How a lost season could mean big draft gains for Blue Jays

After months of struggling and hoping, the Jays finally waved… if not a white flag, at least a light-coloured one.

Trading away Joe Smith and Francisco Liriano isn’t blockbuster territory. But those deals solidified what we more or less already knew: “wait ‘til next year,” is now the mantra at 1 Blue Jays Way.

With the Jays just about out of it, we can safely turn our attention to next season. Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins has talked about a potential bounceback season, eyeing a veteran core that could contend again in 2018 with a few acquisitions and a bit of luck.

But there’s another happening next summer that could play a big role in the team’s long term future… the amateur draft.

Ben Nicholson-Smith and Arden Zwelling take fans inside the Blue Jays and around MLB with news, analysis and interviews.

For just the third time since 2006, the Jays look likely to land a top-10 pick. The previous two times Toronto landed top-10 picks in that time, they selected one pitcher who didn’t sign (Phil Bickford, 2013) and another who ended up as the linchpin prospect in the Troy Tulowitzki deal with the Rockies (Jeff Hoffman, 2014). Go back further in Jays history and you find a few top-10 hits (Lloyd Moseby, Vernon Wells) and even more misses (Garry Harris? Jay Schroeder? Augie Schmidt? Matt Stark?).

Still, fixating on one team’s results doesn’t offer a big enough sample size to properly assess the value of top-10 picks. Better to look at all such selections in amateur draft history. So let’s do that!

How big a difference does moving up one or two slots make for a team that could conceivably draft as fifth or sixth if the losing starts to intensify in the next few weeks?

For the answer to that question, let’s turn to that invaluable clearinghouse of baseball information, Baseball-Reference.com. Ace researcher (and first-ballot Hall of Fame name-holder) Hans Van Slooten fired up the Baseball-Reference database to see what each of the top-10 draft positions have netted since the amateur draft launched in 1965.

Here are the results:

Overall Pick MLBers Total Drafted WAR Avg WAR by MLBers Avg WAR by Total Drafted
1 46 52* 1011.86 22 19.5
2 45 53 650.57 14.5 12.3
3 42 53 552.1 13.1 10.4
4 41 53 564.92 13.8 10.7
5 30 53 397.5 13.3 7.5
6 38 53 546.06 14.4 10.3
7 37 53 353.06 9.5 6.7
8 34 52* 263.42 7.7 5.1
9 33 53 263.73 8 5
10 43 53 480.12 11.2 9.1

Danny Goodwin was drafted first overall 1 in 1971 and 1975. Wade Townsend was drafted eighth overall in 2004 and 2005.

Let’s start with the obvious: Nabbing the No. 1 overall pick is a huge difference maker. From Ken Griffey Jr. to Bryce Harper, the top draft pick has produced a number of Hall of Fame-calibre superstars. The gap between the No. 1 and two spots is much larger than the gulf between, say, two and 10. That said, no matter how cynical you are about the 2017 Jays, there’s no scenario in which they end up with the top pick in next year’s draft.

There’s reason to hope the Jays’ losing accelerates, though. If we assume that Toronto’s worst-case records lands the team in the No. 5 or 6 spot (the Phillies, Giants, White Sox, and Reds are near locks to end up lower in the standings, at the very least), then the calculus gets interesting.

The average No.6 overall pick to reach the majors produced 14.4 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) over the course of his career, compared to just 9.5 WAR for the No.7 pick, 7.7 for the eighth, and 8.0 for the ninth.

To put those numbers in more familiar terms, the No. 6 pick in MLB drafts have on average produced about what Kelly Gruber did during his Blue Jays career. By contrast, the No. 8 and No. 9 picks have delivered roughly the same amount of value that Brett Lawrie produced in his Blue Jays career.

We’re dealing with more than a half-century worth of draft picks, and a wide array of different results. If the Jays were to land at No. 7, 8, or 9, they could always look at Frank Thomas, Todd Helton, and Barry Zito as great success stories. Through an odd historical quirk, the 10th overall slot has actually been a better place to be than seven, eight, or nine, with Mark McGwire, Robin Ventura, Ted Simmons, and Tim Wallach among the notable success stories.

Still, tally up all the data, and this stuff could still matter when it comes to finding the next top prospect who could become a star in Toronto.

So the next time you pop over to Rogers Centre for a game, a dog and a beer, root for some entertaining baseball.

But if the home nine falls short that day, don’t get too bummed about it. In a transition year for the Jays, a few more losses from now ‘til the end of the season — and a potentially higher draft slot that could come with those losses — might not be the worst outcome in the world.