The scouting report for Heisman Trophy-winning, part-time baseball player Bo Jackson, from a Kansas City Royals scout named Kenny Gonzalez, reads like something from a Marvel script in which Jackson is plucked from the sports universe to help Thor and Iron Man fight Thanos:
“Franchise-type player; can do it all; a complete-type player. Greatest pure athlete in America today. Can run, throw, and hit with power to all fields. Has outstanding baseball tools to go with outstanding athletic body and abilities. … You got to have a hell of a package deal for this kid to meet his own demands and you have no guarantee to how long he will hang in there on the minor league level. He is a real GAMBLE!”
Gonzalez had been following Jackson since high school, when Jackson belted 20 home runs in 25 games as a senior. Despite Gonzalez’s doubts about Jackson’s desire to play baseball, the Royals did gamble on Jackson, drafting him in the fourth round in 1986, and did manage to sign him. That minor league apprenticeship? Jackson was in the majors a couple of months after getting drafted.
To this day, Jackson’s tools remain legendary: 500-foot home runs, breathtaking speed, a rocket of an arm. With the 2022 MLB draft coming up Sunday, remembering Jackson’s talent had me thinking: Who is the player with the single best tool each team has ever drafted? Not the best player, not the best all-around talent, but the player or pitcher with the one greatest tool — power or speed or throwing arm or fielding ability or fastball or curveball that broke knees.
Of course, this is an impossible task. The draft has been around since 1965, with names and scouting reports lost in the dustbins of history. But we’ll give it a shot — with a big shoutout to Baseball America’s “Ultimate Draft Book,” an indispensable resource on the history of the draft. We’re focusing on the tool as initially drafted — not what it eventually became or how great the player was in the long run.
Draft position itself is a telling point, so most of our nominees were top-of-the-draft selections. At times, I’ll mention scouting grades — those are on the conventional 20-to-80 scale — or radar gun velocity (which didn’t really exist until the 1980s, and the readings back then and through the 1990s were slower than you would see today, since the pitches were clocked farther along the path to the batter). For each team we’ll also include honorable mentions and a player who didn’t pan out.
Jump to a franchise:
The tool: Speed
One of the best all-around talents in draft history, Upton oozed ability across the board, with scouts giving his speed (80) and arm (70) the top grades coming out of high school in Chesapeake, Virginia — although his hit and power tools weren’t far behind. Moved from shortstop to the outfield in pro ball, Upton debuted with the Diamondbacks while still a teenager. He started losing his speed fairly early and surprisingly never played an inning in center field with the Diamondbacks. His power became his primary calling card with over 300 career home runs.
One who didn’t make it: Corey Myers (fourth pick, 1999) was a local product who smashed Arizona high school home run records, but was regarded by most teams as a one-tool player. He topped out in Triple-A.
Atlanta Braves: Bob Horner (first pick, 1978)
The tool: Hit
Horner wasn’t the top all-around talent in the 1978 draft — that was Michigan State’s Kirk Gibson, but with Gibson still committed to another year of football, the Braves tapped the Arizona State star, then the NCAA’s career home run leader who hit .412 his junior season. Horner was so advanced at the plate that he stepped right into the Braves lineup and won National League Rookie of the Year after hitting .266 with 23 home runs in 89 games. He followed that up by hitting .314 with 33 home runs in 1979 and had two more 30-homer seasons before injuries led to an early decline.
Honorable mention: Dale Murphy, arm/power (fifth pick, 1974); Duane Ward, fastball (ninth pick, 1982); Tommy Greene, fastball (14th pick, 1985); Steve Avery, command (third pick, 1988); Tyler Houston, power (second pick, 1989); Chipper Jones, hit (first pick, 1990); Craig Kimbrel, curveball (third round, 2008); Andrelton Simmons, arm (second round, 2010); Austin Riley, power (41st pick, 2015)
One who didn’t make it: The Braves took Mike Kelly, another ASU star, with the second pick in 1991. His top tool was 70-grade speed, but one scouting report from the Padres also mentioned “unlimited potential with his bat and power.” He struggled with breaking balls and spent parts of six seasons in the majors.
The tool: Fastball
The Orioles have taken two of the best draft prospects in history in McDonald and Adley Rutschman, but the hype surrounding McDonald in the spring of 1989 was like nothing seen before. College baseball had exploded in popularity in the 1980s upon ESPN televising the College World Series, and McDonald had starred for the 1988 Olympic team and then tossed 45 consecutive scoreless innings at LSU in 1989.
Many scouts called him the most complete college pitcher they had ever seen. “His fastball can be overpowering and it has some explosive action at the end,” Orioles scouting director John Barr said. “He’s 6-foot-7 and when he’s coming at you it looks like he’s right on top of you.”
Despite some late struggles, including losing twice at the College World Series, he was an easy No. 1 overall pick. The heavy workload at LSU — he pitched 152.1 innings as a junior — may have led to the elbow problems that shortened his major league career.
Honorable mention: Gregg Olson, curveball (fourth pick, 1988); Mike Mussina, knuckle-curve (20th pick, 1990); Jeffrey Hammonds, hit (fourth pick, 1992); Matt Wieters, defense (fifth pick, 2007); Manny Machado, hit/arm (third pick, 2010); Dylan Bundy, command (fourth pick, 2011); Rutschman, hit (first pick, 2019)
One who didn’t make it: Billy Rowell (ninth pick, 2006) had big raw power, but the New Jersey prepster would hit just 40 home runs in six minor league seasons.
Boston Red Sox: Nomar Garciaparra (12th pick, 1994)
The tool: Hit
The Red Sox have had just seven top-10 picks in franchise history — pitcher Mike Garman was the highest at No. 3 in 1967 — but Roger Clemens’ fastball would seem like the tool here. Except read this quote from a scout as Baseball America reported in 1983: “The thing that bothers me about him,” said one scouting director, “is that we clocked him at 91 [mph] in the first inning of one game, but he was only throwing at 82 by the eighth inning.”
Now, radar guns were much slower then, but the loss of a velocity — plus an inconsistent junior season at Texas — allowed him to fall to the 19th pick. So Garciaparra’s hit tool gets the nod, even though he somehow fell to 12th in his draft. He had hit .427 with 43 walks and just 16 strikeouts at Georgia Tech — a hard-to-whiff approach that he carried to the majors, where he hit .306 as a rookie and won two batting titles before injuries derailed his career.
Honorable mention: Ken Brett, fastball/hit (fourth pick, 1966); Jim Rice, power (15th pick, 1971); Fred Lynn, hit (second round, 1973); Clemens, fastball (19th pick, 1983); Mo Vaughn, power (23rd pick, 1989); Jacoby Ellsbury, speed (23rd pick, 2005); Jackie Bradley Jr., fielding (40th pick, 2011); Michael Kopech, fastball (33rd pick, 2014)
One who didn’t make it: Jeff Ledbetter (26th pick, 1982) set an NCAA record with 42 home runs for Florida State — still second on the single-season list behind Pete Incaviglia’s 48 for Oklahoma State — and told a TV reporter, “I’d compare myself to Reggie Jackson and Mike Schmidt in the way I can carry a team.” True in college, but not in the pros. He topped out at Double-A.
Chicago Cubs: Mark Prior (second pick, 2001)
The tool: Fastball
With apologies to Shawon Dunston’s arm at shortstop (maybe the best ever, at least until Oneil Cruz), before Stephen Strasburg, there was Prior — a much-hyped, dominant collegiate pitcher with a big-time fastball. Prior hit 97 mph and threw it to the corners. He went 15-1 with a 1.69 ERA as a junior at USC, with 202 strikeouts and just 18 walks in 138.2 innings.
Scouts called him the best college pitcher ever. “And it all happens with a free, easy, effortless delivery,” wrote Baseball America.
Many thought he could go straight to the big leagues and while that didn’t happen, he was up in 2002 and in 2003 went 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA and 245 strikeouts in 211.1 innings. Then the injuries set in and his career was over at age 25.
Honorable mention: Terry Hughes, fielding (second pick, 1967); Joe Carter, power (second pick, 1981); Dunston, arm (first pick, 1982); Rafael Palmeiro, hit (22nd pick, 1985); Mike Harkey, fastball (fourth pick, 1987); Kerry Wood, fastball (fourth pick, 1995); Kris Bryant, power (second pick, 2013)
One who didn’t make it: Earl Cunningham (eighth pick, 1989), a high school outfielder from South Carolina, had raw power for the ages. Alas, everything else at the plate was a problem. One year in the minors he struck out 145 times and walked just 10 times. He never made it out of Class A.
Chicago White Sox: Frank Thomas (seventh pick, 1989)
The tool: Hit
The White Sox have multiple good options here, including Chris Sale’s fastball — clocked at 100 mph in relief when he was called up a couple of months after getting drafted — and Carlos Rodon’s slider, viewed as one of the best scouts had ever seen. But we have to go with the Big Hurt, who hit .403 at Auburn his draft year and was in the majors the following season, hitting .330 — the first of eight consecutive .300 seasons to begin his Hall of Fame career.
In retrospect, how did he fall to seventh? Actually, a better question might be: Why did the White Sox take him? Many clubs considered him a second- or third-round pick and even after getting drafted, Baseball America wrote that “Thomas was not the best talent available,” taken only because the White Sox lacked any power-hitting prospects in their system.
I think scouts simply had problems rationalizing that a guy that big and strong was actually an artist at the plate, more George Brett or Wade Boggs than slugger (although he did plenty of slugging as well).
Honorable mention: Bart Johnson, fastball (second pick, June secondary phase, 1968); Daryl Boston, power (seventh pick, 1981); Robin Ventura, hit (10th pick, 1988); Sale, fastball (13th pick, 2010); Rodon, slider (third pick, 2014); Nick Madrigal, hit (fourth pick, 2018); Andrew Vaughn, hit (third pick, 2019)
One who didn’t make it: Joe Borchard (12th pick, 2000) was a two-sport star at Stanford and viewed as one of the 2001 NFL draft’s top quarterback prospects, but with raw power compared to Mark McGwire’s, the White Sox gave him a record $5.3 million bonus to give up football. The raw power was impressive, but he struggled to make enough contact, hitting .205 with 26 home runs in 716 major league at-bats.
Cincinnati Reds: Johnny Bench (second round, 1965)
The tool: Arm
So how did the greatest defensive catcher of all time last until the 36th pick of the first draft in 1965? Bench was from a small town in Oklahoma and also spent a fair amount of time pitching (he went 16-1 in his high school career). While he wasn’t exactly unknown — he was all-state in both basketball and baseball — scouting networks weren’t quite as extensive then and it’s possible some teams simply didn’t see him behind the plate (or weren’t sure about the bat).
Once he turned full time to catcher, however, Bench advanced quickly, reaching the majors at 19 and winning the Gold Glove award as a rookie in 1968. Oh, he added some power along the way, twice leading the National League in home runs. My favorite Johnny Bench stat: In 42 playoff games from 1970 to 1976, opponents stole two bases off him — and got caught stealing 11 times.
Honorable mention: Gary Nolan, fastball (13th pick, 1966); Wayne Simpson, fastball (eighth pick, 1967); Barry Larkin, speed/fielding (fourth pick, 1985); Adam Dunn, power (second round, 1998); Homer Bailey, curveball (seventh pick, 2004); Billy Hamilton, speed (second round, 2009); Hunter Greene, fastball (second pick, 2017)
One who didn’t make it: Pat Pacillo (fifth pick, 1984) was a two-way star at Seton Hall and part of the silver medal-winning Olympic team that featured 18 first-round selections — 13 in 1984, five in 1985. The Reds liked Pacillo’s mid-90s fastball, but he pitched just 50 innings in the big leagues.
Called “The Hitman” after batting .651 with 14 home runs in 63 at-bats as a senior at George Washington High School in the Bronx, Ramirez provided an early preview of what was to come when his rookie-ball manager Dave Keller said, “Manny has more talent than he knows. But off the field, he doesn’t have any idea what’s going on.” When he showed up three hours late for treatment of a thigh injury, Ramirez’s explanation: “I don’t know.” But he could hit, boy could he hit. He batted .326 for Burlington and debuted with Cleveland a little more than two years after getting drafted.
Honorable mention: Steve Dunning, fastball (second pick, 1970); Cory Snyder, power/arm (fourth pick, 1984); Albert Belle, power (second round, 1987); Mark Lewis, fielding (second pick, 1988); Paul Shuey, fastball (second pick, 1992); Francisco Lindor, fielding (eighth pick, 2011)
One who didn’t make it: Stanford right-hander Dunning wowed scouts when he beat eventual College World Series champion Southern Cal twice in a week, recording 17 and 15 strikeouts. His fastball was compared to then-Cleveland star Sam McDowell, one of the hardest throwers in major league history. Promoted straight to the majors after signing, Dunning went 23-41 in his career. He later told Baseball America that he never lost his velocity, but simply never developed an effective breaking ball. “I was a one-pitch pitcher most of my career,” he said.
Colorado Rockies: Todd Helton (eighth pick, 1995)
Jon Gray hit 101 mph at Oklahoma and Riley Pint’s fastball touched 100 when the Rockies drafted him out of high school in 2016, though even then there were concerns about Pint’s command and release point (which led to a brief retirement, although he’s back pitching now and in Double-A). But there have been few better pure hit tools than Helton’s. He hit .407 his junior season at Tennessee with 61 walks and 24 strikeouts, tore through the minors in short order and hit .332 through his first 11 seasons with the Rockies before back problems slowed down his production.
Honorable mention: Juan Pierre, speed (13th round, 1998); Ian Stewart, power (10th pick, 2003); Troy Tulowitzki, fielding (seventh pick, 2005); Greg Reynolds, command (second pick, 2006); Gray, fastball (third pick, 2013); Pint, fastball (fourth pick, 2016)
One who didn’t make it: Reynolds was a bit of a curious pick at the time given that he struck out just 108 batters in 127.2 innings at Stanford — especially since other top 10 pitchers that year included Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum and Max Scherzer. While Reynolds touched the mid-90s with his fastball, the Rockies liked his command and delivery. He hurt his shoulder in 2007, returned and went 2-8 with an 8.13 ERA for the Rockies in 2008, but that was pretty much it.
Detroit Tigers: Kirk Gibson (12th pick, 1978)
The tool: Power, speed
Not Justin Verlander’s fastball, which was an 80-grade pitch coming out of Old Dominion in 2004? I won’t argue too much with you if you prefer Verlander here, but the now-extinct Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau gave Gibson two 80-grade tools — and two trumps one.
Gibson’s path to baseball was a surprise. An All-American wide receiver at Michigan State, he played baseball there only in his junior season — initially, as a way to get more leverage when he entered the NFL draft — but he was so good he became the top prospect in the draft. The Braves wanted him with the first pick and scouting director Paul Snyder compared Gibson to Mickey Mantle for his power-speed combo. They ultimately passed, not sure of his future intentions. The Mariners nearly took him with the sixth pick and had reportedly been assured Gibson would sign, but a financially strapped ownership group vetoed the move and Gibson fell to the Tigers.
Gibson never hit 30 home runs in a season, but from 1984 to 1988 averaged 27 homers and 30 steals per year — and smacked two of the most memorable home runs in World Series history.
Honorable mention: Alan Trammell, fielding (second round, 1976); Matt Anderson, fastball (first pick, 1997); Eric Munson, power (third pick, 1999); Verlander, fastball (second pick, 2004); Andrew Miller, fastball (sixth pick, 2006); Rick Porcello, command (27th pick, 2007); Spencer Torkelson, power (first pick, 2020)
One who didn’t make it: It’s not quite fair to say Anderson didn’t make it since he spent six seasons with the Tigers before getting injured, but drafting a reliever with the first pick was kind of odd — even if Anderson did possess a 100-mph fastball. He had a 4.89 ERA with the Tigers and spent just one season as the team’s closer.
Houston Astros: J.R. Richard (second pick, 1969)
The tool: Fastball
A 6-foot-8 right-hander from Louisiana, Richard certainly was one of the hardest throwers in major league history — and one of the most intimidating. He didn’t allow an earned run his senior year in high school. “I went over to work him out one time, and got a little ol’ kid to catch him,” Mel Didier, Expos scouting director in 1969, would recall. “Every time he’d catch one of J.R.’s pitches, it would knock him back about a foot, it seemed. It was unbelievable the arm that guy had.”
Richard struck out 15 in his major league debut in 1971, although it would take him several years before he found consistent control. He fanned 300 batters in both 1978 and 1979, but a stroke ended his career in 1980, right when he had become perhaps the best starter in the game.
Honorable mention: Wayne Twitchell, fastball (third pick, 1966); John Mayberry, power (sixth pick, 1967); Floyd Bannister, fastball (first pick, 1976); Darryl Kile, curveball (30th round, 1987); Kenny Lofton, speed (17th round, 1988); Billy Wagner, fastball (12th pick, 1993); Lance Berkman, hit (16th pick, 1997); Alex Bregman, hit (second pick, 2015)
One who didn’t make it: Willie Ansley (sixth pick, 1988), a Texas high school outfielder, drew Bo Jackson comparisons, and hit .295 with 59 stolen bases his first year as a pro. His bat stalled in Double-A, however, then back and shoulder injuries hampered his development. At least the Astros plucked two other outfielders in that draft who panned out: Lofton and Luis Gonzalez.
The tool: Power, speed
I really, really wanted to use Willie Wilson here with his blazing speed that was a sight to behold in the late ’70s and early ’80s, or even Bret Saberhagen, who fell to the 19th round in the 1982 draft because he had missed most of his senior season with a sore arm. He was in the majors two years later and then won Game 7 of the 1985 World Series with his blazing fastball and pinpoint control. But how can Bo be denied?
Royals scout Kenny Gonzales gave Jackson 80 grades for his power and speed and 70 for his arm, so pick your tool. Nobody believed Jackson would spurn the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had picked him first overall in the NFL draft, but Gonzalez knew Jackson was reluctant to sign with the Bucs and willing to play baseball.
The Royals signed him to a three-year, $1 million deal and despite limited baseball experience, he was in the majors that September. His first career home run was a 475-foot blast — still the longest homer ever hit at Kauffman Stadium.
Honorable mention: George Brett, hit (second round, 1971); Wilson, speed (18th pick, 1974); Saberhagen, fastball (19th round, 1982); Tom Gordon, curveball (sixth round, 1986); Zack Greinke, command (sixth pick, 2002); Alex Gordon, hit (second pick, 2005); Bobby Witt Jr., fielding (second pick, 2019)
One who didn’t make it: Texas prep right-hander Colt Griffin (ninth pick, 2001) became the first documented high school pitcher to throw 100 mph and Kansas City excitedly nabbed him despite control problems — Royals general manager Allard Baird believed Griffin could develop into another Nolan Ryan. Griffin never did fix his wildness, however, and he retired following shoulder surgery in 2005.
The tool: Speed
There are a few options here. Troy Glaus hit 34 home runs for UCLA his draft year before reaching the majors the following season. A young Frank Tanana outpitched Nolan Ryan for a couple of seasons in the mid-’70s and threw almost as hard as Ryan before getting injured. Jered Weaver may have been the top talent in the 2004 draft, but fell to the Angels over his asking price. But let’s go with Trout, whose 80-grade speed (and makeup) pushed him into the late first round in 2009. What the Angels didn’t know — what nobody knew then — is that his power and plate discipline would develop into 80-grade tools as well and help turn him into one of the greatest players of all time.
Honorable mention: Lloyd Allen, fastball (12th pick, 1968); Tanana, fastball (13th pick, 1971); Brian Anderson, command (third pick, 1993); Darin Erstad, fielding (first pick, 1995); Glaus, power (third pick, 1997); Weaver, command (12th pick, 2004); Sam Bachman, fastball (ninth pick, 2021)
One who didn’t make it: Catcher Danny Goodwin (first pick, 1975) was the only player twice selected first overall — by the White Sox out of high school in 1971 and then four years later by the Angels out of Southern University. His powerful throwing arm was his best tool and scouts loved his power potential. But he hurt his shoulder immediately after getting drafted and had to give up catching. He hit .313/.409/.517 in over 3,000 minor league at-bats, but received just 700 plate appearances in the majors.
The tool: Fastball
After leading Eastern Michigan to second place in the 1976 College World Series, Welch projected as the top college pitcher in the 1977 draft, but developed a sore elbow, pitched sparingly as a junior and didn’t win a game. Dodgers scout Ben Wade saw Welch throw on the sidelines and L.A. took him late in the first round. A year later, Welch was in the majors and famously struck out Reggie Jackson to close out Game 2 in one of the most epic battles in World Series history, Welch firing one 100 mph fastball after another (although Reggie got his revenge with a two-run homer off Welch in Game 6). Welch, who underwent treatment for alcohol abuse early in his career, won 211 games and the 1990 Cy Young Award while with the A’s.
Honorable mention: Bobby Valentine, speed (fifth pick, 1968); Tom Goodwin, speed (22nd pick, 1989); Darren Dreifort, fastball (second pick, 1993); Paul Konerko, hit (13th pick, 1994); Clayton Kershaw, fastball/curveball (seventh pick, 2006); Walker Buehler, fastball (24th pick, 2015)
One who didn’t make it: Bill Bene (fifth pick, 1988) was one of the biggest rolls of the dice in draft history. He owned a blistering fastball, but in his career at Cal State Los Angeles he had a 5.62 ERA and 133 walks in 147 innings. He never did learn to throw strikes, walking 489 batters in 445 innings in the minors and never reaching the big leagues.
Miami Marlins: Josh Beckett (second pick, 1999)
You can certainly make a case for Giancarlo Stanton’s power (he fell to the second round in part because teams thought he would play football in college) or Jose Fernandez, who proved advanced enough to dominate in the majors at age 20, or even Tyler Kolek’s triple-digit heater. Beckett, however, remains perhaps the most acclaimed high school pitcher of the draft era and nearly became the only right-handed high school pitcher drafted first overall (the Devil Rays instead selected Josh Hamilton).
He owned a fastball that hit 99 mph, a sharp curveball, a perfect pitcher’s body and the confidence of a 10-year major league vet. “I think I could go out there and compete right now because I’m a competitor,” Beckett said at the time. “You’ve got to think you’re the best. I bet if you ask Roger Clemens if he think he’s best, he’d say yes.” He was probably right. Beckett was in the majors two years later and four years later led the Marlins to the 2003 World Series title with a shutout of the Yankees in Game 6.
Honorable mention: Charles Johnson, defense (28th pick, 1992); Mark Kotsay, arm/fielding (ninth pick, 1996); Adrian Gonzalez, hit (first pick, 2000); Stanton, power (second round, 2007); Jose Fernandez, slider (14th pick, 2011); Kolek, fastball (second pick, 2014)
One who didn’t make it: Josh Booty was a power-hitting shortstop and a quarterback viewed as equal to Peyton Manning in the 1994 recruiting class. The Marlins convinced him to sign over attending LSU with a $1.6 million bonus. The power was real. The only problem was Booty couldn’t hit (.198 in five minor league seasons). Or field. He received a cup of coffee in the majors, but the Marlins eventually released him and he finally went to LSU, then spent three seasons in the NFL as a backup quarterback.
Milwaukee Brewers: Gary Sheffield (sixth pick, 1986)
We could go in numerous directions here. Robin Yount so impressed the big league coaching staff with his defense in spring training the year after getting drafted that the Brewers made him their starting shortstop at age 18. Paul Molitor was also in the majors less than a year after getting drafted. Rickie Weeks used his ultra-quick hands to hit .500 at Southern his draft season and the Brewers signed him to a major league contract.
As quick as Weeks’ bat was, however, Sheffield’s might have been even quicker. He went to the Pioneer League as a 17-year-old and hit .365. He drove in 103 runs in Class A in 1988 and the Brewers called him up in 1989 at age 19. It didn’t work out in Milwaukee, but he went on to a Hall of Fame-caliber career with 509 home runs and a .292 career average.
Honorable mention: Darrell Porter, defense (fourth pick, 1970); Yount, fielding (third pick, 1973); Molitor, hit (third pick, 1977); Ben Sheets, curveball (10th pick, 1999); Weeks, hit (second pick, 2003); Ryan Braun, hit (fifth pick, 2005); Prince Fielder, power (seventh pick, 2007)
One who didn’t make it: The Brewers made Antone Williamson (fourth pick, 1994) the first college position player selected in ’94 as GM Sal Bando loved his hit tool after Williamson hit .371 at Arizona State. But he couldn’t run and struggled at third base — and didn’t hit enough either.
The tool: Speed/arm/fielding
This isn’t a slam dunk as Buxton is competing with a couple of No. 1 overall picks in Joe Mauer and Royce Lewis — not to mention Kirby Puckett and Bert Blyleven, who possessed such a dominating curveball that he was in the majors at 19 and pitched 278 innings at age 20.
Buxton, however, was one of the most tooled-up players of the draft era, with Baseball America grading both his speed and arm at top-of-the-scale 80, with his fielding range in that ballpark as well. As we’ve seen with some of his Titanic blasts this season, he now shows 80-grade raw power as well. Buxton was the top talent in the 2012 draft, although the Astros went with Carlos Correa, a strategic move to save bonus money (which obviously worked for them).
Honorable mention: Blyleven, curveball (third round, 1969); Eddie Bane, curveball (11th pick, 1973); Puckett, hit (third pick, January phase, 1982); Willie Banks, fastball (third pick, 1987); David McCarty, hit (third pick, 1991); Torii Hunter, fielding (20th pick, 1993); Mauer, hit (first pick, 2001); Aaron Hicks, arm (14th pick, 2008); Royce Lewis, speed (first pick, 2017)
One who didn’t make it: McCarty looked like a can’t-miss prospect after hitting .420 with 24 home runs at Stanford, but neither the hit tool nor the power played at the major league level, as he hit .242 over parts of 11 seasons.
New York Mets: Nolan Ryan (12th round, 1965)
How did the pitcher with the most famous fastball in the history of the game fall to the 12th round? Maybe he didn’t throw that hard in high school? Nope. Mets scout Red Murff wrote this note to himself the first time he saw Ryan pitch: “This skinny high school junior HAS THE BEST ARM I’VE EVER SEEN IN MY LIFE. This kid Ryan throws much harder than Jim Maloney of the Cincinnati Reds or Turk Farrell of the Houston Colt .45s.”
Actually, Murff was wrong — Ryan was still a high school sophomore when he wrote that. As a senior, a blister affected Ryan’s performance and at times his velocity dropped. Some teams backed off, although Murff always wondered why no other teams were on to Ryan like he was — after all, Ryan did pitch in 27 of Alvin High’s 32 games, going 19-3. “I didn’t know what I had — no one did,” Ryan would say. “Only Red Murff.”
Murff finally convinced Mets general manager Bing Devine to come down to Texas to see Ryan. Except Alvin coach Jim Watson, upset about two losses in the middle of a nine-game district tournament, ran his team hard in practice one day. He saw Murff at a JV game that evening.
“He asked how Nolan was doing and I said the last time I saw him he was puking his guts out,” Watson would say. Murff looked like he, too, was going to throw up. “Good God!” Murff said, “Bing Devine’s coming tomorrow to watch y’all play Channel View!”
As Watson told it, Channel View knocked out Ryan in the third inning — and Devine left. Murff chased down Devine in the parking lot, screaming, “He’ll get back on it! I’ll talk to the coach!” Devine told his scout he’d find a pitcher somewhere else. And that’s how Nolan Ryan fell to the 12th round.
Honorable mention: Tom Seaver, fastball (won rights in lottery, 1966); Tim Leary, fastball (second pick, 1979); Darryl Strawberry, power (first pick, 1980); Dwight Gooden, fastball (fifth pick, 1982); Gregg Jefferies, hit (20th pick, 1985); Paul Wilson, fastball (first pick, 1994)
One who didn’t make it: Power-hitting high school catcher Steve Chilcott (first pick, 1966) is one of the more famous draft busts in history, mostly because the Mets took him one pick before the A’s selected Reggie Jackson. Injuries were a contributing factor, but even in his first season in rookie ball he hit .177 with just one home run in 39 games.
New York Yankees: Brien Taylor (first pick, 1991)
The tool: Fastball
“Bill Livesey is one of the greatest scouts of our era,” Brian Cashman told ESPN.com in 2014. “He told me the best amateur position player he ever saw was [Alex Rodriguez]. The best amateur pitcher he ever saw was Brien Taylor.” The exaggeration of a scout? Listen to Gene Michael, the Yankees’ GM in 1991: “His arm slot was exactly like Randy Johnson’s, not sidearm but very low three-quarters. They had the same exact arm slot, only Brien Taylor threw a little bit harder.”
Scott Boras ended up representing Taylor: “Mike Kelly was at Arizona State. I watched him play. It was not even close if you were going to go out and pick the best player in the draft, Brien Taylor was so far above anyone else.”
The Yankees made Taylor just the second high school pitcher drafted first overall (a total that is still just at three).
Honorable mention: Thurman Munson, defense (fourth pick, 1968); Tim Belcher, fastball (first pick, January phase, 1984); Deion Sanders, speed (30th round, 1988); Derek Jeter, hit (sixth pick, 1992)
One who didn’t make it: Taylor was a little wild in the minors, but still on his way to the majors when he injured his shoulder in a bar fight after the 1993 season. He never recovered. Would he have been a star? Perhaps, but his 150/102 strikeout-to-walk ratio in Double-A indicated he still had a lot of improvement to go.
The tool: Power
McGwire entered USC as a pitcher, moved full-time to hitting as a sophomore and mashed 32 home runs as a junior, also starring that summer on the U.S. Olympic team. Some scouts weren’t sure he was worthy of a top-10 selection — “For all his power, some say he can’t handle the inside pitch,” wrote Baseball America — but the Mets were all set to take McGwire with the first pick. During a call the night before the draft, however, the two sides were unable to agree on a deal and the Mets shifted to high school outfielder Shawn Abner. Big mistake. McGwire would set the rookie record with 49 home runs in 1987 (since broken by Aaron Judge and then Pete Alonso) and, of course, go on to a record-breaking, controversial career.
Honorable mention: Reggie Jackson, power (second pick, 1966); Vida Blue, fastball (second round, 1967); Rickey Henderson, speed (fourth round, 1976); Todd Van Poppel, fastball (14th pick, 1990); Barry Zito, curveball (ninth pick, 1999); Sonny Gray, curveball (18th pick, 2011)
One who didn’t make it: Mike King (fourth pick, 1980) dominated at Division II Morningside College with seven no-hitters, but struggled to throw strikes as a pro. The A’s quickly traded him to the Cubs in 1991 and he never reached the majors.
The tool: Hit
One of the greatest hitters in NCAA history, “Pat the Bat” hit .489 as a freshman at the University of Miami, .409 as a sophomore and .432 as a junior. Burrell, however, wasn’t the consensus top player in the 1998 draft. That was J.D. Drew — except the Phillies had drafted him second overall the year before and failed to sign him.
They weren’t about to go down that route again, so they shifted to Burrell, even if his ultimate defensive position was a concern. Burrell hit .320 with 29 home runs in the minors in 1999, and became Baseball America’s No. 2 overall prospect entering 1990. He had an excellent 12-year career, including hitting 292 home runs — but never hit .300.
Honorable mention: Greg Luzinski, power (11th pick, 1968); Larry Christenson, fastball (third pick, 1972); Lonnie Smith, speed (fourth pick, 1974); Jeff Jackson, speed (fourth pick, 1989); Cole Hamels, command (17th pick, 2002)
One who didn’t make it: Jackson was one of the great popup picks in draft history. Not even listed as one of the top 100 Chicago-area players in a local newspaper entering the spring, Jackson hit .504 at Simeon High with 16 home runs and 54 stolen bases, drawing comps to Eric Davis for his power/speed combo. He struggled to hit in pro ball, however, finishing with a .224 average in the minors.
The tool: Fastball
The Pirates have picked first five times — tied with the Astros and Padres for most No. 1 selections — but underwhelmed with three of those picks. Jeff King and Kris Benson were solid major leaguers, but hardly spectacular, while Bryan Bullington would win just one game in the majors. We’ll see how 2021 pick Henry Davis works out.
Cole didn’t dominate his junior season at UCLA, going 6-8 with a 3.31 ERA while allowing almost a hit per inning, but his upper-90s heater earned an 80 grade and made him the premium talent in his class. He won 19 games for the Pirates in 2015, but his best seasons have come after the Pirates traded him away.
Honorable mention: Dave Parker, arm/power (14th round, 1970); Barry Bonds, power/speed (sixth pick, 1985); Mark Merchant, speed/arm (second pick, 1987); Benson, fastball (first pick, 1996); Pedro Alvarez, power (second pick, 2008); Jameson Taillon, fastball (second pick, 2010)
One who didn’t make it: It’s the Pirates, how much time do you have? We’ll give Bullington a pass since he battled injuries, but one of the weirdest selections in draft history was John Van Benschoten (eighth pick, 2001). His best tool was his power, after leading the NCAA with 31 home runs at Kent State. The Pirates made him a pitcher.
The Cardinals have never drafted first overall, have had just one top-three pick (Braden Looper, third in 1996) and just three top-five picks (a low matched by only the Yankees). So they don’t have as many obvious candidates for the best tool as other franchises. We’re going with Drew over Rick Ankiel’s fastball — Ankiel was touching 97 mph in high school — although Drew was more about his wide range of skills than one single dominant tool.
Drew had gone second overall to the Phillies in 1997 after posting the first 30-30 season in NCAA history at Florida State, but failed to reach a deal and reentered the draft in 1998, where he slid to fifth due to his bonus demands. After hitting five home runs in 34 at-bats with St. Louis that September, he was Baseball America’s top overall prospect entering 1999, with his power cited as his preeminent tool. While viewed by many as a disappointment, that’s hardly the case, as he finished an underrated career with 44.9 WAR.
Honorable mention: Ted Simmons, hit (10th pick, 1967); Andy Van Slyke, fielding (sixth pick, 1979); Vince Coleman, speed (10th round, 1982); Dmitri Young, hit (fourth pick, 1991); Ankiel, fastball (second round, 1997)
One who didn’t make it: Paul Coleman (sixth overall, 1989) was a high school slugger from a small town in East Texas with “tape-measure power” as Baseball America put it. Coleman also had speed and a plus arm. “We’ve been looking for a power hitter and we think Coleman is the type of guy who is going to come through,” said Cardinals scouting director Fred McAlister. “He’s built along the lines of Bo Jackson.” Alas, Coleman hit just .225 with 19 home runs in five seasons in the Cardinals’ system.
San Diego Padres: Ozzie Smith (fourth round, 1977)
The tool: Fielding
No team has more candidates here than the Padres — no surprise given they’re tied for the most No. 1 overall picks (five), have the most total top-three picks (12) and the most top-five picks (17). But the best tool they’ve ever drafted? We’re going with the Wizard of Oz, arguably the greatest fielder in major league history.
Drafted out of Division II Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Smith signed with the Padres for just $5,000. He spent his draft year at short-season Walla Walla, but so impressed Padres manager Roger Craig in spring training of 1978 that he opened the season as the starting shortstop. “Smith is the best young infielder I’ve ever seen,” Craig said.
In typical Padres fashion, however, they eventually grew frustrated with his lack of offense and traded him after four seasons for Garry Templeton.
Honorable mention: Mike Ivie, power (first pick, 1970); Jay Franklin, fastball (second pick, 1971); Dave Winfield, arm (fourth pick, 1973); Mike Lentz, fastball (second pick, 1975); Kevin McReynolds, hit (sixth pick, 1981); Tony Gwynn, hit (third round, 1981); Andy Benes, fastball (first pick, 1988); Ben Davis, arm (second pick, 1995); Sean Burroughs, hit (ninth pick, 1998); Trea Turner, speed (14th pick, 2014); MacKenzie Gore, command (third pick, 2017); C.J. Abrams, speed (sixth pick, 2019)
One who didn’t make it: So many choices … Donavan Tate (third pick, 2009) had enormous raw power and five-tool potential but hit just 10 home runs in a minor league career that never advanced past Class A.
San Francisco Giants: Dave Kingman (first pick, June secondary phase, 1970)
Because Kingman went in the old June secondary phase of the draft (for players who had previously been drafted) instead of the regular phase, it’s often forgotten that he was regarded as one of the best prospects in draft history.
A two-way player at USC, Kingman was 6-foot-6 with prodigious strength and raw power. After going 11-4 with a 1.31 ERA at USC in 1969, Kingman took off as a hitter that summer in the Alaska Summer League, and despite breaking his arm and tearing knee ligaments his junior season at USC, drew comparisons to, yes, Babe Ruth. His $80,000 bonus from the Giants exceeded the $75,000 that Mike Ivie received from the Padres as the No. 1 pick in the main phase of the June draft.
While Kingman would hit 442 home runs in the majors, he proved to be a not-very-valuable one-dimensional slugger — a terrible defender who hit .236 with a low on-base percentage.
Honorable mention: John D’Acquisto, fastball (17th pick, 1970); Will Clark, hit (second pick, 1985); Matt Williams, power (third pick, 1986); Tim Lincecum, fastball (10th pick, 2006); Buster Posey, hit (fifth pick, 2008)
One who didn’t make it: Calvin Murray (sixth pick, 1992) — Kyler’s uncle — had 80-grade speed and center-field range and the Giants gave him the second-biggest bonus of that draft coming out of the University of Texas. But he struggled at the plate and hit just .231 in a brief major league career.
Seattle Mariners: Alex Rodriguez (first pick, 1993)
The tool: Hit
When Baseball America named its list of the 50 greatest draft prospects of the Baseball America era a couple of years ago, Rodriguez was No. 1. And with good reason, as Rodriguez possessed five elite tools coming out of Westminster Christian High School in Miami. “Rodriguez has no weaknesses,” BA wrote at the time. “He has power, excellent shortstop actions and is poised beyond his 17 years. He’s this draft’s potential franchise talent.” Indeed, he first reached the majors at age 18.
So which tool was best? I’ve selected his hit tool. In his first full season in the majors in 1996 — his age-20 season — A-Rod hit a remarkable .358 to win the batting title. That’s enough to give him the very slight edge over Ken Griffey Jr.’s equally dazzling array of tools.
Honorable mention: Griffey Jr., power/hit/field (first pick, 1987); Roger Salkeld, fastball (third pick, 1989); Ryan Anderson, fastball (19th pick, 1997); Jeff Clement, power (third pick, 2005); Dustin Ackley, hit (second pick, 2009); George Kirby, command (20th pick, 2019)
One who didn’t make it: Ackley was regarded as one of the greatest college hitters of all time, batting over .400 all three of his seasons at North Carolina, and the Mariners viewed him as a happy consolation prize to Stephen Strasburg in the 2009 draft. He hit .273 as a rookie, but that was his best season as he finished with a .241 career mark in the majors.
Tampa Bay Rays: Delmon Young (first pick, 2003)
The tool: Power
While Josh Hamilton and David Price may have been better all-around prospects, Young wasn’t far behind when he was drafted out of Camarillo (Calif.) High School, with his power, arm and hit tools all grading high. “He routinely puts on a show in batting practice and carries his power into games, often hitting balls 450 feet or better. He has quick hands and the ball jumps off his bat,” Baseball America wrote.
Young began his pro career in 2004 and became the game’s top prospect after hitting .322 with 25 home runs at Class A and then hit .315 with 26 home runs at Double-A in 2005. But his game never took off in the majors as he topped out at 21 home runs and a poor approach and defense cut into his overall value.
Honorable mention: Hamilton, power (first pick, 1999); Carl Crawford, speed (second round, 1999); B.J. Upton, arm/speed (second pick, 2002); Evan Longoria, hit (third pick, 2006); Price, slider (first pick, 2007)
One who didn’t make it: Some scouts called Matt White (seventh pick, 1996), a 6-foot-5 right-hander from Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, the best high school pitcher they had ever seen, with a 96 mph fastball and excellent changeup and slider. The Giants drafted him, but White — along with three other first-round picks — was declared a free agent due to a loophole in the draft rules about not being offered a contract within 15 days. The then-Devil Rays, who didn’t even begin play until 1998, signed him to a record $10.2 million contract. White never dominated in the minors, then injured his shoulder trying out for the 2000 Olympic team and never reached the majors.
Texas Rangers: Bobby Witt Sr. (third pick, 1985)
The tool: Fastball
This is a toss-up between two flamethrowers: David Clyde, drafted first overall in 1973 out of a Houston high school, and Witt, drafted out of Oklahoma. Both were compared to Nolan Ryan for their explosive fastballs. And since Clyde was a lefty, he was also called the next Sandy Koufax. “At 18, he was as good as any kid I ever saw,” said Whitey Herzog, the Rangers manager in 1973 — when Clyde went straight from Westchester High School to the big leagues. Witt probably threw even harder, and after a 17-strikeout performance against Texas, one Major League Scouting Bureau scout reportedly gave him an unprecedented overall grade of 80.
Honorable mention: Joe Coleman, fastball (third pick, 1965); Jeff Burroughs, hit (first pick, 1969); Pete Broberg, fastball (first pick, June secondary phase, 1971); Clyde, fastball/curveball (first pick, 1973); Ron Darling, fastball (ninth pick, 1981); Mark Teixeira, hit (fifth pick, 2001); Jack Leiter, fastball (second pick 2021)
One who didn’t make it: The Rangers rushed Clyde to the majors as a publicity stunt (his first start was delayed to allow the sellout crowd to fill in the stadium) and he was supposed to make just two starts in the majors, but the club kept him in the big leagues all of 1973 and 1974 as he went 7-17 with a 4.66 ERA. Then he hurt his shoulder and would win just 18 games in the majors.
It wasn’t a lack of tools that led to Olerud dropping to the third round. As a sophomore at Washington State in 1988, he hit .464 with 23 home runs and went 15-0 with a 2.64 ERA as a pitcher. During offseason workouts, however, he suffered a near-fatal brain aneurysm and, still recovering his strength, hit .359 in 78 at-bats as a junior.
He told teams he intended to go back to school for his senior season, but the Blue Jays took a flier and eventually signed him to a record $575,000 bonus. He debuted in Toronto that September and never spent a day in the minors (except for a rehab assignment his final season). He had seasons in which he hit .363 and .354 and finished with a .295 career average.
Honorable mention: Augie Schmidt, hit (second pick, 1982); Shawn Green, hit (16th pick, 1991); Billy Koch, fastball (fourth pick, 1996); Vernon Wells, power (fifth pick, 1997); Alex Rios, arm (19th pick, 1999); Nate Pearson, fastball (28th pick, 2017)
One who didn’t make it: Catcher Jay Schroeder (third pick, 1979) was a two-sport star in high school, with the powerful throwing arm you might expect from one of the nation’s top quarterback recruits. The Jays, however, moved him to the outfield while also allowing him to play football at UCLA. After hitting .213 in four minor league seasons, Schroeder turned to the NFL and had a Pro Bowl season with the Redskins in 1986.
Washington Nationals/Montreal Expos: Stephen Strasburg (first pick, 2009)
The tool: Fastball
Bryce Harper was the most hyped prospect in draft history — but the year before, the same was said about Strasburg. Harper’s power exploits as a teenager were certainly legendary, if perhaps slightly embellished, and he dominated junior college as a 17-year-old after skipping out on his final two years of high school. Baseball America named Harper the second-best prospect during its coverage era, one spot ahead of Strasburg, but I give the edge to Strasburg.
He routinely hit 100 mph and as high as 102, which felt like a miracle back then, but he also did it with precision. His numbers at San Diego State were ridiculous: 13-1, 1.32 ERA, 195 strikeouts and 19 walks in 109 innings. “The only pitcher I would compare him to is Roger Clemens in his heyday,” said a scout at the time. “This is something you have to see to believe.”
Honorable mention: Andre Dawson, fielding (11th round, 1975); Bill Gullickson, fastball (second pick, 1977); Tim Raines, speed (fifth round, 1977); Terry Francona, hit (22nd pick, 1980); Pete Incaviglia, power (eighth pick, 1985); Randy Johnson, fastball (second round, 1985); Harper, power (first pick, 2010); Anthony Rendon, hit (sixth pick, 2011); Lucas Giolito, fastball (16th pick, 2012)
One who didn’t make it: The Expos drafted high school catcher Bobby Goodman with the fifth pick in 1972 — and said they would have taken him with the first pick. Expos scout Bobby Mattick, who had signed Hall of Famers Frank Robinson and Eddie Mathews, believed Goodman was a better hitter at the same age. Goodman hit just .241 in rookie ball, then suffered several injuries, including a concussion and hurting his shoulder on the same play when he was hit in the head with a throw running to first base (he nearly died in the hospital when he stopped breathing during his shoulder surgery). Luckily for the Expos, they drafted another catcher in the third round that year: Gary Carter.