Since the MLB draft began in 1965, there have been 1,560 top-30 picks. That’s 52 swings at a presumably sure-fire talent in the modern-day first round — and there have been a surprising number of misses among those choices.
The hits at each slot, the best to come out of each pick, are among some of the top players of all time. We put together an Ultimate Draft: the best picks at each spot, in terms of value provided to teams per season, from No. 1 overall to No. 30. Some guys are Hall of Famers, some are just a few years into their careers, and some (Chad Billingsley?) will surprise you.
Rodriguez, a 13-time All-Star and three-time MVP, hit .295 in a career spanning two decades. Among A-Rod’s accomplishments are two Gold Gloves, a 2009 World Series ring and seven finishes in the top-10 for MVP voting. There are lots of luminaries among No. 1 overall picks, including five other players with a WAR per season more than 3.5, but only seven other first-round picks have a WAR per season more than five.
Sure, he’s young, but Bryant has already set himself apart as one of the best No. 2 picks in draft history. A rookie of the year award and an MVP award, not to mention a World Series title, are already on his résumé, and he has established himself as a franchise player and curse-breaker for the Cubs.
Honorable mentions: Justin Verlander (3.9), Will Clark (3.74), Reggie Jackson (3.51)
No. 3 overall pick: Evan Longoria
Position: Third base
Drafted: Tampa Bay Devil Rays, 2006, from Long Beach State University
Years in MLB: 10 (active) | Career WAR: 48.1 | WAR per season: 4.81
Outside of the 2011 season, Longoria has never batted below .250 in a season, and he has six 150-plus-hit seasons to his name. The former rookie of the year, a Tampa Bay lifer, has averaged 30 home runs and 101 RBIs per year.
Honorable mentions: Manny Machado (4.25), Robin Yount (3.85)
No. 4 overall pick: Thurman Munson
Drafted: New York Yankees, 1968, from Kent State University
Years in MLB: 11 | Career WAR: 45.9 | WAR per season: 4.17
Munson is one of three pre-1970 draftees to make this list and the only catcher. He won two World Series with the Yankees and was a seven-time All-Star before his life was cut short in a plane accident. “Tugboat” put up 1,588 hits and 701 RBIs as one of the most prolific catchers in the early draft era.
Braun has hit above .300 six times in his career, and he has a rookie of the year award and an MVP award to show for it. He’s nearing 300 career home runs and 1,000 RBIs as a Brewer, and barring injury, he should surpass those marks this season, based on his projections.
There isn’t a No. 6 pick — or a first-round choice, for that matter — who comes close to the career production of Bonds. It’s remarkable in hindsight that MLB’s career leader in home runs was passed over by five teams, but Will Clark (No. 2 that year) and Barry Larkin (No. 4) went on to have good careers as well. The guy before Bonds, though? That’d be Kurt Brown, who never made it to the majors.
The league’s most dominant pitcher might be a Hall of Fame lock already; he might even be the best pitcher in MLB history. He was no slouch going into the draft, either. According to MaxPreps, Kershaw, chosen national player of the year by both USA Today and Gatorade, posted a 0.77 ERA and 139 strikeouts as a senior and averaged 2.2 strikeouts per inning with a perfect 13-0 record.
He’s another budding player, but Lindor has terrorized Indians opponents throughout his three years in the majors. In just his second season with the team, he batted .301/.435/.794 and helped Cleveland reach the World Series. He also earned the AL Platinum Glove award and finished in the top-10 in MVP voting.
The No. 9 pick is surprisingly light on talent historically, and Appier is one of the few standouts. His career WHIP of 1.294 would’ve put him at No. 37 among major league pitchers in 2016, right between Matt Moore and Cole Hamels. That said, he’s the best choice here; no other ninth pick has a WAR per season better than 2.2.
Few can forget the home run race between McGwire, then a Cardinal, and Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa in 1998. McGwire had 70 homers that year, four more than Sosa, in one of baseball’s most electrifying seasons offensively. By the end of his career, McGwire had 12 All-Star appearances, a World Series ring and 583 home runs, good for 11th all time.
Honorable mentions: Robin Ventura (3.5), Madison Bumgarner (3.39)
No. 11 overall pick: Andrew McCutchen
Position: Center field
Drafted: Pittsburgh Pirates, 2005, from Fort Meade (Florida) High School
Years in MLB: 9 (active) | Career WAR: 37.2 | WAR per season: 4.13
He’s now nothing like the guy who went to five straight All-Star games, but that stellar stretch makes McCutchen the best value at No. 11. The 2013 MVP carried Pittsburgh to four straight postseason appearances, though his team never advanced further than the division series. Despite the remarkable drop-off in his numbers since 2015, McCutchen has never had a negative WAR at the plate and boasts a career .289/.484/.861 line.
Garciaparra flirted with a .400 season in 2000 (he was hitting .403 on July 20 of that year) and was consistent at the plate throughout his career. He never won league MVP or a World Series, but his .313 career average is second among first-round picks and among the top-100 averages in league history. In fact, he batted below .250 only once: his rookie year, when he went .241 at the plate.
Honorable mentions: Kirk Gibson (2.25), Delino DeShields (1.86)
The Condor leads the majors with 12.7 strikeouts per nine innings this season, and he’s off to a blistering 6-2 start in his first season with Boston. If he keeps up this pace and matches his career average for starts, Sale will end the season with 300 strikeouts, a career-best for the five-time All-Star.
Honorable mentions: Manny Ramirez (3.64), Frank Tanana (2.76)
Other than a rough opening year at the plate with Chicago in 2016, Heyward has been a consistent bat and a phenomenal fielder throughout his time in the major leagues. His debut season in 2010 featured an All-Star nod and a second-place finish in rookie of the year voting, and he has won a Gold Glove four times, including one each of the past three years.
Honorable mentions: Jose Fernandez (3.55), Don Gullet (2.06)
From 2005-10, Utley was a premier player in the majors, with five straight All-Star Games and an average WAR per season of 7.55. He racked up nearly 70 percent of his career WAR during that stretch and hasn’t had a WAR better than four since 2010, but any team would take six years of prime Utley over what the rest of the No. 15 picks have done. Only one other player posted a career WAR better than 35 at this slot. That was Hall of Famer Jim Rice, who had 47.4 WAR over 16 seasons.
Honorable mentions: Jim Rice (2.96), Richie Hebner (1.83)
A six-time All-Star who helped lead St. Louis to a 2011 World Series title, Berkman finished in the top 10 of MVP voting six times in his career. In 11 full seasons with Houston, he averaged 4.3 WAR and 44 runs above a replacement-level player per season. He also hit a remarkable .431/.577/1.093 for the Cards in their seven-game World Series win over the Texas Rangers.
Honorable mentions: Brett Lawrie (2.57), Brian Holman (2.33)
No. 17 overall pick: Cole Hamels
Drafted: Philadelphia Phillies, 2002, from Rancho Bernardo (California) High School
Years in MLB: 12 (active) | Career WAR: 51.7 | WAR per season: 4.31
Hamels earned World Series MVP (and the same honor for the National League Championship Series) while bringing the Phillies a championship in 2008. He has longevity too; the lefty has thrown more than 200 innings in nine of his 12 seasons in the majors. Despite the workload, he has finished below .500 just once in his career, with four All-Star nominations and four finishes in the top-10 of Cy Young Award voting.
No. 18 overall pick: Corey Seager
Drafted: Los Angeles Dodgers, 2012, from Northwest Cabarrus (North Carolina) High School
Years in MLB: 3 (active) | Career WAR: 9.7 | WAR per season: 3.23
Seager is off to another solid start in 2017 after finishing third in MVP voting and earning rookie of the year honors last season. The 2012 draft was loaded with shortstop talent at the top; Carlos Correa and Addison Russell went before Seager at No. 1 and No. 11, respectively. At the time, assistant GM Logan White told MLB.com that he was as excited about the first round “as I was when we got Kershaw.” Then came a comparison to Cal Ripken. Luckily, Seager has lived up to the hype so far.
Honorable mentions: Willie Wilson (2.42), Sonny Gray (1.88)
No. 19 overall pick: Roger Clemens
Drafted: Boston Red Sox, 1983, from University of Texas
Years in MLB: 24 | Career WAR: 140.3 | WAR per season: 5.85
Seven Cy Young Awards, two World Series titles and 11 All-Star Game appearances. Not much else needs to be said about Clemens, the most accomplished pitcher of his era and one who threw in the majors for nearly a quarter-century.
Honorable mentions: Bobby Grich (4.17), Shannon Stewart (1.77)
A pitcher with seven Gold Gloves? Mussina did work on the mound in more ways than one, which led him to five All-Star Games. Over 18 years, he averaged nearly 50 fewer runs per season than a replacement-level pitcher, per Baseball-Reference.com.
No. 21 overall pick: Rick Sutcliffe
Drafted: Los Angeles Dodgers, 1974, from Van Horn (Missouri) High School
Years in MLB: 18 | Career WAR: 34.3 | WAR per season: 1.91
The 21st pick of the first round is, um, not exactly replete with talent, but Sutcliffe stands out. He earned rookie of the year in 1979 with a 17-10 record over 242 innings for the Dodgers and earned the Cy Young in 1984 after going a combined 20-6 with the Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs. Chicago picked him up after a 4-5 start with Cleveland; he went 16-1 from then on and earned two more All-Star nods in seven seasons on the North Side.
Honorable mentions: Gorman Thomas (1.52), Ian Kennedy (1.42)
No. 22 overall pick: Rafael Palmeiro
Position: Outfield and first base
Drafted: Chicago Cubs, 1985, from Mississippi State University
Years in MLB: 20 | Career WAR: 71.6 | WAR per season: 3.58
Palmeiro came up for the Cubs just a year after being drafted, and he earned his first All-Star spot two years later. He earned three more in his career during stints with the Rangers and Orioles, and he finished his career with 569 home runs.
Honorable mentions: Chet Lemon (3.47), Craig Biggio (3.23)
No. 23 overall pick: Christian Yelich
Position: Left field
Drafted: Florida Marlins, 2010, from Westlake (California) High School
Years in MLB: 5 (active) | Career WAR: 15.3 | WAR per season: 3.06
Yelich batted at least .284 in his first four full seasons in the majors, and compared to most of the picks at 23, he’s a tremendous value. Only 27 of the 52 players selected at No. 23 have made it past the minor leagues, and Yelich, just five years in, has the fourth-best career WAR at this slot. He was also the steal of the first round in a draft class that included Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Chris Sale.
No. 24 overall pick: Chad Billingsley
Drafted: Los Angeles Dodgers, 2003, from Defiance (Ohio) High School
Years in MLB: 9 (active) | Career WAR: 16.9 | WAR per season: 1.88
If you thought No. 23 was bad, you haven’t seen No. 24. This pick has a collective career WAR of 119.4 among 27 major league players. Billingsley has an All-Star appearance to his credit, though, and shockingly, he has the third-best career WAR of all the first-round picks in his draft class and the third-best per-season production.
No surprise here. A five-time All-Star and two-time MVP just seven years into his career, Trout has the best per-season WAR of any first-round pick. Barring serious injury setbacks, if he keeps this pace, he could end a 20-year career with a WAR around 155, good for No. 6 all time, between Willie Mays and Ty Cobb.
No. 26 overall pick: Alan Trammell
Drafted: Detroit Tigers, 1976, from Kearny (California) High School
Years in MLB: 20 | Career WAR: 70.4 | WAR per season: 3.52
Trammell is technically a second-round selection because in 1976, there were only 24 first-round picks. Still, Trammell was a top-30 talent, so he fits here. The six-time All-Star, 1984 World Series MVP and four-time Gold Glove honoree went on to manage his career-long Tigers in 2003. That didn’t go as well; he compiled a 185-300 record at the helm in Detroit and was fired in 2005.
Honorable mentions: Dave Henderson (1.97), Dan Plesac (0.98)
No. 27 overall pick: Vida Blue
Drafted: Kansas City Athletics, 1967, from De Soto (Louisiana) High School
Years in MLB: 17 | Career WAR: 45.5 | WAR per season: 2.68
He definitely has the best name among top first-round performers, and Blue was a force on the mound too. His team moved from Kansas City to Oakland by the time he made the major league roster in 1969, and he won three World Series, a Cy Young award and an MVP award with the team.
Rasmus is a bit of a journeyman, having been with four clubs in his nine years in the majors. His best year came in Toronto, where he posted a 4.8 WAR and tied his career high with a .276 batting average. So far this season, he’s on pace for career highs in home runs, slugging percentage and OPS.
Honorable mentions: Charles Jonhson (1.88), Lee Smith (1.64)
No. 29 overall pick: George Brett
Position: Third base and first base
Drafted: Kansas City Royals, 1971, from El Segundo (California) High School
Years in MLB: 21 | Career WAR: 88.4 | WAR per season: 4.21
Brett was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999 after he made 90 percent of ballots that year. He’s a 13-time All-Star, a league MVP and a three-time batting title winner, and he has a World Series ring. Perhaps the best example of his excellence came in 1980, when he batted .390/.664/1.118 and earned that MVP accolade.
No. 30 overall pick: Mike Schmidt
Position: Third base and first base
Drafted: Philadelphia Phillies, 1971, from Ohio University
Years in MLB: 18 | Career WAR: 106.5 | WAR per season: 5.92
You aren’t seeing double. Brett and Schmidt are just about the best one-two punch in draft history, with Schmidt, another Hall of Famer, selected right after Brett. Schmidt, a 12-time All-Star, three-time MVP, 10-time Gold Glove winner and World Series MVP in 1980, was inducted in the Hall four years before Brett. He led the majors in home runs six times and had a WAR of 5.0 or better each season from 1974-87.