Earlier this week, MLB Pipeline’s Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo rolled out their list of the Top 100 prospects for the 2021 Draft, offering fans a comprehensive look at the best amateur players in the country. Beyond those rankings, they also applied their expertise in putting together a mock draft for the Top 10 slots in 2021 and answered fans’ questions during a recent Twitter Q&A.
As part of MLB Pipeline’s ongoing Draft coverage, we thought that it would be interesting to explore past successes in the annual event by highlighting the best pick in each team’s history.
But please note that the purpose of this list is not to identify which players performed the best for the organization that drafted them. Rather, for this exercise, we have identified every team’s best Draft pick based on (Baseball Reference’s) Wins Above Replacement — though, in some cases, exceptions were made (and noted) by the MLB Pipeline team.
And while many players went on to play positions other than the one at which they were drafted, we have decided, for historical context, to list each player at his original position. Additionally, only players who were taken in a June Draft were eligible, which is why, for example, you don’t see Tom Seaver (a 1966 January Draft-Secondary Phase selection by Atlanta) included in the list.
The below list of every team’s best Draft pick features 17 former first-round picks, including three former No. 1 overall picks. Two players are products of the first June (Rule 4) Draft (in 1965), while five players on the list remain active in the Major Leagues.
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
Blue Jays: Roy Halladay, RHP (1st round, No. 17 overall, 1995)
Selected by Toronto out of the Colorado prep ranks, Halladay earned eight All-Star nods, tossed a pair of perfect games and won the Cy Young in both leagues during his 16-year career, capturing the prestigious award with Toronto (2003) and Philadelphia (2010). The right-hander was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2019.
Orioles: Cal Ripken Jr., 3B (2nd round, No. 48 overall, 1978)
The Orioles obviously didn’t know Ripken would go on to break one of the seemingly most unbreakable records in baseball when he surpassed Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak. Ripken was actually the fourth player selected by Baltimore that June, following Robert Boyce, Larry Sheets and Eddie Hook. Only Sheets made the big leagues from that group and Ripken went on to the Hall of Fame while leading all 1978 draftees with his 95.9 WAR.
Rays: Evan Longoria, 3B (1st round, No. 3 overall, 2006)
The Long Beach State product made quick work of the Minors en route to AL Rookie of the Year honors and an 11th-place MVP finish in 2008, when he also helped lead the Rays to their first World Series appearance. A career 56.7-WAR player who posted three straight 7.0-plus WAR seasons (2009-11), Longoria was a three-time All Star and recorded six Top 20 MVP campaigns during 10 seasons in Tampa Bay before joining San Francisco via trade in December 2017.
Red Sox: Roger Clemens, RHP (1st round, No. 19 overall, 1983)
Clemens starred at the University of Texas and was the ninth pitcher taken in the first round of the 1983 Draft. The Rocket, of course, went on to win seven Cy Young Awards, win seven ERA titles and make 11 All-Star teams while amassing a WAR of 139.2, eighth all-time and third among pitchers (first in the Draft era).
Yankees: Derek Jeter, SS (1st round, No. 6 overall, 1992)
The first five selections in the 1992 Draft were college players before the Yankees were able to nab Jeter from his Kalamazoo, Mich., high school. As one of only four prepsters taken in the top 20 that year, the Hall of Famer’s 71.3 WAR tops the Draft class as he went on to win five World Series titles, all with New York. His 3,465 hits put him sixth on the all-time list.
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
Indians: Jim Thome, SS (13th round, No. 333 overall, 1989)
That’s right, Thome was a shortstop as an amateur and even played 40 games there in the Gulf Coast League after he signed. He would go on to break into the big leagues at third and play most of his games at first, collecting 612 homers along the way and a plaque in Cooperstown. The ’89 Draft was a good one for first basemen, with Jeff Bagwell and Frank Thomas (also in this story) finishing ahead of Thome in terms of WAR, but Thome gets the edge in terms of bang for the buck as a 13th-round pick.
Royals: George Brett, SS (2nd round, No. 29 overall, 1971)
After getting his first taste of the Majors at age 20 in 1973, Brett launched his Hall of Fame career in earnest the following year and garnered the first of his 13 consecutive All-Star nods in ’76. The 1999 Hall of Fame inductee became the only player to win a batting title in three decades (1976, ’80, ’90) and racked up 3,154 hits during his 21-year career in Kansas City, which also included an MVP Award (’80) and a World Series title (’85).
Tigers: Lou Whitaker, 3B (5th round, No. 99 overall, 1975)
Whitaker was the AL Rookie of the Year as a 21-year-old in 1978 and went on to earn five All-Star selections, four Silver Sluggers and three Gold Glove Awards, spending his entire 19-year career with the Tigers. The ’84 World Series champion and career 75.1 WAR player is one of three second basemen in baseball history — joining Hall of Famers Rogers Hornsby and Joe Morgan — to record at least 1,000 runs, 1,000 RBIs, 2,000 hits and 200 home runs.
Twins: Bert Blyleven, RHP (3rd round, No. 55 overall, 1969)
Born in the Netherlands, Blyleven went to high school in California, attracting the attention of the Twins, who took him in the third round in 1969. The Hall of Famer went on to pitch for 22 years in the big leagues, and his 94.5 WAR easily tops all members of his class in a year when the top six players who signed, ranked by WAR, were all taken in the third round or higher.
White Sox: Frank Thomas, 1B (1st round, No. 7 overall, 1989)
Thomas started his career at Auburn as a tight end while also playing baseball, then turned to baseball full time as a sophomore. That turned out to be a wise move as he’s in the Hall of Fame and the Big Hurt is the only player in history to record seven straight seasons of 20-plus homers, 100 RBIs, 100 walks and a .300 average.
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
Angels: Mike Trout, OF (1st round, No. 25 overall, 2009)
In 2009, it was known as the Stephen Strasburg Draft, but while the right-hander has had a solid career, there’s no doubt this is Trout’s class. After not getting seen enough at his New Jersey high school and not getting selected until close to the end of the first round, Trout has already built some serious Hall of Fame credentials, with a 74.6 WAR that’s already second among all active players. He’s already won three MVPs and has gone to eight All-Star Games to go along with his eight Silver Sluggers.
Astros: Craig Biggio, C (1st round, No. 22 overall, 1987)
Kenny Lofton, taken in round 17 in 1988, actually accrued more WAR (68.4) than Biggio’s 65.5, but we’ve given Biggio the nod since Lofton played just 20 games with the Astros while Biggio, taken as a catcher out of Seton Hall, spent his entire career in Houston. The Hall of Famer was an All-Star as a catcher and as a second baseman, finishing with over 3,000 hits. He is the only player with at least 3,000 hits, 600 doubles, 400 stolen bases and 250 home runs.
A’s: Rickey Henderson, OF (4th round, No. 96 overall, 1976)
The 1976 Draft produced four Hall of Famers (and a fifth, Ozzie Smith, was taken but didn’t sign), all picked in the second round or higher. Henderson was a fourth-rounder taken by the A’s in their own backyard at Oakland Technical High School, and he went on to lead the entire class with his 111.2 WAR. Considered the greatest leadoff hitter of all time, Henderson is the career leader in stolen bases and runs scored.
Mariners: Alex Rodriguez, SS (1st round, No. 1 overall, 1993)
Sure, he’s polarizing, but it still can be argued that A-Rod is the greatest No. 1 pick of all time. His 117.5 WAR tops all top picks, with Chipper Jones (also in this story) and fellow Mariners selection Ken Griffey Jr. coming in second and third. Rodriguez made 14 All-Star teams, won 10 Silver Sluggers, three MVPs and two Gold Glove awards.
Rangers: Kevin Brown, RHP (1st round, No. 4 overall, 1986)
Brown, a Georgia Tech product, finished sixth in the AL Rookie of the Year race with the Rangers in 1989 and then led the Majors in wins (21) in ’92, when he recorded the first of five Top 6 finishes in the Cy Young race. He also paced the NL in ERA in both ’96 (1.89, Marlins) and 2000 (2.58, Dodgers) and eclipsed the 200-inning mark in nine of his 19 seasons in the big leagues, finishing with 67.8 WAR.
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
Braves: Chipper Jones, SS (1st round, No. 1 overall, 1990)
Fellow Hall of Famer Tom Glavine, a second-rounder in 1984, deserves a shout-out, but Chipper’s 85.3 WAR is second among all No. 1 overall picks, trailing only Alex Rodriguez. He also leads all Braves draftees in that statistical category, while he finished with more career walks than strikeouts and hit 468 homers, the most by any National League switch-hitter.
Marlins: Adrián González, 1B (1st round, No. 1 overall, 2000)
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2000 Draft played three seasons in Miami’s system before the club packaged him with two other players to Texas for Ugueth Urbina in July ’03, though he didn’t emerge as a star until the Padres acquired him after the ’05 season. He received three of his five All-Star nods with San Diego and ultimately recorded eight Top 20 finishes in the MVP voting across 15 seasons, leading the Majors in hits (’11) and RBIs (’14) along the way.
Mets: Nolan Ryan, RHP (12th round, No. 295 overall, 1965)
Ryan was the Mets’ 12th-round pick in the Draft’s inaugural year — there were multiple picks in every round starting in the eighth — but it wasn’t until 1972, after he had been dealt to the Angels, that the hard-throwing right-hander came into his own. When his 27-year career was all said and done, Ryan, who pitched for four different organizations before retiring after his age-46 season, had compiled 324 wins and more strikeouts (5,714) than any pitcher in history. The ’99 Hall of Fame inductee is tied for 60th on the all-time WAR leaderboard (81.3).
Nationals/Expos: Randy Johnson, LHP (2nd round, No. 36 overall, 1985)
Johnson originally turned down the Braves as a fourth-round pick in 1982 before signing with Montreal in ’85, after three seasons at the University of Southern California. He appeared in 11 Major League games with the Expos before they dealt him to Seattle as part of a three-player package for Mark Langston in ’89. The rest, of course, is history, as the Big Unit became a five-time Cy Young Award winner — including four straight with the D-backs (’99-2002) — a 10-time All-Star and a World Series MVP with Arizona in ’01. He also spun a pair of no-hitters during his 22-year career and ranks second in MLB history in strikeouts with 4,875 and 22nd in wins with 303.
Phillies: Mike Schmidt, SS (2nd round, No. 30 overall, 1971)
Schmidt was taken one pick after George Brett in 1971. Both were amateur shortstops who made it to the Hall of Fame as third basemen, Schmidt taken out of Ohio University while Brett was a high schooler. Schmidt spent the entirety of his career in Philadelphia, amassing a 106.9 WAR while being named to 12 All-Star teams, winning 10 Gold Gloves, six Silver Slugger and three MVP awards.
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
Brewers: Robin Yount, SS (1st round, No. 3 overall, 1973)
Yount reached the big leagues less than a year after being drafted, debuting with Milwaukee as an 18-year-old on Opening Day in 1974. Though it took him several years to settle in at the highest level, Yount eventually blossomed into a two-time American League MVP Award winner (’82, ’89) who topped 3,000 hits over 20 seasons in a Brewers uniform en route to Cooperstown enshrinement in ’99.
Cardinals: Albert Pujols, 3B (13th round, No. 402 overall, 1999)
The Maple Woods CC (Kansas City, Mo.) product put himself on the map by winning the 2001 NL Rookie of the Year. Since then, Pujols has been a three-time MVP, a 10-time All-Star, a batting champion and a two-time World Series champ across 20 remarkable seasons. His career WAR of 100.7 leads all active players and ranks 30th on the all-time list. What’s more, the 40-year-old, future Hall of Famer is one of four players (Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Alex Rodriguez) in baseball history to reach the 3,000-hit (3,236), 600-homer (662) plateau.
Cubs: Greg Maddux, RHP (2nd round, No. 31 overall, 1984)
The Valley (Las Vegas, Nev.) High alum is one of two pitchers to win four straight NL Cy Youngs. After picking up his first hardware in his final season in Chicago (1992), Maddux won the award in each of his first three seasons with Atlanta (1993-95). He went 75-29 with a 1.98 ERA across those four seasons and was enshrined in Cooperstown in 2014 after winning 355 games and piling up 3,371 strikeouts and winning 18 Gold Glove Awards during a 23-year career.
Pirates: Barry Bonds, OF (1st round, No. 6 overall, 1985)
The 1985 Draft was known as a particularly deep one, and it has produced three Hall of Famers and a half-dozen players who finished with a WAR over 50. Two of them topped 100 and are on this list: Randy Johnson and Bonds, whose 162.8 WAR is fourth all time, trailing only Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson and Cy Young. He is the career leader in both home runs and walks and is fourth in OPS.
Reds: Johnny Bench, C (2nd round, No. 36 overall, 1965)
One of two members of the first-ever Draft class of ’65 in this story, Bench trails only Nolan Ryan (the other one listed here) among those drafted and signed in WAR, with 75.2. That mark tops all drafted catchers and the Hall of Famer was a 14-time All-Star who won 10 Gold Gloves, a pair of MVPs and the Rookie of the Year Award.
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
D-backs: Max Scherzer, RHP (1st round, No. 11 overall, 2006)
The University of Missouri standout pitched to mixed results early in his career with Arizona but blossomed after the Tigers acquired him in Dec. 2009, winning the first of his three Cy Young Awards in ’13. He won the other two with the Nationals in back-to-back seasons (’16-17), highlighting a seven-year stretch for Scherzer in which he made seven straight All-Star Games while also recording a top-five finish in the Cy Young race. One of 11 pitchers in history (since 1900) with at least eight 200-plus strikeout seasons, Scherzer ranks 23rd on the all-time strikeouts list (2,784) and trails only Justin Verlander among active pitchers.
Dodgers: Clayton Kershaw, LHP (1st round, No. 7 overall, 2006)
Kershaw was regarded as the best high school prospect in the 2006 Draft and subsequently breezed through the Minors, making just 44 starts before reaching Los Angeles shortly after turning 20. With a career 175-76 record and 2.43 ERA, an MVP Award, three Cy Young Awards and eight All-Star berths, the 32-year-old left-hander was already Cooperstown-bound before he helped lead the Dodgers to the 2020 World Series title.
Giants: Will Clark, 1B (1st round, No. 2 overall, 1985)
Mississippi State produced a pair of first-round bats in ’85, as the Giants took Clark with the No. 2 pick before the Cubs nabbed Rafael Palmeiro later in the round (No. 22). The former went on to become a six-time All-Star, earning five of those nods as well as four Top 5 MVP finishes during eight seasons in San Francisco. Clark’s numbers were particularly good from 1987-92 (ages 23-28), with the left-handed hitter slashing .303/.378/.515 with 1,022 hits, including 379 extra-base hits in 917 games.
Padres: Ozzie Smith, SS (4th round, No. 86 overall, 1977)
Drafted out of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Smith was a 15-time All-Star who captured 13 Gold Glove Awards during his 19-year career, the final 15 of which he played in St. Louis. The 2002 Hall of Fame inductee racked up 76.9 WAR along the way, slashing .262/.337/.328 with 580 steals and 1,257 runs scored in 2,573 games.
Rockies: Todd Helton, 1B (1st round, No. 8 overall, 1995)
Helton is third in WAR in his Draft class, behind Carlos Beltrán and Hall of Famer Roy Halladay. But the former Tennessee quarterback easily leads all Rockies draftees with his 61.8 WAR, and the first baseman retired in 2013 with five All-Star nods, four Silver Sluggers, three Gold Gloves and a batting title on his resume, not to mention a career .316/.414/.539 line.