When does judging the quality of a draft first make sense? While researching for what this article was going to be -- early thoughts on the first round of the 2004 draft -- I asked myself this question. Is short-season ball, a few scouting reports and five games enough to start dissecting the resume of draftees? I don't think so.
Instead, my decision is the statute of limitations is one full season. Sure we can look back at drafts ten, twenty and thirty years old and have the best perspective, but one season is when becoming an armchair GM is first excusable.
With that being said, I wanted to look at the first 15 picks in the 2003 draft. Nine of these players were one of my top fifty prospects, far better than the lousy 2002 draft that preceded it. With criticizing drafts, we must remember to put these choices in the context of June, 2003, as things appeared far different at that time. Converting a draft pick into a Major League player is part scouting, part development and part luck. Forgetting any part of that equation and throwing all the blame on the person behind any of these choices is negligible.
Let us turn back the clock more than twenty months to early summer, 2003, with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on the board. The organization wanted to put a star that could team with B.J. Upton on their organizational map, and use their first overall choice a little better than the first time (Josh Hamilton). Away we go...
Months before June, it appeared as the top of the draft heap did not offer much. Rickie Weeks was generally considered to be the top player, as the Southern University second baseman was well on his way to Golden Spikes' honors. Tampa Bay was not as sold on Weeks, and entertained options of Ryan Harvey, Marc Cornell and Kyle Sleeth with the first selection.
Over time, it became apparent that Chuck Lamar and staff were undecided between two players: Delmon Young and Weeks. Young was a California outfielder that had been hyped since Little League and had Major League pedigree to boot. Weeks finished up a ridiculous .500/.619/.987 season, drawing comparisons to Joe Morgan up the middle. Eventually, a batting practice session in Tropicana Field sold the organization on Young, allowing Weeks to fall into the Milwaukee Brewers laps with the second choice.
With almost two years between that decision and today, who would the Devil Rays choose? Young has become the top prospect in baseball since June of 2003, with advanced power and a good approach at the plate. Meanwhile, Weeks dominated low-A weeks after signing, ending the season in the Majors. His 2004 was a disappointment in the pitcher-friendly Southern League, showing flaws in his game both offensively and defensively. The presence of Jorge Cantu, along with the huge power advantage Young currently has indicates that the Devil Rays made the right decision. But in the end, this could turn out to be a choice between Albert Belle and Gary Sheffield.
Just as the first two picks became a choice of two sluggers, the Tigers and Padres were left fighting between college pitchers with the next two picks. Detroit had first dibs on the Sleeth-Stauffer selection, one (Sleeth) with a high ceiling and one (Stauffer) with considerable polish. Take a look at how the two compared in their sophomore and junior seasons combined:
Name ERA H/9 K/9 K/BB HR/9 Sleeth 2.90 8.12 9.04 3.07 0.50 Stauff 1.73 6.82 9.90 3.40 0.31
As you can see, Richmond starter Tim Stauffer had the statistical edge. Obviously there is a strength of schedule difference between Stauffer at Richmond and Kyle Sleeth from Wake Forest, but the numbers still favor Stauffer. But radar gun readings and rumors of a sore Stauffer arm made the selection easy for the Tigers. Kyle Sleeth has not quite been a revelation since being chosen, but his struggles in AA last year could have been park related as much as anything else. Sleeth still profiles to be a Tiger starter, but his likelihood of succeeding is not like Stauffer, who has become a favorite of mine.
With the Kansas City Royals and Daniel Glass picking in the five spot, it was obvious that money would be an issue. The three best high school talents on the board (Ryan Harvey, Lastings Milledge, John Danks) all had high bonus demands, taking them off the Royal wish list. So it became obvious days before the draft that Chris Lubanski -- who had stated he wanted to be reporting to the minors by June 15 -- was the Royals best option.
Lubanski ended up signing quickly with the Royals for $2.1M, making $25,000 more than Milledge and the same as Danks. Harvey inked for $2.4M, but considering that all three players are far better prospects than the man with the .662 OPS, the Royals screwed up here. Lastings Milledge turned out to be the best choice, and with proper communication with his agent would have saved the club money. Considering the failure that the five-turned-zero tool Lubanski has been.
Solace for a horrible 2002 season to north side Chicagoans was Ryan Harvey, a Florida outfielder with huge power. Brian Dopirak's former high school teammate became "Sammy Sosa's successor" like that, and the Cubs slow-moving system has left his prospect status a bit cloudy. 2005 will be Harvey's full-season debut, as he must start to turn his tools into talent. After two games we see the strikeouts might be a problem, with five already in eight at-bats.
With the seventh choice in the draft, the Baltimore Orioles were the first real spot with a considerable amount of uncertainty. Ian Stewart and Michael Aubrey were both considered to be the projected choices here, up until the Nick Markakis workout in Baltimore. Markakis' Greek roots and pitcher/hitter athleticism made him a favorite of both Peter Angelos and Doc Rodgers alike. While Markakis had been offered a pre-draft deal with the Reds, the Junior College Player of the Year made more than $300,000 extra signing with the O's.
For some reason or another, the Pirates have not made a secret of their choices in recent memory. Neil Walker, a hometown native, was a Pirate in nearly every mock draft published last June. In 2002, Bryan Bullington was given the nod ahead of B.J. Upton weeks in advance. In this draft, the choice was Paul Maholm, the third best college pitcher, and one of just four collegiate starters drafted in the first round. Given the fall-off from Sleeth and Stauffer to Maholm and Sullivan, this is arguably one of the worst first rounds for collegiate pitching ever. I'm sure the team would have loved to have the money to sign Jeff Allison, but now even Maholm looks good in comparison. Hindsight is 20-20, I guess.
The next four choices, picks 9-13, were all simply the best player available. Grady Fuson shed his label of a college-only drafter by choosing John Danks, Colorado picked a Californian slugger, Cleveland landed a polished college first baseman, and New York an expensive, mature-lacking but tools-heavy outfielder. Criticizing any of the choices here would be wrong, as all four picks were among my top thirty prospects. The order of the four is Stewart, Milledge, Aubrey and Danks, but it is hard to criticize the Rangers for adding pitching depth and the Indians for a college-first philosophy.
With the thirteenth choice, J.P. Riccardi and company decided to throw the media for a curve. After weeks of tooting Brad Sullivan's horn, the Jays decided the Houston right-hander was a reach, and collegiate pitching could be found in later rounds. They instead found Aaron Hill, a shortstop from LSU, who had been a favorite of college-focused organizations like Boston and Cleveland later in the teens. While Hill played the same position as the new Jays regime's premier first-round pick, Russ Adams, the organization decided it was a good problem to have. While Hill has not blossomed the way it was hoped, he looks to be an alright prospect with a bit of power potential.
Did they reach their college pitching in later rounds goal? Kind of. Eleven of their next thirteen selections were hurlers from college, though it doesn't appear as they landed any blue-chippers. Both Josh Banks and Jamie Vermilyea have shown some potential, and certainly Shaun Marcum, Kurt Isenberg and Tom Mastny are nice fillers for minor league rotations. Brad Sullivan's dead arm in the Oakland organization has made this pick look good for J.P., who probably still wishes that his first two first-round picks had been Jeff Francis and Michael Aubrey.
Cincinnati has always been a fan of the pre-draft deal, as Carl Lindner's frugal ways put a bit of a strain on the Reds. This year was no exception, as the team heavily pursued the likes of Markakis and Eric Duncan before the draft. While both of those players were offensive projects with considerably potential, the actual fourteenth selection was quite the opposite. Ryan Wagner had succeeded in taking the reins from Jesse Crain at the Houston closer position, and following a NCAA record-setting season (K/9), Wagner looked as if he could help teams right away.
So he did, pitching in nine minor league games before receiving a call to Cincy. He was arguably the club's best reliever the last month of the season, putting a considerable onus on the 22-year-old as Danny Graves' set-up man in 2004. After a horrible start to the season Wagner was sent down, and after re-finding his stuff in 15 AAA appearances, closed out the season well. Wagner is still the Reds' future closer, and his pick still makes more sense than fellow 2003 first-round relievers Chad Cordero and David Aardsma.
Finally, there is Ken Williams, who surprised some people with his selection of Arizona outfielder Brian Anderson. Teamed with Ryan Sweeney in the second round, the two outfielders have been well thought of since that day in June. Both players could have everyday jobs on the south side in 2006, when Jermaine Dye's two-year contract in right field ends. It is amazing how quick Jeremy Reed and Joe Borchard were thrown off the organizational ladder for these two, and time will tell if that was a good decision. But for now, Anderson was a great choice at fifteen.
So there you have it. Kansas City is really the only team with an obvious screw up, though Detroit and Pittsburgh also opened themselves up for criticism. With an important season on tap for Sleeth, Harvey, Markakis and Hill, another year will only further help us grade out this draft. Time and hindsight vision is all an armchair GM needs for constant success.