Redoing the 2001 MLB draft

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It’s arguable whether even 10 years is long enough to properly evaluate a baseball draft, but it’s good enough for these purposes. I’m going to hit the reset button on the 2001 draft and redo all of the first-round picks based on what we know now. I am excluding 2001 draftees who didn’t sign after getting picked. That group includes such talents as Andre Ethier, Ian Kinsler, Nick Markakis and Stephen Drew.

Here’s the first 10. I’ll be posting part two Thursday and finishing the first round on Friday.

1. Minnesota Twins
Actual: Joe Mauer
Redo: Joe Mauer

The belief at the time was that the Twins were being thrifty. Scouts tended to agree that Mauer would have been a legitimate No. 1 pick most years, but the 2001 draft had two outstanding, near-MLB-ready talents in Mark Prior and Mark Teixeira, the kind of guys who typically come around once every five or 10 years. Mauer, on the other hand, was a high school catcher, and high school catchers had pretty much the worst track record of any position selected high in drafts.

Of course, Mauer delivered on all of his promise and the Twins got to issue a big “I told you so.” Whether Mauer has actually been more valuable than Teixeira through 10 years is arguable — Teixeira has played in 440 more games — but there’s no doubt the Twins are sticking with their selection.

2. Chicago Cubs
Actual: Mark Prior
Redo: Dan Haren (72nd pick, Cardinals)

Prior was the pretty obvious choice for the Cubs at the time. He was the best pitcher to come out of the college ranks in at least 10 years, and it looked like he’d contend for multiple Cy Young Awards after he arrived in the majors in 2002. Of course, we all know what happened after that. Injuries struck following a terrific 2003 season, and he hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2006, his age-25 season.

So, I’m giving Haren to the Cubs, over Teixeira. Obviously, Teixeira was the No. 2 player in this draft. However, the Cubs pulled off terrific swindles of Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee in 2003, and having Haren in the rotation would have made a bigger difference for the team during its 2007 and ’08 player off runs than Teixeira would have.

That said, if the Cubs had won the World Series in 2003, I would have left them with Prior. Without him, there would have been no NLCS appearance and no Steve Bartman.

3. Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Actual: Dewon Brazelton
Redo: Mark Teixeira (5th pick, Rangers)

The Rays spent big in the first couple years of their history, signing Fred McGriff, Wilson Alvarez, Greg Vaughn and Vinny Castilla to sizeable free agent deals, but it wasn’t resulting in much of the way of wins or attendance. Becoming tighter with their money, they passed over Teixeira to select Brazelton in the 2001 draft. It was a huge mistake. Brazelton ended up going 8-25 with a 6.38 ERA in parts of five big-league seasons.

So, I’ll give Teixeira to the Rays. However, I was tempted to look elsewhere. If the Rays had Teixeira, I doubt they would have been in position to draft Evan Longoria third overall in 2006 and David Price first in 2007. Perhaps they’re better off today because they got so little out of the third pick in the 2001 draft and the first overall pick in 1999 (Josh Hamilton).

4. Philadelphia Phillies
Actual: Gavin Floyd
Redo: Ryan Howard (140th pick, Phillies)

With the redo, the Phillies are going to have to take their fifth-round pick first. I wonder if Howard would have had to wait so long to reach the majors had he been drafted fourth overall, rather than 140th. The Phillies probably wouldn’t have given Jim Thome a six-year, $85 million contract prior to the 2003 season had they been looking at Howard as a future star at the time. However, there wasn’t much hype surrounding Howard. He had just finished his first full pro season hitting .280/.367/.460 with 19 homers in low-A ball. Those are solid enough numbers, but they didn’t suggest stardom, not when Howard was already 22 years old.

5. Texas Rangers
Actual: Mark Teixeira
Redo: David Wright (38th pick, Mets)

Not a bad consolation prize for Texas. Actually, this could have worked out extraordinarily well. Since the Rangers already had Hank Blalock at third base, they decided to move Teixeira to first upon his arrival to the majors, and that left them with no place for Adrian Gonzalez With no Teixeira, perhaps they would have kept Gonzalez instead of trading him to San Diego, giving them the best corner-infield situation in the majors for the last half-dozen years.

6. Montreal Expos
Actual: Josh Karp
Redo: Kevin Youkilis (243rd pick, Red Sox)

Five of the next seven picks in the 2001 draft were pitchers who never reached the majors. Karp stayed healthy, but simply never developed, going 20-31 with a 5.07 ERA in three seasons between Double- and Triple-A. The Expos’ redo nets them Youkilis, who lasted all of the way to the eighth round before the Red Sox snatched him up. Had Youkilis been able to entrench himself at third base, perhaps the Nationals would have gone with Troy Tulowitzki over Ryan Zimmerman in the 2005 draft.

7. Baltimore Orioles
Actual: Chris Smith
Redo: C.J. Wilson (141st pick, Rangers)

Smith looked like the reach of the top 10 anyway, and he got hurt immediately after signing. The Orioles were hoping Teixeira fell to them here or, if not him, then fellow Marylander Gavin Floyd. I thought about giving them Floyd, but even though Floyd still holds the edge on career value, Wilson is the much more dynamic pitcher now. Of course, things could have turned out much differently for Wilson and maybe they would have had he pitched for the Orioles instead of the Rangers. The Orioles may well have had him in the rotation all along, and perhaps he would have experienced additional arm problems due to all of the innings he was throwing.

8. Pittsburgh Pirates
Actual: John Van Benschoten
Redo: Dan Uggla (338th pick, Diamondbacks)

What I’d really like to do here is give Van Benschoten to the Pirates as an outfielder instead. Most teams liked him better as a hitter, but the Pirates thought he had terrific upside on the mound. We’ll never know whether they were right, since Van Benschoten tore up his shoulder in 2004 and failed to regain his stuff. Instead, the Pirates get Uggla, though I’m not sure they would have known any better than the Diamondbacks did what they had in him. Arizona lost Uggla to the Marlins in the Dec. 2005 Rule 5 draft, and since Freddy Sanchez had just come up and turned in a successful rookie season in 2005, perhaps the Pirates would have failed to protect him, too.

9. Kansas City Royals
Actual: Colt Griffin
Redo: J.J. Hardy (56th pick, Brewers)

The Royals took the draft’s hardest thrower and hoped he’d become a pitcher; as with pretty much everything else the team tried in the early part of the decade, it didn’t work out. Griffin peaked in Double-A and finished out his career in 2005, posting a 36/43 K/BB ratio in 56 innings as a reliever in the Texas League. Hardy hasn’t been spectacular — well, not until this year anyway — but he gives the Royals the steady shortstop they’ve badly needed for, oh, about 35 years now.

10. Houston Astros
Actual: Chris Burke
Redo: Mark Prior (2nd pick, Cubs)

Though most expected that he’d need to move from short to second base, Burke looked like one of the draft’s sure things coming out of Tennessee. Unfortunately, he didn’t prove to be much of a second baseman either, and he didn’t have the bat to make it as an outfielder. In his place, I’m sending Prior to Houston. Of course, Prior has done nothing since 2006, but neither have the Astros, and a healthy Prior in 2003 and 2005 could have made a big difference. In 2003, Prior’s near-Cy Young season, the Astros finished one game back of the Cubs for first place in the NL Central (of course, in this alternate history, the Cubs don’t have Prior and don’t finish 88-74 anyway). In 2005, when Prior went 11-7 with a 3.67 ERA, the Astros lost the World Series to the White Sox.

Rob Manfred explains reasoning behind proposal to cut 42 minor league teams

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As we learned earlier this week, Major League Baseball wants to contract 42 minor league teams, mostly in short-season and rookie ball. The proposal earned a lot of backlash, including from some of the teams on the chopping block and from Congress. MLB responded with its own letter to Congress, written by deputy commissioner Dan Halem, explaining the league’s reasoning.

In the letter, Halem complains about the lack of competition between minor league teams and independent teams. Halem wrote, “The lack of competition among operators of teams for an affiliation with a Major League Club has reduced the incentive for some affiliated Minor League teams to improve their facilities and player amenities.” It is an interesting thing to write as someone representing a $10 billion business that has benefited for a century from an antitrust exemption.

Halem also noted that MLB has several goals that are supposedly attained by cutting 26 percent of the minors: ensuring the quality of the facilities for the players, reducing the travel burden, improving the “compensation, accommodations, and amenities” for players, improving the affiliation process between minor league and major league teams.

Commissioner Rob Manfred essentially echoed that sentiment on Thursday, per Newsday’s Laura Albanese. He gave four reasons behind the proposal: inadequate facilities, travel, poor pay, drafting and signing players who don’t have a realistic shot to make it to the majors. The last reason is a new one, but let’s go over those four reasons in context.

It is true that some, perhaps even most, of the facilities of the 42 named teams are inadequate. It’s not all of them. As NECN’s Jack Thurston reports, the owner of the short-season Lowell Spinners, Dave Heller, said that his team’s stadium is “arguably the best facility in the New York-Penn League,” speaking highly of its lighting and field conditions. The Quad Cities River Bandits, the Astros’ Single-A affiliate and also on the chopping block, renovated their stadium a handful of times over the last 12 years. In fact, it earned an award from BallparkDigest.com for “Best Ballpark Improvement” in both 2008 and ’09, and finished third in the 2018 running for “Best View in the Minors.” At any rate, if facility quality is such a big issue, why did the Athletics continue to play in a stadium that repeatedly had its sewage system overflow in 2013?

Travel is certainly a big issue for minor leaguers because they mostly travel by bus, not plane. Having teams located closer to each other would be more beneficial in this regard. Or — and hear me out, here — major league teams could take on the extra expenditure of paying for their minor leaguers’ airfare. Several years ago, the Phillies took on the extra expenditure of making sure their minor leaguers ate healthy food and that has worked out well. The Blue Jays took on the extra expenditure of giving their minor leaguers a pay raise and that has worked out well. The Red Sox took on the extra expenditure of installing a sleep room at Fenway Park to ensure their players were well-rested and that has worked out well. No one is suggesting that Single-A players have to fly first class on every flight, but the travel issue is an easy fix that doesn’t require contracting 42 teams. Teams have individually chosen to improve their players’ quality of life and it has yielded positive results. Imagine it on a league-wide scale for thousands of players in their formative years.

Manfred citing minor league pay as a basis for the proposal is laughable. His own league successfully lobbied Congress to amend language in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, classifying minor league players as seasonal workers. That means they are not entitled to a minimum wage or overtime pay, among other worker protections. If the pay of minor league players was so important to Major League Baseball, it wouldn’t have pressured the government to legally ensure they didn’t have to pay them a living wage. Every baseball team is worth at least a billion dollars. The league has set year-over-year revenue records for 16 consecutive years, crossing $10 billion in 2018. Minor leaguers could be compensated well without robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Lastly, it is true that a majority of minor league players will never reach the major leagues. That doesn’t mean that their presence in the minor leagues or their effort to realize their dreams have zero value. Lopping off the bottom 26 percent of minor leaguers might nominally increase the level of skill on each roster, but it eliminates so many jobs — well over 1,000. Furthermore, there are few incentives for athletes to want to slog through several years of the minors as it is, as Kyler Murray recently showed, but there would be even fewer incentives by shrinking the minors (and, consequently, the draft). Shrinking the minors and the draft could lead to more minor league free agents, but if baseball is actually interested in a free market (it’s not) then it should abolish the draft entirely as well as the arbitration system.

These reasons, each uniquely fallacious, hide the real reason behind the proposal: shifting money around so Major League Baseball can say it will award pay raises to minor leaguers, ending a years-long stretch of bad P.R., without actually cutting into profits. MLB could have afforded to pay minor leaguers a living wage years ago and it chose not to. MLB could have chosen not to lobby Congress for the ability to continue underpaying minor leaguers years ago, but it chose to do so. Everything since has been the league trying to avoid lying in the bed it made for itself.