The Reality of Legacies and Latter Round MLB Draft Picks

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As nice and uplifting a story as the Diamondbacks drafting of paralyzed former Arizona State player Cory Hahn in the 34th round of the MLB draft is, it also provides insight as to how little teams think of the draft’s latter rounds and the likelihood of finding useful on-field talent that can make it to the big leagues.

In another pick that got significant attention, the Yankees drafted Andy Pettitte’s son Josh in the 37th round out of high school. Because Pettitte’s son has committed to Baylor University, Josh Pettitte is not expected to sign with the Yankees. That’s probably a relief for them because a 37th round draft pick is not expected to be anything more than organizational filler. If Josh Pettitte was considered an actual prospect, he would’ve been taken by a team other than the Yankees well before the 37th round, commitment to Baylor or not. When the Yankees selected Paul O’Neill’s nephew Michael in the third round, they did so not as a legacy or a favor to the O’Neill family but because he can actually play. The Mets made a similar selection with Lee Mazzilli’s son L.J. in the fourth round. These are players who would have been selected by another club at around the same spot had the Yankees and Mets not made the selections. There’s no doubt that the legacy was a tiny factor in picking the players, but not to the degree that the Yankees selecting Pettitte and this is the difference between players selected in the first 10-15 rounds—for any reason—and those picked after.

For every late-round draft pick who makes it to the majors, there are thousands of others who don’t get past the low minors. Players who are drafted past the tenth round are not expected to make it. Once in a long while you’ll have the occasional freak occurrence like Albert Pujols (13th round), James Shields (16th round), Domonic Brown (drafted as a pitcher in the 20th round), Mark Buehrle (38th round), and Mike Piazza (62nd round as a favor to Tom Lasorda). By and large, the players who make it to the majors are those who are picked in the first 20 rounds with the numbers decreasing significantly as the rounds pass. Players taken in the first few rounds will receive repeated opportunities not just because of latent talent, but because of the money teams invest in them. That’s become even more pronounced with the slotted bonuses and limited amount of money teams are allowed to spend in the draft. They don’t want to toss money away on a player even if, after three or four years, he shows he’s not what they thought he was. In some cases, these players make it to the big leagues so teams can say, “Look he made it to the majors at least,” as if that’s some form of justification for an overall miss on a high draft pick.

Indicative of how little teams think of the latter rounds were the decisions to make these selections of players like Hahn and Pettitte. They create a story for a brief time but devolve into the realm of the forgotten because they weren’t meant to be remembered in the first place.

Should teams spend more time and money on the draft past the initial stages? Are there enough talented draft-eligible players to make it worth their while? It depends. Some clubs don’t want to spend the money and resources it will take to mine through the amateurs for 50 rounds to find perhaps five players that have a chance to contribute. Others, like the Cardinals, have made it a regular occurrence to draft players on the third and fourth days of the draft such as Matt Carpenter, Trevor Rosenthal, Allen Craig, Luke Gregerson, and Jaime Garcia. The Cardinals and then-scouting director Jeff Luhnow have been credited with the Cardinals’ fertile farm system, but perhaps the truth is more of a matter of the conscious decision not to waste late-round picks on legacies and heartwarming stories, instead choosing to draft players who they think might be able to help them at some point.

The Yankees and their apologists can point to the inexplicable luck the team had in 1990 with Pettitte the father (22nd round) and Jorge Posada (24th round drafted as an infielder) as reason to think Josh Pettitte has a chance, but that’s wishful thinking. They got lucky in 1990 just as the Cardinals got lucky with Pujols and the Devil Rays got lucky with Shields. On the same token, teams have repeatedly failed with top-tier picks for one reason or another be it injuries, miscalculation, off-field problems or bottom line bad luck. If the Yankees were going to draft a player in the 37th round who had a miniscule chance of becoming useful to them or the Diamondbacks were going to do the same thing in the 34th round, then why not draft the players they did and accrue some publicity? Overall, there’s no difference because a paralyzed player like Hahn only has a slightly less chance of making it than someone else who was drafted in the 34th round, so the Diamondbacks did something nice and it won’t harm their draft because on the field, it won’t make much difference either way.

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