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The Drafts 2005-2010: How bad was it?

The collapse of the Indians season has brought a lot of attention, once again, to the issue of the Indians' overall lack of talent and their struggles in acquiring talent. Much of this attention has been focused on the failure of the Indians' drafts under John Mirabelli during the Shapiro era. Just yesterday, Al Ciammaichella reviewed the Indians' more recent draft performance as part of the "Lazy Sunday" column at TheDiatribe.

The Indians clearly went through a dry spell in their amateur talent acquisition from 1999 through 2008. The club drafted lefthanded pitcher Carsten Charles Sabathia in 1998, then basically sat back and said "C.C., you’ve got this." From 1999-2007, the best player the Indians drafted was Jeremy Guthrie, their first round pick in the 2002 draft. And he went on to have most (all) of his success in cities other than Cleveland.

Indeed, the Indians' drafts were bad. But how bad? And why were they bad? I actually started looking into this in the off-season. What I did was go back through all of the drafts from 2005 to 2010, logging how many top 50 picks every team had, how many eventual major leaguers each team drafted, how many eventual major leaguers each team actually signed, and how many major leaguers each team drafted and signed out of the top 10 rounds in each draft. In addition, I gathered data on the total WAR produced by each team's signings in each draft, how much of that WAR they signed, and how much of that WAR was produced while playing for the drafting team (using B-Ref numbers for WAR).

There are some discrepancies in these data as a result of me doing some of the work earlier in the season and some of it more recently. So players who might have had breakout years this season may, in the minority of cases, not be included in the WAR calculations, but most of the data comes from recent work so I think the overall impact of these discrepancies is likely small. All of the major league draftee data represents pre-2012 numbers, so 2012 debuts are not included. Here are the summary results:

Cleveland MLB avg MLB rank ALCentral rank
top 50 picks 7 10 t-26th t-4th
ML drafted 20 18.6 10th 2nd
ML signed 16 15.9 t-10th 2nd
top 10 ML D&S 11 11.8 t-11th t-2nd
Sign/Draft% 80% 85% 21st 4th
top10 S&D% 69% 76% 20th 3rd
bWAR draft 28.2 28.5 14th 3rd
bWAR sign 3.3 25.5 26th 5th
bWAR actual 4.7 21.6 26th 5th

So what do these numbers mean? Here is a bit of a line by line summary.

The Indians have been terrible. But maybe not entirely in the ways you think they have. First, the Indians have had very few top 50 picks during this time span. In fact, no team has had fewer top 50 picks than Cleveland, which is in a 5-way tie for last in that category. The historical distribution of talent in the baseball draft is extremely top-heavy, so the importance of the Indians lack of high-end draft picks is actually quite important.

The Indians have done a respectable job of identifying and drafting future major league players. With 20 selected during this time span at this point (the number is growing, of course), the Indians sit on the cusp of the upper 1/3 of baseball. They have not always done a good job of prioritizing which picks should be signed, however. While the 16 future major leaguers they have signed still puts them in tie for 10th in the league, the fact that they missed on 20% of their potential future major leaguers (4 of 20) puts them below the major league average. And, as it turns out, the Indians missed opportunities have been quite costly (more on that below). The Indians are right around league average in terms of identifying and signing future major leaguers out of the draft's first 10 rounds.

Where the Indians have really failed is in extracting value from the players they have drafted. The 28.2 WAR accumulated by Cleveland's drafted players is, again, right around league average, and also puts them in the middle of the AL Central pack (KC, 30.4 and Detroit, 35.4, have drafted more talent). But most of the Indians 28.2 WAR comes from two players the Indians did not end up signing. The most successful player the Indians drafted is Tim Lincecum (22.0 WAR), who represents nearly 80% of the total drafted value. Throw in Desmond Jennings (also drafted and unsigned in that 2005 class) and suddenly you have more than 95% of the total draft value for these seasons.

The Indians have only signed a total of 3.3 WAR out of these six drafts. Only the Cubs (1.8), Phillies (1.0) and Astros (-2.1) have been worse. Some of the major leaguers drafted and signed by Cleveland have gone on to produce negative value elsewhere, so the realized product in Cleveland is marginally better (4.7 WAR), though still 26th in the league and last in the AL Central.

This is not a final result. All of these drafts are still producing new talent and will be for some time. It is probably fair to say you cannot make a really good quantitative evaluation of a draft until 15 or 20 years after it has taken place, so all of these drafts are still in flux. As Al points out in his piece, the Indians have been doing what seems like a better job lately in the draft, and indeed, the early returns on the admittedly limited samples of major leaguers from 2008-2010 would actually put Cleveland in the top 10 of the league.

Cleveland has drafted poorly, however, and their biggest failing is that they have not developed stars. Going through each teams' drafts over these seasons, what is obvious is that quality trumps quantity. The number of major leaguers a team has drafted and signed has almost no relationship with the value those players have produced at the big league level:


The Washington Nationals have drafted, signed and accumulated more out of their drafts during this period than any other team in baseball. And it is not because they have drafted the most future major leaguers. It is because they have drafted the best ones--Ryan Zimmerman, Jordan Zimmerman, John Lannan, Stephen Strasbourg and Bryce Harper--aided by 11 top 50 selections, including two #1 picks and four other top-10 selections. As another data point to consider, 17 of the league's 30 teams have gotten more than 50% of their total value from these drafts from just one player.

When Keith Law commented on the Indians tendency towards safe draft picks, this is what he was talking about. The Indians have produced major leaguers, but not high-ceiling ones. I belive the Indians strategy the past few seasons has certainly shifted in the direction of younger, higher risk, higher ceiling players. As I pointed out in July, 25 of Cleveland's 40 selections in this year's draft were of high-schoolers or JuCo athletes. Al did a good job of running through some of the significant international free agent signings the Indians have made in the recent past. Most of these guys will be busts and likely never see a major league pitch or face a major league batter. Amateur talent acquisition in baseball is not predicated on getting a good rate of return, it is predicated on hitting the lottery with enough frequency to put together a team with several stars.

For more, here is a look year by year at what the Indians have done:

2005 (26.8 WAR drafted, 2.2 WAR realized)

This was the year of the big misses. In round 42 the Indians took Tim Lincecum as a high-school flyer but were unable to sign him. Of course, back then he was not "Freak" Tim Lincecum. In the 18th round, the Indians drafted, but did not sign, Desmond Jennings out of Pinson Valley high school in Alabama. How different would the last five years look, or the present, with these two guys in the organization? What the Indians did get out of this draft a decent season or two from Jensen Lewis, and cups of coffee for Trevor Crowe and Jordan Brown. Nick Weglarz is the only product of this draft that remains with the organization, though his likely future contribution is nothing. Absent those two signings, this draft is terrible. With them, it would be fantastic.

2006 (1.2 WAR drafted, 1.4 WAR realized)

This is a case where my numbers are actually a little bit off, because the best product of this draft (so far) is Vinnie Pestano (20th round), who has obviously had a wonderful season in Cleveland this year. Josh Tomlin (19th round) has also produced some value, though that value has taken a hit this year and might be about to go on hold. Chris Archer (5th round) still might have a major league future ahead of him, though not with Cleveland. Our #1 pick, David Huff, has obviously been a big failure (-1.9 WAR). Steven Wright (2nd round) is a long-shot candidate to produce some value at the major league level as a knuckleballer...for the Red Sox. Jared Goedert (9th round) is still owed his cup of coffee, though with the acquisition of Russ Canzler it looks more like that opportunity will have to come elsewhere. Outside of that, Paolo Espino (10th round) looks like the only guy with potential future major league opportunity.

2007 (-0.5 WAR drafted, -0.2 WAR realized)

The only major leaguers Cleveland has, as of yet, drafted from this class are Matt Hague (who Cleveland did not sign) and Josh Judy, currently in the Reds organization. In retrospect, this might be the worst draft group of the bunch, as the only players with even an outside shot of seeing Cleveland are TJ McFarland (4th round), Bo Greenwell (6th round) and Kyle Landis (18th round).

2008 (-0.1 WAR drafted, 0.2 WAR realized)

2008 marks the rise of Brad Grant to the head of the draft machine, and I think we will in retrospect see it as the turning point in amateur talent acquisition. The realized value at this point comes from the as of yet minor contributions from Lonnie Chisenhall, Cord Phelps and the now-departed Zach Putnam. The other players who still might be of some interest from this draft include; Trey Haley, TJ House, Tim Fedroff, Eric Berger, Clayton Cook, Matt Langwell, Bryce Stowell, Carlos Moncrief and Roberto Perez. In the end, particularly if Chisenhall is able to put it together in the next few years, I think this draft will look pretty good.

2009 (3.1 WAR drafted, 3.8 WAR realized)

Alex White was the Tribe's #1 pick, but Jason Kipnis is obviously the big piece right now. Cory Burns (8th round), who debuted recently for San Diego is the only other guy to see the majors yet, but more are on their way. Austin Adams (5th round) was looking very good coming into this season and if can come back healthy, might still be in the future, particularly if he can bring his high-90s fastball to the rotation. Preston Guilmet (9th round) and Tyler Sturdevant (27th round) look like future bullpen members. Matt Packer, Joseph Colon, Mike Rayl or Brett Brach might be future back of the rotation fodder.

2010 (1.5 WAR drafted, 0.5 WAR realized)

Drew Pomeranz is likely to make this draft a success, even if most of its value ends up elsewhere. Cody Allen is the other member of this class to see the majors, and has looked good in his debut. There might be bigger pieces left, though. It remains to be seen how much of a setback LeVon Washington's hip injury becomes, but he was off to a great start prior to the injury. Tony Wolters is having a solid year. Alex Lavisky, Robbie Aviles, Tyler Holt, Jordan Cooper and Aaron Siliga are other names to look out for in the future.