Everyone could use do-over now and again. MLB teams certainly are no different, especially when it comes to the draft. A handful of successful picks can set up franchises for years, just as a few seasons of wasted selections can plunge clubs into an indefinite rebuild.
Looking back on the last 10 years, who needs a do-over the most? Look away, Mariners fans.
Only one draft in the past 14 years includes as many as 12 first-round picks who have posted a career WAR of 10 or greater. That fish-in-a-barrel draft occurred in 2011. With the No. 2 pick, the Seattle Mariners had their pick of 11 of them once Gerrit Cole came off the board. They got none of them. Instead, they took University of Virginia left-hander Danny Hultzen. He never pitched a game for them.
Hultzen was a great college pitcher, so the Mariners’ interest was understandable. But his mechanics presented a big risk. Hultzen had velocity peaks and valleys in college, threw slightly across his body, had a very short stride, and raised his throwing elbow higher than his shoulder during the load phase, which often stresses the shoulder due to timing issues (i.e., the ball is not raised to its loaded position at front-foot strike).
Hultzen threw 118 innings in 2011 at Virginia and another 19 1/3 in the Arizona Fall League. The next year he made 25 starts in his first full pro season. It was not a crazy workload. But his shoulder could not withstand it. As the 2012 season wore on, his shoulder began to hurt, he began throwing even more across his body, and he walked 5.4 per nine innings. By the next year he needed shoulder surgery.
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It took tremendous perseverance for Hultzen to finally reach the majors last year with the Cubs, a testament to his character. All pitchers come with a degree of risk. But the risk on Hultzen was greater than most pitchers being considered at the top of the draft, especially for a guy who did not have a high ceiling even if he stayed healthy.
The miss by Seattle especially hurts because of who else was on the board: Anthony Rendon, Francisco Lindor, Javy Báez, George Springer, Trevor Story, Sonny Gray, et al. (The pre-draft talk had Seattle considering Rendon, Lindor and Bubba Starling.)
It hurts even more because the Mariners are one of only two teams that has not drafted an All-Star in the past 20 years. (The Padres are the other.)
It hurts even more because Seattle commonly made such mistakes. Six times in a 10-year window (2005-14) the Mariners had one of the first six picks of the draft, and had little to show for it (Jeff Clement, Brandon Morrow, Dustin Ackley, Hultzen, Mike Zunino, Alex Jackson).
And it hurts most of all because Seattle has not fielded a playoff team in 19 years.
It's obviously Hultzen. But if I can't have him, I'll take the Indians in 2010. With the fifth pick, they took Drew Pomeranz, who has been a perfectly adequate major leaguer, averaging about one win above replacement in his career. But if they wanted a left-handed starter coming out of college, they should have taken Chris Sale, who went No. 13 to the White Sox. So far, he's had the best career of anyone in that draft class, and although he just underwent Tommy John surgery, it took him a decade to need it. In that time, Cleveland has made the playoffs four times, including, of course, the '16 World Series that ended in a heartbreaking extra-innings Game 7. The Indians lost that game because their pitching was fried. It wouldn't have been if Sale had been anchoring their rotation.
The Mariners' first-round pick in 2011, Danny Hultzen. This one may feel more like bad luck than bad evaluation—who knows what this would have looked like if he'd never gone down with that shoulder injury in 2013?—but still, when a team has a chance to pick Anthony Rendon, Francisco Lindor, Javy Báez, Brandon Nimmo, José Fernández, or Sonny Gray, and misses on all of them... that's one to take a do-over on. (Especially when you consider that any small edge here could have been enough to end the M's postseason drought—just one game made the difference in 2014!)
Sorry, Mariners fans. The misses keep on coming. With the sixth pick in the 2014 draft, Seattle selected high school outfielder Alex Jackson. He lasted only two full seasons in the minors before the team traded him to Atlanta for a couple of nondescript pitchers, Max Povse and Rob Whalen. Who else was there for the taking when the Mariners were on the clock?
Three of next four picks were Kyle Freeland (Rockies), Aaron Nola (Phillies) and Michael Conforto (Mets). Trea Turner (Padres) and Matt Chapman (A's) were also available and later taken in the first round. You may have heard of these players before.
Jackson transitioned from outfield to catching upon his trade to the Braves. He debuted in the bigs last year, going hitless in 13 at-bats.
The Padres used the No. 9 overall pick in 2010 to select Karsten Whitson, a 6'4" righthander, who was considered at the time the second-best high school pitcher in the draft. Everything leading up to and immediately following the draft indicated that he would sign with the Padres out of high school. The San Diego Union Tribune reported at the time that Whitson "fell in love with San Diego last August when he pitched at Petco Park in the Aflac High School All-American Game." As a senior, he went 7-3 with a 0.62 ERA and racked up 123 strikeouts in 55 innings while issuing only 15 walks and 16 hits.
So what went wrong? Well, neither the San Diego climate nor a $2.1 million signing bonus was enough to lure him away from his commitment to the Florida Gators. Injuries derailed Whitson's career following a dynamic first season that earned him Freshman All-American honors. He was drafted twice more—by the Nationals in the 37th round in 2013 after he had shoulder surgery, and in the 11th round in 2014 by the Red Sox. He lasted just one year in the minor leagues.
Meanwhile, the Padres have not been to the playoffs in 13 seasons—the third longest postseason drought in the majors. Some of the notable players selected after Whitson in the 2010 first round? Yasmani Grandal (12th), Chris Sale (13th), Mike Foltynewicz (19th), Noah Syndergaard (38th), Taijuan Walker (43rd), Nicholas Castellanos (44th)—oh, and a lanky 18-year-old first baseman named Christian Yelich. Just for kicks, here's a note in Yelich's Perfect Game draft profile: "Big sleeper for the draft, he just keeps getting better."
The 2011 draft class was absolutely loaded, and Seattle made a clear mistake selecting lefty Danny Hultzen No. 2 overall. But another egregious error was made three spots later.
Following a run of four straight pitchers, the Royals had their pick of any positional player on the board at No. 5. Kansas City opted to select outfielder Bubba Starling, who has logged just 186 career at-bats with a .572 OPS. Starling's struggles are tough to swallow out of context, but considering the players that followed, KC's move is downright depressing.
Anthony Rendon, Francisco Lindor and Javier Báez were selected with three of the next four picks, and George Springer went No. 11. Swap Starling for one of the aforementioned stars, and Kansas City's championship window could have extended past 2015.