First Round Busts?
When you consider the production provided from 11 first-round picks in those six years, the Twins are near the bottom of the league. The 6.5 wins above replacement (WAR) is the sixth-lowest return on investment among all the major league teams in that span. Only the Indians, Rockies, Padres, Red Sox and Phillies managed to get less value out of their first round picks.
To make matters worse, it is not just the fact that first-round picks have failed to perform for the Twins, it is that they have had troubles even reaching the game’s highest level. Just four of the 11 picks have made it through the system. Only the Atlanta Braves, San Diego Padres and Tampa Bay Rays have churned out a lower percentage of major league players than Minnesota.
Draft position factors in quite a lot as to what level of talent is available, but having a high pick does not guarantee success either. For instance, in those six years the Kansas City Royals found themselves selecting at a median spot of fourth but wound up with 15.7 runs above replacement for seven players in what were highly coveted draft positions. On the other hand, the Cincinnati Reds drafted at a median spot of 15 and had a return of 44.5 wins above replacement (the fourth best in that time) on their nine players.
“You cannot go into the draft saying, ‘we’re going to take position players this year,” said Roy Clark, a former Atlanta Braves scouting director and recent national cross-checker for the Los Angeles Dodgers, in the book ‘Scouts Honor’. “And then all of a sudden, we’re picking seventy-first, and all of the position players are gone or all of the good pitchers are gone. You never know who is going to be there. I like picking thirtieth every year. I want to pick thirtieth every year.”
Based on that, Clark surely must have been envious of the Reds’ recent draft positions which were huddled in his sweet spot of the first rounds. Those selections turned into major league contributors in Drew Stubbs, Devin Mesoraco and Yasmani Grandal and resulted in the fourth most wins above replacement in that time frame. Meanwhile, in the same period, the Twins were drafting slightly lower than Clark’s ideal spot - and certainly further down the list than the Reds.
It didn’t always used to be this way for the Twins. While sitting in Terry Ryan’s office earlier this winter, the topic of the 1989 amatuer draft came up.
When reviewing the first four picks by the Twins at Baseball-Reference.com, one cannot help but be impressed by the fruit that that draft bore. It was a work of art in the scouting world -- probably something veteran scouts talk about over bourbon and cigars.
That year’s draft provided the Twins with two vital components to their eventual World Series title in 1991: a top of the lineup catalyst and an excellent defender at a key up-the-middle position in Chuck Knoblauch (1st round, 25th overall) and a 20-game winner in Scott Erickson (4th, 112th overall). In between was left-handed pitcher Denny Neagle (3rd, 85th) from the University of Minnesota, who would later be flipped to Pittsburgh in 1992 so the Twins could acquire 20-game winner John Smiley, and go on to have a solid career of his own.
Of course, in addition to noticing the noteworthy careers of Knoblauch, Neagle and Erickson, one cannot also help but be drawn to the one name on the Baseball-Reference.com list that does not include a hyperlink to a major league career: John Gumpf.
“Gumpf,” Ryan said to himself in his office while reminiscing about the draft that helped lay a foundation for the organization’s second World Series title. He shook his head and seemed to be kicking himself all over again. He and his staff had gone three-for-four but swung and missed badly on that second pitch.
As the team’s scouting director, Ryan was at the helm of his third amateur draft in 1989. They were looking to supplement the farm system with power and Gumpf’s name surfaced in the war room while the team was on the clock. Reports on the high school kid from Riverside, CA said he had plenty of pop in his bat. With the fifty-fifth overall pick -- the same spot in which the Twins would take high school pitcher Hudson Boyd twenty-two years later -- they added their slugger.
Or so they thought.
Gumpf’s professional career never amount to much. Over four seasons in the minors, he knocked out 15 home runs in 291 games and retired with a .329 slugging percentage over his minor league career.
How did that happen? How did the Twins who were on a roll miss so poorly with their second pick? Ryan shrugged. Couldn’t make an adjustment here or didn’t make an adjustment there or maybe the reports were overblown. Either way, Gumpf was out of professional baseball and that year’s draft was a resounding success.
Sometimes you just miss.
Did the Twins scouting department lose its innovative edge from the era in which they were winning drafts? Have they since been outmaneuvered by other teams who have found ways to exploit the draft? Did the development system fail the players? Is this simply a case of bad luck in what is after all a small sample size?
Going back to 2006 through 2011, teams with picks in the top ten -- the Rays, the Giants, the Dodgers -- were able to lock in marquee picks like David Price, Madison Bumgarner and Clayton Kershaw. Naturally they wound up getting plenty of value from those players. Those outside of that area either had to spend additional money (like the Tigers in landing Rick Porcello) or just simply had to be better than everyone else at evaluating talent. The St. Louis Cardinals seemed to exemplify that.
With their lowest pick at 13th, much like the Minnesota Twins, the majority of the Cardinals' first rounders came on the wrong side of 25. Nevertheless, they were able to generate 23.7 WAR while graduating 72% of their first rounders so they could help the parent company. Part of it helps to be lucky but, like Branch Rickey touted, luck is the residue of design.
As a team that was selecting players in the latter portions of the draft, the Cardinals found success by ensuring the lines of communication were open among all departments.
“[W]e had a great interaction between scouting and player development,” former Cardinals scouting director and now Astros’ GM Jeff Luhnow told FoxSports.com in regard to what made his 2009 draft class so special. “[Cardinals chairman and CEO] Bill DeWitt’s responsible for that; it’s his vision. My first charter was to coordinate between different silos – there was a scouting silo, a player-development silo; it happens – so I took everyone on an international trip. Eventually there was a process in place. Analytics, scouting, medical, mechanics: Ultimately everything has to come together in a ranking. It’s not absolute, but a guide. Partly art, partly science.”
Despite losing Parmelee for nothing, the Twins still have several players who could provide value to rescue their numbers.
Kyle Gibson (22nd overall, 2009) is coming off a year where he became a stabilizing force in the rotation and could make big steps forward in 2015. Meanwhile, from 2006 to 2011, the highest the Twins drafted was 14th in 2008 and that resulted in Aaron Hicks. At his age, Hicks still has every opportunity to provide positive value but has plenty of adjustments to make in order to do so. Same goes for Levi Michael, Travis Harrison, Alex Wimmers and Boyd. But picks like Matt Bashore, Carlos Gutierrez and Shooter Hunt are forever filed under missed opportunities.
The cyclical nature of the draft seems to have paved the way for a brighter future for the team. After several years of underperforming because of poor returns in the first round, the Twins were able to make selections when premium talent was still on the board. Byron Buxton, Jose Berrios, Luke Bard, Kohl Stewart and Nick Gordon have the makings to provide a solid foundation.
Of course, if and/or when the team begins to win again, learning from mistakes and ensuring that the draft continues to provide major league talent should be a top priority.