Major League Baseball isn’t like other sports. The degree of difficulty in the draft is extreme and one player, no matter how good, can only make so big of an impact.
Joe Mauer is the fourth-best No. 1 overall pick of all-time, according to Baseball-Reference WAR, behind only Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones and Ken Griffey Jr. Those top four combined to help bring one World Series championship to the teams that drafted them (Jones with Atlanta in 1995). Even when you get this pick right, there’s so much else you have to do correctly to build a successful team.
Know who the 10th-best top overall pick is? B.J. Surhoff. He had a nice long career, but when we’re talking about one of the best top picks that’s not a very encouraging guy landing in the top 10.
Since the turn of the millennium, we’ve seen busts such as Bryan Bullington (2002), Delmon Young (2003), Matt Bush (2004), Luke Hochevar (2006), Tim Beckham (2008), Mark Appel (2013) and Brady Aiken (2014). There’s been more misses than hits. This is the first overall pick we’re talking about!
Twins fans should have the best grip of anyone on how long it can take for draftees to materialize. The 2016 season is long in the rear-view mirror yet we’ve only seen 51 plate appearances (Brent Rooker) and four innings pitched (Bailey Ober) from that draft class. Royce Lewis would have likely been on the verge of contributing, but the tricky thing with these draft picks is they're human beings subject to injuries.
And that’s just the draft, MLB’s international signings might be the ultimate crapshoot in all of sports. It seems for every $4 million Wander Javier there’s a $100,000 Ronald Acuña Jr.
It seems like the idea of tanking really took off after the Cubs and Astros won back-to-back World Series championships in 2016 and ‘17. Both franchises had long down periods before reaching the top. Chicago was led by 2013 No. 2 overall pick Kris Bryant and Houston by 2012 No. 1 overall pick Carlos Correa. It was easy to believe there was a simple formula to follow but what’s overlooked is how good (or fortunate) both those organizations were with many of their other transactions that had nothing to do with tanking/draft picks.
The Cubs made excellent trades for Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta. The Astros originally signed José Altuve for $15,000, got Dallas Keuchel with the 221st pick of the 2009 Draft and paid just $25.97 for an invaluable trash can from Home Depot (sorry, I couldn’t resist). That’s definitely oversimplifying things — those teams did benefit from tanking — but you have to do so many other things right than just get high draft picks and big international signing bonus pools.
Just look at teams like the Orioles, Reds, Tigers, Marlins, Mariners, Rangers and Pirates. They are in varying states of extended rebuilds and have little to show for it. Meanwhile, the Cardinals have 13-straight winning seasons, Dodgers are at 10 years of winning and Cleveland, despite all their (mostly self-imposed) limitations, has eight consecutive seasons with a winning record. Those teams haven’t had to lose, let alone bottom out, to stay competitive.
People like to marvel over the fact that Mike Trout was the 25th-overall pick. But Mookie Betts was the 172nd, Shane Bieber was the 122nd, Jacob deGrom was the 272nd … we could go on and on. Any team in baseball could have had all four of those guys at the same time. Think about that for a second!
There is no limitation that counts as an excuse for not being successful. There is also no monetary or talent-acquisition advantage such as draft position that is a silver bullet for success.
So how do the Twins ensure a successful future? Same as always: Be elite in player acquisition and player development.
Hey, I said it wasn’t that easy.