tendonitis.  Prior's career is far from over and the chance for dominance is still there, but to call arguably the greatest college pitcher a success after all that he has been through is something I can't bring myself to do.

Drafted right after Prior was Dewon Brazelton, a 21-year old out of Middle Tennessee State University.  Brazelton wasn't as talented nor as polished as Prior, but the ceiling and upside we there. After a couple of short stints with the Rays in 2002 and 2003, Brazelton was called up for most of the 2004 season, and pitched poorly peripheral-wise (4.92 PERA).  Regardless, he was there to stay and was named the 2005 Opening Day starter for Tampa Bay.  Brazelton pitched so poorly during the '05 season, the Rays sent him back to AAA.  Brazelton was later suspended after failing to report to AAA Durham and was eventually traded to the Padres for Sean Burroughs.  This winter, Brazelton was signed by the Royals to a minor league deal.  It's tough to criticize the Rays for drafting Brazelton. He was talented, and had the type of body that could develop into a big league power pitcher. Things just didn't work out for either side and now, Brazelton is getting another shot, this time in KC.

Taken next, with the 4th pick of the draft, was Gavin Floyd.  Floyd was drafted out of Mount St. Joseph High School in Severna Park, Maryland at 18 years old.  Floyd had a body the scouts loved. At 6'5" and 210 pounds, it was expected Floyd could maybe add a bit more to his fastball and his knowledge of how to pitch along with his strong mechanics made him a favorite to develop steadily. Floyd progressed well in A-ball and Double A, but ran into trouble in AAA and in the majors.  Floyd never developed into the pitcher the Phillies hoped he would one day become and he was traded to the White Sox, along with Gio Gonzalez, this winter for Freddy Garcia.  Though his major league career has been forgettable, Floyd is the favorite to start the season as the White Sox #5 starter.

Things get worse from here.  The next four pitchers drafted were Josh Karp (Expos, 6th overall), Chris Smith (Orioles, 7th overall), John VanBenschoten (Pirates, 8th overall) and Colt Griffin (Royals, 9th overall).  The former 3 pitchers being college pitchers, the latter a high school pitcher.  Between the four, VanBenschoten is the only to have seen major league action:  That being only 28.2 innings during the 2004 season with the Pirates.

Two picks later the Tigers selected Kelly Baugh out of Rice University with the 11th overall pick, while the Brewers drafted Mike Jones from Thunderbird High School in Phoenix, Arizona with the 12th pick. Neither pitcher has reached the major leagues.  

From there the list of pitcher whom have not yet reached the major leagues goes on:  Kris Honel (White Sox, 16th overall), Dan Denham (Indians 17th overall), Justin Pope (Cardinals, 28th overall), J.D. Martin (Indians, 35th overall), Wyatt Allen (White Sox, 39th overall), and John Skaggs (Yankees, 42nd overall).  

Simply put, the 2001 MLB draft wasn't a strong one for first-round pitchers.

Of course, it should also be said that many first and second round hitters haven't developed into the players they were drafted to be either.

First round picks including Mike Fontenot, John-Ford Griffin, and Todd Linden have hardly made significant major league contributions, while guys such as Jayson Nix, Mike Conroy, Richard Lewis, Bronson Sardinha, Mike Woods, Bryan Bass, and Josh Burrus are also yet to reach the majors.

The Late-Rounders

Probably the most fun I had looking over the draft.  These were the players that were passed up numerous times and the players many didn't believe had a legitimate chance at major league success.  The 2001 draft included a recent MVP winner and a Greek God.

It took 139 players to be drafted before someone finally ran into the 6'4" 240-pound Missouri slugger Ryan Howard, that someone being the Philadelphia Phillies.  Howard was drafted in the 5th round as the 140th overall pick and spent four years in the Philly organization mashing opposing pitching before being called up to the big league club in 2005 to replace the injured Jim Thome.  During his callup, which featured 312 AB's, Howard hit .288/.356/.567 with 22 home runs.  He won the National League Rookie of the Year Award that season.  The Philles had seen enough and traded Jim Thome for Aaron Rowand and two pitching prospects that winter to make room for Howard.  All Howard did in his first full big league season was hit .313/.425/.659 with a whopping 58 home runs, good enough to win the National League MVP.

Diamondbacks 3B/OF Chad Tracy was drafted as the 218th overall player in the 7th round.  In his second big league season with the Snakes, Tracey broke out, hitting .308/.359/.553 with 27 home runs in 553 PA's.  Tracy had a down year in 2006, but PECOTA is optimistic about the upcoming season: They expect Tracy to hit .289/.353/.500 with 25 homers in 616 AB's.  Tracy is by no means a superstar, but he is versatile and he can hit.  Not bad for a 7th round pick.

Drafted in the 8th round, as the 243rd overall pick, was the University of Cincinnati's Kevin Youkilis. Youkilis physical appearance didn't attract many scouts, but Youkilis' ability to get on base was in its own class.  He spent nearly five years in the Red Sox minor league system before being handed a full-time job with the Red Sox last season.  "The Greek God of Walks" played three positions for the Red Sox last season and hit .279/.384/.429.  And of course, he walked in 13.8% of his PA's.

Other late round notable include:  Dan Johnson (A's, 221st overall), Luke Scott (Indians, 277th overall), Dan Uggla (D'Backs, 338th overall), Jason Bartlett (Padres, 390th overall), Chris Young (White Sox, 493rd overall), Jonny Gomes (D-Rays, 529th overall), Zach Duke (Pirates, 594th overall), Danny Kolb (Brewers, 718th overall), and Joey Gathright (D-Rays, 949th overall).

Final Thoughts

Looking back, the ugliest aspect of the draft probably lies in the production coming from the first-round pitchers thus far.  There is of course plenty of time for these pitchers to still succeed, and in some cases, make it to the majors, but it's difficult to call most of the first-round arms major league successes.

On the other hand there were a number of successful major league hitters drafted in 2001, with Joe Mauer, David Wright, Mark Teixeira, and Ryan Howard leading the pack.  The 2001 draft has already seen offensive production from these players and could see more in the near future with players like Bobby Crosby, Chris Burke and J.J. Hardy all ready to take on full-time major league jobs next year.