Yesterday’s post about the relative professional fortunes of Cesar Carrillo, Mike Loree and Paul Oseguera got me thinking about how many players who go undrafted in the June Amateur Draft eventually make it to the major leagues anyway. There are always at least a few.
In fact, it’s probably a lot more than just a few. According to this 2010 article from mlb.com, there were 16 such players in the major leagues that season alone, including Heath Bell, John Axford, Mike Adams, Rod Barajas, Daniel Nava, Mike Redmond, George Sherrill and Matt Stairs, many of whom were still playing in 2013.
Other players who went on to have significant major league careers despite being undrafted since the Draft system started in 1965 include Larry Bowa, Toby Harrah, Don Money, Claudell Washington, Frank White, Jeff Leonard, Larry Parrish, Dan Quisenberry, Kevin Mitchell, Bobby Bonilla, Mike Bordick and Kevin Millar, to name more than a few. That’s a fine bunch of ballplayers, although I note there isn’t a starting pitcher in the bunch.
The purpose of this post, however, isn’t to name every great player who went undrafted or even to name all the undrafted players currently playing in MLB. Instead, it is to make the point that many legitimate prospects get vastly underrated or completely overlooked by MLB teams and scouts. This seems to be particularly common for young players from Canada, the upper Midwest and New England, where teams generally do not focus their scouting efforts. Teams also seem to miss some good prospects playing junior college ball. However, undrafted players who go on to play in the majors can come from just about anywhere.
If anything, we should expect to see even more undrafted players go on to the major league success in the future than we have in the past, in spite of the reasonable assumption that teams are gradually and steadily getting better at scouting. Before 1986, there were three different amateur drafts at different times of the year to catch players graduating from high school at different times or who impressed in summer leagues. Between 1986 and 1998, the June Draft could run as many as 100 rounds, so long as at least one team wanted to continue drafting players.
From 1998 through 2011, the June Draft was limited to 50 rounds, and starting in 2012 only 40 rounds. This means there will be relatively more players who don’t get drafted but will be signed to fill out team rosters in the low minors.
Add to that the rise of Independent-A baseball, starting with the formation of the Northern League in 1993, which provides a whole new venue for undrafted players to get their foot in the door of professional baseball. Needless to say, not a whole lot of players have made it the majors after starting out in the Independent A leagues, but there have been a few notables such as Daniel Nava and Kevin Millar.
The upshot is that it is somewhat astonishing how quickly some teams give up on later round draft picks after one bad season and how lower round picks like Mike Loree and Paul Oseguera haven’t been able to get back into the major league system after rebounding in a big way in one of the better Independent-A leagues. The fact that significant numbers of major league players went undrafted entirely means that, except for the top 50 or so prospects each year, projecting future professional performance is an extremely inexact science. As a result, professional performance is far more important than where a player was originally selected in the Draft, at least once you get past the first or second rounds or more than two or three seasons into a player’s professional career.