Fans of the four major sports have grown accustomed to the offseason tradition during which teams select the next crop of talent in what has now become a publicly televised draft. For the National Football League, the draft is in such high demand that it spans three days, the first of which airs during a primetime television slot.
The main reason for the popularity of the NFL Draft is incredibly clear — players selected during the spring typically have a direct impact on the team that following fall. There are no minor league or developmental systems, and the players taken during the draft can either help their team now or go home.
The Major League Baseball Draft is basically the complete opposite of its football counterpart. Originally conducted via speakerphones and conference calls — this has since been changed to a nationally televised event in an attempt to piggyback of the success of the NFL Draft — the MLB Draft consists of 40 rounds of largely irrelevant selections. With three major levels of Minor Leagues — not including the spin-offs of Rookie Ball and High A — most players selected in the First-Year Player Draft will find their careers end before reaching the Major League club. With that, teams seek both quality and quantity when drafting, trying to “graduate” as many of their selections as possible in the coming years.
Continually suffering from losing seasons has its inherent reward, as the opportunity to select players in the front-end of each draft comes with an obvious payoff. But it is only when teams successfully hit on players year after year that the franchise sees a turnaround. Evidence of this could be found in the Tampa Bay Rays — struggling for years before exploding from 2010-2013 with four straight 90-win seasons, one division title, and three playoff berths.
The Rays are far from the only team to have turned years of poor performances into a winning organization. Here are five teams that have used the past few drafts to makeup for the sins of prior seasons:
New York Mets
The Mets have made no efforts to hide their intentions — they want to build a winning franchise through pitching. While Zach Wheeler and Noah Syndergaard were obtained through trade, the Mets continued to stack arms one June after another. Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom — both homegrown Mets — are obvious building blocks for the franchise, while Steven Matz — selected by New York in 2009 – appears ready to give the Major League club an added boost at a moment’s notice.
Not surprisingly, with the focus resting largely on pitching, the Mets’ offense has suffered. The team has tried to rectify this in recent years, selecting hitters with their last four first picks — Michael Conforto, Dominic Smith, Gavin Cecchini, and Brandon Nimmo. With the pitchers clearly developing as planned, the Mets will welcome any contribution from their future hitters.
The Arizona Diamondbacks look like the closest thing to a Mets’ clone, sprinkled with a rare ‘prospect firesale.’ Seemingly depleting the Minor League system in recent years, the Diamondbacks have built their farm system back up by carefully selecting a group of pitchers with high Major League potential. Archie Bradley has already dazzled at times, this season, and Braden Shipley and Touki Toussaint were largely considered some of the league’s top prospects almost immediately after being drafted.
As further proof that Arizona has performed well at draft time, their 2011 first-round pick, Trevor Bauer, is in the midst of a fantastic Major League season. Unfortunately, he now pitches for the Indians. If the Diamondbacks can hold onto their current talent while continuing to find success in their early draft picks, Arizona could quickly become a team on the rise.
Kansas City Royals
Today’s poster child for a ‘homegrown team,’ the Kansas City Royals quietly accumulated talent for years before putting it all together in an unforgettable 2014 run, capped off by the American League Pennant. Although many of their players took a long time to fully develop — Mike Moustakas and Danny Duffy were both drafted in 2007, and Eric Hosmer was drafted in 2008 — the Royals didn’t hesitate to use their 2014 draft pick, Brandon Finnegan, in the World Series.
With the Royals backing up their 2014 season with a hot start in 2015, they can allow their future to further develop. The aforementioned Finnegan is expected to be an important part of the Kansas City Royals in the coming years, and he should be joined shortly thereafter by Sean Manaea, a left-handed pitcher selected 34th overall in 2013. If Kansas City draftees continue to pan out, despite how long it ultimately takes, the Royals should remain atop the American League for years to come.
If the Mets and Diamondbacks sought a partner with which to make a treaty regarding draft strategy, they would have looked no further than Chicago. In the same vein that Arizona and New York continued selecting pitchers with high draft picks, the Cubs chose to use bats as their weapon of choice. Selecting hitters with five of its last six first picks, Chicago has attempted to rebuild its lineup through the draft while adding a key rotation anchor in Jon Lester via free agency.
Chicago’s top pick in 2012 — outfielder Albert Almora — is steadily making his way through the Minor League system, but Javier Baez and Kris Bryant — selected first by the Cubs in 2011 and 2013, respectively — have already made their Major League debut. Baez has been given more time to develop in the farm system, this year — and is now nursing an injury — but the impact of Bryant – 2013’s second overall pick – has been obvious since mid-April. Amazingly enough, 2014’s fourth overall selection, Kyle Schwarber, might already be the most polished hitter from last year’s draft, and rumors have circulated that his time in the Minor Leagues might be coming to an end. Not only the Cubs drafting well, but they are developing prospects quickly.
The secret is out. The Astros — doormats for years — have turned selections into Major League talent at an astonishing rate. Of course, it doesn’t hurt when a team consistently picks in the top-half of the first round, thus enhancing the odds that better players are available. Regardless, Houston has capitalized on its position.
With the recent call up of 2012’s first overall selection, Carlos Correa, one-third of the Astros regular lineup will contain first-round picks by the team — Jason Castro and George Springer representing the other two. On the mound, Houston recently promoted 2012’s 41st overall pick, Lance McCullers to join a rotation anchored by Cy Young candidate Dallas Keuchel. Keuchel, currently pitching with an ERA under 2.00 one year after posting a 2.93 ERA in 200 innings of work, was selected by the Astros in the seventh round of the 2009 draft.
With most of the team’s talent now with its Major League club, the Houston Astros have effectively rebuilt their franchise through savvy drafting.
It is the rest of the league, not Houston, that now has a problem.
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