While perusing the NFL network a week or so ago, I watched one of their “Top Ten” lists, and this particular list was about the best drafts of all-time. Naturally, number one was the 1974 Pittsburgh Steelers draft.
Obviously, the Steelers ’74 draft does not refer to the title of this write-up, the Worst Draft of all-time. But it was this draft, and with the recent NHL draft, that got me thinking of other Steelers drafts, and also the Penguins and Pirates draft histories. I decided to look up the draft history of our Pittsburgh teams, especially the Pirates post-’93 drafts, because I figured poor drafting has been one of the key factors to this long losing streak. And, for the most part, I was right. The Pirates really missed with most of their drafts from 1994 to 2002. It’s not as though the Pirates have blown away the drafts since 2002, but in ’03 they drafted Maholm, and while he isn’t an all-star caliber pitcher I do consider him a quality starter, especially if he was in an organization that was stronger at developing their players. Since Maholm, the Pirates have nabbed Neil Walker, Andrew McCutchen, Brad Lincoln, and Pedro Alvarez, all now up and contributing for the Pirates. It would seem as though Pirates drafting has gotten back on track.
As a disclaimer I should say that I know that drafting in the MLB is nearly a crapshoot, what with fifty rounds and the fact that players can choose to reenter the draft if they don’t want to sign with the team that drafted them. Also, luck is a major factor in the MLB draft too, like in the 2001 draft. The Pirates didn’t have a great season in 2000, and had the eighth overall pick in ’01. As luck would have it, bad luck I suppose, Joe Mauer, Mark Prior, Gavin Floyd and Mark Teixeira were all taken within the seven picks before the Pirates drafted at number eight. Also, signability is also a factor in the MLB. The Pirates have shown time again that they won’t draft a player if the player wants more than what the Pirates are willing to pay. So, I was aware of all of this as I began looking up past Pirates drafts. I should also mention that the term "worst" is subjective and opinion-based, so you may not agree with the Pirates '02 Draft as being the worst ever. But I'm going to do my best to try and convice you otherwise.
Every team has bad drafts, we all know that; however, there is one draft that is so painful to recount that I cannot think that any draft is worse than that of the Pirates 2002 draft. The ’02 draft was the Pirates second time drafting with the number one overall pick in seven years (Kris Benson in 1996). And as the more astute Pirates are aware of, the ’02 draft was the Bryan Bullington draft. Before I delve into who the Pirates passed over for Bullington, I want to also give the players the Pirates drafted in rounds two through four. This is important because it adds fuel to the fire that makes the Pirates ’02 draft the worst ever. Following the Bullington pick, the Pirates chose Blair Johnson, Taber Lee and Wardell Starling. If you’ve never heard of these players, don’t feel too bad, nobody has, at least I know I haven’t.
Before we get to the disaster that was the Bullington pick, I want to take a quick look at the career stats for Johnson, Lee and Starling and who the Pirates passed up on in order to get these players. I’ll quickly mention that none of these players has made it to the big leagues.
Beginning with the fourth round, Starling has appeared in 128 games (106 starts) and has a career record of 38-36 in six seasons in the minors. Not horrible for a fourth rounder you may say, and I may agree with you, but in drafting Starling, the Pirates passed on drafting Josh Johnson, who was taken ten picks later by the Marlins. For those who aren’t acquainted with Josh Johnson, I’ll give a quick review of him. Josh Johnson joined the Marlins big-league squad in 2005 and in six seasons has appeared in 103 games (93 starts) and has a career record of 42-19 and career ERA of 3.10 and is a two-time All-Star (including this year). This season Josh Johnson is 8-3 with a 1.82 ERA. I know what some may say, that the Pirates can’t be fully blamed for missing on Josh Johnson because every other team passed on him as well, and I would probably agree. However, when combined with the other players the Pirates missed on, this is a key brick in the building of the ’02 draft debacle.
Now, moving on and looking at the third round and Taber Lee. Lee has a career batting average of .238, 16 home runs and 45 stolen bases in six seasons in the minors. Also, Lee’s last season of pro ball was in 2007. Even for a third rounder, Lee has to be considered a disappoint. Especially when you look at who was drafted seven picks after the Pirates took Lee, when the Tigers took Curtis Granderson. In seven seasons of playing in the AL (731 games), Granderson has 109 home runs, 73 stolen bases, 321 RBIs and a career batting average of .269. Not all-time great numbers, but Granderson is a former All-Star with 30 home run potential. Again, I know missed picks like this happen, and sole blame shouldn’t rest on the Pirates, seeing as how every other team passed on Granderson until the third round. But we’re looking at the big picture. This isn’t just the Pirates missing on Granderson or Josh Johnson. This is the Pirates missing on both players, All-Star caliber players that can help teams win, plus the players they missed in rounds one and two.
In round 2, the Pirates took Blair Johnson. In eight seasons in the minors, Blair has appeared in 97 games (57 starts) and has posted a gaudy 22-20 record with a career ERA of 4.35. For a second round pick, calling Blair a bust is being way too kind. Drafting Blair with the first pick of round two is nearly as big a swing and miss as drafting Bullington with the first overall pick. Stress the word nearly, because taking Bullington is indescribable. Before we get to Bullington, let’s not forget who the Pirates passed up in round two to take Blair. Two picks after Blair was taken, the Reds took Joey Votto. In less than four full seasons Votto already has 72 home runs, 242 RBIs and is the Reds best hitter. Thirteen picks following Votto, the Red Sox took Jon Lester. I’m not going to go into Lester’s career stats, because I’m sure we’re all aware of what Lester has accomplished in his short stay so far in Boston. He helped the Sox win the ’07 World Series, plus he has a no-hitter under his belt. If missing on Votto and Lester wasn’t bad enough, the Pirates also missed on Jonathan Broxton (current closer for the Dodgers), Brian McCann (one of the better offensive catchers in the league) and Fred Lewis (by no stretch a great player, but a solid player).
Missing out on any combination of Josh Johnson, Curtis Granderson, Joey Votto, Jon Lester, Jonathan Broxton, Brian McCann and Fred Lewis is bad, there’s no other way to spin it. It’s not as though one team had a strong draft and nabbed these guys in each round. All seven of these guys went to different teams. So while the Pirates took three guys who never made it to the majors, seven different teams grabbed regular, everyday players. But, missing out on these guys is only half of the equation for the worst draft ever. The key piece, the icing that tops the cake, so to speak, is what the 2002 draft is remembered for: the drafting of Bryan Bullington number one overall.
The disaster of drafting Bryan Bullington is really a twofold masterpiece. The first part is Bullington himself. Drafted because the Pirates thought he was the player they had the best chance of signing, Bullington posted decent numbers throughout the Pirates minor league system but amounted to nothing for the Pirates, before eventually being picked up off the waiver-wire by Cleveland. He suffered through injuries like most players do, but that’s no excuse for him attributing absolutely nothing to the Pirates organization. To call Bullington a bust is at best generous, at worst naïve. The Pirates have had plenty of bad picks during their current near two decade losing skid, but no pick has been as terrible as Bullington. Nowhere is this more evident then when one looks at the players taken in the first round following Bullington. Reading the names of these players may give you nightmares, but it is a necessary evil to fully understand how shockingly horrific the Pirates 2002 draft was. I’m not going to bother giving the stats of these players, because they are unnecessary due to the fact that any casual fan of baseball probably knows who these players are. Directly following the pick of Bullington Tampa Bay selected with the number two pick B.J. Upton. Three players also taken in the Top 10 include Zack Greinke (6th), Prince Fielder (7th), and Jeff Francis (9th). Other notable names that followed in the first round include Joe Saunders (12th), Khalil Greene (13th), Scott Kazmir (15th), Nick Swisher (16th), Cole Hamels (17th), James Loney (19th), Denard Span (20th), Joe Blanton (24th), and Matt Cain (25th). These players may not be All-Star caliber players, but any of these players would have accomplished more for the Pirates than what Bullington did, which was nothing.
So is the 2002 Pirates draft the worst of all-time? Of the four players they drafted, only Bullington made it to the majors, and that was only a few appearances. Whereas by my count, 15 teams took quality to All-Star caliber players; all of whom could have been drafted by the Pirates. To review, the Pirates drafted:
Bryan Bullington, Blair Johnson, Taber Lee and Wardell Starling.
And subsequently passed on any combination of:
B.J. Upton, Zack Greinke, Prince Fielder, Jeff Francis, Joe Saunders, Khalil Greene, Scott Kazmir, Nick Swisher, Cole Hamels, James Loney, Denard Span, Joe Blanton, Matt Cain, Joey Votto, Jon Lester, Jonathan Broxton, Brian McCann, Fred Lewis, Curtis Granderson, and Josh Johnson.
Sorry for being so lengthy, but I had to get that out. Rant over.