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Don’t Forget About The ’02 Draft

If pressed to name which year featured the best amateur draft class in recent baseball history, the vast majority would immediately gravitate toward the 2005 Draft.

(Side Note: In fact, I originally began researching this article in an attempt to prove just how good the 2005 Draft was in comparison to other recent drafts.)

It’s certainly not an unreasonable position to take. The 2005 Draft enjoyed copious amounts of hype prior to draft day, and the star power atop the draft is mind-blowing. Players such as Justin Upton, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki, Andrew McCutchen, and Alex Gordon were all drafted in the first twelve selections. Those six players combined for an impressive +35.6 WAR last season.

The 2005 Draft has the big names early in the first round, to be sure, but the 2002 Draft could actually be the better all-around draft. The reason the 2002 Draft doesn’t make headlines is that the early picks did not produce All-Star caliber players.

The Pittsburgh Pirates chose right-hander Bryan Bullington with the first-overall pick, and he compiled a career 5.62 ERA over 81.2 innings in the big leagues and was exactly replacement-level over his five years with the Pirates, Blue Jays, and Royals.

Though, Bullington’s career could be considered a modest success compared to right-handed pitchers Chris Gruler, who was selected by the Reds with the third-overall pick and retired in 2008 after three separate shoulder surgeries, and Clint Everts, who was selected fifth overall by the Expos and is currently trudging through his tenth season in the minor leagues with the Toronto Blue Jays’ Triple-A affiliate.

The first round of the 2002 Draft, however, did produce significant big league talent. Here is a chart of the total wins above replacement from first-round draftees per year since The Strike:

Draft Year Total WAR
1995 297.5
2002 288.4
1998 286.2
2005 248.9
1997 225.0
1996 194.6
1999 192.8
2001 171.5
2003 155.7
2006 146.3
2004 131.8
2000 114.8

Only the 1995 Draft — which featured players such as Darin Erstad, Todd Helton, Roy Halladay, and Kerry Wood — has produced more wins above replacement from the first round, and that is largely due to the fact that those draftees have had seven more seasons as professionals.

The first round of the 2002 Draft, on the other hand, consisted a slew of quality pitching in the middle picks — headlined by Zack Greinke, Matt Cain, and Cole Hamels — as well as position players Prince Fielder, Nick Swisher, B.J. Upton, and Denard Span. Again, it doesn’t possess the star power of the 2005 Draft or the longevity of the 1995 Draft, but the overall production yielded from the players drafted in the first round of the 2002 Draft is significant.

Of course, it’s important to note that the 2005 first rounders are producing more wins above replacement per year than the 2002 first rounders, 31.1 WAR/year to 26.2 WAR/year, respectively. If strictly viewing the draft through a first-round lens, the 2005 Draft is probably the best collection of talent that baseball has seen in the past fifteen or twenty years.

Players are obviously drafted after the first round, though, and the 2002 Draft made a particularly large impact in the second round. That is where the Cincinnati Reds drafted Joey Votto, the Boston Red Sox drafted Jon Lester, and the Atlanta Braves drafted Brian McCann. Comparatively, the best players drafted in the second round of the 2005 Draft were Chase Headley — who appears to be breaking out as an elite player this year — and Yunel Escobar.

It should also be noted that Curtis Granderson (3), Josh Johnson (4), Howie Kendrick (10), and Russell Martin (17) were all acquired in the 2002 Draft. All four of those players have been at least five-win players at some point in their career, with Granderson compiling a massive +7.0 WAR season in 2011.

The 2005 Draft, however, only had two five-win players drafted after the second round: Brett Gardner (3) and Austin Jackson (8).

As shown above, the 2002 Draft may not have featured the extreme star power and elite value in the first round, but it proved to be a very deep class with impact talent available in later rounds. Defining which class was overall better can be rather subjective, however, and has reasonable arguments on both sides, but the next time someone asks which is the best draft class in recent history, don’t immediately reach for 2005. The 2002 Draft was better than many people remember.