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Friday, June 4, 2010
Pick me a winner

By Rob Neyer
ESPN.com

Here's a trivia question most fans won't answer correctly …

Question: How many No. 1 overall draft picks are in baseball's Hall of Fame?

Answer: zero.

Which might seem strange until you consider that, while the draft has been around since 1965, anybody drafted since the middle 1980s -- no matter how worthy -- simply isn't Hall of Fame-eligible yet. Still, it's at least mildly surprising that the first 22 summertime amateur drafts, 1965-86, didn't result in a No. 1 pick who wound up with a Hall of Fame-worthy career. Which should, at the very least, temper our expectations each June, no matter what the scouting reports might suggest.

Also, things have been different since 1986. In 1987, the Mariners owned the first pick and selected Ken Griffey Jr. In 1990, the Braves had the first pick and chose Chipper Jones. In 1993, the M's again had the first pick and took Alex Rodriguez. And in 2001, the Twins had the first pick and grabbed hometown hero Joe Mauer.

At this point, though, A-Rod takes the prize as the best No. 1 pick in the history of the draft. With next week's draft including 30 picks in the first round, let's run through the rest of the greatest picks for each of the first 30 slots …

No. 2 pick: Reggie Jackson (Kansas City A's, 1966)

Everybody knew Jackson was the most talented player available in '66. The Mets owned the No. 1 pick, and chose high school catcher Steve Chilcott. Whether they picked Chilcott because they needed a catcher or spurned Jackson because they didn't cotton to his choice of girlfriends -- both explanations have been offered -- today the decision seems unconscionable, as Chilcott never even reached the majors.

No. 3: Robin Yount (Milwaukee, 1973)

Yount is one of two Hall of Famers taken with the third pick. The other? Paul Molitor, another shortstop and selected by the Brewers four years later.

No. 4: Barry Larkin (Cincinnati, 1985)

Larkin's not in the Hall of Fame but will be someday, and we're giving him the nod over Dave Winfield because Larkin spent his entire career with the team that drafted him. Other notable No. 4s include Kevin Brown and Thurman Munson, with Ryan Zimmerman probably joining this conversation eventually.

No. 5: Dale Murphy (Atlanta, 1974)

Believe it or not, Dwight Gooden leads the No. 5 picks with 49.9 Wins Above Replacement, slightly ahead of Murphy (44.2), who's slightly behind J.D. Drew (44.3, and remember that a metric that's not occasionally surprising isn't worth much). Still, for now we'll stick with Murphy here, if only because of the two MVP awards and the strong Hall of Fame case.

No. 6: Barry Bonds (Pittsburgh, 1985)

Bonds is one of the very few players who could make Derek Jeter an afterthought, but of course Bonds' career ranks among the very best in major league history. The Pirates were a little lucky to snag him with the sixth pick, but of the five players drafted ahead of him, four -- B.J. Surhoff, Will Clark, Bobby Witt and Barry Larkin -- enjoyed long careers in the majors.

No. 7: Frank Thomas (White Sox, 1989)

The Big Hurt has little competition here, as the next-best players taken at No. 7 are Trot Nixon, along with youngsters Nick Markakis, Troy Tulowitzki and Prince Fielder.

No. 8: Todd Helton (Rockies, 1995)

Another first baseman facing little competition, with only Jay Bell even within hailing distance. Coincidentally, Jim Abbott and Mike Leake -- the most recent two pitchers to skip the minor leagues after being drafted -- were both No. 8 picks.

No. 9: Kevin Appier (Royals, 1987)

He's no Hall of Famer, but Appier was a lot better than you probably think. The next-best candidate is likely Barry Zito (Athletics, 1999), but he'll need another three or four good seasons to challenge Appier.

No. 10: Mark McGwire (Athletics, 1984)

Most Hall of Fame voters would downgrade McGwire, but then they've already downgraded Ted Simmons (Cardinals, 1967) and Robin Ventura (White Sox, 1988), fine players who fell off the ballot after just one appearance.

No. 11: Greg Luzinski (Phillies, 1968)

Definitely one of the weakest spots, as Luzinski did star for a decade but faded in his early 30s, and next on the list are Shane Mack and Walt Weiss. There's definitely hope for the future, though, as Andrew McCutchen (Pirates, 2005) and Max Scherzer (Diamondbacks, 2006) could move up fast.

No. 12: Nomar Garciaparra (Red Sox, 1994)

Garciaparra's the WAR leader, but you could make a case for Kirk Gibson (1978), who's not far behind Garciaparra and won an MVP award. You could also make a case for Billy Wagner (Astros, 1993), whose role limits his WAR potential, but he does presumably have a shot at the Hall of Fame if he can pitch for a few more years.

No. 13: Manny Ramirez (Indians, 1991)

Manny's the obvious choice, though Frank Tanana (Angels, 1971) might be just as obvious if the Angels hadn't shredded his shoulder before he turned 25. By the way, this is the first draft slot that's seen fewer than half the picks reach the majors (this will change in coming years).

No. 14: Jason Varitek (Mariners, 1994)

With a trio of first basemen -- Derrek Lee (Padres, 1993), Cliff Floyd (Expos, 1991) and Tino Martinez (Mariners, 1988) -- virtually tied in Wins Above Replacement, we'll go with Varitek, based on the extra credit he probably deserves for his acclaimed leadership behind the plate and in the clubhouse. And while Varitek never actually played for the Mariners -- before reaching the majors, he went to the Red Sox in a flat swindle of a trade -- he is yet another player who belies the notion that nobody stays with the same team forever anymore.

No. 15: Jim Rice (Red Sox, 1971)

Rice enters the Hall of Fame this summer, and will become the only No. 15 accorded that honor. But if we're making this list again in a couple of years, we'll almost certainly place Chase Utley (Phillies, 2000) above Rice, and if we're making this list in 10 years Utley will rank far above Rice.

No. 16: Lance Berkman (Astros, 1997)

Meanwhile, no Hall of Famers at all in this spot. Berkman's been a fine hitter for a long time, but his career got a late start and seems to be heading for an early end. Berkman's competition is Lance Parrish (Tigers, 1974), with Moneyballer Nick Swisher (Athletics, 2002) hoping for a late charge.

No. 17: Roy Halladay (Blue Jays, 1995)

Before Halladay, the answer here was probably Gary Matthews (1968), who now has the pleasure of seeing Halladay's games while working in the Phillies' broadcast booth. Other No. 17 picks include Halladay's current teammates Cole Hamels (2002) and Brad Lidge (1998).

No. 18: Willie Wilson (Royals, 1974)

Wilson's no Hall of Famer, but he did win a batting title and he was probably the fastest man in the majors for a few years and led his league in triples five times. Right now there aren't any contenders for Wilson's throne, but we'll keep our eyes on Ike Davis (Mets, 2008) and Blue Jays prospect Kyle Drabek (Phillies, 2006).

No. 19: Roger Clemens (Red Sox, 1983)

Ah, the imprecision of talent evaluation. Of the 18 players drafted before Clemens in 1983, six never reached the majors, and only a few of the others would distinguish themselves. Meanwhile, Clemens needed only 18 games in the minors before running roughshod over the American League. Other notable No. 19s: Bobby Grich (Orioles, 1967), Mike Scioscia (Dodgers, 1976) and Drungo Hazewood (Orioles, 1977).

No. 20: Mike Mussina (Orioles, 1990)

Unlike almost every other spot, No. 20 is all about pitching, with Mussina leading the way by a good margin, but followed by Bob Welch (Dodgers, 1977), CC Sabathia (Indians, 1998) and Rick Rhoden (Dodgers, 1971). Torii Hunter (Twins, 1993) is the first hitter on the list, and he still has a shot at catching Rhoden, but the other pitchers are probably out of reach (and it's worth noting that the Twins' No. 20 pick in 1993 was compensation for losing free agent John Smiley to the Reds).

No. 21: Rick Sutcliffe (Dodgers, 1974)

Not a real strong spot, and Sutcliffe -- with his Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards -- wins by default.

No. 22: Craig Biggio (Astros, 1987)

It's a dead heat with Rafael Palmeiro (Cubs, 1985), Biggio taking the one-team-career tiebreaker (so we don't even have to get into the other stuff that's going to keep Palmeiro out of the Hall of Fame for a good long while).

No. 23: Jason Kendall (Pirates, 1992)

Absent the catastrophic knee injury early in his career, Kendall might today be a household name. He'll still finish with nearly 2,500 hits. Most of the other notable No. 23s have been Red Sox choices: Mo Vaughn (1989), Aaron Sele (1991) and Jacoby Ellsbury (2005). Plus Phil Hughes (Yankees, 2004) and Billy Beane (Mets, 1980).

No. 24: Rondell White (Expos, 1990)

White's only real competition is pitcher Alex Fernandez (1988), but Fernandez didn't sign with the Brewers; two years later he was taken by the White Sox with the fourth pick and reached the majors almost immediately.

No. 25: Chuck Knoblauch (Twins, 1989)

Some might prefer Bill Buckner (Dodgers 1968), who played forever but was an All-Star just once and finished his career as a league-average hitter. Meanwhile, Knoblauch didn't age well but did win a Rookie of the Year Award and a Gold Glove and was an All-Star four times.

No. 26: Alan Trammell (Tigers, 1976)

Like Buckner, Trammell wasn't a first-round pick; the first round didn't consist of 30 picks until 1996. The Tigers got Trammell with the second pick in the second round, having used their second pick in the first round on left-hander Pat Underwood (who would win 13 games in the majors).

No. 27: Vida Blue (Kansas City A's, 1967)

Just a year after drafting Reggie Jackson, the A's snagged Blue -- another one of the 1970s' biggest stars -- with the seventh pick in the second round. Four years later, Blue went 24-8 and took Cy Young and MVP honors. More recently, in 2002 the Diamondbacks used the No. 27 pick on Californian Sergio Santos, who today is dazzling hitters as a reliever with the White Sox.

No. 28: Lee Smith (Cubs, 1975)

In his 18-year career, Smith pitched for eight teams and racked up 478 saves, for many years the all-time record. In 1992, Charles Johnson was the last pick in the first round and the first pick in Marlins franchise history. A two-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove winner, Johnson just didn't play long enough to approach Smith's career value.

No. 29: George Brett (Royals, 1971)

The Royals used their first-round pick on right-hander Roy Branch, who eventually would pitch in two major league games (for the Mariners). Fortunately, when their turn came around again in the second round, Brett was still available …

No. 30: Mike Schmidt (Phillies, 1971)

And immediately after the Royals chose Brett, the Phillies chose Schmidt. Wouldn't you like to see those teams' draft boards and wonder how history might look today if the Royals had taken Schmidt and the Phillies had taken Brett?

Rob Neyer is a senior writer for ESPN.com and regularly updates his blog. You can reach him via rob.neyer@dig.com.