We are less than a month from the Major League Baseball amateur draft. It feels kind of exciting, especially if you're as tired of watching your favorite big league teams as we Twins fans are. People are going to publish mock drafts (hey, we might even do that at the Daily Dish) and tell you who teams should draft. That the Orioles system is in need of pitching depth and the Tigers need to come up with some position players to supplement their aging core.
After the draft, we'll dream on the players taken, imagining a golden future for them. And some of them will invariably reach it. We'll analyze the picks and declare winners and losers, because you expect that of us (for some reason). The truth is that we won't know who "won" and who "lost" the 2016 draft for some time.
It's far different in other sports. For one thing, performance seems to be much more predictable in basketball, football, and hockey. Yes, there are busts, but the players taken tend to be older, and require less development to be able to contribute in some way from the moment that they're drafted. In baseball, it can take even an elite a college senior 2-3 years to work his way up the minor league ladder. The journey could be even longer if we're talking about high school or junior college draftees. It simply takes longer to become good enough to play baseball at the highest level than it does virtually any other professional sport. And there is a far higher attrition rate.
Take the 2013 draft class, for instance. In all, 39 players were selected in the first round of that draft. Those 39 players have now spent, essentially, three full years in the minors. Of those 39 players, just 9 have made their Major League debuts. Five pitchers have appeared in more than 10 games, and only one position player, Kris Bryant, has played more than once. And that draft is, by no means, a failure. Indeed, the rest of the first round is filled with top prospects who will debut in the next year or so. But it will still take another two or three years after that before we have any kind of reliable data on who did well.
It's also worth pointing out that all it really takes is one great pick to make a club's entire draft. The overwhelming majority of prospects will not play in the Majors. Of those who play in the Majors, relatively few will have what we would consider to be a productive and successful career. Consider the Diamondbacks in 2010. Of course, that draft is faous for producing Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Chris Sale, and Matt Harvey. It also included guys like Noah Syndergaard, Christian Yelich, Aaron Sanchez and Yasmani Grandal in the first round. That year, the Diamondbacks drafted, and chose not to sign for health reasons, Barret Loux. You might have figured that the draft was lost for Arizona. First rounders, after all, hit at a much higher rate than lower draft choices.
And for 18 rounds, you would have been right. But in that 19th round, the D-Backs took a small outfielder named Adam Eaton. Since then, Eaton was traded and has become a minor star with the White Sox, worth almost 13 wins above replacement according to Baseball Reference. And in that entire stacked 2010 draft (which also included Jacob deGrom, Andrelton Simmons, Drew Smyly, Kole Calhoun, Joc Pederson, Taijuan Walker, and Vincent Velasquez), Eaton ranks fifth in career WAR, and the D-Backs are fifth in overall WAR drafted in the six years since then. Nobody would have guessed that at the time.
And, by the way, the genius that year who picked both Harvey and deGrom, and who picked Steven Matz the year before? That was Omar Minaya, who was (rightfully) run out of town long before any of his incredible picks made the majors.
Moreover, these rankings are going to change drastically as even more of the impressive list of guys taken wind up sticking around for a few years. The point is that, yes, the draft is something to get excited about. Yes, teams should do their best to take the best players. But the entire draft is something of a crapshoot from an analytical perspective. And we'd be wise to remember that before we invest too much of our time and energy into any individual pick, or freak out too much over a prospect, or lament where our favorite teams are picking, or criticize one club's strategy in June. None of us knows a damn thing. Not really. Not that that will stop us.