The Big Twenty

The Big Twenty: The beginning of Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper

The Big Twenty

No draft pick in professional sports offers true guarantees and the Major League Baseball draft may be the biggest guessing game of them all.

There are 40 rounds, over 1,200 players selected and even the best organizations may only find a few big leaguers each year. Per Baseball America, only 17.6 percent of players who were drafted and signed (900-plus each year) even make it to the majors.

While No. 1 pick phenoms in the NBA, NFL and NHL have at least decent success rates, baseball is a much different story. For instance, the first overall picks in MLB drafts from 2013 through 2019 have a combined 3.7 wins above replacement (WAR), according to Baseball Reference.

Sure, that includes recent selections who simply aren't yet big-league ready. But the first overall picks in 2013 (Mark Appel), 2014 (Brady Aiken) and 2016 (Mickey Moniak) haven't even reached the majors. Appel is now retired, Aiken has never pitched above Single-A and Moniak hasn't graduated from Double-A.

So, just because you get the first overall pick in baseball doesn't mean you are ensured a superstar. Yet somehow the Washington Nationals landed two of them in back-to-back years. In 2009, they got pitcher Stephen Strasburg. The following year he made his first start - and the Nationals drafted outfielder Bryce Harper.

 

Both were phenoms and prototypes for their position who were as can't-miss as baseball draft picks can be and the clear-cut No. 1 prospects the years they came out. And despite the uneven track record of No. 1 picks, they both panned out in Washington, becoming multi-time All-Stars and franchise players.

Harper won NL Rookie of the Year in 2012, made six All-Star teams and won the 2015 MVP award during his time with the Nationals.

He also became one of the most marketable players in the sport.

Strasburg overcame a particularly troubled history for starting pitchers taken first overall. At the time he was drafted, no pitcher picked No. 1 had won a Cy Young award.

Since joining the Nats, Strasburg has made three All-Star teams and most notably was the 2019 World Series MVP. He was an indispensable part of their championship run.

From 2002 through 2006, the first overall pick produced next to nothing. There is Justin Upton from the 2005 draft, a four-time All-Star. But then there's Bryan Bullington (2002, -0.2 WAR), Delmon Young (2003, 2.4 WAR), Matt Bush (2004, 2.6 WAR) and Luke Hochevar (2006, 3.5 WAR). That makes four busts in five years.

Really, the Harper and Strasburg picks couldn't have worked out much better for the Nationals. One guy won a league MVP and the other a World Series MVP. That's not a bad haul for back-to-back drafts.

But keep in mind that when they were picked, neither Harper or Strasburg was a certainty.

They each took their rookie contract negotiations down to the deadline. Both battled injuries early in their Nationals careers. And both were lightning rods for criticism as they came into their own as MLB players.

Ultimately, they developed into superstars and transcendent players, the best-case scenario for any No. 1 overall pick, much less two taken in consecutive drafts by the same team.