Recently, as I surveyed the landscape of Major League Baseball, I noticed what I think is a key difference between the good teams and bad teams in 2015 (or any year for that matter). My research began as I tried to understand why my favorite team, the White Sox, continued to flounder. Heading into the 2015 season, expectations were high. The White Sox seemingly filled several major holes with off-season acquisitions of Melky Cabrera, David Robertson, and Jeff Samardzija and were primed for a respectable season.
Well, it didn't quite work out that way. The White Sox finished 2015 with a 75-87 record and will be kept out of the playoffs for the 7th straight year. Simply put, the White Sox have been bad and I wanted to know why.
The conclusion I came to? The White Sox (and many other franchises) are bad because of consistently poor drafting.
Looking back over the last ten draft classes is a depressing exercise for Sox fans. Since 2005, the best position player the White Sox have drafted in the first or second round is none other than Gordon Beckham (.209/.275/.332 with a 0.9 WAR in 2015). Now, to give credit where it’s due, the Sox did select Chris Sale with their first pick in 2010. However, only one other position player selected in the first two rounds has made the big leagues (Josh Phegley, career WAR 1.6).
Perhaps in previous generations clubs could adequately bolster their big league roster with free agent signings. However, in today’s game, that has become much more difficult.
Peak Years and the Draft
Those that look at the numbers in depth agree that the peak years of a baseball player is around 27 or 28 years old. Assuming that a player is breaking into the majors at an average age of 23 or 24 and factoring in MLB contracts (each player is under club control for seven years), that means that players are spending their peak years with the teams that drafted them. If a team like the White Sox can’t find a quality position player in the draft, they must resort to questionable signings (Melky Cabrera—3 years, $42 million at age 30) or trades (Jake Peavy for a young, but also below replacement level RF Avisail Garcia). A team might be able to find lightning in a bottle for a season, but you can’t consistently miss on high-impact players in the draft and expect to remain successful.
Contrast the White Sox draft classes (again, I’m looking at only the first and second round here), with those of the two best teams in each league.
St. Louis Cardinals
Over the past ten seasons, the Cardinals have drafted 17 players in the first two rounds who have made contributions on a big league roster. Altogether, the career WAR of those 17 players is 66.1 WAR. Notables include Colby Rasmus, Chris Perez, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller (who turned into Jayson Heyward), Kolton Wong, and Michael Wacha.
Kansas City Royals
Over the past ten seasons, the Royals have drafted less eventual big league players than the Cardinals, but have selected several franchise cornerstones. Notables include Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, and Eric Hosmer. Altogether, the career WAR of Royals draftees (first two rounds) is 57.9.
The White Sox are staying home while the Cardinals and Royals are making plans for a deep run in October because of their respective abilities to get value out of the draft. In today’s game, teams like the White Sox have to realize that it’s nearly impossible to sustain success without drafting well.
With the 2015 regular season finished, the 2016 MLB draft order is set.