More often than not, players drafted highly in the MLB draft make it to the Bigs. Some are more successful than others of course, but by-and-large, top-five and top-ten picks at least make it to ‘The Show’ and have some level of impact.
Every so often however, and probably more often than we think, teams whiff on players who can’t get out of their own way either due to injuries or immaturity that players simply cannot overcome.
With the 2018 draft rapidly approaching, we look at the top ten top-five busts in the MLB draft in the 21st century, and discuss some of the pitfalls and tribulations the teams and players faced.
Despite most of these players minting a nice little fortune via their signing bonus, they’ll never be able to pay-off their reputation as players who never lived up to the hype that made them worthy of being top-five draft picks.
Biggest draft busts of the 2000s
|Player||Team||Overall Pick||Year||Signing Bonus||Career fWAR|
|Player||Team||Overall Pick||Year||Signing Bonus||Career fWAR|
|Bryan Bullington||Pittsburgh Pirates||1||2002||$4 million||-0.2|
|Delmon Young||Tampa Bay Rays||1||2003||$3.7 million||-1.5|
|Matt Bush||San Diego Padres||1||2004||$3.15 million||2|
|Jeff Clement||Seattle Mariners||3||2005||$3.4 million||-0.9|
|Greg Reynolds||Colorado Rockies||2||2006||$3.25 million||-0.9|
|Josh Vitters||Chicago Cubs||3||2007||$3.2 million||-1.4|
|Donavan Tate||San Diego Padres||3||2009||$6.25 million||DNP|
|Bubba Starling||Kansas City Royals||5||2011||$7.25 million||DNP|
|Danny Hultzen||Seattle Mariners||2||2011||$6.35 million||DNP|
|Mark Appel||Houston Astros||1||2013||$6.35 million||DNP|
Many of the names on this list had the raw talent to succeed in baseball, but either through a lack of mental fortitude, physical ailments, or just general immaturity, did not make it to the Majors, or did not play well in the Majors.
That may not have been the case with Bryan Bullington, who was generally regarded as a middle-of-the-pack talent, but who the Pirates decided would be worth the money because he was unlikely to demand that of other players. The Pirates selected Bullington with the number one overall pick in the 2002 draft, despite not flashing tools of some of the other players down on their list (Zack Greinke’s fastball, Prince Fielder’s power etc.). It’s the prime example of what happens when you cheap-out on talent even when ‘earning’ a number one pick. Pittsburgh paid Bullington $4 million, but I bet looking back they’d have paid more for someone who could actually contribute.
The quintessential post-boy for a number-one-draft-pick-gone-wrong, Tampa Bay drafted Young right out of high school. The immature, but stacked slugger, started his minor league career well, hitting 20 homers and posing a .336 average in 84 games in Double-A. After the 2005 season, Baseball America named Young the Minor League Player of the Year, and it’s number one prospect heading into 2006. Then it all came crashing down.
Young’s immaturity got the best of him, when he earned a 50-game suspension for chucking a bat at an umpire in an in-game meltdown. Despite overcoming the bout of stupidity, and earning a second-place finish in the AL Rookie of the Year voting, the Rays traded young to Minnesota in November 2007. After minnesota, Young bounced around to Detroit, Philadelphia, back to Tampa, again back to Philly, and eventually to Baltimore, where his MLB career ended with a negative fWAR.
The Padres drafted two-way prospect Matt Bush in 2004 with the expectation he would turn into a franchise player. Shortly after the draft, Bush was yet another victim of his own idiocy, and got arrested after a bar fight, a continuing theme throughout his unimpressive career. Adding insult to injury, Justin Verlander was taken number two in the 2004 draft, and won the 2006 AL Rookie of the Year Award.
Bush’s talent never lived up to the hype at the plate, as he failed to hit a single home run in either Rookie Ball or Low-A ball. In a desperate attempt to extract some value, and amidst other off-the-field issues, San Diego moved him to the mound, where he quickly washed out of the organization and was sent packing to the Blue Jays for practically nothing. Amidst an reputation that he did not take his work seriously Toronto acquired him with a zero-tolerance policy, which was quickly challenged when Bush reportedly threw a ball at a woman’s head and banged on her car window. He missed the entire 2009 season, and signed with the Rays, where his tenure included one injury-plagued season, and ultimately culminated with him drunkenly running over a 72-year-old man during Spring Training, which landed him in jail.
The Rangers signed Bush after his release from prison, evaluating him after his shift, in the parking lot of a Florida Golden Corral (due to probationary travel restrictions). To date, Bush has totaled only 131 total MLB innings.
Clement is one of two Mariners’ busts on this list. The number two overall pick in 2005 never was able to shake injuries, despite a rapid rise from being drafted, to his Major League debut just two years later. Clement came with a decent pedigree, having a Baseball America freshman All-American and winning the 2005 Johnny Bench Award, being voted the country’s top college catcher.
Clement earned a September call-up in 2007, and joined the Mariners, backing up Kenji Johjima, whom Seattle had signed to a large contract. He tore his meniscus in his left knee, which required surgery and ended up needing multiple surgeries on the same knee. His cateching career all but over in 2009, Seattle dealt Clement to the Pirates for Jack Wilson and Ian Snell (hardly number-two-pick-worthy names), but he never really achieved starter status in Pittsburgh either.
Between injuries, and the Mariners inability to provide a consistent playing cadence for him, Clement was doomed to the ‘busts’ list.
Reynolds was the biggest bust of the 2006 draft, after being selected by the Rockies who passed over Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, and Evan Longoria, whom the front office wanted, but reportedly were overruled by ownership.
Another case of simply bad luck, Reynolds suffered shoulder injuries after a successful first year, which ultimately led to a premature end of his career. In total, Reynolds pitched in only 21 games between the Rockies and Reds, but never amounted to anything in the big leagues.
There was a time when the Cubs could do nothing right. It wasn’t that long ago, despite it feeling like the North Siders have done everything right recently.
With the third overall pick in the 2007 draft, the Cubs thought they found their third baseman of the future. Instead, what they got was a mediocre hitter who was a complete disaster defensively. Despite eight minor seasons in which he hit 80 home runs and posted a decent .272 average, Vitters was a disaster in Chicago. Over only 109 MLB plate appearances, Vitters mustered a wRC+ of only 5. F-I-V-E. Oh well, at least they made up for it by later drafting Kris Bryant.
The Padres have the misfortune of being on this list twice, most recently by drafting center fielder Donovan Tate. San Diego opened their purse, anointing the third overall pick with a franchise-record $6.25 million bonus.
Tate suffered from injuries both incidental and avoidable. He had surgery to repair a sports hernia in the fall of 2009, then fractured his jaw on an ATV while he was supposed to be recovering. Then in 2010, he sprained his left shoulder in spring training. To add to the litany of issues, he received a 50-game suspension for violating baseball’s drug policy --- his second offense. Tate never even made it to double-A.
It is no secret that the Royals like to operate on a shoestring budget, and plan to win by developing players from within their own organization. KC signed Starling for a franchise-record $7.5 million, but he never performed like the top-five draft pick. Through five minor league seasons, Starling never put together anything at the plate, neither hitting for average or power.
The second of the Mariners top-five busts, Hultzen has been out of professional ball since 2016, despite being drafted a two-way player out of the University of Virginia. Though he did try to make a comeback in 2018, signing a minor-league contract with the Cubs, he never played a game for any Chicago affiliates.
Hultzen’s raw talent as a dominant southpaw, but succumbed to rotator cuff, shoulder, and labrum injuries that completely derailed his career.
Another Stanford pitcher makes the list of the biggest busts of the 2000s, with Mark Appel being the most recent victim. Appel’s career with the Astros started like many others, with ups-and-downs. The Astros expected a meteoric rise out of the Stanford grad, but in five seasons in the minors, he never put it all together. As he got older, his performance worsened, to a point where he was walking more than 10 percent of the batters he faced. After five years and never making it past triple-A, Appel announced he was officially stepping away from baseball in February.
Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano