Frank Thomas (center) has the highest career WAR of any No. 7 pick in the MLB draft from 1965 to 2014.
It is a lofty draft perch, an opportunity that the Red Sox hope they rarely encounter.
For just the third time in the last 48 years, the Red Sox – as a result of their unpleasant journey to last place in 2014 – own a top-10 pick in the 2015 amateur draft on Monday. As was the case in 1993 and 2013, the team owns the seventh overall pick in the draft, where it hopes to get a player of considerable and unusual impact.
The assumption, of course, is that the Sox should have their pick among players of immense ability, a chance to find a player with the kind of high ceiling that might make him a potential cornerstone. After all, Hall of Famer Frank Thomas went with the No. 7 pick in 1989. So did Clayton Kershaw (2006) and Troy Tulowitzki (2005) and, more recently, Matt Harvey (2010).
There have been years where the No. 7 pick has not only represented huge potential payoff but also a better-defined floor than teams might encounter after the first couple of dozen picks.
Yet while some of the names that have gone at No. 7 are indeed dazzling, the reality is that in the 50-year history of the draft, the difference in the relative impact made by that pick and selections later in the first round has been far smaller than one might expect.
In 1993, the Red Sox selected Trot Nixon as a player whom they considered a potential superstar. Nixon was a great high school athlete who showed the ability to play tremendous defense, run, hit, and hit for power – the potential five-tool starter’s kit.
Ultimately, Nixon settled into a long-time role as a very good player but something less than a star, a platoon option in right who decimated righthanded pitching while enjoying a career peak as roughly a 25-homer hitter.
Nixon had one season in which he was a standout, hitting .306 with a .396 OBP, .578 slugging mark, and 28 homers in 134 games for the 2003 Red Sox. But for the most part, he was a complementary piece rather than a cornerstone. According to Baseball-Reference.com, in parts of 12 big league seasons, he was worth 21.3 Wins Above Replacement.
It would be easy to look at that career performance and assume that – in a year where a future Cy Young winner like Chris Carpenter and another longtime contributor like Torii Hunter remained on the board – Nixon represented a bit of a letdown for the No. 7 pick. Such an outlook would miss the mark.
To this point, Nixon has the sixth-highest career WAR of the 50 players ever selected at No. 7. He has the seventh-best career WAR of any player taken in the first round that year, and the eighth best of anyone taken in the first 10 rounds of the 1993 draft. He was a solid contributor to a championship team in 2004. That profile suggests he represents one of the more impressive success stories in the history of the No. 7 pick, a fact that should serve, in some respects, to measure expectations for what the Sox realistically might accomplish by picking so high.
The MLB draft is an annual exercise in uncertainty. The effort to project how an 18-year-old might look when – and if – he gets to the big leagues after six minor league levels, and to compare that to how a 21-year-old might ultimately develop over the course of a more direct path to the big leagues, is far from an apples-to-apples exercise.
History suggests that there will be a future star on the board when the Sox have the No. 7 pick. The trick is figuring out who he is.
For instance, in 2007, the Brewers selected Matt LaPorta with the No. 7 pick in the draft. He never emerged as the middle-of-the-order slugger Milwaukee envisioned. A few picks later, the Giants took Madison Bumgarner with the No. 10 overall pick. Five All-Stars (Jason Heyward, Deven Mesoraco, Todd Frazier, Sean Doolittle, Josh Donaldson) went in that year’s first round after the LaPorta pick.
Of course, the Brewers didn’t have to lament their pick of LaPorta. After all, they used him as the centerpiece of a deal to acquire CC Sabathia for a push that got them to the playoffs in 2008. (Their bigger regret in the Sabathia deal? Shipping away Mickey Brantley, now a standout in the Indians outfield.) As such, Milwaukee did gain considerable value by having the No. 7 selection.
Still, the goal for the Sox is not to acquire a tradable asset. At a time when the means of acquiring standout talent for players’ prime years are dwindling, the ultimate payoff in the draft always comes from identifying and selecting a future stud. It simply remains to be seen whether the murky crystal ball that is the draft reveals him to the Sox, or, as has often been the case, to another team that has a pick later in the first round – or even outside of it.
It is worth noting that, in the 50-year history of the draft, more impact (as measured by total career WAR) has come from the nos. 10 and 30 picks than from the No. 7 pick – the product, no doubt, partly of some excellent scouting efforts in the later parts of the first round, but also the byproduct in no small measure of good fortune. This is an imperfect forecasting game.
|Pick||Big leaguers||Still in minors||Never made it||Avg ML WAR|
While new Red Sox amateur scouting director Mike Rikard – who served for the last five years as the Red Sox national crosschecker under Amiel Sawdaye – is engaged in this exercise for the first time, there are some intriguing aspects of his background that suggest someone with player evaluation savvy.
As an assistant coach at Wake Forest in 1999-2000, Rikard elicited a scholarship commitment from a promising young New Englander to join the Demon Deacons. However, while Rocco Baldelli was prepared to go to Wake, he decided to turn pro once the Devil Rays made him the No. 6 overall pick in the 2000 draft.
The same summer that Baldelli was drafted away from Rikard, he identified an unusual sort of player as a standout while coaching in the Cape League. Rikard couldn’t understand why other teams didn’t see what he saw in the junior from Cincinnati, and when Kevin Youkilis went on to flourish in the big leagues, Rikard benefited from a meaningful scouting lesson.
If Rikard can find the next Frank Thomas or Kershaw at No. 7, of course, the impact will be monumental. But in many respects, if he discovers the next Baldelli or Youkilis or Nixon, he’ll have had one of the most successful picks ever in that position.
There is a world of potential at No. 7, yet the pick doesn’t have to represent a lottery win to be successful – perhaps explaining the twin impulses of team scouts to speak breathlessly and, in the next sentence, in more measured tones, while imagining the player who will become a Red Sox on Monday.
“I’m very excited,” allowed Rikard. “We hope to get a good player.”
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.
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