With the 2016 draft less than a month away, I am going to take a look back at the Braves’ drafts since 2000 with the Top 5 and Worst 5 in tandem order starting with the latter. If that is confusing, after the fifth worst draft today, the next article in this series will look at the fifth best draft. Clear enough? I hope so.
(Dis)Honorable Mentions go to the 2006 and 2008 drafts.
5th Worst Draft Since 2000…The 2009 Draft
|By LWYang on Flickr (Original version) |
[CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
For the first time in nearly two decades, the Braves had a Top 10 pick. It wasn’t supposed to happen that way. The Braves had missed the playoffs in 2007, but had added Mark Teixeira and were hoping for a return to glory for a team with a young core of Brian McCann, Kelly Johnson, Yunel Escobar, and Jeff Francoeur. The problem was that John Schuerholz had neglected to build a starting rotation. He turned the team over to Frank Wren, who did acquire Jair Jurrjens, but that was not enough to piece together a winning ballclub in 2008. They would lose 90 games, guaranteeing the team a high-value pick.
With the young nucleus that now included Jurrjens and also had Jason Heyward, Tommy Hanson, and Freddie Freeman developing in the minors, a big splash with the seventh overall selection of the 2009 draft could have been a helpful springboard for the team into the future. They surrendered their 2nd round pick (56th overall) to sign Derek Lowe, which helped mute the overall value the Braves could expect from the 2009 draft. Still, with a marquee selection, the Braves could make the entire draft look good by grabbing a potential superstar.
Of course, had that happened, we wouldn’t be talking about this draft as the fifth worst. The 2009 draft was an odd one for Atlanta. It was Roy Clark‘s last draft and Wren’s second draft as general manager. The discord between the two led both to Clark’s defection and an odd dynamic where neither were on the same page. Further, two years before, the draft-and-follow system had been abolished. The system, which had been big for finding value in late round picks like Hanson, allowed teams “control” over a player for nearly a full calendar year. It gave teams a long time to evaluate a player – usually after he went to junior college – before deciding whether or not to sign him. Other changes were coming with the compensation system, which seriously cut into how many picks a team was awarded. 2009 was the first draft after Type C free agents had been abolished.
That was the backdrop, but there was also an unusual focus the Braves took going into the 2009 draft. They knew they wanted pitching and they wanted it quick. The top college pitcher was Stephen Strasburg – a generational talent. That left other second-tier starters like Mike Leake, Aaron Crow, Alex White, and a lefty from Vanderbilt named Mike Minor. However, Atlanta’s bread-and-butter for years was high-ceiling prep stars from the southeast and there were a pair available in Donavan Tate and Zack Wheeler. Other high school kids like pitchers Jacob Turner and Tyler Matzek were on the board.
The expectation entering the draft was that the Braves would focus on more young prep talent over the more polished college players in the draft. After all, since 2003, the Braves had taken one college player (Joey Devine) in the first round (10 total picks). But 2009 would buck the trend early and often as Atlanta played it conservative and picked Minor with the seventh overall pick. It was a shocking move, especially for a team with only two picks in the Top 100, to settle for a college star with a high floor, but limited ceiling. However, Minor came with this tagline – near major-league ready. That’s what Atlanta wanted.
They would continue that trend with their second pick, third round-selection David Hale. A Princeton grad, Hale hadn’t even played at a high level of college competition, but was a prime target because he was “near major-league ready.” Atlanta wouldn’t select their first high school kid until the tenth round, when they picked Aaron Northcraft with the 298th overall pick. In between Hale and Northcraft, they played it safe with Miami-Dade College’s Mycal Jones (118th), Newberry College righty Thomas Berryhill (148th), and George Perimeter College outfielder Robby Hefflinger (208th). Atlanta surprised on-lookers again as Northcraft didn’t begin a cascade of prep stars as Atlanta stuck with the college kids like Chris Masters (328th), Cory Harrilchak (418th), and even Riaan Spanjar-Fustenburg (478th). Of their first 21 picks, just two were coming out of high school. Their 21st pick was Ryan Weber, a righty out of St. Petersburg College. He would not only be the last player signed out of this draft to make it to the majors, he is the only player still with the system eight years later.
Why the obsession with college players? The Braves had a young core, a Hall of Fame third baseman, and were attempting to compete quickly rather than build a farm system. Adding college guys who could provide depth for the major league team was a way of achieving that. Further, college players typically cost less because, often, you don’t have to convince them to sign rather than continue their amateur careers like you do with high school players. Atlanta saved money and felt they were adding talent that could cycle up to the major league team within a few years. Only three players did so and only Minor did it in a relatively short amount of time.
Let’s focus again on the first round lefty. Suffice it to say, he had his ups and downs with the Braves. He did make it to the majors quickly and started his first game in the bigs just 14 months after being drafted. He would not establish himself for good until 2012. The next year, he began to look like a potential fixture of the Braves’ organization for years with a 3.21 ERA over 32 starts. However, injuries and ineffective play would limit his 2014 before he was sidelined the entirety of 2015. He is just now beginning his rehab with the Royals’ organization as he tries to get back on a major league for the first time since September 20, 2014.
Hale arrived in Atlanta in 2013 and was a regular bullpen asset in 2014, though his metrics painted a picture of a guy who was lucky to have a 3.30 ERA. The new Braves regime agreed and traded him to the Rockies for catching prospect Jose Briceno. Hale would spend most of 2015 hurt and has already been designated for assignment this season before being picked up by the Orioles, where he is pitching in AAA.
Minor did help propel the Braves to the 2014 NL East title and has the distinction of being the only Braves pitcher with a playoff win since the end of the 2011. That alone bumped this draft up to fifth worst because precious little major league talent was produced from Atlanta’s safe picks. Let 2009’s draft be an example on never drafting for need. Always focus on best player available. If Atlanta’s spot comes up this June and they pick a high school pitcher, don’t despair. They were selecting the best player available, not drafting for the need (supposedly, college-age hitters). When you sacrifice your chance at the best player available, you lose your shot at guys like A.J. Pollock (#17th overall in 2009).
At the time of the draft, Keith Law ranked the Braves’ haul the fifth worst. To put their super conservative choices into context, not only did just three make it to the bigs, the Braves paid $4 million less in signing bonuses than what Strasburg got. Granted, Strasburg was again a generational talent and signed a major league deal with a $7.5 million signing bonus, but Atlanta spent under $4M to add their talent. The only plus was that they signed 20 of their first 22 picks. However, if you are going to invest in safe, college-age picks, you are doing so because their path to the majors is expected to be quick and a likely to happen. Atlanta failed at that. Their conservative drafts that followed continued this trend with two more drafts of the Wren years appearing in this countdown to come.
Like it is on the baseball field, if you don’t play to win, you will lose. In 2009, the Braves should have learned that to build a productive minor league system out of the draft, you need both safe picks and high-ceiling picks. Unfortunately, too often over the next few years, that lesson was forgotten.