Seemingly out of nowhere, the Colorado Rockies have signed free agent outfielder Ian Desmond, ostensibly to play first base for the next five years. Since Desmond received and turned down a qualifying offer from the Texas Rangers, that means the Rockies will have to forfeit the 11th overall pick in the June 2017 MLB Amateur Draft.
The question on everybody’s mind right now is: is it worth not picking in the first round?
For now, let’s leave out Desmond’s reported contract and just consider the value of the pick itself. One way to consider this would be to look at the history of the 11th pick. Thanks to this handy tool at Baseball-Reference, we can see that, in 52 years of the Rule 4 Draft, 34 players who were drafted 11th overall made it to the majors, or 65%. As a group they have produced 209.8 WAR, or 6.2 WAR per major leaguer. We can
play fast and loose with probability and statistics make a conservative estimate and say the Rockies have a 65% chance of selecting a player worth at least 6.2 WAR, or 4.0 WAR per draftee. If we use Fangraphs current estimate for dollar value per WAR of $8 million, that makes the 11th pick worth about $32 million. That’s how you hedge you bets between getting Max Scherzer (2006, Diamondbacks, 38.0 WAR) and Kenny Baugh (2001, Tigers, did not reach the majors).
Using the same back-of-the-napkin methodology, we can compare that to the overall value every pick from the first overall pick ($151.2 million) and the 30th ($53.0 million):
In any given year the draft is pretty random, but with 52 years of data there is a pretty clear trend line. Sure, when you factor in some all-time greats, like Roger Clemens (20th overall and 140.3 career WAR) or Mike Schmidt (30th overall and 106.5 career WAR), some peaks and valleys develop. But overall after the fifth overall pick the value is pretty stable. This is due in part to the randomness that would make the eleventh pick one of the least valuable in the draft until 2005, when Andrew McCutchen was drafted. It’s also due to the fact that players typically don’t reach the majors until well after they are drafted, so a lot of it comes down to development and luck.
Consider: if the Rockies had the 25th overall pick instead of the eleventh, would you be willing to give it up? What about the 22nd? The 16th? Players drafted at these positions made it to the majors at roughly the same rate as those picked eleventh overall. If you’re willing to give up a pick to sign a premium free agent, it shouldn’t matter where you’re picking because the difference between any two picks isn’t that great.
“But wait, what if I’m not willing to give up a pick at all? What if I would rather have the prospect?” This comes down to a matter of opinion, I suppose, but perhaps we should introduce you to the Win-Now Rockies. When a team is within reach of their contention window is when you stop thinking about some high school kid who may or may not be contributing in five years and you start wondering what it will take to make the playoffs and budget how much you’re willing to lay out for World Series tickets.
While we await details on what numbers and years it will take to sign (or trade for) (another) one of the slugging first basemen on the market, don’t let the specter of not picking until late in the supplemental rounds scare you. If the Rockies really do hope to contend in the next few years, skipping out on a roll of the dice in June is a lot less painful if it means bringing production to the first base position.