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Learning to live with draft nepotism

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It took me a while to appreciate the value of drafting brothers, sons, and girlfriends' brothers.

Low round gems like Jose Bautista are an oasis in a desert of non-prospects
Low round gems like Jose Bautista are an oasis in a desert of non-prospects
Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

It used to bother me when teams would select the son of their general manager, or manager, or coach, or their star's brother, just to have that player in the organization. All the thousands of amateurs out there, clamoring for just a shot in professional baseball, and every year a few of them would lose their chance to blatant nepotism.

This is not news, of course. Every team does it. The Twins drafted Joe Mauer's brother Jake. Kenny Williams drafted his boy for the White Sox. While I was a clubhouse manager with a Pirates affiliate, the son of Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage was drafted and came through. Tommy Lasorda picked his godson, some amateur first baseman on nobody's radar named Mike Piazza. Ok, bad example.

Anyway, like I said, this used to bother me. I wanted baseball to be a meritocracy, where the best competed against the best and where excellence was rewarded. And, for the most part, it is.

But the draft is different in some important ways, and that's ok. Yes, it is absolutely essential for clubs to get as much talent as they can out of the first part of the draft. There is no doubt that teams simply cannot afford to waste a first, second, or even a tenth round choice.  But, while teams have seemingly gotten better at evaluating talent over the years, the amateur draft is still enough of a crapshoot that even getting one valuable player out of any draft class makes it a success.

It's generally a safe bet that, if a club is going to get a valuable piece out of that draft, it's going to be in those first ten selections. The rest are essentially organizational filler, with the chance to be lottery picks. So if the Brewers, for instance, want to draft Jonathan Lucroy's brother in the 20th round as a nod to one of their best players and as a way to cement his ties, even very slightly, to the organization as a whole, it's worth it. If the Tigers want to curry favor with Nick Castellanos by letting him announce the selection of his brother in the 25th round, that very well could be what's best for the club. And if the Angels want to take Mike Trout's potential future-brother-in-law in the 19th, more power to them. After all, the chances of finding a great player in, say, round 20, is incredibly small.

From 2000-2010, 330 players were selected in the 20th round.  Of those, 38 (11.5 percent) have made the Major Leagues. But those numbers are misleading, as many teams use these low picks to take players with little chance to sign. They are calculated risks. In fact, of all 330 players, only 11 (3.3 percent) have been drafted in the 20th round, signed, made the major leagues and contributed more than a single win above replacement for their career.

Year

Rnd

RdPck

Tm

Name

Pos

WAR

2000

20

19

Pirates

Jose Bautista

3B

30.6

2003

20

18

Phillies

Brad Ziegler

RHP

10.9

2001

20

8

Pirates

Zach Duke

LHP

9.8

2006

20

25

Indians

Vinnie Pestano

RHP

4.5

2009

20

20

Astros

J.D. Martinez

RF

3.5

2007

20

8

Rockies

Matt Reynolds

LHP

2.9

2002

20

13

Padres

George Kottaras

C

2.8

2002

20

23

Braves

Chuck James

LHP

2.5

2006

20

6

Tigers

Casey Fien

RHP

2.2

2002

20

18

White Sox

Boone Logan

LHP

1.9

2002

20

10

Rangers

Kameron Loe

RHP

1.2

Jose Bautista, of course, was an incredible find, but even he didn't develop until years later with the Blue Jays after being waived by the Pirates. Ziegler bounced around forever as well. Indeed, none of these players is still with their original organization.

Indeed, the chances of a 20th round pick still being in their original organization even four years after the draft is incredibly low, thanks to the high turnover rate in the low minors. After all, every year an entire new class of kids is ready to take their place. But do you know who is likely to be with their organizations five years from now? Joe Mauer, Nick Castellanos, Jonathan Lucroy, and Mike Trout. These picks make their lives marginally better, and that seems like, in the long run, it would be worth it. And if the beneficiary of that influence pulls a Mike Piazza, defies the odds, and breaks through? At least it won't be for another club who would then have a selling point in potential free agent negotiations. Finally, if the player leaves the organization (or Mike Tout breaks up with his girlfriend), dropping that non-prospect won't make a ripple. Nepotism sometimes makes good baseball sense.