Unlike other drafts in major North American sports, players drafted by Major League Baseball rarely make a quick impact on their teams. The developmental curve in baseball is far more daunting and complex than it is in basketball or football and even high draft picks have an uphill battle just to crack a Major League team in their career. Because of this and other factors like limited scouting manpower that prevent teams from scouting smaller schools or cold-weather schools, future all-stars or even Hall of Famers can slip to the lower rounds of the draft. Baseball’s draft, in other words, is largely a crapshoot; you can only hope to find one or two everyday players in every draft. Anything more than that is considered a resounding success.
The first ever amateur draft was held in 1965 when Rick Monday was selected first overall by the New York Mets, but like it is in most drafts, the best player was not the first overall pick. The best two players to come out of that draft are both now in the Hall of Fame, and both were late round picks. Pitchers Tom Seaver by the Dodgers and Nolan Ryan by the Mets were selected that year in the 10th and 12th rounds respectively. Seaver didn’t sign with the Dodgers and ended up signing with the Mets the following year as an amateur free agent, teaming up with Ryan to surprise the world and win the World Series in 1969.
Other late-round finds from the early draft years include knuckleballer Charlie Hough who was drafted in the 8th round in 1966 as an infielder by the Dodgers and third baseman Ron Cey who was drafted in the 19th round, also in 1966, 361st overall by the Mets. In 1967, outfielders Davey Lopes and Dusty Baker were drafted 158th and 504th overall respectively and both had solid Major League careers.
Throughout the draft’s history, there are examples of players every scout on every team missed on who ended up being stars, in some cases Hall of Famers. For every Steve Chilcott, Matt Bush, or Brien Taylor there’s a Mike Piazza (62nd Round), Kenny Rogers (39th Round), or Jeff Conine (58th Round).
So who are some of the current players that were drafted very low for one reason or another who have ended up being valuable major leaguers?
Russell Martin (17th Round in 2002 – Dodgers)
Jussell played high school ball in Montréal (at the same high school as his future teammate Eric Gagné) where there aren’t exactly a plethora of scouts skulking around the backfields. After graduating, Martin attended junior college at Chipola College in Marianna, Florida where, again, scouts generally aren’t found. Since being drafted by the Dodgers, Martin has accumulated 19.3 fWAR including 10.5 fWAR in two seasons from 2007 to 2008.
Dan Uggla (11th Round in 2001 – Diamondbacks)
After being drafted out of the University of Memphis, Uggla spent five years in the D’Backs system, never advancing past the AA level and was left unprotected in the Rule 5 draft ahead of the 2006 season, where the Marlins scooped him up. He became Florida’s everyday second baseman immediately and went on to become the first second baseman in history to hit 30 homeruns in four consecutive years; he’s also the Marlins all-time homerun leader.
Jason Bay (22nd Round in 2000 – Expos)
Bay is the prototypical late-bloomer. After two short years in the Expos system, Montréal traded him to the Mets in a deal for Lou Collier in March of 2002. Just a few short months later, the Mets dealt him to the Padres at the trade deadline in a deal for middle-reliever Steve Reed. A little over a year after that he was dealt to the Pirates along with Oliver Perez for Brian Giles.
Bay broke out in 2004 with a 26-homerun year at the age of 25 and followed that up with 11.5 fWAR in 2005 and 2006. Overall, he’s accumulated 23.2 fWAR with the Padres, Pirates, Red Sox, and Mets.
Mike Lowell (20th Round in 1995 – Yankees)
Lowell went undrafted in 1994 after a terrific career at Florida International University and had to play a year in the Cape Cod League to get noticed. The Yankees selected him 562nd overall in 1995 and he proceeded to put up solid numbers in four minor league seasons, earning a September call-up with the Bombers in 1998 before being traded to the Marlins in the offseason. In a 13-year career that also included World Series rings with the Marlins in 2003 and the Red Sox in 2007, Lowell accumulated a tidy 30 fWAR, finishing with 223 career homeruns.
Julio Lugo (43rd Round in 1994 – Astros)
Say what you want about Lugo’s ridiculous four-year $36-million contract to play shortstop for the Red Sox, there’s no doubt that Lugo had a very solid Major League career for a 43rd round draft pick. Lugo was drafted out of a small college in Warner, Oklahoma called Connors State and went on to put up a couple decent years with the Astros before being signed by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2003. He went on to average 3.6 fWAR from 2003-2005, sixth among all major league shortstops during that time.
He recently signed a minor-league deal with the Braves and is currently playing in AAA-Gwinnett.
Roy Oswalt (23rd Round in 1996 – Astros)
Oswalt, like many on this list, went to a small college (Holmes Community College in Goodman, Mississippi) and was a slender righthander barely six-feet tall. If scouts knew about him at all, they dismissed him as being too small to make it as a big-league pitcher. The Astros selected him with the 684th overall pick and he’s gone on to accumulate a 48.6 fWAR, only Roy Halladay and C.C. Sabathia have a higher fWAR since 2001 among starting pitchers.
Coincidentally, former Jays’ lefthander Ted Lilly was selected in the very same round as Oswalt, by the Dodgers, and has gone on to accumulate a 24.3 fWAR in his career.
Albert Pujols (13th Round in 1999 – Cardinals)
If you haven’t read Jonah Keri’s book, The Extra 2%, you should immediately purchase a copy and give it a read. In that book, Keri details one area scout’s assessment of a portly high school third baseman in Kansas. The area scout works for the Devil Rays and is convinced this kid is the next Lou Gehrig with power in spades and an out-of-this-world hit tool. No other team seems to even notice this kid and the area scout pleads with his employers to draft him. They didn’t and he slipped to the 13th round in the 1999 draft to the Cardinals. The scout was so disheartened that he quit his job. The kid’s name was Albert Pujols and in less than two years he was doing things no hitter in the history of the game had ever done.
Jays’ fans will look to high draft picks like Tyler Beede and Jacob Anderson to help the team reach and ultimately win the World Series in the years to come, but maybe that key piece lays somewhere deeper in the draft annals. Maybe in 8th round pick Mark Biggs, a right-handed pitcher, or 12th round pick John Norwood a toolsy but raw centerfielder. Only time will tell if there’s a Roy Oswalt, a Mike Piazza, or an Albert Pujols lurking in the late rounds of the draft.