MLB Prospect Watch: A decade-long recap of baseball’s top draft picks
With the Major League Baseball draft less than a month away (Sunday, July 17), CBS Sports has begun previewing the upcoming class. We have already ranked the top 30 prospects; mocked the first round; and interviewed the most polarizing actors. We’ll have even more preview material to come over the coming weeks, until the Baltimore Orioles make their third No. 1 overall selection in franchise history.
The past few months have proven to be hectic for recent top picks. To wit: Carlos Correa signed huge free agent deal; Dansby Swanson has won a World Series and is trying to set up his own payday; Casey Mize and Royce Lewis suffered season-ending injuries; Spencer Torkelson and Adley Rutschman made their major league debuts; and Mark Appel has positioned himself to do the same.
With that in mind, today’s Prospect Watch is dedicated to recapping the past decade of No. 1 picks: how they worked, where they are now, and how things might have been different had the team in question decided to take another route.
Correa, the first and (by far) most successful of Houston’s three consecutive No. 1 picks, is now a member of the Minnesota Twins. Well, he’s still on course to finish as one of the most productive overall top picks in league history. Already a two-time All-Star, he racked up about 36 pre-substitution wins before his 27-year-old season ended; for reference, Adrián González ranks fifth in WAR among the No. 1 picks, with 43.5 for his career. So there’s a real chance that Correa will crack the top five before he turns 30. As a bonus, the Astros’ decision to take Correa over Byron Buxton helped popularize the “portfolio approach,” the same philosophy the Orioles have deployed in the past and possibly again when picking up in July.
2013: Mark Appel, RHP, Houston Astros
The Astros once again saved money at the top by selecting Appel over Kris Bryant. (Bryant, drafted second by the Chicago Cubs, received a signing bonus worth a few hundred thousand dollars more than Appel’s.) Appel was expected to be a safe No. 2 or 3 starter and fast, but injuries and underperformance plagued him. The Astros threw in the towel pretty quickly, sending him to the Philadelphia Phillies after the 2015 season as part of the Ken Giles trade. Appel later retired from the sport before reaching the majors; he’s since returned and cast in a relief role well enough this season to consider heading to The Show before the end of the year.
2014: Brady Aiken, HPL, Houston Astros
Here we have reached the most controversial No. 1 pick of the decade. The Astros did not sign Aiken after a post-draft physical exam revealed an abnormality with his ulnar collateral ligament (also known as Tommy John’s ligament). This move had ramifications elsewhere, as it prevented the Astros from executing agreements made with other players in their class and violating MLB rules. (The Astros had to come to terms with those players, but there’s no record of the league punishing them.) Aiken would spend a year at IMG Academy before being selected midway through the first round by the Cleveland Guardians. He never recovered and was released last fall after making just 43 professional appearances (none above A-ball). Aiken hasn’t hung around anywhere else and he hasn’t pitched a regular season game since 2019. He will celebrate his 26th birthday in August, but it’s fair to wonder if his career is over. The Astros, by the way, received the No. 2 pick of the 2015 class as compensation. They used that pick to select Alex Bregman, who has since become a franchise cornerstone.
As good as Vanderbilt’s baseball program is and has been, Swanson was only the second Commodore selected with the top pick. (The first was David Price in 2007.) Swanson spent six months as a member of the Diamondbacks organization before being traded to the Atlanta Braves as part of Shelby Miller’s misguided deal. For much of his career, he was more of a decent role player than a star-level contributor; he’s been doing his best lately to change that perception: he’s in the midst of a fantastic marching year and he’s been considered for the 2020 Most Valuable Player award. It remains to be seen if Swanson can maintain that. production level; Either way, it’s fair to conclude that the D-Backs probably wished they had retained him – or, more likely, selected the aforementioned Alex Bregman and kept him.
2016: Mickey Moniak, OF, Philadelphia Phillies
There was no clear No. 1 pick in 2016, so the Phillies went with Moniak, a well-rounded prep outfielder with few weaknesses. It did not work. Including this season, he sports a career 21 OPS+ in 38 league games. Moniak has had more success in the minors, and he’s still young enough (24) to think he could become a reserve. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the Phillies can’t worry about passing a Bregman or a Bryant. The top 10 as a whole, including Moniak and No. 2 pick Nick Senzel, produced seven players who didn’t reach the majors or did and have since recorded less than 0.1 WARs. Indeed, the most productive early players in this class are Will Smith (32nd pick), Cal Quantrill (eighth), Ian Anderson (third), and Dakota Hudson (34th).
2017: Royce Lewis, SS, Minnesota Twins
There are some similarities between the 2016 draft and the 2017 draft. Both featured a high school position player going No. 1, and both saw the middle to late parts of the round win. (The three most productive players in the first round of 2017 so far were selected with the 24th, 13th and 20th picks.) It’s not a total cut-and-paste job, though, as Lewis was reputed to have tools. stronger and a bigger upside down than Moniak. He also had tougher breaks. Lewis missed the entire 2021 season after tearing his ACL in his right knee, delaying his arrival until this season. Unfortunately, he just tore that ACL again, 12 games into his major league career and 16 months after the first injury. He’s expected to miss around a year, which means the best-case scenario would see him return just before the 2023 All-Star Game.
Speaking of injuries and lost years, Mize underwent Tommy John surgery in June which will sideline him for at least 12 months. He’s made 39 major league starts to date, amassing respectable ratings that include a 101+ ERA and 2.64 strikeout ratio. He’ll be 26 the next time he throws a pitch, and it’ll be interesting to see where his career takes him from there. As it stands, he’s not missing bats or suppressing contact quality enough to predict he’ll become more than a mid-rotation starter. Nonetheless, Mize still ranks among the top five most productive players to date as of 2018, although he ranks third among college arms thanks to the emergence of Shane McClanahan (pick No. 31) and Logan Gilbert. (#14).
2019: Adley Rutschman, C, Baltimore Orioles
Rutschman struggled to start his major league career, but there’s no reason to panic yet. He was a profile-based No. 1 slam-dunk pick that scouts believe could feature four more or better tools when mature. Unlike previous classes, this draft still seems loaded at the top: Bobby Witt Jr., Andrew Vaughn, Riley Greene, CJ Abrams and Nick Lodolo accounted for five of the next six picks (JJ Bleday, the fourth pick, disappointed). Meanwhile, the rest of the first round saw teams select Josh Jung, Alek Manoah, Corbin Carroll, George Kirby, Daniel Espino, Anthony Volpe and Seth Johnson. We’ll see where life takes them, but this class seems to have the potential to produce several All-Star caliber players, including a few repeaters.
2020: Spencer Torkelson, 1B, Detroit Tigers
As with Rutschman, Torkelson’s rookie year got off to a bad start. Going by just the Baseball Reference version of WAR (a counting stat, mind you), he was the majors’ least productive player. It makes no sense to overreact to 60s games, but Torkelson’s lack of positional value gives him a slimmer margin for error than someone like Rutschman. On draft night, Torkelson was expected to turn into a middle-of-the-road force; he’ll have to do it to justify being the first right-handed first baseman ever picked with the first pick.
The Pirates followed in the footsteps of the Astros and Orioles in taking the wallet approach last summer. Davis may have been the first name on the board, but he only received the fifth-highest signing bonus (and over a million less than Jack Leiter, who was the No. 2 selection); Pittsburgh, in turn, redistributed the savings by taking three other players who cracked CBS Sports’ top 50 before the draft. Davis has already reached Double-A, and barring an injury, he should reach the majors next summer once the Pirates manage to manipulate his service time.