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Who's #1?

 

Even though they are currently in first place and have a wealth of additional talent in the minor leagues, the Tampa Bay Rays have the number one pick in today’s Rule 4 draft. Their decision seems to be between two players: Florida State catcher Buster Posey, and high school shortstop Tim Beckham. Who should they pick?

 

Historically, the number one pick in baseball has yielded excellent players. Although the baseball draft is full of uncertainty, the number one pick is usually a tremendous value. In fact, Baseball Prospectus’s Rany Jazayerli conducted a comprehensive draft study back in 2006. Jazayerli came up with some “rules” based on the findings of the study. The first rule was that “the greatest difference in value between consecutive draft picks is the difference between the first and second picks in a draft.” This makes sense when you think about it: as uncertain as young baseball players are, there are certain transcendent players who are extremely likely to become everyday players, or even stars. Sure, there is a lot of risk in these superstar players, but much of the risk can be attributed to injury, rather than performance.

There are some players who are transcendent, obvious number one picks, a la David Price last season or Justin Upton in 2005. There are other players who are taken first overall due to monetary considerations (such as San Diego’s selection of Matt Bush in 2004) or are number one picks in years in which scouts generally agree that no one single players rises head-and-shoulders above the rest (such as Bryan Bullington, taken by the Pirates in 2002, when USA Today wrote “Scouts say this draft lacks the high-profile, star-potential players last year's draft had.”)

The latter situation applies to this year. Without knocking any of this season’s top talents, there is no consensus on who is the best player. In fact, no one knows who the Rays are going to take with the number one pick – and their indecision is not due to signability concerns (as was a primary motivation for the Twins in 2001, when they selected Joe Mauer instead of Mark Prior with the first pick). There are several excellent talents in this year’s draft – notably Buster Posey, Tim Beckham, and Pedro Alvarez. However, there does not seem to be any one player who is clearly above the others.

According to Baseball Prospectus’s Kevin Goldstein, Tim Beckham’s ceiling is “an All-Star shortstop who hits 20 home runs, steals 40 bases, and plays above-average defense.” Goldstein comments that “arguments remain over his ability to stay at shortstop--the athleticism is there, but his fundamentals are shaky--and ultimate power ceiling.”

In contrast, Florida State catcher Buster Posey’s ceiling, according to Goldstein, has the ceiling of “a Gold Glove catcher who hits .270-.290 with 15-20 home runs and 75 walks.” However, “he's still new to catching, so while he has the potential to be great, he’s not there yet.” Finally, Goldstein mentions that Posey is “one of the safest picks around.”

 

It appears that the Rays are debating between these two players. At first examination, this choice appears to be a clear choice between high risk/high reward and low risk/low reward. Tim Beckham is a high school player who has a higher upside, but also has a lower chance of reaching that upside. Posey has a lower upside but a much higher probability of reaching that upside. Do you want to play it safe, or take a chance and potentially get a better player? With the number one pick in the draft, it seems an ineffective strategy to play it safe; go for a superstar! Thus, Tim Beckham seems to be the right choice.

But wait a minute. The comparison between the risky Beckham and the safe Posey is flawed due to the assumption that even though Posey is “safe,” he’s not worth a number one pick. Just how many catchers are there that can hit 15 homers and walk 75 times in a season? Let’s take a look.

 

In 2007, Jorge Posada had 74 walks and 20 homers (and accumulated a 73.4 VORP, good for 8th in baseball). Jason Varitek accumulated 71 walks and 17 homers in the same year, good for a 23.4 VORP, which was 109th in baseball.

In 2006, Joe Mauer had 79 walks and 13 homers, good for a 66.9 VORP, 10th in baseball. Victor Martinez had 71 walks and 16 homers, giving him a 47.8 VORP, 35th in baseball.

 

In 2005, Greg Zaun had 73 walks and 11 homers, good for a 14.0 VORP, 153rd in baseball.

In 2004, Jorge Posada had 88 walks and 21 homers, giving him a 41.7 VORP, 40th in baseball.

 

In 2002, Jorge Posada had 81 walks and 20 homers, giving him a 41.8 VORP, 41st in baseball.

In 2000, Jason Kendall had 79 walks and 14 homers, giving him a 52.5 VORP, 36th in baseball.

 

Additionally, while VORP takes into consideration what position a player plays, it does not take into consideration how well the player plays that position. Posey reportedly projects as a well-above-average defender, in addition to his offensive projections.

There are very few catchers who combine above-average defense with 75 walks and 15-homer power in the majors. There are also very few prospects in the minors who project to have this combination of offensive and defensive skills. In fact, there are very few prospects who project as anything resembling a decent major league catcher in both offense and defense.

 

Additionally, Goldstein admits that “[Posey’s] ultimate power ceiling ranges from just average to well-above, depending on who you talk to.” Thus, the 15-homer projection is rather conservative. Posey seems unlikely to have less than 15-homer power; while he might top out at 15 homers, he also might develop “well-above” average power, which presumably equates to more than 15 homers.

Even as a potential above-average defensive catcher with patience and 25-homer power, Buster Posey’s ceiling is still lower than Tim Beckham’s. Beckham’s ceiling, according to Goldstein, is “an All-Star shortstop who hits 20 home runs, steals 40 bases, and plays above-average defense.” That is still a higher ceiling than the optimistic projection of Posey’s ceiling.

 

However, the difference between the ceilings of Posey and Beckham is not that large, due to the scarcity of catchers in both the major and minor leagues. Simply put, as good as Beckham could be, above-average middle infielders are easier to find than above-average catchers (granted, both are very rare). Then factor in the probabilities for each player: Posey’s probability of reaching his ceiling is higher than the chance of Beckham reaching his. Additionally, the probability of Beckham never reaching the majors is much higher than Posey.

Posey has a much higher probability of reaching his potential than Beckham. Although Beckham has a higher ceiling than Posey, his ceiling is not enough higher to justify the difference in potential. But here is the key point: Posey is really, really good. It’s one thing if you’re comparing a high risk/high reward player with someone who tops out as an average regular, or a potential ace pitcher with a guy who’s not going to be any better than a #4 starter. But, as I’ve demonstrated, a catcher with above-average defense, 15 homers, and 75 walks is extremely valuable – and this is a conservative estimate of Posey’s ability, it’s very possible that he can be even better than this.

 

There is no Justin Upton or David Price in this year’s draft. As good as Beckham could be, Goldstein wrote that Beckham is not “a guy who grades out as well as the Upton brothers did.” Posey’s ceiling may not be as high as Beckham’s, but Posey’s ceiling is still that of a very valuable player. And the chance of Posey reaching his ceiling is much higher than the chance of Beckham reaching his.

All things considered, Buster Posey should be the number one overall pick in today’s draft.