Entering Thursday, the Baltimore Orioles have a 5.5-game “lead” on the Kansas City Royals for the top pick in the 2019 MLB First-Year Player Draft. After being swept in Kansas City last weekend and with only 22 games to go until the end of the season, the odds certainly are in favor of Baltimore securing the top choice.
Literally, almost nothing has been positive for the Orioles in 2018. But fingers should be crossed across Birdland that this will be one thing to go their way. In that spirit, let’s look back at the last 40 MLB number one draft picks, since 1979, and discuss some numbers that stand out.
One is the number of times the Orioles selected first. It happened in 1989 with Ben McDonald, a right-handed pitcher from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“Ben McDonald represents the future of the Baltimore Orioles,” wrote Bill Glauber of the Baltimore Sun that December, just a few months after McDonald’s draft and MLB debut. The Sun piece highlighted McDonald’s million dollar-plus contract, down-home attitude, golden right arm and 90 mph fastballs. The world was his oyster, but McDonald just wanted to play baseball.
For his part, McDonald added, “I’m not a flashy guy, a Neon Deion Sanders-type who eats all this stuff up. I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t do anything special to make it happen. I’m a down-to-earth-guy.” Lucky for Ben, no one ever confused him with Deion Sanders.
During parts of nine seasons in the big leagues – seven with Baltimore and two in Milwaukee – McDonald ended his career 78-70 with a 3.91 ERA and 198 starts, appearing in 211 games. McDonald never played in the All-Star Game.
McDonald, currently a part-time broadcaster with the Orioles and on SEC baseball, recently did an interview with Rich Dubroff at BaltimoreBaseball.com where the former LSU Tiger noted he was in the majors three months after being drafted and had a huge contract, all of which added to the pressure.
“It never really works out the way you want it to, McDonald told Dubroff. “Injuries slowed my career and cut my career short. I’m happy the way the career went. I knew there was going to be a learning process.”
That’s a good assessment. A fair look at McDonald’s career would describe it as not bad, but certainly not great. It could have been a lot worse. In June, USA Today ranked McDonald as the 23rd best top pick ever. Joe Mauer (2001), Adrian Gonzalez (2000) and Justin Upton (2005) are ranked in the top 10 first overall picks and they aren’t exactly world beaters. That says something about how hard of a choice it can be.
With 20/20 hindsight, the 1989 draft when McDonald went first didn’t go well for too many teams. Frankly, it’s tough to say O’s brass botched the selection.
Of the top ten picks, only two were ever All Stars” Frank Thomas (#7) and Charles Johnson (#10). Looking at picks 11-30, only another three played in the Mid-Summer Classic at some point: Mo Vaughn (#23), Chuck Knoblauch (#25) and Todd Jones (#27). That’s 30 first round picks producing one member of the Hall of Fame, four others that were All Stars at least once, and 25 picks with mediocre careers at best.
Except for Frank Thomas, McDonald was about as good as anyone else in the 1989 first round. Eventually joining The Big Hurt in Cooperstown, the 1989 diamond in the rough turned out to be Jeff Bagwell, a fourth-round selection (albeit not drafted by the team on his plaque, since Bagwell was traded a year after the draft from the Boston Red Sox to the Houston Astros).
The 1989 draft is a good example of what a crapshoot picking can be in a year where there is not a consensus number one pick. And even when there is a consensus, it rarely works out.
Two is the number of top picks since 1979 that are enshrined in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Ken Griffey, Jr. (1987) and Chipper Jones (1990) are the five percent to accomplish that feat. Also, tied to the number two are a couple of top picks who retired without appearing in an MLB game. Brien Taylor (1991) and Mark Appel (2013) share that dubious honor.
Ten percent of the last 40 number one picks either made it to the Hall of Fame or didn’t make the big leagues at all. That means 90 percent – 36 out of 40 – of the top picks were somewhere in between.
Five is the number of first overall picks since 1979 that played for the Orioles at some point in their careers. McDonald was the only one picked by the Birds, but B.J. Surhoff (1985), Kris Benson (1996), Delmon Young (2003) and Tim Beckham (2008) wore the orange and black after playing elsewhere. (H/T to Rich Dubroff for this fact.)
Five is also the number of teams since 1979 that have had the first pick once, including the Orioles, Chicago Cubs (1982; Shawon Dunston), Kansas City Royals (2006; Luke Hochevar), Miami Marlins (2000; Adrian Gonzalez) and Milwaukee Brewers (1985; B.J. Surhoff). That’s a better list to be on than the four picks in the last 40 years for Houston and three for the New York Mets. Hopefully we’re not having this same conversation about Baltimore as the 2020 draft approaches and they tie the Mets.
Eight teams have never had the number one pick, including the Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Colorado Rockies, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals and Toronto Blue Jays.
Ten at each level is the number of high school and college prospects Baseball America recently evaluated when looking ahead to the 2019 draft. The experts claim this crop is “heavier on position players” at both levels. MLB.com produced a similar list with many of the same names examined, but there is not a consensus top choice, a la Ken Griffey, Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg.
Over the past five drafts, the O’s have shown a tendency to draft more high school level athletes than college, and more pitchers than position players. But that doesn’t mean much when considering the coming top pick. Their analysis will be fresh and not based on history, plus Dan Duquette might or might not be the one making the selection.
In 1973 the Birds landed Eddie Murray and Mike Flanagan. In 1978, they picked Cal Ripken, Jr., Mike Boddicker and Larry Sheets. They didn’t have the top pick those years, but they were good hauls that produced Hall of Fame plaques and a World Series trophy. Here’s hoping something similar – depth, Cooperstown and championships – starts with the first pick in 2019 and continues through later rounds.