Updated: Jun 22, 2018
Hello everyone. My name is Erik Manning. You may remember me from such blogs as Future Redbirds or Fangraphs. Or you may know me from such films as Calling All Quakers, or The Muppets Go Medieval. OK, so really probably most of you have no idea who I am. A little under a decade ago, I had a blog called Future Redbirds, which was dedicated to all things prospects. You'll have to use the Wayback Machine to find it these days. In other words, I was Kyle before there was Kyle. I was the charter member of the infamous Hyperventilating Prospect Geek Fraternity, or #hpgf (Is that still a thing?) While I no longer have Baseball America's Top 200 Draft prospects memorized by heart, the draft is still my Christmas in June. There's something about dreaming on potential.
I will say this, however: The one thing I learned from following the drafts was that prospects tend to bust more often than boom. This is very much the case with the team's first pick of the draft. I thought it would be fun to look at how the Cardinals have done over the 20 years of the draft. Well, it's not actually the last 20 years. It's too early to make a call on Luke Weaver, Jack Flaherty (even though the early returns look fairly promising), as well as Delvin Perez or Nick Plummer (even though the results look really bad). While prospecting baseball players is gazing into the crystal ball, this is a retrospect. And since teams are paying full-market value once a player is eligible for free agency after their six seasons of service time, I'd argue that the best way to gauge a return on a #1 pick is to look at what they did under their cost-controlled years. So our starting point will be the 2012 draft.
A few preliminaries before we take a look: I consider a player averaging at least 1-1.5 WAR per their first six seasons in the big leagues to be considered a success. Not a smashing success, but at least a solid pick. You might think this is setting the bar too low for a first round pick, but considering how many #1 picks bust, and how many future starting pitchers turn into relievers, I don't think this is too low. 2 WAR would be an average big leaguer, I don't think this needs explaining. Anything 2.5+ I'm going to consider great considering this would be the upper percentile and I think any of us would be thrilled to have a 2.5+ WAR player that's cost-controlled on the roster.
Also, bear in mind that what these players did or didn't do in a Cardinal uniform here isn't going to be relevant here, since it's not their fault if Mo or Jocketty shuttled them off somewhere else. One last word before we jump into the results and observations - this is just looking at the Cardinals and lacks some context since I'm not comparing to the rest of the MLB. That would be some interesting research for sure, and you can read about some of that here and here.
57% of the Cardinal first rounders busted. They either didn't make it to The Show at all or if they did they put up a paltry or even negative WAR. So the lesson here is that for every Matt Morris, there's a Zack Cox, Brett Wallace, Pete Kozma and Shaun Boyd. That Shaun Boyd reference was for you oldheads out there.
26% of the 1st rounders were just "solid" contributors, although by season's end I think Wacha could work his way up to the "good" category. Now we're up to 83% of the picks being either solid role players or failures.
Given the Cardinal's success, their average pick was 21st. MLB average is 1.1 WAR per season for a pick around that range. The Cardinals averaged .8, so not too far out of line with the rest of the MLB but still below average. There's some context, context lovers.
Out of this group, only Colby Rasmus, Adam Kennedy, Matt Morris and JD Drew were in that good category or better. Two were traded, and as good as Kennedy was in his team-controlled years, you'll never hear me complain about him being traded for my baseball bromance, Jim Edmonds. Colby Rasmus was supposed to be the chosen one, but he ended up being a walking, talking culture war during his time with the Cardinals. Even though he found success in Toronto for a bit, that 2011 flag is still flying high so I guess I can't complain.
JD Drew was TLR's most famous whipping boy and this was made famous by Three Nights in August, where Drew was portrayed as being soft and lazy, to put it nicely. But I think we forget how good he was when he was actually on the field. His cost-controlled years + six-cheap years of Adam Wainright = 37 WAR. That may have been Trader Jock's smoothest of moves. I know Drew was paid a then-massive $10M in guaranteed money for signing after spurning the Phillies the year before, but even taking that into consideration, JD was a big value and arguably the best draft pick ever by the Cardinals not named Ted Simmons.
So there you go. The main takeaway here should be this: Watch the draft. Listen to Kyle, for Kyle is wise. Please don't listen to Harold Reynolds comparing every pick to an All-Star or Hall of Famer. I don't think you need me to tell you this, but I'm telling you anyway. The best case scenario here has been getting a 3 WAR per year player. Getting a Wacha or a Kolten Wong is actually a pretty good success. The fact that 3/5th of the rotation right now are first round picks is a testament to the Cardinal's recent ability to draft well and develop young pitchers. So sure, get excited speculating about the future. Just don't get too excited.