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MLB Draft 2018 Preview: Looking back at Oakland A’s recent 1st-round picks

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From Sonny Gray to Matt Chapman, the A’s have been excellent in recent drafts.

If in doubt, pick a guy named Matt.
Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

The 2018 MLB draft begins in just over an hour! By the end of the evening the Oakland A’s will have the rights to a few more top prospects, helping beef up a farm system that already ranked in the Top 10 in MLB. Their first pick will come at No. 9 overall in the 1st round, which is slightly later than the last two years.

As the anticipation builds toward this evening, let’s take a look back at how some past drafts are panning out. A decade ago the A’s went through a stretch of poor drafting, with a bunch of 1st-round college picks who went nowhere: pitcher James Simmons (2007) never reached the bigs, infielder Jemile Weeks (2008) had one good half-season, and Grant Green (2009) and Michael Choice (2010) were each eventually traded away as spare parts before flaming out.

However, things have gone much better since then. Here’s a rundown of Oakland’s recent top picks:

  • 2011, Sonny Gray: Made an All-Star team, traded for excellent haul (to Yankees)
  • 2012, Addison Russell: Made an All-Star team and won a ring (all with Cubs)
  • 2013, Billy McKinney: Made MLB debut this year (with Yankees) at age 23
  • 2014, Matt Chapman: A’s starting 3B, leads team in WAR, will win Gold Glove this year
  • 2015, Richie Martin: Hitting .328 in Double-A at age 23
  • 2016, A.J. Puk: Top 50 national prospect, but out for 2018 with Tommy John surgery
  • 2017, Austin Beck: Playing full-season ball at age 19

It’s been a long time since they picked a bust. Two of the last seven are already All-Stars, and one more (Chapman) is on an almost guaranteed course there eventually. The jury is still out on the others, but they’re all showing promise.

Now for a deeper look! Let’s expand to all of the recent Day 1 picks, which means anyone taken before the 3rd round. The Comp Round rules have changed over the years, but the important thing is these guys were taken in the first 75 or so overall selections. This year Oakland will pick Nos. 9, 50, and 70 (that’s 1st round, 2nd round, and Comp B round).

2011

RHP Sonny Gray

1st round | No. 18 | College (Vanderbilt)

For years the A’s had played it safe with college picks, and this one finally worked. He skipped A-ball and went straight to Double-A, and two years later he was in Oakland beating Justin Verlander in the ALDS. He made the All-Star team in 2015 and finished third in Cy Young voting that year. He’s taken a step back the last couple seasons, but the A’s cashed out in time and got an excellent trade return in 2017 — including their current starting CF, Dustin Fowler.

Oakland didn’t get a 2nd-round pick in 2011 due to signing Grant Balfour. He turned out to be worth the price, though, and the A’s didn’t miss out on any stars being taken before their next selection in the 3rd round.

2011 verdict: Nailed it.

2012

SS Addison Russell

1st round | No. 11 | High school

The A’s broke from tradition by choosing a high-ceiling high schooler, and it didn’t take long to realize they made a great pick here. The next winter he was a consensus Top 50 national prospect, and entering 2014 he was consensus Top 20. However, Oakland was going all-in for a chance at a championship in ‘14, so they traded him for win-now help in July.

In four seasons with the Cubs he’s had a below-average batting line each year, but at age 24 there’s time for improvement. Meanwhile his defensive metrics at SS are among the best in the sport, helping him average around 3 WAR per season. Unfortunately the A’s didn’t get to enjoy the fruits of this successful pick, but on the bright side they ended up netting Marcus Semien out of the overall trade-tree (Russell for Samardzija for Semien) so they got their shortstop one way or other. The difference in value has been at most 1 WAR per year on average, which is noticeable but not catastrophic.

SS Daniel Robertson

1st/Comp round | No. 34 | High school

He was briefly the A’s top prospect after the 2014 season, but they traded him for Ben Zobrist, who was then flipped for Sean Manaea. Robertson initially reached MLB in 2017 at age 23, and now he’s starting everyday for the Rays at a variety of infield positions — SS, 2B, and a bit of 3B, with mostly positive ratings everywhere. He’s hitting well and drawing walks like a madman, leading to a .405 OBP. It’s still early, but he’s off to an excellent start in all the ways he was supposed to be good, and he’s already racked up 2 WAR in two months this season.

1B Matt Olson

1st/Comp round | No. 47 | High school

He debuted briefly in 2016 and then exploded onto the scene in 2017, with 24 homers in 59 games. At age 24 he’s already fully entrenched as the A’s everyday 1B, and the only question is when they can lock him up contractually and for how long. Now that he’s rediscovered his groove after a slow start to 2018, it’s easy to say that he’s one of Oakland’s best hitters and fielders; he probably has Gold Gloves in his future.

C Bruce Maxwell

2nd/Comp round | No. 62 | College (Birmingham-Southern)

He debuted in 2015 and has been part of Oakland’s catching corps ever since. Of course, his headlines have mostly come off the field over the last year, but the important thing for this discussion is that he’s a player who made it to MLB. He’s not performing well at age 27, but he’s done enough to stick around the bigs for now.

RHP Nolan Sanburn

2nd round | No. 74 | College (Arkansas)

Injuries got in the way, and the highest he ever made it was Double-A. The A’s at least got something out of him when they used him to acquire Adam Dunn from the White Sox. Dunn didn’t do much in Oakland, but it was at least fun to finally have him on the team for a minute. You can get a lot less out of a draft pick than a month of an all-time great slugger.

2012 verdict: Nailed it. In particular, they went with three prep guys in the 1st round and nailed every single one. Those three high schoolers all reached the bigs and could all reasonably wind up as All-Stars eventually. The old compensation system helped a lot here, as Josh Willingham turned into Robertson/Maxwell and David DeJesus turned into Olson.

2013

OF Billy McKinney

1st round | No. 24 | High school

Oakland went prep in the 1st round again, and once again they traded him (in the same deal as Russell, actually). McKinney didn’t fast-track like Russell did, but he at least reached MLB this year at age 23. He hasn’t fully panned out yet, but he’s made noise in the upper minors and already collected a big league hit.

LHP Dillon Overton

2nd round | No. 63 | College (Oklahoma)

Oakland picked him even though they knew he was injured, and he wound up having Tommy John surgery a couple weeks later. The gamble did not pay off, as he never recovered his velocity and got torched when he reached the bigs. He was eventually traded away for low-minors org filler, and he still has the record for the highest rate of homers allowed per inning in all of MLB history (min. 40 innings).

IF Chad Pinder

2nd/Comp round | No. 71 | College (Virginia Tech)

For a long time he was the forgotten man amid a star-studded minor league infield depth chart, but as attrition mounted he was the one who stuck around. Now he’s in Oakland, starting mostly every day as a versatile super-sub. In fact, after being drafted and developed as an infielder he’s now switched mostly to the outfield, where he’s personally at his best and probably ranks as the team’s top corner defender. His bat isn’t star-level but it’s solid, and he can contribute on both sides of the ball.

2013 verdict: Only OK, but definitely not terrible. The top pick is close to panning out (albeit for someone else), and another Day 1 selection has become an integral part of the team.

2014

3B Matt Chapman

1st round | No. 25 | College (Fullerton)

This is a lesson in taking the best player available regardless of your current team needs. The A’s had literally Josh Donaldson at the time of this pick, and now exactly zero people regret selecting another third baseman. It takes time for your draftees to reach the bigs, and a lot can happen during that time.

Chapman wasn’t the expected pick on national boards, but Oakland liked him enough to take him even despite his position being temporarily blocked. A couple months after his draft, he led Double-A Midland to a championship. He was a two-way monster throughout his minor league career but got virtually no national attention, with scouting grades that were criminally inaccurate in retrospect.

By the time he finally began cracking Top 100 lists entering 2017 it was already too late, as he came up that June and immediately took the crown of best defensive 3B in the sport. Between his game-changingly elite glove/arm, excellent speed, and a healthy dose of dingers, he leads the A’s in bWAR (2.9) and is just a hair behind Jed Lowrie in fWAR (1.7). His +15 DRS leads all MLB players at all positions, and he was named the Defensive Player of the Month for April.

RHP Daniel Gossett

2nd round | No. 65 | College (Clemson)

The classic polished college pitcher, and this time it mostly worked out. He found his groove in 2016, reached MLB in 2017, and is currently in the A’s 2018 rotation. The 25-year-old left his last start with an elbow injury so we’ll see where that goes, and even if healthy he’s still got some things to prove in the bigs, but the point is that he at least made it this far.

2014 Verdict: Nailed it. The 1st-rounder is probably the best player on the team now, and the 2nd-rounder has contributed as well.

2015

SS Richie Martin

1st round | No. 20 | College (Florida)

Up until last month he looked like a bust, but he’s suddenly turned a corner in Double-A at age 23. Click here to read all about his current breakout, but the short version is that the glove-first shortstop is finally hitting. He still has a ways to go before he’s panning out in MLB, but the last month was by far his best stretch of play in his pro career and there is now renewed hope that he’s a legit prospect after all.

IF Mikey White

2nd round | No. 63 | College (Alabama)

He’s also in Double-A, but the outlook isn’t as good. He’s a bat-first prospect who isn’t hitting, with a career full of decent power but way too many strikeouts. The book isn’t closed on the 24-year-old, but don’t hold your breath.

2015 verdict: A poor class overall, but there is still some hope. If Martin makes it after all then that would mostly salvage things.

2016

LHP A.J. Puk

1st round | No. 6 | College (Florida)

He was in the conversation for the first overall pick but he fell to Oakland. That turned out to be a stroke of luck because he dominated in the pros right from the get-go, and last winter his national rankings ranged from No. 13 to No. 32. Unfortunately that luck changed when he went down with Tommy John surgery this spring, but he’ll be back in 2019 for another try. No matter what happens with his recovery, there’s no question the A’s made the right pick here.

RHP Daulton Jefferies

1st/Comp round | No. 37 | College (UC Berkeley)

Oakland gambled on a recently injured pitcher, and then he quickly got injured again. He’s on his way back from TJS and could be on the mound this summer.

RHP Logan Shore

2nd round | No. 47 | College (Florida)

The A’s went with risky ceilings on Puk and Jefferies, but Shore was the safe, polished, fast-tracker. He’s dealt with some minor injuries but recently reached Double-A.

2016 verdict: Too early to say. They went with a bunch of college pitchers and they all got hurt, which is just the way things go sometimes because TINSTAAPP. The Jefferies pick always looked a bit questionable, but Puk and Shore were excellent selections and there is still plenty of hope for this class.

2017

OF Austin Beck

1st round | No. 6 | High school

I agreed with the pick at the time, though of course it’ll be years before we know if they got the right guy. His numbers in Single-A Beloit are pedestrian, but the primary thing I care about is that he’s already in full-season ball at age 19. He was always going to be a long-term project, so for now I really don’t care what kind of stats he puts up. The tools are there and that’s why he was picked.

SS Kevin Merrell

1st/Comp round | No. 33 | College (South Florida)

The speedster is scuffling in High-A so far. Too early to draw any conclusions, though.

OF Greg Deichmann

2nd round | No. 43 | College (LSU)

The slugger went ham in Low-A ball after the draft, but this year in High-A he got hurt (wrist) after just a few games so we’ll have to wait to see more from him.

2017 verdict: Way, way, too early to tell, but I was happy with the picks at the time.

Overall

From 2011-14, the A’s made 11 picks on Day 1. All but one have reached MLB, and eight of them have regular roles in the bigs right now. The two highest picks are already All-Stars, and three more might reasonably get nods in the coming years. Those are about the best results you can hope for, and the current roster now has Chapman, Olson, Pinder, Manaea, Semien, Fowler, Gossett, and Maxwell to show for it all (and that’s before considering some other mid/late-rounders who’ve made it, like Dull, Trivino, Boog, and more).

The Day 1 picks from 2015-17 haven’t been as successful, but there is still hope for most of them. Their biggest problem has been injury rather than pure under-performance. There could still be a starting shortstop and an ace starter in this group, among other things.

Stay tuned to see what Oakland does with the Nos. 9, 50, and 70 picks today!