Prior to the 2005 version, the Major League draft used to alternate picks between the American and National Leagues like they also used to do with home field advantage in the World Series before Bud Selig had to dip his meddlesome fingers in. There are some well-known times when the first overall pick did not go to the team with the worst record in the previous season.
The most recent was when the Padres got to select ahead of the Tigers in 2004 despite the 2003 Tigers having happened. Luckily for the Tigers, the Padres picked Matt Bush and the Tigers landed Justin Verlander. I don’t think they’re crying foul over that missed opportunity.
However, before that case was 2001 when the Minnesota Twins, despite having the fourth worst winning percentage in 2000, finished worst in the American League and it was the AL’s turn to go first. So the Twins had first dibs on the Mark Prior draft class. They still passed, electing to go with Joe Mauer. The Cubs, who should have picked first, probably would have gone with Prior, but who knows what happens with the Twins. Would Mauer have fallen to four? And what about the poor Pirates, who were bumped back from fifth – where the Rangers took Mark Teixeira – to eighth, where they took John Van Benschoten?
It’s easy to get dragged down the speculation hole of retroactive draft histories, so I want to pull back and quickly run down only the cases of the first overall pick. Here are the times since the mid-1960s that the first pick went to some team other than the one with the lowest winning percentage (using the current tiebreaker rule) during the previous season.
|Draft||1st Pick||Worst Team||Drafted at 1||Drafted at 2|
|2004||Padres||Tigers||Matt Bush||Justin Verlander|
|2001||Twins||Cubs||Joe Mauer||Mark Prior|
|2000||Marlins||Twins||Adrian Gonzalez||Adam Johnson|
|1999||Rays||Marlins||Josh Hamilton||Josh Beckett|
|1998||Phillies||Athletics||Pat Burrell||Mark Mulder|
|1996||Pirates||Twins||Kris Benson||Travis Lee|
|1995||Angels||Padres||Darin Erstad||Ben Davis|
|1993||Mariners||Dodgers||Alex Rodriguez||Darren Dreifort|
|1992||Astros||Indians||Phil Nevin||Paul Shuey|
|1991||Yankees||Braves||Brien Taylor||Mike Kelly|
|1990||Braves||Tigers||Chipper Jones||Tony Clark|
|1988||Padres||Indians||Andy Benes||Mark Lewis|
|1987||Mariners||Pirates||Ken Griffey Jr.||Mark Merchant|
|1985||Brewers||Giants||B.J. Surhoff||Will Clark|
|1984||Mets||Mariners||Shawn Abner||Bill Swift|
|1982||Cubs||Blue Jays||Shawon Dunston||Augie Schmidt|
|1980||Mets||Blue Jays||Darryl Strawberry||Garry Harris|
|1978||Braves||Blue Jays||Bob Horner||Lloyd Moseby|
|1977||White Sox||Expos||Harold Baines||Bill Gullickson|
|1976||Astros||Tigers||Floyd Bannister||Pat Underwood|
|1975||Angels||Padres||Danny Goodwin||Mike Lentz|
|1974||Padres||Rangers||Bill Almon||Tommy Boggs|
|1972||Padres||Indians||Dave Roberts||Rick Manning|
The Twins benefitted from the system in 2001, but the year prior were harmed by it when they lost a deserved shot at drafting Adrian Gonzalez. Instead the Marlins grabbed him before eventually sending him on an odyssey to Texas, San Diego and now Boston.
The pair of 1977 expansion clubs, the Blue Jays and the Mariners, both have had more than their full share of losing or gaining draft position. Their fates were quite divergent though. While the Blue Jays were denied an opportunity at Bob Horner, Darryl Strawberry and Shawon Dunston (all eventually good players), the Mariners jumped ahead in the Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. drafts and saw the Mets take Shawn Abner ahead of them in 1984, which was no big loss.
There is never one universal draft board and different teams, in different positions would have made different decisions. In some cases, switching the teams drafting one and two would not have changed their picks, but I think it’s fun to look at without getting too carried away. Is there anything more arbitrary than the requirement to alternate leagues in the draft that potentially swung the fortunes of two franchises more than the Mariners nabbing Griffey ahead of the Pirates?
Matthew Carruth is a software engineer who has been fascinated with baseball statistics since age five. When not dissecting baseball, he is watching hockey or playing soccer.