The Cleveland Guardians have whiffed on first-round draft picks for 30 years

Washington Nationals v Cleveland Indians
Washington Nationals v Cleveland Indians / Jason Miller/GettyImages

The Cleveland Guardians have quickly become known as one of the best-drafting teams in Major League Baseball. Headlined by the stellar 2016 MLB Draft that netted the Guardians Shane Bieber, Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac, Cleveland’s system of drafting college arms and high-school bats that tend to play up the middle has warranted unprecedented results at the major-league level. With the beginning of the 2023 season, Cleveland will boast 15 players that it has drafted on its 26-man roster.

But Triston McKenzie is the only first-round pick on the roster, and he was technically a Competitive Balance Round A pick. For some reason, the Guardians have whiffed year after year on first-round picks, and few players that have headlined drafts of the last 20 years have significantly contributed to the major-league club. The MLB Draft is somewhat of a crapshoot, and with so many layers between draft day and a major-league debut, it’s completely common for top-round selections to flame out, suffer injuries or sputter through the minors and never achieve their full potential.

A draft isn’t about one player, it’s about the collection, from round one to 20, in the hopes that someone is going to charge through the system and make a difference. For a team that has to lean on the draft and developing young talent, though, whiffing on top prospect after top prospect hamstrings an organization - though to be fair, the Guardians seem to be faring pretty well without them. The lack of success in the first round of the draft tends to only significantly hurt an organization when it is years away from competition. Think of how the future of the Baltimore Orioles would look if Adley Rutschman flamed out in Triple-A.

It’s almost unthinkable that the Guardians, a savvy team with such a talented eye for overlooked prospects, would struggle this much at getting “blue-chip prospects” in the first round. 

Looking back at the times since 1965 that Cleveland has had a first-round pick after the implementation of the draft, some of the prospects’ sputter-outs become explainable. Some didn’t even sign, so those don’t count. Brady Aiken, the Guardians’ 2015 first-round pick, had already undergone Tommy John surgery and still had the fiasco of not signing with the Houston Astros lingering over his head, though the next nine draft picks did end up making it to the major leagues. Justus Sheffield, Clint Fraizer and Drew Pomeranz were all involved in blockbuster trades before they reached the major leagues, and the jury is still out on Sheffield.

And obviously, with some of the latest first-round picks - Bo Naylor, Daniel Espino, Carson Tucker and Gavin Williams - it remains to be seen how their careers will pan out. It is worth noting that all but one of those players currently ranks in the top 30 of Cleveland’s top prospects. But Tucker hasn’t crossed the Mendoza line in two professional seasons and could likely be someone that’s a victim of the Rule 5 Draft before he can make it to the Show.

The Last 30 Years of Cleveland's First-Round Picks

It’s hard not to look, however, at the glaring names since 2000 that the Guardians have decided to call in the first round. CC Sabathia, the big lefty who dominated on the mound for Cleveland from 2001-2008, was the last real success in terms of major-league contributors from Cleveland’s first-round draft picks. He was the 20th pick in that draft and went on to three All-Star games and a Cy Young award atop Cleveland’s rotation, helping it to the American League Championship in 2007.

Then, well, yikes. Corey Smith was a hotshot shortstop out of Piscataway High School that was Baseball America’s No. 73 prospect before the 2002 season. He never made it past Triple-A and was traded for Jake Gautreau before the start of the 2005 season. Smith, Danny Peoples (1996), Jason Fitzgerald (1997), Dan Denham (2001), Mike Conroy (2001, who didn’t even make it past High-A ball), Matthew Whitney (2002), Micah Schilling (2002, who didn’t even make it past High-A ball), John Drennen (2005) and Beau Mills (2007) are all first-round draft picks since 1995 that never played a game in the majors.

It’s fine if players don’t work out in a certain system. Playing time in a crowded organization such as the Guardians can be hard to come by, and maybe the coaches and program just isn’t right for a certain player. But for nine picks, let alone first-round picks, in the last 28 years, to not even make it into one major-league game? Ever? That’s bad. Two of them not even making it to Double-A Akron is really bad, though Tucker might well be on his way to making it three. 

Between 2003 and 2005, five straight first-rounders made it to the major leagues, eventually. But the big names were Jeremy Sowers, who hardly found his footing as a reliever after getting selected sixth, and Trevor Crowe, who’s wide eyes in center field are more memorable than his playing career. Lonnie Chisenhall is a cult hero (for myself included) but was supposed to be a cornerstone of the franchise. That damn hamstring, Lonnie. Francisco Lindor is the lone bright spot since Sabathia who more than lived up to his name and potential.

Sure, for every Charles Nagy (1988, 17th overall) and Manny Ramirez (1991, 13th overall), there’s a Peoples, Smith or Schilling. John Hart was a genius who helped construct and lock up a young core that brought arguably the most exciting decade in Cleveland baseball history. Mark Shapiro followed that up with 14 incredible years and has currently worked his way up to becoming the President and CEO of the Toronto Blue Jays. Mike Chernoff and Chris Antonetti are wonder boys who have brought incredible, sustained success on a shoestring budget to Cleveland.

It’s crazy to think that for all the amazing things these historic general managers, during a largely successful stretch of 30 years in Cleveland, there is still a painfully glaring weakness, so much so that it’s almost comical. How can a team be this wrong this much? I think the going answer to that might be, well, who cares? True. It’s hard writing about such an egregious hole in the front office’s process throughout the last 30 years when the team is literally favorites to make it to the playoffs again.

I think it’s important to understand that, while not every draft pick - especially in MLB - works out and lives up to its draft slot, Cleveland has clearly faltered in its scouting of high-level talent. Rounds 3-20, covered, dominant, amazing. Put the Guardians up there with anyone in the league. The best of the best? Well, we’ll see about the last few years. But before then? Bleh.