The Yankees had three picks in the first round of last night's Rule 4 player draft thanks to the compensation they received for the free agent departures of Nick Swisher and Rafael Soriano. The lowest of those three picks was the 33rd overall. Only once before had the team had three picks that high in the draft. That was in 1978, when they had the 18th, 24th, and 26th picks. This was thus the cause of considerable excitement among Yankee fans. That excitement was likely misplaced.
The Yankees' picks were the 26th, 32nd, and 33rd overall. Earlier this week, over at SI.com, I did a study of the players who were drafted at each of the top 33 spots in the draft from 1990 to 2010. Here's what I found out about those spots:
The 63 players drafted in those three spots from 1990 to 2010 combined for exactly one All-Star appearance, that by Tigers pitcher Justin Thompson, who was an All-Star in 1997 and effectively finished as a major league pitcher by the end of 1999. Thompson was nonetheless the best player to come out of the number-32 pick in those 21 drafts. The best player to come out of the 26th pick over that span was another Tigers pitcher whose career was cut short by injuries, Jeremy Bonderman. Bonderman is currently staging a comeback with the Mariners. If that comeback lasts until next season, he'll be the first player drafted either 26th or 32nd since 1990 to spend any part of ten seasons in the major leagues. The best player picked 33rd overall since 1990 was Brad Wilkerson. The second-best was Jeff Mathis.
In 1978, the Yankees used those three first-round picks, all but the last higher than their top pick this year, to take Rex Hudler, outfielder Matt Winters, and righty Brian Ryder. Ryder never made the majors. Winters was released by the Yankees in 1985. He eventually made it to the Show with the Royals at the age of 29, played in 42 games, and finished his major league career below replacement level. Hudler spent 13 years in the majors as a utility man, but played just 29 games for the Yankees, never qualified for a batting title in any of those 13 seasons, and retired with a .296 on-base percentage.
The history here is that, while it's not impossible for a team to get lucky with a late first-round pick (see Marc Normandin's roundup of the best players ever taken at each slot), it is extremely unlikely.
That has been the Yankees' plight in the draft for most of the last two decades. Since landing Derek Jeter with the sixth-overall pick in 1993, the Yankees' have drafted in the top 20 just twice and, in large part as a result, their best first-round picks, per bWAR, have been Eric Milton (20, 1996), Ian Kennedy (21, 2006), Joba Chamberlain (41, 2006), and Phil Hughes (23, 2004). Fifth on that list is outfielder Brian Buchanan (24, 1994), who totaled 0.5 bWAR in his five-year career. The simple fact is that vast majority of the truly elite talent is off the board before the Yankees pick, and having a cluster of late first-round picks, while not a bad thing, is hardly the windfall it might have seemed.
Indeed, no one criticized the three picks the Yankees made on Thursday night, they drafted appropriately given their position, but the players they wound up with are hardly inspiring. Notre Dame third baseman Eric Jagielo, their pick at number 26, is slow, merely average in the field, and has a long swing. His upside would seem to be a league-average third baseman. Fresno State outfielder Aaron Judge, the number-32 pick, is a toolsy player, but one that has a similarly problematic swing. He's a huge guy with big power, but you're more likely to see that power in batting practice than in games and the overall description of him reminds me of the A's Michael Taylor, who hasn't panned out. Ian Clarkin, the number-33 pick, is a high school lefty with an excellent curveball, but he is committed to the University of San Diego. If he's really a front-of-the-rotation starter, he'll do what Mark Prior and Gerrit Cole did to the Yankees in 1998 and 2008, and this year's top pick Mark Appel did to the Pirates last year, go to college and reenter the draft when he can draw a higher pick and the larger associated bonus money.
A decade from now, when none of those three picks has produced a player meaningfully better than Hughes or Chamberlain has proven to be, don't blame the Yankees for blowing their supposedly big opportunity. It wasn't actually all that much of an opportunity to begin with.
More Yankees Draft Coverage from Pinstriped Bible: