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Cubs fumbling first-round picks?

6/12/2009

As R.J. Anderson notes, the Cubs haven't done much with their first-round draft picks since 2001, when they snagged Mark Prior with the second overall pick. Since then, though?

    The average bust rate for first round picks is right around 60%. Cold reality tells us that most of these shiny new first rounders will never touch the major leagues after taking batting practice or throwing a bullpen session for their teams over the next few weeks. Some teams have proven to be more successful avoiding the bust bug than others. In fact, most of the teams have proven to be better than a particular pair of franchises.
    The Astros and Cubs haven't had a first round selection reach the major leagues since 2001. That would be Chris Burke and Mark Prior respectively. The next longest drought is shared by two teams and dates back to 2004. With the Astros, you sort of expect such acts of futility ...

    --snip--

    The Cubs are the surprise team. Jim Hendry has proven to be a fine general manager and was a pretty good scouting director. Hendry was promoted in October of 2001 and his team's first round draft quality has slipped considerably. This is not to say they haven't made good picks of the time at the draft, just none of them have worked out well.

    In 2002 the [Cubs] had four first round picks, three of which were of the supplemental variety. They took college pitchers Luke Hagerty, Chadd Blasko, Matthew Clanton, and Bobby Brownlie. In 2003, the Cubs would take high school phenom Ryan Harvey who drew pre-draft comparisons to Mark McGwire for his outstanding power. Left without a first round pick in 2004, the Cubs would take high school arm Mark Pawelek in 2005 and college bat Tyler Colvin in 2006. Neither has played in a game above AA to this point in their careers.

    2007's draft class might hold the key to ending the streak. One of Josh Donaldson and Josh Vitters should eventually reach the majors. If nothing else, at least Donaldson helped the Cubs acquire Rich Harden, which is more than most of the other failed first round picks can say.

Donaldson's a Double-A catcher, hitting OK with a bunch of walks. He's 23, and does figure reach the majors eventually, though with catchers you never know (both ways, actually). Vitters is still terribly young, only 19, but batting .324 in the full-season Midwest League. There are many more rungs on the ladder and it'd be nice if he could draw the occasional walk, but he's the best prospect in the organization.
Which is just barely here and hardly there at all. I really just wanted an excuse to suggest another line of inquiry for some enterprising young (or middle-aged, or old) writer/researcher. I suppose this is an obvious thing, but I'm tired of seeing "first-round draft picks" grouped together in a meaningful way. Let alone the supplemental picks.

There were 32 picks in the first round of this year's draft, along with another 17 more in the first supplemental round. Anderson isn't alone in describing picks in the first supplemental round as "first-round" picks. But when assessing an organization's drafting prowess, does it really make sense to consider Stephen Strasburg and Victor Black -- who the Pirates chose 49th overall -- as equals?

Of course it doesn't. What someone needs to do is figure out an expected value for every pick in the draft. If someone's done that already, please let me know. But it's only after comparing one team's picks over a number of years to the expected value of those picks that we can get a good reading on how that team has done.

Unfortunately, there's one more problem: Scouting directors and general managers rarely stay in one place long enough to pile up a statistically meaningful number of high draft picks. So even with all the research in the world, we'll have a tough time pinning most guys down. For the same reason, Hendry still deserves the benefit of the doubt on his first-round picks.