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MLB Draft: No. 7 pick can bring jackpot or pain

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Clayton Kershaw, the No. 7 overall pick of the 2006 MLB Draft. – GETTY

Do you feel lucky, Mr. Ben Cherington? Do you?

The Pirates own the No. 7 overall pick in the 2020 MLB Draft — Cherington's first with the team since taking over as general manager in November of 2019 — and history shows this slot can bring anything.

An all-time great destined for the Hall of Fame? Yep.

All-Stars? Indeed.

Freak-level, total-meltdown, Twilight-Zone-worthy head-scratchers? Oh yes. A couple of those, actually.

Today, we're going to journey through it all, friends, category-by-category, taking a look at every pick made at No. 7 over the past 25 years. In the end, it'll help us determine what we can expect from Cherington and company when they take the virtual stage June 10 and make their first pick as the head of your Pittsburgh Pirates. Grab a handful of sunflower seeds and buckle up:

ELITE TIER

Clayton Kershaw | LHP | 2006 MLB Draft | Dodgers

You can't do much better than Clayton Kershaw in any draft, at any slot, under any qualifications. In his 12 MLB seasons (and counting), Kershaw made the All-Star game eight times, won the Cy Young Award three times, took home the Triple Crown (led the league in wins, strikeouts and ERA) in 2011 and pitched a no-hitter in 2014. Since that work on the field isn't enough for him, Kershaw also took home the Roberto Clemente Award and the Branch Rickey Award for his humanitarian work in Zambia. The Dodgers saw him at No. 7 in 2006, plucked him out of Highland Park High School and drifted into the sunset with one of the best lefties to ever take the mound.

Prince Fielder | 1B | 2002 MLB Draft | Brewers 

OK, Prince Fielder is not Kershaw. He's probably not even a Hall of Famer. But he is a six-time All-Star who came in third in the league's MVP voting twice and led the National League in home runs (50) in 2007 and RBIs (141) in 2009. Fielder, to me, is a "Hall of Very Good" player who played at an actual Hall of Fame level for a couple seasons. Can't ask for more than that from a draft pick. Fielder was unquestionably an elite grab for the Brewers back in 2002.

Troy Tulowitzki | SS | 2005 MLB Draft | Rockies 

Three picks in, and we're already seeing a trend: The No. 7 spot was hot from 2002 to 2006. I can pretty much copy-and-paste everything about Fielder and apply it to Troy Tulowitzki. After coming in second in the Rookie of the Year voting in 2007, Tulowitzki pieced together a beautiful MLB career, making five All-Star teams, winning two Gold Gloves and adding two Silver Sluggers for good measure. His .290/.361/.495 slash line across 13 seasons at the big-league level impresses, but ultimately, he falls just short of the Hall of Fame to me. Still, a Tulowitzki-level player represents a dream scenario at No. 7.

Matt Harvey | RHP | 2010 MLB Draft | Mets 

Things looked blindingly bright for Matt Harvey by 2013, his second year in the big leagues. He went 9-5 as a starter, posting a 2.27 ERA, 2.01 FIP and 0.931 WHIP, earning an All-Star nod and fourth place in the Cy Young voting as a result. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014, however, and while his 13-8 record and 2.71 ERA in 2015 were phenomenal, the injuries piled up from there — thoracic outlet syndrome and a fractured scapula among the others — and his career was largely derailed. Currently, Harvey is a free agent after posting a 7.09 ERA and 1.542 WHIP for the Angels across 59.2 innings pitched in 2019. All this said, there's no doubt any team would be happy with a Harvey-level pick at No. 7. He clearly justified that selection and performed as one of MLB's best pitchers until injuries got in the way.

FLIRTING WITH GREATNESS

Nick Markakis | OF | 2003 MLB Draft | Orioles

Yep, another pick from that 2002 - 2006 stretch. Since being selected by the Orioles in 2003, Nick Markakis has pieced together a respectable 14-year MLB career, making the All-Star team and winning a Silver Slugger Award in 2018 while adding three Gold Gloves to the mix for good measure. He's consistent, playing in over 140 games in 12 of those 14 seasons, and he's appeared on just two teams: The Orioles from 2006 - 2014 and the Braves since then. That's the type of lasting, reliable production you hope to get in the MLB Draft.

Aaron Nola | RHP | 2014 MLB Draft | Phillies 

Despite just making his big-league debut in 2015, Aaron Nola's already proven he belongs. He's 53-35 to date, making an MLB-high 34 starts and facing a league-high 852 batters in his 2019 campaign. His best work came in 2018, when he went 17-6 while posting a 2.37 ERA and 0.975 WHIP. For that, he made the All-Star team and came in third in the Cy Young voting, edged out by winner Jacob deGrom and runner-up Max Scherzer there. Time could be the only factor preventing Nola from finding himself in our "elite" tier.

Andrew Benintendi | OF | 2015 MLB Draft | Red Sox

Hey, it's a Cherington pick! Cherington oversaw his Red Sox snagging Andrew Benintendi at No. 7 overall in 2015, and that's already looking like a smart pick with still-unexplored upside. Benintendi elevated to the MLB level quickly and immediately proved he can play, appearing in 138-plus games in three of his four seasons with the Red Sox. He's slashed .277/.354/.442 to date and came in second in the Rookie of the Year voting in 2017, losing out to Aaron Judge. Like Nola, though, Benintendi has showcased enough to feel good about the pick. Now the question becomes: Just how good can this guy be?

Mike Minor | LHP | 2009 MLB Draft | Braves 

After a distinguished college career at Vanderbilt and a gold-medal performance for the U.S. National Team in 2008, the Braves took Mike Minor at No. 7 overall in the 2009 MLB Draft but allowed him to walk in free agency in 2015 after a rocky stint that included an arbitration hearing and some up-and-down performances on the mound. Minor's best days were still ahead of him though, as he's looked good in two seasons with the Rangers, going 12-8 in 2018 before improving to an All-Star level in 2019. Minor finished eighth in last year's Cy Young voting and struck out a career-high 200 batters across 208.1 innings pitched, proving he's not only got some gas in the tank but his engine is running better than ever.

SUPER SOLID

Yonder Alonso | 1B | 2008 MLB Draft | Reds 

After being drafted in the 16th round of the 2005 MLB Draft by the Twins, Yonder Alonso elected to take the college route instead, where he excelled at the University of Miami. That launched him all the way up to No. 7 status in 2008, when the Reds snagged him. He played just two partial seasons at the MLB level with the Reds before signing with the Padres, where he found a bit of a groove, making 619 plate appearances — the most of his career — in 2012. It took Alonso until 2017 to really come to life, though. He hit 28 home runs while splitting time between the Athletics and Mariners in an All-Star 2017 campaign then followed that up with 23 dingers for the Indians in 2018. While Alonso's done some good things, his inconsistency and poor defense keep him from landing higher on our list.

Max Fried | LHP | 2012 MLB Draft | Padres 

After being dubbed the best left-hander available in the 2012 MLB Draft, Max Fried landed with the Padres at No. 7 overall. And despite being committed to UCLA, he took the money instead, turning pro by inking a $3 million deal ... that he never lived up to in San Diego. Fried flashed great potential throughout the minors but suffered an injury and underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014. From there, the Padres traded him to the Braves, where he elevated to the MLB level and played his first three years in the show. He's steadily improved, notching 17 wins in 2019 — second-most among NL pitchers — while posting a 4.02 ERA, 3.72 FIP and 1.334 WHIP. Thus far, it appears Fried is going to easily live up to that No. 7 slot — and he's still trending upward.

Austin Kearns | OF | 1998 MLB Draft | Reds 

Consistent. Reliable. But never great. Austin Kearns played 12 years at the MLB level for five teams, flashing promise as a rookie for the Reds in 2002 and finishing third in the Rookie of the Year voting. He'd never get much better than that, though, finishing with a career .253/.351/.413 slash line in 1,125 games played. That's still a good pick and a solid contributor, but Kearns is clearly a tier below greatness and that elite level you hope to snag at No. 7 overall.

Homer Bailey | RHP | 2004 MLB Draft | Reds 

Want the pitcher version of Austin Kearns? Have a Homer Bailey. He's played 13 years in the bigs, posting an 80-86 record and a career 4.57 ERA and 1.370 WHIP in 1,393.2 innings pitched. Bailey is useful and above-average but ultimately unspectacular, never making an All-Star team or winning any significant awards. He did pitch two no-hitters, which puts him in elite company, but that's not enough for me to consider him in a higher tier for our purposes.

Archie Bradley | RHP | 2011 MLB Draft | Diamondbacks 

Since being taken by the Diamondbacks with the seventh overall pick in 2011, Archie Bradley's enjoyed a steady, logical progression. After four years working his way through the minors, Bradley landed with the big-league squad in 2015, going 2-3 with a 5.80 ERA and 1.626 WHIP in 35.2 innings pitched. He then made 26 starts in 2016 but didn't dazzle and had to fight for a spot in the rotation for 2017, losing out to Patrick Corbin. Bradley turned that disappointment into a blessing, though, as he posted a 1.73 ERA and 1.041 WHIP in 73 innings pitched as the team's setup man. He held this role through 2018 as well, tying for the league lead with 34 holds. By midseason in 2019, Bradley ascended to the role of closer, tallying 18 saves in all. Nothing pops off the page here with Bradley, but it's clear he's a useful, reliable asset as the MLB level.

A HEARTY 'MEH'

Kyle Snyder | RHP | 1999 MLB Draft | Royals 

Jonathan Johnson | RHP | 1995 MLB Draft | Rangers 

Dan Reichert | RHP | 1997 MLB Draft | Royals 

Matt LaPorta | OF | 2007 MLB Draft | Brewers

Much respect to Kyle SnyderJonathan JohnsonDan Reichert and Matt LaPorta, but we're going to do a joint analysis here. There's something to be said for lasting at the major-league level at all, and these four did that, Snyder and Reichert playing five seasons, Johnson playing six and LaPorta playing four, but none of them lived up to that No. 7 overall pick. Snyder was hampered by injuries, Reichert by poor control and Johnson and LaPorta by simply never panning out, leaving them all in the bottom tier of this list. They played, but that's about as far as the praise goes.

DISASTERS

Matt White | RHP | 1996 MLB Draft | Giants 

This is when you cue the Rod Serling monologue and enter the Twilight Zone. Matt White, out of Waynesboro, Pa., was rated USA Today's baseball Player of the Year out of high school and Gatorade's Pennsylvania Player of the Year. Once getting drafted by the Giants at No. 7 in 1996, though, the madness began. First, his agent, Scott Boras, found a loophole. The Giants didn't offer him a contract within the required 10-day period, so White became an immediate free agent, signing with the Rays for a cool $10.2 million signing bonus. From there, White just ... kept getting injured. He flashed potential from 1997 to 2000, earning a spot on the 2000 Sydney Olympic team. There, things went south in a flash. White suffered a shoulder injury on the plane and couldn't participate, then injuries completely derailed his career from there. He never made it to the bigs, eventually finishing with a 4.54 ERA across seven seasons at various minor-league levels.

Matthew Harrington | RHP | 2000 MLB Draft | Rockies 

Not to be one-upped by White, Matthew Harrington entered the baseball record books without ever throwing a pitch in the big leagues. Considered one of the best available talents in the 2000 MLB Draft, Harrington was taken No. 7 overall by the Rockies, but his agent, Tommy Tanzer, was unsatisfied with the Rockies' terms, and Harrington never signed. He was drafted again in 2001 by the Padres, 58th overall. Didn't sign. Then taken 374th overall by the Rays in 2002. Didn't sign. Then 711th overall by the Reds in 2003. Didn't sign. One last time, 1,089th overall by the Yankees in 2004. Didn't sign. Finally, in 2005, Harrington went undrafted, ending a record-breaking streak of five consecutive drafts in which he was taken but did not sign. Just ridiculous. Harrington did show up and flash some potential in the Central League and at the AA level in 2005 and 2006, but his career was a wrap by this point. The closest he'd come was a 2007 Spring Training invite from the Cubs before being released on March 27, 2007.

Chris Smith | LHP | 2001 MLB Draft | Orioles 

I'm going to just let a quote from Chris Smith do the talking here: "I was injured by the Orioles Athletic trainer Mitch Bibb (rehab guy down in Sarasota). They were doing tests two weeks or so into my workouts to get ready to go to Delmarva when he puts too much pressure on a certain motion. That's when I heard a pop and the next day I couldn't throw a ball. From that day on, it was tendonitis or shoulder weakness, even went to Dr. Andrews and he didn't see anything so I rehabbed for about a year and a half trying to get back taking their word for what is the matter with me. After that, Dr. McFarland at Johns Hopkins found a 90-something-percent tear to the rotator cuff."

He never pitched in the majors and was out of baseball completely by 2006. I mean, come on, man.

Trey Ball | LHP | 2013 MLB Draft | Red Sox 

As much as Cherington and company crushed it with that Benintendi pick, they completely swung and missed with Trey Ball. My colleague, Alex Stumpf, summarized it well yesterday in his analysis of Cherington's Red Sox draft classes:

"Ball was one of the most-hyped high-schoolers in the 2013 draft, showing a plus fastball and breaking pitch. He was the type of projectable pitcher scouts go for, so few were surprised when the Red Sox took him seventh overall. Ball never had much success in professional ball though, struggling with his delivery and control. His pedigree got him to AA, but that’s as far as his first-round promise could take him. There was a brief experiment to turn him into a two-way player in 2019, but the writing is on the wall for his career."

Not ideal.

TOO SOON TO CALL IT

Braxton Garrett | LHP | 2016 MLB Draft | Marlins 

Pavin Smith | 1B | 2017 MLB Draft | Diamondbacks 

Ryan Weathers | LHP | 2018 MLB Draft | Padres 

Nick Lodolo | LHP | 2019 MLB Draft | Reds 

Benintendi, taken in 2015, is the most recently selected No. 7 overall pick with big-league experience. That leaves the book open for Braxton GarrettPavin SmithRyan Weathers and Nick Lodolo. Garrett posted a 1-0 record, 3.00 ERA and three strikeouts in three innings pitched during the 2020 Spring Training, while Smith slashed .381/.435/.429 across 23 plate appearances in his 2020 Spring Training for the Diamondbacks, giving hope for the future in this group. As it stands though, there's simply not enough to work with to predict their future success.

One interesting nugget we are sure of, though: The Pirates took Lodolo with the 41st pick in the 2016 MLB Draft, but he didn't sign and instead fulfilled his commitment to TCU before being taken by the Reds at No. 7 in last year's draft. Oh, and Ryan Weathers is 1996 World Series champion and 19-year MLB pitcher David Weathers' son. That's pretty neat, too, I suppose.

WHAT IT MEANS

There's no surefire answer here. That No. 7 pick is, historically, a total gamble. That's the MLB Draft in general, and it'd be foolish to take any of this as gospel. There is, however, plenty of relevant, useful information to take away. At the top, there's been a minimum of four elite talents taken there in the past 25 years, with Nola, Benintendi, Garrett, Smith, Weathers and Lodolo having a real chance to join that class. That's 16 percent of the selections falling into the elite tier with the potential to rise to 40 percent if each of those prospects rises to the occasion. That won't happen, but these are still pretty great odds of snagging a legitimate, top-level talent at No. 7.

What should terrify Pirates fans, though, is the other side of the coin. Just as much as that lucky No. 7 can bring a jackpot, it can leave you crying in the casino parking lot and wondering how you're going to explain to your wife you just lost your house. Players like Harrington and White were MLB disasters of almost-unbelievable proportions. Even Ball, drafted by Cherington no less, provided exactly zero value to his big-league club.

Four of the last 25 players — again, 16 percent — never made it to the MLB level, while another four did virtually nothing once they arrived. That means 32 percent of the past 25 No. 7 overall picks would be considered a disappointment if the Pirates wound up with a player of a similar caliber, with the potential for that figure to rise if Garrett, Smith, Weathers or Lodolo implodes.

Overall, though, there's more good than bad. Thirteen out of the 25 picks would be considered solid selections if the Pirates took them at No. 7, and, again, that figure can rise depending on how the recently selected prospects progress.

Cherington, for his part, is 1 for 2 when picking at No. 7.

What he does in 2020 will provide the tiebreaker  — and Pirates fans across the world will watch eagerly. If history is any indication, the pick will probably cause plenty of commotion — there's just no saying whether it'll be a celebration or a wake.

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