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The Twins’ draft drought

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What happens when you strike out for a decade — and how can you reverse it?

Minnesota Twins v Toronto Blue Jays
Twins 2007 first-round pick Ben Revere has been the team’s most productive first-rounder of the last 10 years.
Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

I recently received my 2017 Baseball America Prospect Handbook, an annual occurrence that ranks somewhere ahead of New Year’s Eve and behind Thanksgiving on Louie’s Annual Event Power Ranking.

Each edition, BA lists every team’s “Top Draft Picks of the Decade,” which serves as a quick-and-dirty rubric for early-round draft swings and misses.

Previous editions were quite kind to the Minnesota Twins. The 2007 Handbook, for example, listed the Twins’ previous 10 top-draftees thusly:

2006: Chris Parmelee, OF, Chino Hills HS (Chino Hills, CA)

2005: Matt Garza, RHP, Cal State Fresno

2004: Trevor Plouffe, SS, Crespi Carmelite HS (Encino, CA)

2003: Matt Moses, 3B, Mills E. Godwin HS (Henrico, VA)

2002: Denard Span, OF, Catholic HS (Tampa, FL)

2001: Joe Mauer, C, Cretin-Derham Hall HS (St. Paul, MN)

2000: Adam Johnson, RHP, Cal State Fullerton

1999: B.J. Garbe, OF, Moses Lake HS (Moses Lake, WA)

1998: Ryan Mills, LHP, Arizona State University

1997: Michael Cuddyer, SS, Great Bridge HS (Chesapeake, VA)

That’s a 50% hit rate on their top pick of each draft. Because BA’s lists don’t include any additional first-rounders after a team’s opening pick or their supplemental first-round draft picks, it doesn’t include Glen Perkins, who was taken two picks after Plouffe in the first round in ‘04.

What an incredible haul. Including Perkins and other supplemental picks like Matthew LeCroy — who I didn’t realize I missed so acutely until I saw his name staring back at me on B-Ref — the Twins pulled in an unreal 91.5 WAR (B-Ref version) in the draft’s first round from 1997 to 2006. Fifty of that comes from Mauer, who, lest we forget, was on his way to becoming the greatest catcher in MLB history before brain injuries derailed what was shaping up to be a legendary career.

(If you, like me, feel the need to defend Mauer’s name whenever a Twins fan deigns to besmirch it, you should probably write down this passage from his player note in the 2017 Baseball Prospectus and keep it handy: “The former first overall pick has not been the same since suffering a concussion on August 19, 2013. There are lots of ways to examine his decline, but anything that fails to start with the brain injury as the driving force is ignoring the obvious. Mauer was a 30-year-old career .323/.405/.468 hitter in the middle of a typically outstanding year, batting .324/.404/.476. He missed the rest of 2013, came back in 2014 as a first baseman, and has hit just .267/.353/.380 since.”)

At any rate, in the 10 drafts from ‘97 to ‘06 the Twins displayed an enviable ability to extract value from the top of the draft: they had a franchise-shaping opportunity with the top pick in 2001 and took full advantage of it by drafting Mauer to be the team’s generational backstop. The Twins had a golden opportunity and cashed in. (To paraphrase Omar Little: If you come for a king, you best not miss.)

The Twins also found plenty of value from less prime real estate: the Twins plucked Denard Span, Glen Perkins, Trevor Plouffe, Matt Garza and Ben Revere with picks in the final third of the first round — to say nothing of rounds 2-8, which gave the Twins Jesse Crain, Scott Baker, Justin Morneau, Eddie Rosario, Pat Neshek and Brian Dozier.

Drafting well is a necessity for small-market teams, and from 1997 to 2006 the Twins drafted brilliantly. Since 2007, however, it’s been a different story.

Here’s the Twins’ “Top Draft Picks of the Decade” entry from this year’s Prospect Handbook.

2016: Alex Kiriloff, OF, Plum HS (Pittsburgh, PA)

2015: Tyler Jay, LHP, University of Illinois

2014: Nick Gordon, SS, Olympia HS (Orlando, FL)

2013: Kohl Stewart, RHP, St. Pius X HS (Houston, TX)

2012: Byron Buxton, OF, Appling County HS (Baxley, GA)

2011: Levi Michael, SS, University of North Carolina

2010: Alex Wimmers, RHP, Ohio State University

2009: Kyle Gibson, RHP, University of Missouri

2008: Aaron Hicks, OF, Woodrow Wilson HS (Long Beach, CA)

2007: Ben Revere, OF, Lexington Catholic HS (Lexington, KY)

That’s pretty rough. Ben Revere and Kyle Gibson have been productive-ish major-league players, and I still believe that Byron Buxton has several All-Star appearances in his future. The jury is still out on the 2013-2016 picks, of course, but expectations for both Stewart and Gordon — the 4th and 5th overall picks, respectively — have dropped precipitously after three seasons of Stewart striking out 5.9 batters per nine and Gordon hitting .285/.335/.371.

The last decade, the Twins’ first-round draftees haven’t borne fruit. But how bare is the Twins’ pantry compared to the rest of the MLB?

Falling behind the curve

Kansas City Royals v Minnesota Twins
Twins pitcher Kyle Gibson has been worth 5.0 WAR since being selected 22nd overall in 2009
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Just a refresher: in the 10 drafts from 1997 to 2006, the Twins’ first-round draftees racked up 91.5 Wins Above Replacements — 9.15 WAR per draft.

How’ve they done since then? Well, I tallied WAR from 2006 to 2015, leaving 2016 out of it because it’s a bit too soon to tell. I included 2015, however, because a handful of first-rounders — Alex Bregman, Andrew Benintendi, Dansby Swanson — have already made a major-league impact. I wanted a clean 10-year period, so that means 2006 is counted in both tallies. Oh well. That’s just twice as much Chris Parmelee! (In all these tallies, a player’s career WAR is listed, no matter his team. We’re looking at the Twins’ ability to locate and develop talent, not keep it in perpetuity.)

From 2006 to 2015, Twins first-round draftees have been worth a grand total of 14.2 WAR, via Baseball-Reference.

Twins 1st Rounders '06-'15

Pick Name Pos WAR G
Pick Name Pos WAR G
6 Tyler Jay LHP
5 Nick Gordon SS
4 Kohl Stewart RHP
2 Byron Buxton OF 2.1 138
32 Jose Berrios RHP -1.6 14
42 Luke Bard RHP
30 Levi Michael SS
50 Travis Harrison 3B
55 Hudson Boyd RHP
21 Alex Wimmers RHP 16
22 Kyle Gibson RHP 5 98
46 Matt Bashore LHP
14 Aaron Hicks OF 1.9 370
27 Carlos Gutierrez RHP
31 Shooter Hunt RHP
28 Ben Revere OF 6.1 748
20 Chris Parmelee OF 0.5 311

The first thing that stands out is how much damage Jose Berrios has inflicted upon the Twins in just 14 major-league starts; whatever good Aaron Hicks has managed in 370 career games, Berrios has nearly undid it in a few months on the hill.

Gibson and Revere are the two “standouts,” because standing out is a very relative concept, I suppose.

The Twins’ 14.2 WAR from its 2006-2015 first-round draft picks ranks 26th in the majors.

Now, it would be crazy to expect the Twins of ‘06 to ‘15 to approach the 91.5 WAR they compiled from ‘97 to ‘06; we’re talking about a much more recent crop of draftees who haven’t had the time to fully develop and blossom. In 10 years, this graph could look drastically different, depending on Buxton, Berrios, Jay, Gordon, et al.

But five teams — the Reds, Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Rays and Giants — all have surpassed 60 WAR with their first-rounders from 2006 to 2015, and only four teams have been worse than the Twins. (The Giants have accrued 88 WAR from that time period thus far. Turns out, Tim Lincecum + Madison Bumgarner + Buster Posey = Lots of Success.)

Let’s take a closer look at these bottom five teams, with a couple extra pieces of data: the number of first-round/first-round supplemental picks the team had during the period, the team’s top five draft positions in the decade and the club’s average number of wins from 2012-2016. (I picked the most recent five years, since there’s clearly a lag behind when players are drafted and when they contribute; it seems unfair to expect immediate returns and to attribute success to the youngsters down on the farm when it’s the previous five years of draftees who are tasked with producing the bulk of those wins.)

The Phillies have drafted poorly; they’ve also had very few draft picks overall and only one in the top 10. The Red Sox have also had to contend with poor draft position because they, well, contend. Boston’s best draft position was seventh, where they’ve sat twice; in 2015, that spot netted them Andrew Benintendi, who — and I don’t want to be that guy, but here we go — went one pick after Tyler Jay and whose .835 OPS as a 21-year-old makes me angry he’s not patrolling left field in a “TC” cap. (He had 10 walks in 118 plate appearances as a rookie; Eddie Rosario had 12 walks in 354 plate appearances last season.)

The Red Sox also don’t need to draft well. They’ve got Lannister money. The Red Sox spent an insane $31.5 million just to sign Yoan Moncada, and then turned around and traded him to get Chris Sale with nary an eye batted. It was simply the price of doing business.

The Rangers, like the Red Sox, are also far more active in international waters than the Twins, and it’s a little easier to whiff on the first round when you’re signing the likes of Yu Darvish, Rougned Odor, Nomar Mazara, Martin Perez, Leonys Martin, Leody Taveras, Ronald Guzman and Jurickson Profar. (Profar remains my favorite player, though he’s accumulated a grand total of 0.0 WAR since entering the show. However, this is the year! Also, it’s his birthday. Happy Birthday, Juri!)

Minnesota has made strides with signings like Miguel Sano, Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco, Fernando Romero and Wander Javier — the latter of whom became the organization’s record international signing in 2015, when the Twins inked the Dominican shortstop for $4 million. Without those recent international signings, the Twins would be in a vaster, more sinister world of hurt. Imagine an even darker timeline. One shudders to think.

The Rockies bear the most similarities to the Twins: they’ve had plenty of shots within the top 10 without fully connecting — yet. Trevor Story, Tyler Anderson, Jon Gray and David Dahl all offer plenty of upside going forward and a chance to increase their paltry present value.

Unfortunately for the Twins, the Rockies are probably the last major-league team to which another would like to be compared. They are perhaps the one remaining team with no discernible plan and — at least as it appears from the outside — a regime that harbors a deep aversion to statistical analysis or anything resembling sabermetrics.

The same could have been said about the Twins front office not too long ago. But things have changed — and the stakes have never been higher.

Pick of the litter

Now that’s a 1st round pick!
Screenshot from MLB.com

For a team of the Twins’ stature and indigence to succeed, they must extract value from the draft — and picks are exponentially more valuable near the top. In 2014, Matthew Murphy of The Hardball Times found that a top-five pick “produce[d] between six and 14 WAR under team control.” You’ll recall that the Twins have produced 14.5 WAR from their last 10 first-round picks, three of which were in the top five.

When given the opportunity to pick from the very top of the heap — an opportunity Twins fans pray doesn’t become a common occurrence — it’s important that the Twins take full advantage.

The Twins’ brain trust of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine have been given a welcoming gift in the form of the first overall pick in the 2017 draft; I’m sure the allure of the game’s top overall pick in what is shaping up to be a strong draft was extra enticing when Falvey and Levine weighed the Twins job.

Asking Falvey and Levine to snag another Mauer, a 45 WAR player by the time he was 30, asks too much. But grabbing someone that can provide high-impact, cost-controlled value — that can alter the direction of a franchise — is vital for the Twins to reverse their recent on-field ignominy .

The Twins have options: No. 1 could be high school jack-of-all-trades Hunter Greene, who is either a big righty tickling the mid-90s with “easy velocity” or a smooth shortstop with “pure hitting ability,” according to Baseball America; or No. 1 could be high school outfielder Royce Lewis, of whom BA wrote, “Often times the phrase ‘five-tool talent’ is thrown around loosely with prospects, but it’s rarely been more apt than in the case of Royce Lewis.”

Whomever they select, Falvey, Levine and company need to start loading up at the top of the draft. It’s the cheapest way back into contention, and as teams like the Astros and Cubs have shown, the draft needn’t be a circuitous path to contention. It can get you there quick if you do it right.

High draft picks represent hope, an investment in the future and the promise of better things to come. The draft is what’s supposed to make all the losing worth it in the end.

If we’re going to be stuck in the cellar, we may as well hoard the finest wines.