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The best MLB draft picks of all time

Not every great player is an elite prospect with a first round pedigree. Let’s take a look at the best lower tier MLB draft selections of all time.

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St. Louis Cardinals v San Diego Padres Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images

You’re the GM of one of Major League Baseball’s 30 teams. Congratulations, that’s pretty cool, good for you. While your title brings with it prestige and the envious plotting of ambitious underlings (I choose to assume), it also means you’ll be at the helm of a huge organization and therefore have a bunch of different responsibilities, one of which is the draft.

But that’s not intimidating; you’ve made it this far, and you and your scouting staff have done their due diligence, dotted all the I’s and crossed all the T’s. Although not apparent at the time, you nailed your first round pick and drafted a player with a long career ahead of him. Way to go! You did what you're supposed to do.

No one’s going out of their way to praise you for nailing an early pick, but they’ll be sure to criticize if you blow it. That’s why when people look back at past drafts and the best picks of all time, they never include early round selections. Bryce Harper at number one overall wasn’t a coup, it was obvious. It’s not fun to remember the easy picks, it’s fun to look back on the late round draft picks that defied expectations to become all-time greats.

This is not a new exercise, there have been plenty of articles written with this exact premise. So in the interest of at least feigning originality, we’re going to break down the all-time best MLB draft picks by position and build a team, one that will surely dominate due to the collective chips on their shoulders after being passed over so many times. The only arbitrary rule I’m imposing is that each player’s round of selection must be in the double digits, there will be no pampered, single-digit hot shots on this team. Here’s our squad:

Catcher - Mike Piazza

Round 62, Pick 2 (Overall: 1390) in 1988

Team: Los Angeles Dodgers

Career fWAR: 63.7

When Fred Claire selected Mike Piazza with the Dodgers 62nd round pick, I doubt he expected to be selecting the greatest offensive catcher in baseball history. In fact, the Dodgers only took Piazza as a favor to a family friend of then manager Tommy Lasorda. Even with the family connection it took a conversion to catcher to convince the Dodgers to go through with the signing. The Piazza selection is a nice reminder of how much of this process comes down to blind luck. It’s possible that Piazza would’ve scrapped his way to the majors one way or another, through talent alone, but the Dodgers reluctantly took a chance on him and were rewarded handsomely.

Piazza entered the league in 1992, won Rookie of the Year in 1993, and would appear in 12 All-Star games over the course of his career. He finished his major league tenure with 427 home runs and a slash line of .308/.377/.505. Piazza lead the majors in OPS+ twice in route to a 142 career mark. Nepotism: sometimes it pays dividends.

First Base - Albert Pujols

Round 13, Pick 18 (Overall: 402) in 1999

Team: St. Louis Cardinals

Career fWAR: 88.2

If Fernando Arango’s opinion had been listened to, one of baseball’s all-time great hitters would’ve been a Tampa Bay Devil Ray. From Jonah Keri’s “The Extra Two Percent:”

“With the first pick of the thirteenth round, the Devil Rays selected Jason Pruett, a left-handed pitcher out of a Texas community college. Seventeen picks later, the Cardinals threw their own dart. With the 402nd overall pick in the 1999 draft, St. Louis grabbed the player Arango had wanted all along. A pudgy kid from Missouri named Albert Pujols.

Arango was crushed. He quit his job and went to work at a sports agency. It didn’t take long for the Devil Rays to realize their mistake.“

Imagine being a scout so sure of a player that you’d quit over him not being selected by your team, and then imagine that player turning into a generational talent. Do you just put that and only that on your resume? At the very least it’s the number one anecdote you lead with in future job interviews. Fernando Arango didn’t get his guy, but his evaluations were spot on.

Albert Pujols is still playing. He’s a shell of his former self, but he’s still playing. In a way, his current struggles are a stark contrasting reminder of what Pujols was once capable of in the batter’s box. He was a Rookie of the Year, and a three-time MVP with 10 All-Star selections to his name. Pujols led the league in OPS+ and total bases four times, runs five times, and home runs twice. He surpassed the 3,000 hit mark this season after passing the 600 home run milestone last year. Pujols’ career is coming to an end with a whimper, but with all he’s accomplished after being selected in the 13th round, he’s arguably the greatest MLB draft pick of all time.

Second Base - Ryne Sandberg

Round 20, Pick 20 (Overall: 511) in 1978

Team: Philadelphia Phillies

Career fWAR: 60.9

Sandberg played nearly all of his rookie year at shortstop but soon moved over the the keystone where he held down second base for the Cubs over the span of 14 seasons. He made ten All-Star teams and won the NL MVP in 1984. Ryno — the most obvious nickname you could possibly give a person named Ryne — hit 282 home runs over the course of his career, including a 40 bomb campaign in 199, and ended his career with a lifetime 115 wRC+.

The Phillies really got themselves a gem in the 20th round of the 1978 draft. Unfortunately for them, they traded away the future Hall of Famer after he made just six plate appearances for the big club in 1992. Their return for Sandberg (and Larry Bowa) was Ivan DeJesus and over a decade’s worth of regret.

Third Base - Buddy Bell

Round 16, Pick 15 (Overall: 373) in 1969

Team: Cleveland Indians

Career fWAR: 61.7

Sorry Wade Boggs, your seventh round selection was simply too high to make you eligible for our team. Instead we turn to Buddy Bell, a borderline Hall of Famer with five All-Star appearances and five gold gloves. Bell wasn’t a power hitter — hitting 20 only once in his career — which is perhaps why he isn’t held in the same regard of the other great players of his era.

Bell’s 108 career wRC+ is a fine mark, but what stands out when looking over his numbers is his incredible strikeout rates. Only three times over the course of his 18 year career did Bell post a strikeout rate above 10 percent, and in those seasons it never went past 12 percent. Good defense, an above average bat, and a good batting eye with a nearly 20 year MLB career—not bad for a mid-16th rounder.

Shortstop - Rich Aurilia

Round 24, Pick 22 (Overall: 373) in 1992

Team: Texas Rangers

Career fWAR: 25.9

Lots of players play shortstop in high school and college but are forced to move off of the position as they enter the professional ranks. If you peruse the all time WAR leaderboard for the position, it’s littered with first round picks. I thought about abandoning the double digit round rule for this position to go with Ozzie Smith. He was drafted in the fourth round, which, in comparison to the other elite shortstops, was incredibly late.

But even when self-imposed, rules are rules, and we soldier on with the guidelines set forth for our team building to welcome Rich Aurilia aboard. With a career .275/.328/.433 slash line and a 98 wRC+, Aurilia’s offense doesn’t stand out as special, but he lead baseball in hits and made the All-Star team in 2001 and sported a mostly positive UZR during his time at short. Aurilia is 40th in shortstop fWAR from 1960 to now, but his 24th round selection stands out as a tremendous pick amongst the early-round pedigrees of his peers.

Outfield - Andre Dawson

Round 11, Pick 10 (Overall: 250) in 1975

Team: Montreal Expos

Career fWAR: 59.5

Unlike the aforementioned Buddy Bell, Andre Dawson made his mark with a little more pop and a little less patience, finishing his career with 438 home runs and 314 stolen bases. He never posted a walk rate above eight percent but finished with a career wRC+ of 117 because of his excellent power.

Dawson — who’s nickname of “The Hawk” is beautiful in it’s simplicity — won Rookie of the Year, made eight All-Star teams, and won the NL MVP with the Cubs in 1987 on the back of a 49 home run and 137 RBI campaign. Round 11 isn’t as far as some of the other players on this fictional team slipped, but it’s still late enough to be recognized as a major coup for the Montreal Expos.

Outfield - Kenny Lofton

Round 17, Pick 7 (Overall: 428) in 1988

Team: Houston Astros

Career fWAR: 62.4

That Kenny Lofton fell off of the Hall Of Fame ballot after just one year after failing to get the needed five percent to remain is a damn disgrace. The speedy Lofton was a career .299/.372/.794 hitter who captured 622 stolen bases in his career. From 1992 to 1996 he lead the league in steals for five straight seasons and swiped more than 50 six times in his career. JAWS rates Lofton as slightly below what’s needed for a Hall of Fame center fielder, but he was worthy of years of discussion at the very least, and for a 17th round pick that makes him an easy selection for our outfield.

Outfield - Mike Cameron

Round 18, Pick 25 (Overall: 488) in 1991

Team: Chicago White Sox

Career fWAR: 50.7

Mike Cameron is slept on. Probably because his career strikeout rate is 24.1 percent in the time period just before that became acceptable; but, along with that strikeout rate came an 11 percent walk rate and a career slash line of .249/.338/.444. Cameron blasted 278 home runs and swiped 297 bases over the course of his 17 year career.

Announcers like to talk about throwback players, when a guy scraps and claws and “goes the other way” with a “good piece of hitting” or other similar platitudes. Unfortunately, instead of being a throwback, Mike Cameron was just slightly ahead of his time. Power and speed, with a good walk rate and a lot of strikeouts? Yep, that sounds like the archetype of a modern superstar to me. He wasn’t properly appreciated at the time, but having been a 18th round steal, we’re happy to welcome him to our fictional team.

Pitchers

Let’s rapid fire these pitchers, shall we.

MLB Draft pitching steals

Round Pick Overall Team Year Career fWAR
Round Pick Overall Team Year Career fWAR
Nolan Ryan 12 6 226 New York Mets 1965 106.7
John Smoltz 22 26 574 Detroit Tigers 1985 79.6
Andy Pettitte 22 10 577 New York Yankees 1990 68.9
Brett Saberhagen 19 10 479 Kansas City Royals 1982 55.3
Roy Oswalt 23 19 684 Houston Astros 1996 52.4
Mark Buehrle 38 16 1139 Chicago White Sox 1998 51.9
Orel Hershiser 17 24 440 Los Angeles Dodgers 1979 48.0
Jake Peavy 15 28 472 San Diago Padres 1999 44.6
Kenny Rogers 39 2 814 Texas Rangers 1982 42.4

The above list has nine pitchers, a total of 549.8 fWAR accumulated, five Cy Young awards, 34 top-10 Cy Young finishes, and 40 All-Star selections. All that with a median draft round of 22 and median overall draft position of 574. I’m not going to parse the stats individually like with the position players, but this is an impressive group of pitchers, the earliest of whom was taken in the 12th round.

I suppose the point of this exercise is to remind us that it’s not all about the first few rounds of the draft. A lot can happen in the development process that can change the course of a career and uncover diamonds in the rough. Will the next Albert Pujols or Mike PIzza be selected this year? Almost certainly not. But the next Buddy Bell or Rich Aurilia might be, and the promise of that is enough to keep us entertained.


Chris Anders is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter @MrChrisAnders.