It isn't too much of a stretch to say that 2009 was the most exciting and surprising draft of the past ten years. Was it the best? No, or at least not yet. The class of 2005 has easily posted the highest WAR within that time frame, but that is due to this guy, and this guy alone.
Was it the deepest? Maybe not- it is too early to tell. The 2010 draft was deep- there was a fair bit of major league level potential mined in later rounds. The 2004 draft was pretty deep- the fourth round garnered us our erstwhile "catcher of the future". The 14th round pick that year is now our starting center fielder- though in all honestly, he was a first round caliber pick who slipped due to fears about his signability. The team's 37th round pick that year is now a starting third baseman, albeit with another organization.
After Tulowitzki was selected as the seventh overall pick of the 2005, the draft classes of 2005-2008 were an absolute drought of talent. After Tulo, 14 players have seen playing time in the majors; 6 have a positive career bWAR; of those 6, only three have a positive bWAR while playing on the Rockies team: Matt Reynolds (2.0); Thomas Field (0.2); and Christian Friedrich (0.1).
This is a pretty horrible track record for a team which had seen recent success, and who would finish 2009 with 92 wins in a challenging division and a playoff berth. More importantly than their previous success was this: the team saw a window of contention that could last until 2013 or '14. Keeping that window open would mean a new, much improved draft strategy in order to plant some players in the farm system who could make a big impact at the major league level.
Building a draft strategy begins by asking these questions: Are we looking to draft in order to fill organizational holes or gaps? Are we looking to draft talent which is near-MLB ready? Or, should the strategy be to draft the best available player regardless whether they meet organizational needs, or of how refined their tool set is? Can we afford a high-risk, high-reward player and do we have the coaching talent in our minor league system to develop such a player?
Until 2009, the Rockies had erred on the side of picking the safest bet and filling the organization needs. This is how Casey Weathers ended up being the first pick in the 2008 draft. It is how Greg Reynolds ended up being selected instead of Evan Longoria, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, Ian Kennedy, or Max Scherzer.
That is why, when 2009 rolled around, pretty much everybody expected the Rockies to spend their first pick on Shelby Miller or Alex White. Instead, they picked Tyler Matzek. This was a gutsy move. High school pitchers are very unpredictable; they often have much higher ceilings, but often don't reach anywhere close. For every Clayton Kershaw there are countless High School pitching studs who have fallen into obscurity. Furthermore, Matzek had already committed to the U of O and signing him would require a lot of negotiation and a lot of money to make him change his mind.
This pick came as a surprise because it was the polar opposite of what had been the Rockies drafting strategy for the better part of a decade. Instead of picking safe bets or filling immediate needs, they were picking the best available player, regardless of risk. The Matzek pick showcased this shift in their drafting philosophy that carried over the rest of the draft.
And it was the absolute right decision. If you want to hold open your window of contention, you need to build a great team, not a good one, or better than average one. Hindsight bias doesn't change things. Alex White and Shelby Miller have since made the rise to the majors. Matzek has stumbled a bit, though he has shown flashes of greatness and is an exciting individual to follow. The window has been slammed shut, and the Rockies are not seriously expecting to contend. However, this also means that the organization can take their time with "fixing" Matzek.
The strategy of picking the best player available also gives the organization more versatility. When Rex Brothers was drafted, he had potential as both starter or an elite arm out of the bullpen. He has proven to be an absolute boon for the Rockies as the latter. Many expected the organization which drafted Nolan Arenado to develop him as a catcher, but he had the athleticism and skills to play at shortstop or third base as well.
The 2009 draft was exciting because the message it sent couldn't be louder: we're done choosing the "safest." Now we want the "best."