The promise of a first-round pick is always enticing, but the reality is more harsh. Many first-rounders go on to become All-Stars, but roughly one-third of them won’t reach the big leagues, and a similar number will have insignificant careers at that level.
This has been true since the first Draft in 1965. The first No. 1 overall pick, Rick Monday, spent 19 years in the Majors. The player chosen right behind him, Les Rohr, spent 24 innings there. The fourth choice, Alex Barrett, topped out in Triple-A.
And it’s still true today, even as scouting has become more sophisticated. Trying to project how high schoolers and collegians will perform against much more advanced competition, while making the transition from metal to wood bats, is extremely difficult.
The Angels stole Mike Trout with the 25th overall choice in 2009, then made Chevy Clarke a first-rounder the following June. The White Sox saw something in Chris Sale that other teams didn’t when they took him at No. 13 in ’10, then wasted the exact same pick on Courtney Hawkins three years later. The Astros built a World Series champion by using early first-rounders on George Springer (2011), Carlos Correa (’12) and Alex Bregman (’15), but they also blew a No. 1 overall pick on Mark Appel (2013), one of three players in Draft history selected that high to finish his career without advancing to the Majors.
After presenting each club’s best first-rounder from the past decade, we offer our choices for their worst.
American League East
D.J. Davis, OF, Blue Jays, 2012 (No. 17 overall)
Five picks before they selected Marcus Stroman, the Blue Jays took Davis, a raw Mississippi prep with top-of-the-scale speed and five-tool potential. But those tools have never translated into consistent production for the 24-year-old outfielder, who’s produced a .232/.314/.306 line with five home runs in 231 games at Class A Advanced Dunedin over the past three seasons.
Matt Hobgood, RHP, Orioles, 2009 (No. 5 overall)
The 2009 Gatorade National Baseball Player of the Year pitched in the mid 90s as a high school senior, but struggled to hold 90 mph early in his career and was consistently overweight. He underwent shoulder surgery in 2012, was moved the bullpen the following year and required shoulder surgery again in ’15. He elected free agency after the season.
Josh Sale, OF, Rays, 2010 (No. 17 overall)
Sale showed five-tool potential as a Washington prep, but repeated poor choices resulted in an abbreviated pro career. He received a 50-game suspension after testing positive for stimulants during the 2012 season, a team-imposed suspension for an off-the-field incident the next year and then a second drug violation in late ’14.
Kolbrin Vitek, 3B, Red Sox, 2010 (No. 20 overall)
Considered one of the best hitters in the 2010 Draft, Vitek was a two-way star at Ball State, and some scouts projected him moving to the outfield and becoming a more physical version of A.J. Pollock. But he never got his bat going in pro ball, posting a .258/.326/.356 line in four seasons while topping out in Double-A.
Ty Hensley, RHP, Yankees, 2012 (No. 30 overall)
Hensley impressed scouts with his fastball and curveball as an Oklahoma high schooler, but the Yankees discovered some abnormalities in his shoulder during his post-Draft physical. Rarely healthy, he pitched only 42 2/3 innings in parts of three seasons and endured two Tommy John surgeries.
Brady Aiken, LHP, Indians, 2015 (No. 17 overall)
Aiken and the Astros couldn’t come to terms after they selected him No. 1 overall in the 2014 Draft, and he underwent Tommy John surgery the following spring while pitching for IMG Academy’s (Fla.) college team. The Indians still took a flier on him in the mid-first round that June, but Aiken’s career trajectory as a pro has been the opposite of what it appeared it would be during his senior year.
Ashe Russell, RHP, Royals, 2015 (No. 21 overall)
MLB Pipeline’s top-rated high school pitcher in the 2015 Draft, Russell suddenly lost the ability to find the strike zone after his pro debut. He pitched only two innings in 2016, and hasn’t appeared in a pro game since, walking away from the Royals in June 2017.
Jonathon Crawford, RHP, Tigers, 2013 (No. 20 overall)
The University of Florida product had a solid first full season in the Midwest League with the Tigers, then was dealt to the Reds in December 2014. An inability to find the strike zone (5.2 walks per nine innings in his career) and injuries have limited Crawford to 158 innings in three years since the trade, and he didn’t pitch at all in ’18.
Levi Michael, SS/2B, Twins, 2011 (No. 17 overall)
The University of North Carolina product made it to Double-A in his second full season, but stalled after that and had a .584 OPS in the Southern League in 2016, with injuries hampering his development. He reached Triple-A briefly in ’17, but the Twins released him before the 2018 season began. He had a solid season, mostly in Double-A, with the Mets in ’18.
Courtney Hawkins, OF, White Sox, 2012 (No. 13 overall)
Hawkins electrified White Sox fans when he did a backflip during the 2012 Draft broadcast and then turned in a scintillating pro debut that included two homers in the Class A Advanced Carolina League playoffs. The Texas high school product’s inability to make consistent contact doomed him afterward, and after he got released this past April, he spent the summer in the independent Atlantic League before hooking up with the Reds.
Michael Choice, OF, A’s, 2010 (No. 10 overall)
Choice slugged his way through the Minors en route to a 2013 debut with Oakland, only to be dealt to the Rangers after the season. He hit .182 over 86 games in the Majors the following year and was traded to Cleveland late in the 2015 season after being designated for assignment. He split the ’17 season between Milwaukee and Baltimore’s system on Minor League deals and spent last year with Diablos Rojos del Mexico in the Mexican League.
Chevy Clarke, OF, Angels, 2010 (No. 30 overall)
Concerns about Clarke’s feel to hit and instincts for the game proved to be somewhat well-founded after the Angels took the Georgia prepster late in the 2010 first round. Clarke never made it past Class A Advanced and hit .217/.312/.346 combined in affiliated baseball. He’s still playing, seeing time in two different independent leagues in ’18.
Mark Appel, RHP, Astros, 2013 (No. 1 overall)
One of only three No. 1 overall picks to end his career without reaching the Majors, Appel decided to take a break from baseball and the Phillies last spring. Signed for $6.35 million (a record for a college senior) by the Astros and shipped to Philadelphia in a deal for Ken Giles in December 2015, he never showed the dominant stuff he had at Stanford and went 24-18 with a 5.06 ERA in the Minors.
Danny Hultzen, LHP, Mariners, 2011 (No. 2 overall)
Hultzen was every bit worthy of the No. 2 overall pick, as at that time, the University of Virginia lefty had the look of a future front-end starter who could be fast-tracked to the Major Leagues. Unfortunately, surgery to repair a torn labrum and rotator cuff after the 2013 season derailed Hultzen’s career, and he required surgery again in ’15 before being designated for assignment.
Jake Skole, OF, Rangers, 2010 (No. 15 overall)
Considered a tough sign because he had a football scholarship from Georgia Tech, Skole boosted his stock with a late surge as a Georgia prepster and jumped into the middle of 2010’s first round. He struggled to hit once he reached Class A Advanced and produced a .227/.325/.330 line in seven pro seasons before departing to play college football as a defensive back at Georgia.
National League East
Braxton Davidson, OF/1B, Braves, 2014 (No. 32 overall)
Davidson came out of the North Carolina high school ranks in 2014 with the reputation of having a strong left-handed bat that would provide average and power. The power has been there, as he hit 20 homers in ’18, then added six more in the Arizona Fall League this fall, but he’s yet to get past Class A Advanced and struck out 213 times during the regular season.
Tyler Kolek, RHP, Marlins, 2014 (No. 2 overall)
Kolek received a $6 million bonus from Miami, even though he was the definition of a high-risk/high-reward prospect with his triple-digit fastball and physically mature frame. He showed some promise in 2015, logging 108 2/3 innings (25 starts) at Class A Greensboro, but Tommy John surgery wiped out his next season. He’s worked only 19 1/3 frames since the start of ’17. The Marlins opted to not add Kolek to their 40-man roster last month.
Gavin Cecchini, SS/2B, Mets, 2012 (No. 12 overall)
Cecchini has reached the big leagues, seeing time in New York in 2016 and ’17, and he has hit fairly well in the Minors. But he missed most of the 2018 season with a foot injury, missing opportunities to contribute in the big leagues. Once hoped to be an everyday middle infielder, a future as a utility type might be the best option.
Alex Meyer, RHP, Nationals, 2011 (No. 23 overall)
That Meyer, who netted Washington Denard Span in an offseason trade with the Twins and has compiled 95 1/3 Major League innings across three seasons, is the Nats’ representative in this category speaks to the organization’s success with its first-round picks. The 6-foot-9 righty pitched decently with the Angels in 2017, before right shoulder inflammation ended his season and wiped out his entire ’18 campaign, prompting the Halos to release him in November.
Cornelius Randolph, OF, Phillies, 2015 (No. 10 overall)
There’s still time for Randolph to put things together, as he is only 21 years old. But given that he was once thought to be one of the top prep bats in his Draft class, his inability to find consistency at the plate, even with a move to the outfield, has been troubling. He posted a .646 OPS in hitter-friendly Reading in 2018, and he has a .718 career OPS entering ’19.
Victor Roache, OF, Brewers, 2012 (No. 28 overall)
Milwaukee went heavy on right-handed power in the 2012 Draft, selecting Roache out of Georgia Southern one pick after it took prep catcher Clint Coulter. Roache’s power translated well early in his career — he hit 18 homers in each of his first three seasons — but he never could adjust to the Double-A level, where low batting averages and high strikeout rates led to him being traded to the Dodgers for cash in ’17.
Nick Plummer, OF, Cardinals, 2015 (No. 23 overall)
Plummer’s career was halted before it began as surgery to remove his right hamate bone and a second procedure on the same wrist forced him to miss his entire first full season of pro ball. He played in only 92 games in 2017, hitting .198, and while he was relatively healthy in ’18 (104 games), he managed only a .688 OPS. Only 22 years old, there is still time for him to turn things around.
Hayden Simpson, Cubs, 2010 (No. 16 overall)
The most shocking first-round choice of the last decade, Simpson starred at NCAA Division II Central Arkansas, but most clubs projected him as more of a fifth-rounder. Mononucleosis delayed his pro debut until 2011, and he lasted only three seasons before getting released in 2013 with a 5-17 record and 6.42 ERA in 56 Minor League games.
Tony Sanchez, C, Pirates, 2009 (No. 4 overall)
Sanchez reached the big leagues, and his high selection was part of a larger plan to be more aggressive in the Draft later on, but he’s still fallen short of expectations for a pick taken that early. He managed to get past a serious case of the yips, and he is still playing, spending time in Triple-A in both the Reds’ and Rangers’ systems in 2018.
Nick Howard, RHP, Reds, 2014 (No. 19 overall)
A two-way player at Virginia who closed his junior year, Howard was initially given the chance to start as a pro. He completely lost the strike zone early and didn’t pitch in 2017, following shoulder surgery. He reached Double-A in 2018, with a bit more success over 12 games, but he still has a 7.9 BB/9 rate in his career.
Stryker Trahan, C/OF, D-backs, 2012 (No. 26 overall)
Taken out of the Louisiana high school ranks, Trahan had the combination of power from the left side and a strong arm behind the plate. It never came together for him, even with moves to the outfield to help give him the chance to get his bat going. He never made it past Class A Advanced, was released by the D-backs in March 2017 and hasn’t played since.
Chris Anderson, RHP, Dodgers, 2013 (No. 18 overall)
The highest pick from Jacksonville University, Anderson excelled in his pro debut and led the Class A Advanced California League with 146 strikeouts in his first full season. But his stuff and command dropped off afterward, and he posted a 5.43 ERA from 2015-17 before his career ended when he got released by the Dodgers and Twins.
Phil Bickford, RHP, Giants, 2015 (No. 18 overall)
Bickford failed to sign with the Blue Jays as the No. 10 overall pick in 2013, then became a rare two-time first-rounder two years later out of the JC of Southern Nevada. Sent to the Brewers in mid-2016 as part of a deal for Will Smith, his fastball and slider regressed in pro ball and he missed time with a drug-of-abuse suspension in ’17. Still active, he logged a 4.67 ERA with 41 strikeouts in 34 2/3 innings as a Double-A reliever this year.
Donovan Tate, OF, Padres, 2009 (No. 3 overall)
Tate was an All-American in both baseball and football as a Georgia prep star and had planned to play both sports at North Carolina, before the Padres offered him a $6.7 million bonus as the No. 3 overall pick. Injuries plagued Tate early in his career, and he later received treatment for substance abuse before being released following the 2015 season, without having ever played above the Class A Advanced level.
Tim Wheeler, OF, Rockies, 2009 (No. 32 overall)
The only first-rounder in Sacramento State history, Wheeler finished second in the Minors with 33 homers in Double-A in 2011. But his power didn’t translate to Triple-A, where he totaled 28 homers in four subsequent seasons before his career ended.