Fifty best MLB draft picks from past 50 years

ByChristina Kahrl ESPN logo
Monday, June 8, 2015

Across the June draft's first 50 seasons, different players have provided for different teams' needs, delivering greatness or something less. But who was the best or perhaps the signature player in each year's draft? Using WAR as a starting suggestion and then getting a bit subjective as warranted, here's my take on who you should know about from each year's draft. In addition to who got picked, by who and where, we'll include career WAR and whether or not the guy is a Hall of Famer (noted as HOF).

1965: C Johnny Bench, Reds, 2nd round, 36th pick overall; 75.0 WAR, HOF. Still considered by many to be the greatest catcher of all time. Reaching the majors before his 20th birthday, Bench would win the rookie of the year award in 1968, two MVP awards, two World Series rings as one of the stars of the Big Red Machine. A close runner-up for me? Nolan Ryan, picked in the 12th round by the Mets (324 wins, 81.8 WAR), so feel free to disagree.

1966: RF Reggie Jackson, Athletics, 1st round, 2nd pick overall; 73.8 WAR, HOF. The Mets added to their infamy by picking high school catcher Steve Chilcott, leaving the A's to make the obvious choice of ASU's Jackson. Winning one MVP award, four home run titles, he was part of five World Series-winning teams in Oakland and New York. (Where's Tom Seaver, you ask? Seaver was awarded to the Mets in a special lottery after he was drafted by the Braves and had his contract voided by commissioner Eckert.)

1967: 2B Bobby Grich, Orioles, 1st round, 19th pick overall; 70.9 WAR. One of the most underrated players of all time, Grich won four Gold Gloves at second base for Baltimore and posted a .371 career OBP.

1968: C Thurman Munson, Yankees, 1st round, 4th pick overall; 45.9 WAR. Before Munson's career was cut short by his death in a flying accident in August 1979, he'd won the 1970 Rookie of the Year and 1976 MVP, also catching for the Yankees' 1977 and '78 World Series winners.

1969: RHP Bert Blyleven, Twins, 3rd round, 55th pick overall, 95.3 WAR, HOF. A teen prodigy, Blyleven was pitching in the majors less than a year after he was drafted, winning 287 games and two World Series rings (with the '79 Pirates and the '87 Twins). His 2011 election to the HOF represents one of sabermetrics' victories in getting the BBWAA's voters to ultimately recognize his merit.

1970: RF Dave Parker, Pirates, 14th round, 332nd pick overall; 39.9 WAR. A tough year to pick. Longevity gave Rick Reuschel (214 wins, 70.0 WAR) and Goose Gossage (310 saves, 42.0 WAR) the bigger overall careers, but "The Cobra" won the 1978 MVP Award and was a do-everything player who earned baseball's first average annual salary of $1 million with a five-year deal signed with the Pirates before the '79 season.

1971: 3B Mike Schmidt, Phillies, 2nd round, 30th pick overall; 106.5 WAR, HOF. The epitome of a franchise player pick, the best third baseman in the history of the game. Eight career home run titles, three MVPs, and a brilliant defender (10 Gold Gloves).

1972: C Gary Carter, Expos, 3rd round, 53rd pick overall; 69.9 WAR, HOF. An 11-time All-Star and brilliant defender (35 percent career rate of throwing out opponents), "The Kid" also notched two 30-homer seasons.

1973: SS/OF Robin Yount, Brewers, 1st round, 3rd pick overall; 77.0 WAR, HOF. Not as rushed as the No. 1 overall pick that year (David Clyde, the high school star the Rangers immediately put into a big-league uniform with unhappy results), Yount was the Brewers' 1974 Opening Day shortstop, and finished with 3,174 hits and two MVP Awards. Tough pick over Dave Winfield (4th overall, Padres), who was also drafted by the NFL's Vikings, the NBA's Hawks, and the ABA's Utah Stars; picking baseball, Winfield also delivered a HOF career.

1974: CF Dale Murphy, Braves, 1st round, 5th pick overall; 46.2 WAR. Initially a catcher, Murphy didn't really come into his own until he was moved to center field, winning consecutive MVP awards in 1982 and '83, and finishing with 398 career home runs.

1975: OF Andre Dawson, Expos, 11th round, 250th pick overall; 64.4 WAR, HOF. A close call over Lou Whitaker of the Tigers (74.9 WAR at second base), but Dawson was arguably the best player in baseball in the early '80s before the artificial turf in Montreal ruined his knees. Each man wound up with more value via WAR than the entire first and second rounds combined.

1976: OF Rickey Henderson, Athletics, 4th round, 96th pick overall; 110.8 WAR, HOF. The best leadoff man of all time holds the record in runs scored (2,295) and steals (1,406), and finished with a .401 career OBP. Not shabby for the local kid made good.

1977: SS Ozzie Smith, Padres, 4th round, 86th pick overall; 76.4 WAR, HOF. A sweet scouting find out of baseball powerhouse Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (cough, cough; best player since: Bud Norris), the original Ozzie is still arguably the best defensive shortstop ever, winning 13 Gold Gloves and a World Series ring with the '82 Cardinals.

1978: SS/3B Cal Ripken, Jr., 2nd round, 48th pick overall; 95.5 WAR, HOF. The game's greatest iron man broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive games played streak with 2,632. He was also a player who redefined shortstop as a position with room for big men (Ripken was 6-foot-4, huge for a shortstop) and power hitters (431 career blasts).

1979: 1B Don Mattingly, Yankees, 19th round, 493rd pick overall; 42.2 WAR. A great year for low-round picks, because the three highest career WARs came from the 17th round or later. Mattingly is a close, subjective call over Braves' 23rd-rounder Brett Butler (49.4 WAR) and Dodgers' 17th rounder Orel Hershiser (56.8 WAR), strictly on the basis that Mattingly's peak put him in the conversation for best player in the game, and nobody expects that from the late rounds.

1980: RF Darryl Strawberry, Mets, 1st round, 1st pick overall; 42.0 WAR. We can talk about potential wasted on Strawberry's subsequent substance abuse elsewhere, but this was a great pick. The 1983 NL Rookie of the Year finished with 335 career home runs.

1981: RF Tony Gwynn, Padres, 3rd round, 58th pick overall; 68.8 WAR, HOF. With 3,141 career hits, Gwynn owns the highest batting average (.338) post-integration and post-Jackie Robinson this side of Ted Williams.

1982: RHP Dwight Gooden, Mets, 1st round, 5th pick overall; 53.2 WAR. Upper 90s heat, a killer curve, Doc was 58-19 with a 2.28 career ERA before his 22nd birthday. Setting aside his later run-ins with John Law and addiction issues, the question will always be whether he'd have delivered a better career if he hadn't had to throw 276 2/3 innings as a 20-year-old in 1985.

1983: RHP Roger Clemens, Red Sox, 1st round, 19th pick overall; 140.3 WAR (most from any pitcher since Walter Johnson retired in 1927). Plus seven Cy Young Awards, 354 wins, and 4,672 strikeouts (third all time). You can argue he already had a Hall of Fame career in Boston before people started throwing PED accusations his way.

1984: RHP Greg Maddux, Cubs, 2nd round, 31st pick overall, 106.8 WAR, HOF. Beyond Clemens, Maddux would has the third-highest pitcher WAR since Johnson. Who's second? Tom Seaver (110.5 WAR).

1985: OF Barry Bonds, Pirates, 1st round, 6th pick overall; 162.4 WAR. The '85 draft was stuffed with talent, including first-rounders Barry Larkin, Rafael Palmeiro, Will Clark, Gregg Jefferies and B.J. Surhoff, not to mention the best lefty of his generation (Randy Johnson, Expos, 36th pick). Which makes the White Sox picking catcher Kurt Brown fifth before Bonds sort of their own special Steve Chilcott moment.

1986: 3B Matt Williams, Giants, 1st round, 3rd pick overall; 46.4 WAR. Would he have been the man to break what was then Roger Maris' single-season home run record in 1994, if not for the strike? He was on pace to hit 60 or 61 if you round up.

1987: OF Ken Griffey Jr., Mariners, 1st round, 1st pick overall; 83.6 WAR. He won "only" one MVP award in 1997, but with 630 career homers (417 of them for the M's), this is one of the best first overall selections ever.

1988: C Mike Piazza, Dodgers, 62nd round, 1,390th pick overall; 59.4 WAR. Famously picked as a favor because Tommy Lasorda was a family friend, Piazza was the 1993 Rookie of the Year before hitting a record number of home runs by a catcher (396 out of 427 career blasts).

1989: 1B/DH Frank Thomas, White Sox, 1st round, 7th pick overall; 73.7 WAR, HOF. A tight end at Auburn, Thomas was the definition of the huge slugger. With all due apologies to David Ortiz, the conversation over who's the greatest DH ever should remain a two-horse race between the Big Hurt and undrafted free agent Edgar Martinez.

1990: 3B Chipper Jones, Braves, 1st round, 1st pick overall; 85.0 WAR. Three years later and I'm still not used to the idea that he's retired, but the face of Braves baseball and the best switch-hitter in the game's history wound up with 468 home runs.

1991: RF Manny Ramirez, Indians, 1st round, 13th pick overall; 69.2 WAR. Oh, c'mon, he was so much fun to watch. You can't talk about the last 20 years of baseball without talking about Manny being Manny, and it beats mulling over what wasn't meant to be with first overall pick Brien Taylor.

1992: SS Derek Jeter, Yankees, 1st round, 6th pick overall; 71.8 WAR. In college I had a friend from Kalamazoo who was a huge Tigers fan, hoping against hope that somehow he'd fall to the 16th pick. Even with the signability weirdness of this period (Phil Nevin, first pick overall?), that wasn't going to happen.

1993: SS/3B Alex Rodriguez, Mariners, 1st round, 1st pick overall; 117.0 WAR and counting. People are still cheering for him, you know, even knowing all that we know, because whatever else he was also always a great ballplayer.

1994: SS Nomar Garciaparra, Red Sox, 1st round, 12th pick overall; 44.2 WAR. In his first seven seasons as a full-time shortstop (through 2003), Nomar put up 41.0 WAR. Unfortunately, outside of a nice 2006 season with the Dodgers, he had no second act after being excused before things got fun in Boston.

1995: RHP Roy Halladay, Blue Jays, 1st round, 17th pick overall; 64.6 WAR. Two Cy Youngs and a 203-105 career record weren't about run support and voters in love with a workhorse. His career ERA+ of 131 is tied with Sandy Koufax for 10th among post-integration starting pitchers with a 1,000 or more career innings.

1996: SS Jimmy Rollins, Phillies, 2nd round, 46th pick overall; 46.7 WAR and counting. An MVP award, a ring and 2,348 hits? Very nice, and it narrowly puts him ahead of Astros' 23rd-rounder Roy Oswalt (50.2 WAR) in my book. Rollins was taken four picks after shortstop Mike Caruso, if you're feeling sadistic toward South Side Chicagoans.

1997: RHP Tim Hudson, Athletics, 6th round, 185th pick overall; 58.4 WAR and counting. With 217 career wins a few more to come, Hudson is further proof that "short" righties aren't such a bad investment after all.

1998: LHP Mark Buehrle, White Sox, 38th round, 1,139th pick overall; 57.9 WAR and counting. This is the same year CC Sabathia (54.6 WAR) was picked in the first round (20th overall); Sabathia's looking like much less of a sure thing to pass Buehrle by in career value than it looked a couple of years ago. Add in a perfect game from the guy taken more than a thousand picks later, and I'll stick with Buehrle for the time being.

1999: 1B Albert Pujols, Cardinals, 13th round, 402nd pick overall; 98.0 WAR and counting. Not that there's a race, but he trails just Gehrig (112.4 WAR) and Musial (128.1, but half his career was spent in the outfield) among first basemen. Considering the impact of integration, I'm comfortable calling Pujols the greatest first baseman in the history of the game, and a pretty awesome pick in the 13th round.

2000: 2B Chase Utley, Phillies, 1st round, 15th pick overall; 61.5 WAR and counting. My only concern for Utley is that he's going to wind up like Grich or Lou Whitaker, great second basemen whose broad base of skills didn't ultimately get remembered come time to vote for the Hall of Fame.

2001: 1B Mark Teixeira, Rangers, 1st round, 5th pick overall; 50.6 WAR and counting. The alternatives are Joe Mauer (46.3 WAR) and David Wright (49.9). If you'd asked this question five years ago I'd have said Mauer, and if you'd asked five weeks ago I'd have said Wright. Tex is oldest, but he's still cruising where the other two have stumbled.

2002: RHP Zack Greinke (Royals, 1st round, 6th pick; 44.4 WAR) and LHP Cole Hamels (Phillies, 1st round, 17th pick; 44.2 WAR). Their birthdays are separated by just two months too, and there's so little to separate them now that there's little point in picking between them; they're both awesome.

2003: 2B Ian Kinsler, Rangers, 17th round, 496th pick overall; 42.4 WAR and counting. Power, defense and durability is sort of the Sandberg skill set at second base, so there's no damning with faint praise when I call Kinsler a latter-day Ryno for folks of more moderate means.

2004: 2B Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox, 2nd round, 65th pick overall; 44.8 WAR and counting. Until Justin Verlander (41.4 WAR, 2nd overall pick) shows that he has a second act to follow up on his brilliant peak, Pedroia's the safe choice for career value.

2005: CF Andrew McCutchen, Pirates, 1st round, 11th pick overall; 34.9 WAR and counting. Troy Tulowitzki and Ryan Braun have more WAR for the moment, but not by much, and I'm willing to keep banking on Cutch's ultimate value, same as the Buccos.

2006: LHP Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers, 1st round, 7th pick overall; 41.9 WAR and counting. Evan Longoria and Max Scherzer have both been great, mind you, but they're up against the guy who might be the best pitcher of his generation.

2007: RF Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins, 2nd round, 76th pick overall; 23.7 WAR. There's an element of anticipation here, I admit, but Jason Heyward's case relies a bit more on speculative value of defensive metrics. What can I say, I dig the long ball.

2008: C Buster Posey, Giants, 1st round, 5th pick overall; 24.9 WAR and counting. In his four full seasons in the majors, Posey has won a Rookie of the Year award, an MVP and contributed to three World Series titles. Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench, Roy Campanella, Mickey Cochrane, none of them could say that.

2009: CF Mike Trout, Angels, 1st round, 25th pick overall; 32.1 WAR and counting. Best start to a career ever.

2010: RF Bryce Harper, Nationals, 1st round, 1st pick overall; 14.2 WAR and counting. Chris Sale has more value banked (24.5 WAR) and is reliably superb, and Matt Harvey's just getting started now that he's back in action. But Harper is just 22 years old and is beginning to break out in his fourth season in the majors.

2011: RHP Sonny Gray, Athletics, 1st round, 18th pick overall; 8.1 WAR and counting. Gray may not finish with more career value than Gerrit Cole (Pirates, 1st pick overall) or Jose Fernandez (Marlins, 17th), but he may earn this year's All-Star Game nod for the AL and he's healthy.

2012: RHP Michael Wacha, Cardinals, 1st round, 19th pick overall; 5.0 WAR and counting. Similarly, Wacha has a head start, but ultimately it's expected that SS Carlos Correa (1st overall, Astros) or CF Byron Buxton (2nd overall, Twins) will show up later this season.

2013: 3B Kris Bryant, Cubs, 1st round, 2nd pick overall; 1.6 WAR and counting. He has been in the news a bit lately, in case you missed it.

2014: LHP Carlos Rodon, White Sox, 1st round, 3rd pick overall; 0.8 WAR and counting. The power lefty is already in the Sox's rotation, a little ahead of schedule.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.