Hindsight is 20-20 and also unfair.
Only want-to-be soothsayers work on draft day. The accuracy of their predictions -- and hopes -- becomes clear five or 10 years later, when inherent pressures of who to take at the time have evaporated and results highlight their mistakes or triumphs. No one is sure at the time.
Which brings us to this experiment in reworking the past and wondering who would be selected first in a 2010 MLB redraft.
The Nationals picked first in 2009 then again in 2010. Just a five-year-old franchise at the time, they put Stephen Strasburg in their pocket and were after a hitter next.
The eventual travails of the 2009 draft showed just how problematic having a high pick could be. Strasburg became an All-Star, a World Series MVP and one of the league’s best pitchers. Dustin Ackley, the second overall pick by the Mariners and someone scouts were unified on, has been out of baseball since 2016. The third overall pick, Donovan Tate, never made it above Single-A because of injuries and substance abuse problems. They are reminders there are no assurances no matter how much prep work is done.
The top choice was clear when heading into the 2010 draft. Bryce Harper was on the cover of Sports Illustrated the year before. The story labeled him the “Chosen One” and compared his future to LeBron James. For a developing organization, he was an obvious pick. Harper was 17 years old and the choice was not disputed at the time.
"We're going to take the rigor and the pressures of learning the position, the difficult position of catcher, away from him," Mike Rizzo said the day of the draft, "and really let him concentrate on the offensive part of the game and let his athleticism take over as an outfielder."
Strasburg was set to make his major-league debut the next day.
"I can't remember where back-to-back years where there's two players that have separated themselves from the rest of the field," Rizzo said. "In that respect, it is very, very unique. I think it's a lucky time to have two No. 1 picks overall."
It was. And they hit them. But, what if they did things differently in 2010?
Manny Machado went third overall. Matt Harvey was seventh. Chris Sale was 13th. And, the most egregiously overlooked player in the first round turns out to be Christian Yelich. He was selected 23rd overall out of Westlake (CA) High School.
This experiment is less indictment of what occurred and more a look at what would happen in a do-over backed by a decade of information. And, in that case, Harper would not be the first pick. Or the second. Perhaps the third.
No one in the 2010 draft has better WAR numbers than Sale. That’s right. If the 2010 draft, with some of the game’s biggest names, was redone by WAR, Sale could narrowly be the first pick. If he wasn’t hurt the last two years, it wouldn’t be close (but injury is always an argument against taking a pitcher first). But, his reduced role helps level his playing time with Harper and Machado. Sale has played parts of 10 seasons. Harper and Machado have played eight. Harper has been on the field the most of the three. Sale was up immediately in 2010, debuting on Aug. 6, just two months after being drafted.
Sale had Tommy John surgery March 30. He won’t pitch until midway through 2021. Even if this were a regular season, and Harper or Yelich or Machado had an 8-WAR year and Sale didn’t play, he would still be the leader.
Here’s the breakdown by WAR (bWAR is baseball reference’s formula; fWAR is FanGraphs)
1. Sale: 45.3 bWAR, 44.5 fWAR
2. Machado: 36.7 bWAR, 33.2 fWAR
3. Harper: 31.8 bWAR, 35.1 fWAR
4. Yelich: 31.8 bWAR, 33.6 fWAR
Using WAR flattens the argument, and it’s never that simple on draft day. Playing (predominantly) corner outfield spots limit Harper and Yelich when compiling WAR. Machado operating as an infielder helps him.
Team needs are also a large influence. If you drafted Strasburg in 2009, do you draft Sale in 2010? Rizzo always said he thought starting pitchers were the key to success over a long season, as well as the postseason. So, he and the Lerner family paid hundreds of millions of dollars for them. Would they have been better off drafting Sale and spending that money on hitters?
It’s difficult to argue that even with Sale’s clear gap in WAR. The team was so full of holes at that stage -- Josh Willingham, Willie Harris and Elijah Dukes were the primary outfielders in 2009 -- it needed across-the-board help.
There’s also another consideration when it comes to team needs: Where can you create the biggest improvement? Replacing any of those three players -- particularly Harris or Dukes -- with an MVP-level outfielder creates a massive boost.
But, the numbers say a do-over would tell you to take the pitcher. Then the infielder. Then Harper.
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