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Oakland A's 2011 Draft review: Sonny Gray saves an otherwise empty class

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016 MLB Draft begins on Thu., June 9, meaning it is just two weeks away. After a poor 2015 season, the Oakland A's will have the No. 6 overall pick, plus two more in the top 50 (Nos. 37 and 47), which means that the draft will be just a bit more interesting than it has been the last few summers.

Let's get warmed up by taking a look at some recent drafts. We'll look at who the A's picked, what kinds of trends they may have followed in their selections, and also how much success the players had in the pros. I'm going to start with 2011, and do a series of five posts going through 2015.

If you want to go a bit further back, there unfortunately isn't much to see from 2007-2010. The only real stars drafted in those years were Tyson Ross ('08) and Sean Doolittle ('07), and even then Doo flukishly made it as a pitcher after being drafted as a hitter. Toss in a few role players like Dan Straily, A.J. Griffin, and Ian Krol, and that's about it. And to the A's credit, they tried different approaches during those years -- in '07 they didn't take a high schooler until the 12th round, but that trend gradually reversed until they took four high schoolers within their first five picks in '10. Nothing worked.

There was one big thing those four drafts had in common, though. They each started with a safe, polished college player in the first round, none of whom ever panned out: James Simmons, Jemile Weeks, Grant Green, and Michael Choice. The last time they'd taken a high schooler in the first round, Jeremy Bonderman back in 2001, Billy Beane had reportedly put a chair through the wall in anger because he didn't like gambling a top pick on a risky teenager. The moratorium on first-round high schoolers remained in effect through 2011, though it eventually did end. During that decade they did pick a pair of high schoolers in the second round (Trevor Cahill and Yordy Cabrera).

2011 draft overview

And that brings us to 2011. The A's entered this draft on a bit of a cold streak from a few underwhelming classes, and with a history of taking college players in the first round. Let's see how they did! Thanks to Jeremy Koo for helping me put together the info in this table.

(Notes: The second-round pick was forfeited due to the signing of Grant Balfour. "Level" and "Team" refer to the player's 2016 status, and bWAR refers to his career total. Players in italics did not sign after being picked)

R# Player Pos C/HS Level Team bWAR Coulda had ...
1 Sonny Gray RHP C MLB Oak 9.7 Jackie Bradley Jr. (4.9)
2 No pick

3 B.A. Vollmuth 3B C - - - Tony Cingrani (2.5)
4 Bobby Crocker CF C - - - Nick Tropeano (1.3)
5 Beau Taylor C C AA Oak - Mookie Betts (10.2)
6 Dayton Alexander CF C - - - Marcus Semien (4.9)
7 Blake Treinen RHP C MLB Was 1.8 Ken Giles (3.5)
8 Colin O'Connell RHP C - - - Kyle Hendricks (4.8)
9 Jace Fry LHP HS A+ ChW - Travis Shaw (3.2)
10 Dusty Robinson OF C - - - Curt Casali (0.9)
11 Chris Lamb LHP C - - - Seth Maness (1.6)
12 Xavier Macklin OF C - - - Kelby Tomlinson (1.7)
13 Jacob Tanis 3B C - - - Cody Anderson (1.9)
14 Nick Rickles C C AAA Was - No one worth + bWAR
15 Thomas Walz RHP C - - - Jerad Eickhoff (2.7)
16 Tanner Peters RHP C - - - Chris Bassitt (1.6)
17 Sean Jamieson SS C AAA Ari - Ryan Rua (0.6)
18 Brent Powers LHP C - - - Nick Martinez (1.3)
19 Eric Potter LHP C - - - No one worth 0.2 bWAR
20 Kurt Wunderlich RHP C - - - Kevin Pillar (32nd round)

The draft went 50 rounds in 2011, and here are the only picks after No. 20 who signed with the A's and are still active in pro ball:

23rd round: RHP Cecil Tanner, who is now in High-A in the Marlins system at age 26.
25th round: OF Chad Oberacker, who was taken from the A's in the minor league Rule 5 draft last winter.
44th round: 2B Chris Bostick, who was sent to Texas in the Craig Gentry trade. He is now in Double-A for the Nationals and sports a 122 wRC+, and at age 23 he's actually a legit prospect.

Other odd A's names: 39th-rounder Shane Boras, son of Scott; 42nd-rounder Brett Geren, son of Bob; 50th-rounder Travis Pitcher, who was in fact a pitcher.

Best MLB players in the overall class: Jose Fernandez, Sonny Gray, Gerrit Cole, Mookie Betts, George Springer, Anthony Rendon, Francisco Lindor, Joe Panik, Jackie Bradley Jr.

Best players drafted after 20th round by other teams: Cody Allen (5.5 bWAR, 23rd round), Billy Burns (3.5 bWAR, 32nd round), and Kevin Pillar (7.5 bWAR, 32nd round).

The top pick

The A's once again went with a college player in the first round, but this time it worked out for them. They took Sonny Gray with the No. 18 overall pick, and at this point he has turned out to be easily one of the 10 best players in the entire draft class. In terms of bWAR to date in their MLB careers, he ranks third behind only Jose Fernandez and Mookie Betts, and his third-place finish in last year's Cy Young race matches Fernandez for the biggest career accomplishment so far. Furthermore, most of the other good ones were gone by the time the A's picked -- from the above list, only Betts, Joe Panik, and Jackie Bradley were still available at No. 18, or a yet-unproven prospect like Blake Snell or Blake Swihart.

Based on the reactions from Athletics Nation's open draft thread, though, Sonny was never a boring pick. He was seen as a high-upside guy with a major red flag (his small stature), making him a bold gamble despite being well-developed already. Although he was literally a polished college pick, in spirit he seemed to carry the level of high-risk, high-reward that you would associate with a high schooler, with the risk being that he could wind up in the bullpen if his 5'11 frame couldn't handle a starter's workload. Here is what had to say at the time:

Height is the only thing keeping Gray from being a lock for the top 6-7 picks in this draft class. You do have to worry about his size and whether he'll be durable as a pro. But, he has the three pitch mix including two plus pitches and above average command to be front end starter.

Of course, this one turned out well for Oakland. Assuming Sonny's current struggles are just a brief hiccup, and there's every reason to believe so given his already substantial track record, the A's ended up with one of the three pitchers who have established themselves as top-of-the-rotation arms. I can't imagine that anyone will have any complaints with this pick.

Not much else going on

The first round went great for Oakland, but after that this draft class turned out to be almost a complete dud. The only other player who has even reached MLB is 7th-rounder Blake Treinen, who was traded to the Nationals in the John Jaso deal and is now a middle reliever in their bullpen. Only five years later, there are but nine players from the A's class who are even still active in pro ball, and most of them are organizational filler. Only two remain in the A's organization -- Sonny, and catcher Beau Taylor.

That said, though, there weren't a lot of hidden gems in this class for any team. Betts went in the 5th round, Marcus Semien went in the 6th, and the 32nd round produced Kevin Pillar and Billy Burns. But the biggest reason that the A's didn't wind up with many good players is that there just weren't many available in this draft. Can't pick something that isn't there.

One team did nail it in 2011, and that was the Red Sox. They got Bradley, Betts, and Travis Shaw, who currently make up one-third of their everyday starting lineup. Blake Swihart also joined the lineup this week, Matt Barnes is in their bullpen, and Henry Owens got a brief trial in the rotation. Nobody came close to Boston's success in this class, which makes sense since four of those guys I mentioned were first-round picks (compensation for losing V-Mart and Beltre).

Of course, the book isn't closed yet. Jerad Eickhoff could turn into something, and Ken Giles has already made quite a name in relief. Even the guys who have already established themselves in the bigs are still young in their careers. A lot can happen between now and forever.

Trend: College tilt

In 2010, the A's broke from their recent history by taking high schoolers in the second through fifth rounds (Yordy Cabrera, Aaron Shipman, Chad Lewis, Tyler Vail). They did not repeat that behavior in 2011.

Of their first 20 picks in this draft, 19 of them were college players, and they didn't even sign the one high schooler they took in the 9th round. The next high schooler came in the 24th round, and they didn't sign him either -- Max Kuhn, who went to college instead and was eventually picked again by the A's in 2014 (13th round). Kuhn is still in the organization, playing at Single-A Beloit last year and starting 2016 in extended spring training. The next high schooler came in the 31st round, and he also didn't sign. The point is, the A's got only college players out of this draft, with the fluke exception of Chris Bostick in the 44th.


This is about as cut-and-dried as a draft class can be. The A's nailed their top pick, ending up with pretty much the best possible player available, and he is now the team's biggest star. He's also the only thing they got out of the whole class, which is fine because there wasn't much else to be had anyway. In terms of strategy, they took all college players, end of story.

Final grade: B+ ... They got the important part right. Could have gotten an A by stealing even just one more contributor in the later rounds.

Next time we'll look at the 2012 draft class.