One of the big stories of the offseason has been what has happened to the nine free agents who received qualifying offers. Teams had to decide whether to offer their free agents a one-year, $13.3 million contract in order to receive draft-pick compensation if the player signed with another team. The nine players extended such an offer were Josh Hamilton, Zack Greinke, Hiroki Kuroda, David Ortiz, Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Kyle Lohse, Rafael Soriano and Adam LaRoche.
Hamilton and Greinke were the top two free agents on the market, Kuroda and Ortiz re-signed with the Yankees and Red Sox, respectively, and Swisher signed with Cleveland, which since it owns a protected top-10 pick, had to forfeit its second-round pick instead of a first-rounder. The other four players remain unsigned, and there has been speculation it's because they're tied to a draft pick -- but not so good, as in the case of Hamilton and Greinke, to entice a big contract . Of course, three of those players are Scott Boras clients, so there are mitigating factors here.
Anyway, it raises the question: What is a draft pick worth? If you're the Texas Rangers and you're interested in signing Bourn but would have to give up the 24th pick in the draft, do you still make the plunge?
I went back to all drafts since 1990 to determine the value of each pick, 11 through 30. That's 23 drafts worth of first-rounders. The draft began in 1965, but rules have changed through the years, scouting has improved (high school players were overdrafted in the early years, for example) and by 1990, the college game was fully mature. So let's start there.
Using Baseball-Reference.com, we can add up the total Wins Above Replacement for each draft slot. I divided by 20 to get an average value per slot -- obviously, most players from the past three drafts have yet to reach the majors. Certainly, that average will go up as players accumulate value, but it does give us a decent estimate of what to expect from each slot.
11. Total WAR: 50.4 (2.5 per player)
In the minors: George Springer
Until the Pirates tabbed McCutchen in 2005, journeyman lefty Estes had been the best player with the 11th pick, making this sort of the black hole of draft positions. Other than Scherzer, there is little else on the horizon, as recent picks like Justin Smoak and Tyler Matzek haven't developed.
12. Total WAR: 179.2 (9.0 per player)
In the minors: Taylor Jungmann
13. Total WAR: 150.8 (7.5 per player)
In the minors: Brandon Nimmo
Manny accounts for 64.8 of that 150.8 WAR, or 43 percent.
14. Total WAR: 109.8 (5.5 per player)
In the minors: Jose Fernandez
Heyward will end up as the best player on the list.
15. Total WAR: 113.8 (5.7 per player)
In the minors: Jed Bradley
It's a big drop after those top four players, as the fifth-most valuable has been spare outfielder Gabe Gross.
16. Total WAR: 120.8 (6.0 per player)
In the minors: Lucas Giolito
Lawrie was a Brewers draft pick, traded to the Blue Jays for Shaun Marcum.
17. Total WAR: 127.3 (6.4 per player)
In the minors: C.J. Cron
One Hall of Famer, one potential Hall of Famer, a closer who had a couple great years and not much else.
18. Total WAR: 15.1 (0.8 per player)
In the minors: Kaleb Cowart
And Dickey's value came after he had been let go by four different organizations.
19. Total WAR: 67.7 (3.4 per player)
In the minors: Shelby Miller
This is how difficult it is to extract value from the draft: James Loney was a good first-round pick.
20. Total WAR: 238.7 (11.9 per player)
In the minors: Tyler Anderson
Two future Hall of Fame pitchers makes this the highest-rated slot here. However, the slot hasn't seen much productivity since Span was selected in 2002.
21. Total WAR: 56.6 (2.8 per player)
In the minors: Lucas Sims
We're counting Varitek in the above total, although the Twins failed to sign him.
22. Total WAR: 94.1 (4.7 per player)
In the minors: Kolten Wong
If we go back before 1990, we get Craig Biggio (1987) and Rafael Palmeiro (1985).
23. Total WAR: 79.1 (4.0 per player)
In the minors: Christian Yelich
Whatever happened to Bubba Crosby?
24. Total WAR: 51.3 (2.6 per player)
In the minors: Taylor Guerrieri
No. 4 on the list of best picks: Brian Bogusevic. As you can see, getting value is becoming far less likely the lower you go.
25. Total WAR: 58.4 (2.9 per player)
In the minors: Joe Ross
Well, OK, then you have Cain and Trout. The odds are slim, but those two names are why teams are reluctant to give up any first-round pick, even one in the 20s, even knowing it's dumb luck as much as anything.
26. Total WAR: 8.7 (0.4 per player)
Best picks: Brent Gates, Jeremy Bonderman, Kelly Wunsch
In the minors: Blake Swihart
This might be the first and only time you'll see Kelly Wunsch's name appear in this blog.
27. Total WAR: 6.6 (0.3 per player)
In the minors: Nick Franklin
Hey, back in 1967, the A's got Vida Blue here.
28. Total WAR: 54.9 (2.7 per player)
In the minors: Gerrit Cole (did not sign)
Cole, now in the Pirates system after going first overall in 2011, was originally drafted by the Yankees.
29. Total WAR: 46.9 (2.3 per player)
In the minors: Joe Panik
Wainwright is one of many recent first-rounders the Braves selected out of Georgia, but they traded him as a minor leaguer to the Cardinals for J.D. Drew.
30. Total WAR: 18.4 (0.9 per player)
Best picks: Noah Lowry, Jack Cust, Russ Johnson
In the minors: Casey Kelly
Best 30th pick of all time: Mike Schmidt.
* * * *
What conclusions can we draw from all this? Since 1990, we're talking 459 players who have been drafted 11th to 30th (with Jason Varitek being drafted twice). The number of "star" players is about 30 -- or less than one in 10, even allowing for those yet to develop.
Most of these picks don't reach the majors or reach it only for a cup of coffee. Some have a a year or two of limited value. Some turn into decent journeyman-type players like Joe Saunders or Joe Blanton. But few accumulate even 10 career WAR. If you sign Michael Bourn to a 4-year or 5-year contract, you'll almost certainly receive that in value (while paying a premium for that value).
Certainly having a pick closer to 10th is more valuable than having a pick closer to 30th. This arguably points to an inequity with the current rules. The Mariners, for example, have the 12th pick in this year's draft. They could be interested in Bourn (and have money to spend), but losing the 12th pick is a lot different than the Rangers losing the 24th pick. Basically, the system helps the teams that are already good (a group that tends to lean towards teams with deeper pockets) since picks late in the first round rarely produce significant big league talent; the system also helps protect the bad teams since they won't lose their first-round pick.
Of course, there is no perfect system. But if I'm the Rangers and if paying Bourn isn't the ultimate issue, I wouldn't worry about losing that first-round pick. Odds are that player isn't Mike Trout or Matt Cain anyway.