Best Player Taken with Every 1st-Round Pick 1-30 in MLB Draft History

Best Player Taken with Every 1st-Round Pick 1-30 in MLB Draft History

The 60th iteration of Major League Baseball’s amateur draft will take place next month during the All-Star break, with all 30 teams hoping to make a first-round pick who provides a ton of value for years to come.

It got us thinking: Who have been the best players taken in each slot of the first round in the history of the MLB draft?

It should be noted that not all of these players were necessarily first-round draft picks. When the draft first started six decades ago, there only were 20 teams in the majors. At that time, the 30th overall pick landed in the middle of the second round. But we’re treating all top 30 picks as if they were first-rounders, even if they weren’t.

Also of note, the player has to have signed at the pick in question. The most noteworthy example here is Gerrit Cole, who went 28th in the 2008 draft before going to UCLA instead. Three years later, he went No. 1 overall, and thus only counts as a candidate for the No. 1 pick, not the No. 28 pick. There are others, too, who will be mentioned as footnotes at the picks where they did not sign.

Beyond that, everything is fair game.

Career wins above replacement was the primary driving force behind our selections for the “best ever,” the “first runner-up” and the “past decade division” (2014 or later) for each pick, but it wasn’t the only factor. Some projecting of active players was necessary, and there are cases where a player with an elite several-year peak was deemed better than a player with more career WAR who was just kind of a B-plus for more than a decade.

Either way, some great blasts from the past are coming your way as we count it down from No. 30 to No. 1.

Greg Maddux Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Our focus today is just on picks Nos. 1-30.

However, with this being the 60th year of the draft, let’s also quickly point out a few other really good players who were taken in the Nos. 31-60 range.

Albert Pujols going 402nd overall in 1999 is the eternal reminder that diamonds can be found anywhere in the draft, but here are a few players taken in what is currently the second-round range who panned out quite nicely.

  • 3B Nolan Arenado (59th pick, Colorado Rockies, 2009)
  • OF Tony Gwynn (58th pick, San Diego Padres, 1981)
  • 1B Jason Giambi (58th pick, Oakland A’s, 1992)
  • LHP Jon Lester (57th pick, Boston Red Sox, 2002)
  • RHP Bert Blyleven (55th pick, Minnesota Twins, 1969)
  • C Gary Carter (53rd pick, Montreal Expos, 1972)
  • RHP Dennis Eckersley (50th pick, Cleveland Guardians, 1972)
  • OF Carlos Beltran (49th pick, Kansas City Royals, 1995)
  • SS/3B Cal Ripken Jr. (48th pick, Baltimore Orioles, 1978)
  • LHP Tom Glavine (47th pick, Atlanta Braves, 1984)
  • OF Albert Belle (47th pick, Cleveland Guardians, 1987)
  • 3B Scott Rolen (46th pick, Philadelphia Phillies, 1993)
  • SS Jimmy Rollins (46th pick, Philadelphia Phillies, 1996)
  • 1B Joey Votto (44th pick, Cincinnati Reds, 2002)
  • SS Gunnar Henderson (42nd pick, Baltimore Orioles, 2019)
  • OF Fred Lynn (41st pick, Boston Red Sox, 1973)
  • LHP Randy Johnson (36th pick, Montreal Expos, 1985)
  • C Johnny Bench (36th pick, Cincinnati Reds, 1965)
  • OF Aaron Judge (32nd pick, New York Yankees, 2013)
  • RHP Greg Maddux (31st pick, Chicago Cubs, 1984)
Mike Schmidt Bettmann

Best Ever: 3B Mike Schmidt (Philadelphia Phillies, 1971)

Quite the strong start to the list here with a three-time NL MVP and first-ballot Hall of Famer. Michael Jack Schmidt mashed 548 home runs in a career spent entirely in Philadelphia. He eclipsed 30 dingers 13 times in the span of 14 seasons. He was also a 10-time Gold Glove recipient who posted a 1.176 OPS in the 1980 World Series.

The first 12 picks of the 1971 draft amounted to a cumulative negative-2.6 bWAR in their careers, but at least this early second-rounder amounted to quite a bit for the Phillies.

First Runner-Up: LHP David Wells (Toronto Blue Jays, 1982)

Wells was a reliever for much of his initial stint with the Blue Jays, but he went on to become one of the more durable starting pitchers of the past 50 years. He lasted 21 seasons in the majors, racking up 235 wins with nine different franchises. Arguably his best year was 1998—with the 114-win, juggernaut Yankees—when Wells tossed five complete-game shutouts, including the 15th perfect game in MLB history. (He also won all four of his starts that postseason.)

Past Decade Division: SS Anthony Volpe (New York Yankees, 2019)

For the majority of the 30 slots, there’s one pretty good option and only one pretty good option. But we start out at No. 30 with a trio of viable candidates in Volpe, Cole Ragans (2016) and Jordan Westburg (2020). The Fox is the early leader in career WAR, though, after an impressive rookie campaign in 2023 in which he had 21 home runs, 24 stolen bases and earned a Gold Glove. He has become an even more consistent asset at the plate this year, too.

George Brett Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Best Ever: 3B George Brett (Kansas City Royals, 1971)

Brett will be forever remembered for the pine tar incident in July 1983, but he was much more than just that controversial moment of untethered rage. In winning AL MVP in 1980, Brett posted what is still the highest batting average (.390) in a season with 500 or more plate appearances since Ted Williams’ fabled .406 campaign in 1941.

This 13-time All-Star and three-time batting champ spent his entire career with the Royals and was a first-ballot Hall of Famer, just like the aforementioned Mike Schmidt, who was drafted one pick after him in 1971. Got to be the most legendary back-to-back selections in MLB draft history, right?

First Runner-Up: RHP Adam Wainwright (Atlanta Braves, 2000)

Wainwright was drafted by Atlanta, but spent the entirety of his 18-season MLB career with the St. Louis Cardinals. In the final start of his career, he went seven scoreless innings to record the 200th win of his career—a mark that might not be reached again for a long time, if ever. Waino never did win a Cy Young, but there were four years in which he finished top three in that vote.

Past Decade Division: RHP Bobby Miller (Los Angeles Dodgers, 2020)

As a rookie in 2023, Miller made 22 starts with a 3.76 ERA. It was a promising debut that gave way to a disappointing first half of 2024, making just three starts before landing on the IL with shoulder inflammation. Miller is expected to be a big part of the Dodgers’ long-term plans, though, penciled in to start alongside Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Tyler Glasnow for at least the next four years.

Lee Smith Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Best Ever: RHP Lee Smith (Chicago Cubs, 1975)

Smith was far from the first to record a save, but he did master the art like few others. Both Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera have since left him in the dust, but Smith was MLB’s all-time save leader (478) for a couple of decades, finishing his career with a 3.03 ERA.

It also took a couple of decades for this seven-time All-Star to finally get inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2019, but better late than never. That recognition probably would’ve happened much sooner if he had played on even one team that won a postseason series.

First Runner-Up: C Charles Johnson (Florida Marlins, 1992)

Some franchises would rather not be reminded of the first draft pick they ever made, but Johnson was a doggone good one for the expansion-year Marlins. A two-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove recipient, Johnson played a major role in Florida winning the 1997 World Series, batting .357 in those seven games against Cleveland.

Past Decade Division: RHP Michael Soroka (Atlanta Braves, 2015)

After multiple torn Achilles, Soroka has been a shell of what he once was five years ago. In 2019, though, he was a Cy Young hopeful who finished second in an NL Rookie of the Year vote which also featured Pete Alonso and Fernando Tatis Jr. And that one good season puts him well ahead of any other player selected 28th in the past decade.

Note: Gerrit Cole was selected 28th by the Yankees in 2008, but did not sign and thus does not count.

Vida Blue Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Best Ever: LHP Vida Blue (Oakland Athletics, 1967)

We will eventually get to quite a few ‘best ever’ selections made more recently than America’s bicentennial, but here’s another sensation from a bygone era.

Since “The Year of the Pitcher” (1968), there have only been seven pitchers (excluding two-way unicorn Shohei Ohtani) named MVP, and Blue was one of them in 1971. He tossed eight complete-game shutouts en route to a 1.82 ERA and 301 strikeouts in what was the first of six All-Star seasons. He was subsequently a key part of the back-to-back-to-back World Series champion A’s from 1972-74.

First Runner-Up: RHP Rick Porcello (Detroit Tigers, 2007)

Porcello was never named an All-Star, but he did win a Cy Young award in 2016 with a 22-4 record and 3.15 ERA. How he pulled that off with just eight first-place votes to Justin Verlander’s 14 will forever be a mystery, but it was one heck of a season from a durable pitcher who logged enough innings to qualify for an ERA title in 11 consecutive years. (Not that he actually won any ERA titles.)

Past Decade Division: SS/OF Jackson Merrill (San Diego Padres, 2021)

After trading away Juan Soto and Trent Grisham this past offseason, the Padres left themselves with little choice but to convert Merrill to an outfielder—he almost exclusively played shortstop from 2021-23—and put him in the Opening Day starting lineup for his MLB debut in South Korea this spring. So far so good, though, including a walk-off home run off flame-throwing Mason Miller earlier this month.

Alan Trammell Rich Pilling/Getty Images

Best Ever: SS Alan Trammell (Detroit Tigers, 1976)

Like Lee Smith, Trammell had to wait more than 20 years after retiring to finally get inducted into the Hall of Fame. But the life-long Detroit Tiger did eventually get there in 2018.

The career .285 hitter never won an AL MVP, but he came mighty close with his second-place finish in 1987.

He did win a World Series MVP in 1984, though, going 9-for-20 with a pair of home runs in those five games against the Padres. Trammell was also a six-time All-Star, four-time Gold Glover and three-time Silver Slugger before his brief stint as manager of the Tigers in the early 2000s.

First Runner-Up: OF Dave Henderson (Seattle Mariners, 1977)

Save for a monumental home run in the 1986 ALCS, Henderson was a late bloomer; a marginally better than replacement level player for his first seven years in the majors. But from 1988-91, he was the often forgotten third member of Oakland’s Bash Brothers with 84 home runs to Mark McGwire’s 126 and Jose Canseco’s 140. He received MVP votes in both 1988 and 1991.

Past Decade Division: OF Taylor Ward (Los Angeles Angels, 2015)

Tough call here with Tristan Casas (2018) also a candidate, but thus far the Red Sox first baseman merely had a good two-month run in 2023 while Ward is in his third consecutive season of playing pretty well. If nothing else, the Angels outfielder has emerged as a key name to monitor on this year’s trade block. And he already has the fourth-highest career WAR among players selected 26th in the draft.

Mike Trout Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Best Ever: OF Mike Trout (Los Angeles Angels, 2009)

At long last, a “best ever” player whose career didn’t end before Y2K.

It’s a damn shame what has happened to Trout over the past few years. Through his age-27 season, it looked like the three-time MVP was a lock to join Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Willie Mays on the exclusive list of players with 600 home runs and 300 stolen bases. Unfortunately, a seemingly endless string of injuries has worn down what might have been regarded as the greatest to ever play the game—not unlike Ken Griffey Jr.’s career arc.

Even if he never plays again, though, Trout’s a surefire Hall of Famer. Drafting him was one of the few things the Angels have gotten right in the past 15 years.

First Runner-Up: 2B Chuck Knoblauch (Minnesota Twins, 1989)

Knoblauch became synonymous with “the yips” toward the end of his career while with the Yankees, but he was “borderline Hall of Famer” good for his first seven seasons with the Twins, including winning AL Rookie of the Year in 1991. Per FanGraphs, Knoblauch was the eighth most valuable position player in the majors from 1991-97.

Past Decade Division: 3B Matt Chapman (Oakland Athletics, 2014)

A powerful bat with an even better glove at the hot corner, Chappy has been a major contributor for three different franchises already in his relatively brief career. He sure has been cursed in the postseason, though, eliminated from the wild card round in each of 2018, 2019, 2022 and 2023 without experiencing a single victory. (While healthy, at any rate. He was out with tendonitis when the A’s won three games in the 2020 postseason.)

Rondell White David Seelig

Best Ever: OF Rondell White (Montreal Expos, 1990)

Before there was Byron Buxton, there was Rondell White.

The centerfielder missed nearly 900 games over the course of his 15-year career due to a variety of injuries, never quite becoming the star he should have been.

But, to be clear, White was mostly good when mostly healthy. His .799 career OPS puts him narrowly ahead of the likes of Ivan Rodriguez (.798) and Craig Biggio (.796) in the same general time frame. He was only once named an All-Star, though, and never much of a candidate for Gold Gloves or Silver Sluggers.

First Runner-Up/Past Decade Division: RHP Walker Buehler (Los Angeles Dodgers, 2015)

First Runner-Up/Past Decade Division: IF Nico Hoerner (Chicago Cubs, 2018)

If absolutely forced to choose between the two, give us Buehler as the first runner-up to White and Hoerner as the ‘past decade’ guy who might eventually ascend to best ever drafted 24th, as the former is already a two-time All-Star while the latter is three years younger.

But it’s a close call, largely because Buehler lost most of 2022, all of 2023 and the start of 2024 to Tommy John surgery. From 2018-21, however, only a handful of pitchers were better than Buehler and his 2.82 ERA.

While Buehler was out, Hoerner became somewhat of a star as an everyday fixture who could hit for average, steal bases and save all sorts of runs with his glove. No All-Star Games yet and that probably isn’t changing this season, but Chicago’s rebuild probably would’ve taken longer without him.

Note: Alex Fernandez was selected 24th by the Brewers in 1988, but did not sign and thus does not count.

Christian Yelich Megan Briggs/Getty Images

Best Ever: OF Christian Yelich (Florida Marlins, 2010)

After five moderately productive years with the Marlins, Yelich was traded to Milwaukee and instantly became a superstar.

In his first two seasons with the Brewers, he was the NL MVP in 2018 and was going to go back-to-back if he hadn’t broken his kneecap in early September 2019. He triple-slashed .327/.415/.631 with 80 home runs and 52 stolen bases over the course of those two seasons. It took him a few years after the injury to regain that level of production, but Yelich is having a nice renaissance type of 2024 campaign.

First Runner-Up: C Jason Kendall (Pittsburgh Pirates, 1992)

Though never much of a slugger, Kendall was one of the better hitting and baserunning catchers of the past 50 years. After nine seasons with the Pirates, he had a career batting average of .306 and 140 stolen bases, which are the types of numbers that Dustin Pedroia and Bernie Williams put up for their entire careers. Kendall was also the patron saint of getting beaned, hit by 254 pitches over the course of his career.

Past Decade Division: RHP Gavin Williams (Cleveland Guardians, 2021)

It hasn’t quite been a full year since Williams made his MLB debut last June, and he has yet to make his 2024 debut due to elbow pain. And yet, with just 82 career innings under his belt, he’s the only choice here, as no other No. 23 pick in the past decade has provided value above replacement level.

Craig Biggio Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Best Ever: 2B Craig Biggio (Houston Astros, 1987)

A seven-time All-Star who was a catcher/centerfielder for the first few seasons of his career, Biggio eventually made a living as a second baseman, where he won four Gold Gloves and four Silver Sluggers from 1994-98 en route to the Hall of Fame.

And since we just mentioned Jason Kendall’s proclivity for HBPs, Biggio was the most plunkable player of the past century, getting drilled a live-ball era record 285 times in his two decades with the Astros. It never slowed him down, though, finishing his career with 291 home runs, 414 stolen bases and nearly as many plate appearances (12,504) as Cal Ripken Jr. (12,883).

First Runner-Up: 1B Rafael Palmeiro (Chicago Cubs, 1985)

Raffy was only with the Cubs for three relatively light-hitting seasons, spending most of his career between the Rangers and the Orioles. There may or may not have been quite a bit of juice involved, but after turning 30, Palmeiro had nine consecutive seasons with at least 38 home runs and 104 RBI, finishing his career with 569 taters and an .885 OPS.

Past Decade Division: RHP Cade Cavalli (Washington Nationals, 2020)

Needless to say, the options are a bit bleak here. Recent picks Colson Montgomery and Colt Emerson are burgeoning prospects, but the 10 possible candidates have combined to appear in 37 MLB games. So let’s go with Cavalli, even though he got shelled in his only appearance after a quick rise through the minors. He’s slowly working his way back from Tommy John surgery performed last spring.

Rick Sutcliffe George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Best Ever: RHP Rick Sutcliffe (Los Angeles Dodgers, 1974)

Sutcliffe is one of just seven players in MLB history to win both Rookie of the Year and Cy Young—along with Justin Verlander, Jacob deGrom, Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden, Fernando Valenzuela, and Don Newcombe.

Valenzuela was the only one to win both in the same season. Sutcliffe got the ROY with the Dodgers in 1979 and the Cy Young (unanimously) with the Cubs in 1984, going 16-1 with a 2.69 ERA in the NL after getting traded from an AL team (Cleveland) in mid-June. Basically, he was to 1984 what CC Sabathia was to 2008.

First Runner-Up: OF Gorman Thomas (Seattle Pilots, 1969)

Seattle Pilots? Oh baby. Now we’re cooking with gas. The franchise had relocated to Milwaukee by the time Thomas made his debut, but what a show he put on from 1978-82. His 175 home runs during that half-decade ranked second only to Mike Schmidt’s 180. Thomas led the AL in home runs in 1979 and led the majors in round-trippers in 1982, earning MVP votes in each of those two years.

Past Decade Division: IF Brice Turang (Milwaukee Brewers, 2018)

Though he stole 26 bases and provided a good amount of value with his glove, Turang had a brutal first season at the plate in 2023. Among the 212 players who made at least 400 plate appearances, only Brenton Doyle had a worse wRC+. But Turang has flipped the script this season, blossoming into the most valuable player of a team that is surprisingly kind of running away with the NL Central.

Note: Jason Varitek was selected 21st by the Twins in 1993, but did not sign and thus does not count.

Mike Mussina Jamie Squire

Best Ever: RHP Mike Mussina (Baltimore Orioles, 1990)

Mussina is one of the best pitchers to have never thrown a no-hitter, one of the best to never win a Cy Young and one of the best to never win a World Series.

He simply has to be the best to meet all three criteria.

Moose came tantalizingly close to not one but two perfect games, twice having history broken up in the ninth inning. He also placed top six in nine different AL Cy Young votes, but never first. And continuing that ‘close but no cigar’ trend, he signed with the Yankees the year after they won four out of five World Series and retired the year before they won it all in 2009.

The five-time All-Star and seven-time Gold Glove recipient was always the bridesmaid, never the bride.

First Runner-Up: LHP CC Sabathia (Cleveland Guardians, 1998)

Shouts to Torii Hunter’s 353 career home runs and nine Gold Gloves, but it’s hard to compete with Mussina and Sabathia. Ol’ Cap’n Crunch was a machine from 2006-12, reeling off seven consecutive seasons with a sub-3.40 ERA. He won a Cy Young in 2007 and really should’ve won another in 2008 for what he accomplished after the midseason trade to the Brewers. Sabathia is one of just 14 pitchers in MLB history with at least 250 wins and at least 3,000 strikeouts.

Past Decade Division: RHP George Kirby (Seattle Mariners, 2019)

Among the nearly 3,000 pitchers to log at least 400 innings pitched in the majors, no one has ever had a K/BB ratio quite like Kirby. The young Mariner is just a shade under 8.0, with Koji Uehara (7.33) the only other pitcher north of 5.4. Kirby also does a great job of keeping the ball in the yard, allowing just under one home run per nine inning pitched. Keep doing those two things and he could have quite the career.

Roger Clemens Allen Kee/WireImage

Best Ever: RHP Roger Clemens (Boston Red Sox, 1983)

The Rocket’s legacy is a complicated one, marred by allegations of steroids and decades of carrying himself with a less than hospitable demeanor.

But he just might be the greatest pitcher of all-time.

A seven-time Cy Young winner with two Triple Crowns (leading the league in wins, ERA and strikeouts) and an MVP trophy earned when he was just 23 years old, Clemens has more FanGraphs WAR than any pitcher in MLB history. Only Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson struck out more batters than Clemens, and he had more career wins (354) than either of those legends.

First Runner-Up: 2B Bobby Grich (Baltimore Orioles, 1967)

In 17 big league seasons, Grich was worth almost as many wins above replacement (71.1) as Derek Jeter was for his 20 seasons (71.3), per Baseball Reference. But while Jeter fell just one vote shy of being unanimously voted as a first-ballot Hall of Famer, Grich has yet to receive that phone call, despite six All-Star Games and four Gold Gloves.

Past Decade Division: IF Nolan Gorman (St. Louis Cardinals, 2018)

Gorman led the Cardinals in home runs last year with 27 of them, and he is more than on pace to do so again this season. He’s already one of the better slugging second basemen in recent memory, and he just turned 24 in May. There are quite a few elder statesmen on this St. Louis team, but Gorman should be a foundational piece for them for years to come.

Corey Seager Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Best Ever: SS Corey Seager (Los Angeles Dodgers, 2012)

Seager just turned 30 earlier this year, but already he is one of four players in MLB history to be named World Series MVP multiple times, joining Reggie Jackson, Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson on that exclusive list. His first came with the Dodgers in 2020, after an 18-game postseason run with a 1.171 OPS. The second was with the Rangers in 2023, with a similar OPS of 1.133.

To be clear, Seager has been darn good in non-October months, too, winning NL Rookie of the Year in 2016 and finishing top three for MVP both that season and in 2023.

First Runner-Up: OF Willie Wilson (Kansas City Royals, 1974)

Wilson was speed incarnate, finishing his career with 147 triples and 668 stolen bases. He spent almost the entirety of his career with the team that drafted him, twice going to the All-Star Game and winning two Silver Sluggers and one Gold Glove for the Royals. He was also a huge part of their 1985 World Series crown, batting .367 with three stolen bases in those seven games.

Past Decade Division: RHP Brady Singer (Kansas City Royals, 2018)

Remember the Even-Year Giants from the early 2010s? Singer has been an individual version of that thus far in the 2020s. He made 12 solid starts as a rookie in 2020, tossed more than 150 innings with a 3.23 ERA in 2022 and is back in that same general vicinity thus far in 2024. The odd years in between were rough, but even-year Singer has been one of the better players drafted in 2018.

Roy Halladay G Fiume/Getty Images

Best Ever: RHP Roy Halladay (Toronto Blue Jays, 1995)

Doc Halladay was one of the last of a dying breed of rubber-armed aces. From 2003-11, he tossed 61 complete games, 17 of them shutouts. The next-closest pitcher was CC Sabathia with 31 and 12, respectively. (This despite Halladay’s missing a good chunk of 2004 with shoulder injuries and the second half of 2005 with a broken leg.)

In the process, Halladay won two Cy Youngs—one in Toronto, one in Philadelphia—and had five other top-five finishes in those votes. The eight-time All-Star won 203 games, threw the second no-hitter in postseason history and was posthumously named a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2019.

First Runner-Up: LHP Cole Hamels (Philadelphia Phillies, 2002)

From 2010-13, the Phillies had quite the one-two punch of pitchers drafted 17th overall. Both Halladay and Hamels received Cy Young votes in 2011, in what was one of four times the southpaw did so. He was never quite as dominant as Kershaw, Scherzer or Verlander, but Hamels was a consistently solid top-of-the-rotation arm for a long time, ending his career with numbers very similar to those of Mariners great Felix Hernandez.

Past Decade Division: IF Matt McLain (Cincinnati Reds, 2021)

No McLain yet in 2024 as he recovers from shoulder surgery, but he made quite the 89-game first impression last season, batting .290 while operating at a 162-game pace of 29 home runs and 25 stolen bases. Elly De La Cruz gets all the fanfare, but McLain might be the better Red when all is said and done.

Lance Berkman J. Meric/Getty Images

Best Ever: OF/1B Lance Berkman (Houston Astros, 1997)

A late arrival to Houston’s Killer B’s of the late 90’s, Berkman was quite the replacement for Derek Bell in that lineup. From 2001-08, Berkman hit .304 with 263 home runs and averaged 110 RBI per season. He never won an MVP, but he had four top-five finishes.

Berkman was also a career .317 hitter in his 52 postseason games, though it wasn’t until he went to St. Louis late in his career that he finally got a ring.

Berkman can’t hold a candle to Mickey Mantle or even Chipper Jones, but he was arguably one of the 10 best switch hitters to play the game.

First Runner-Up: OF Shawn Green (Toronto Blue Jays, 1991)

Lost somewhat in the shuffle of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds and all of the asterisk-filled home run chases, Green had one heck of a peak from 1998-2002, amassing 192 home runs and 107 stolen bases for that half-decade. He was thrice a top-10 vote-getter for MVP and a two-time All-Star who finished his career with an .850 OPS.

Past Decade Division: OF Corbin Carroll (Arizona Diamondbacks, 2019)

With all due respect to Berkman and Green, this is the pick where it feels most inevitable that the ‘past decade’ player eventually ascends to ‘best ever.’ Carroll has struggled to get into any sort of rhythm this season, but the 2023 NL Rookie of the Year relentlessly filled up the box scores last year with 54 stolen bases, 30 doubles, 25 home runs and 10 triples. Arizona sure is hoping that version of Carroll resurfaces soon.

Chase Utley Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

Best Ever: 2B Chase Utley (Philadelphia Phillies, 2000)

Slugging second basemen are a rare breed. Thus, with 259 career home runs, Utley was probably one of the 10 greatest second basemen of the past 50 years, if not in the history of Major League Baseball altogether.

Utley’s five-year peak from 2005-09 was some kind of special. Like, “Only Albert Pujols was more valuable for that half-decade” special. And though Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins are the Phils who won an NL MVP, Utley was actually the most valuable Phillie as they became a mini-dynasty for a little while. The six-time All-Star and four-time Silver Slugger may well be a Hall of Famer one day soon.

First Runner-Up: OF Jim Rice (Boston Red Sox, 1971)

Speaking of five-year peaks, Rice had a mighty fine one of his own three decades before Utley. From 1975-79, the career-long Red Sox outfielder batted .311 with 171 home runs and 570 RBI, winning AL MVP in 1978 and placing top five in that vote three other times. It wasn’t until the year after that dominant stretch that MLB started awarding Silver Sluggers, but the eight-time All-Star still managed to get two of those later in his career.

Past Decade Division: OF Trent Grisham (Milwaukee Brewers, 2015)

At the plate, Grisham hasn’t been anything special, well on his way to a third consecutive season batting below .200. He’ll homer on occasion, but not enough to get his career OPS over .700. But he does provide great defense in centerfield, winning Gold Gloves in both 2020 and 2022 while with the Padres.

Jason Heyward Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Best Ever: OF Jason Heyward (Atlanta Braves, 2007)

It’s probably jarring to see Heyward as the ‘best ever’ at anything after how often in the past half-dozen years we talked about his $184 million contract as one of the biggest busts of all-time.

There’s a reason he got that contract, though. Six years into his career, Heyward looked like a superstar in the making; an elite glove in right field with enough pop at the plate and speed on the basepaths to become an All-Star on an annual basis.

It didn’t work out that way, to put it lightly. But he still had a solid career, earning five Gold Gloves.

First Runner-Up: 1B Derrek Lee (San Diego Padres, 1993)

Lee was an above-average first baseman for the bulk of his career, but he kicked it up a few notches in 2005, winning a batting crown (.335) while racking up 50 doubles and 46 home runs. Didn’t quite match Albert Belle’s 52 doubles and 50 home runs from one decade prior, but a sensational campaign all the same—in which he also won a Gold Glove.

Past Decade Division: RHP Logan Gilbert (Seattle Mariners, 2018)

A strong honorable mention to Bryson Stott, who was taken 14th overall one year after Gilbert and was low key the best player for the Phillies last season. Slight edge, though, to the budding ace of the Mariners who is working on his third consecutive strong campaign. Exactly half (51) of the first 102 starts of his career have been quality starts.

Manny Ramirez Otto Greule Jr

Best Ever: OF Manny Ramírez (Cleveland Guardians, 1991)

Manny Ramírez was to Major League Baseball what Marshawn Lynch was to the National Football League: A dominant force of nature who made sure never to take life too seriously. There were countless “Manny being Manny” moments—like vanishing through the Green Monster to take a bathroom break in the middle of an inning—sprinkled throughout a remarkable career.

From 1998-2008, Ramírez was an All-Star in 11 consecutive seasons with nine top-10 finishes in MVP ballots. He triple-slashed .318/.417/.610 for more than a decade, averaging 43 home runs and 141 RBI per 162 games played.

First Runner-Up: LHP Chris Sale (Chicago White Sox, 2010)

We previously mentioned Mike Mussina as maybe the best pitcher to never win a Cy Young. Sale is in that conversation, too, as he was ridiculously good from 2012-18. He was an All-Star all seven years, as well as a recipient of Cy Young votes on an annual basis. His career was then derailed by injuries for a few years, but he is back with a vengeance this season in Atlanta, possibly to finally get that trophy.

Past Decade Division: SS Trea Turner (San Diego Padres, 2014)

Ah yes. Remember when the Padres drafted Turner and traded him to the Nationals that winter? Except back then, players couldn’t be traded until one year after signing their first contract, so he was a “player to be named later” who had already been unofficially named and spent the first half of the following season in the Padres farm system even though we all knew he was headed to the Nats as soon as possible? Good times. Anyway, he’s the clear choice here.

Nomar Garciaparra Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Best Ever: SS Nomar Garciaparra (Boston Red Sox, 1994)

Young “Nomah” was a sensation, right up there with Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez in what was annually an absurdly difficult choice for AL starting shortstop in the All-Star Game.

From 1997-2000, Garciaparra hit .337 while averaging just under 30 home runs per season. He was AL Rookie of the Year in ’97 and the AL batting champ in both ’99 and ’00, hitting an absurd .372 in the latter year.

Injuries then derailed what looked certain to be a Hall of Fame career. He always did hit well when healthy, though, ending his career with a .313 average.

First Runner-Up: LHP Billy Wagner (Houston Astros, 1993)

Wagner was a terror in the ninth inning. The seven-time All-Star had career marks of 2.31 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 11.9 K/9 and 4.0 K/BB, accumulating 422 saves in his 16-year career. Incredibly, he only had one season (2000) with an ERA north of 2.85, and that was only because he tried to pitch through what ended up being a torn flexor tendon. Save for that five-week rough stretch, Billy the Kid was consistently dominant.

Past Decade Division: 1B Josh Naylor (Miami Marlins, 2015)

One year after getting drafted by Miami, Naylor was traded to the Padres, where he later found his way to the majors as a corner outfielder. But for the past couple of years, he has been the slugging first baseman for Cleveland, batting .308 in a breakthrough 2023 campaign. The batting average has plummeted this season, but he’s on pace for roughly 40 home runs.

Max Scherzer Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Best Ever: RHP Max Scherzer (Arizona Diamondbacks, 2006)

For the first two years after trading Scherzer to the Tigers, it actually looked like the Diamondbacks won the trade. While Scherzer was just OK in Detroit, Ian Kennedy darn near won a Cy Young for the Snakes in 2011.

But then Scherzer became “Mad Max” and mowed down everything in his path for more than a decade. From 2013-22, he had a 2.78 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 11.3 K/9, winning three Cy Youngs and finishing top five in five other votes. The eight-time All-Star will likely be a first-ballot Hall of Famer five years after he hangs up his cleats for good.

First Runner-Up: OF Andrew McCutchen (Pittsburgh Pirates, 2005)

Could also make a case for George Springer (2011) here, but “Cutch” had one additional All-Star season, two more Silver Sluggers and has an MVP trophy that Springer never received. McCutchen is still playing reasonably well into his late 30s, too, well on pace for a 16th consecutive season with at least 10 home runs.

Past Decade Division: LHP Garrett Crochet (Chicago White Sox, 2020)

It was quite an impressive run on pitchers in this spot at the end of the last decade, with Grayson Rodriguez, Alek Manoah and Crochet going 11th in back-to-back-to-back drafts. Manoah would have been the clear choice here two seasons ago, and Rodriguez probably would’ve been the pick a few months ago. But Crochet has blossomed into quite the ace in his first year as a starter in the big leagues. Can’t wait to see what the White Sox get for him at the trade deadline.

Mark McGwire Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Best Ever: 1B Mark McGwire (Oakland A’s, 1984)

McGwire’s career was an asterisk inflated with steroids, but it sure was a fun ride.

Big Mac hit 49 home runs while winning AL Rookie of the Year in 1987, but it was the later career madness that will always stand out, clubbing 245 home runs in the span of just four years (1996-99).

Despite the 583 career home runs, McGwire never did win an MVP. Even when he hit 70 in 1998, Sammy Sosa won almost unanimously. But he was a 12-time All-Star who will join Sosa, Barry Bonds and Álex Rodríguez on the Mount Rushmore of the steroid era if they ever decide to add that wing in Cooperstown.

First Runner-Up: 3B Robin Ventura (Chicago White Sox, 1988)

Fans under the age of 40 probably only remember Ventura as the guy who got put in a headlock by Nolan Ryan and/or the guy who struggled for five years as the White Sox manager after Ozzie Guillen. But Ventura also won six Gold Gloves for his work at the hot corner and hit nearly 300 home runs in his 16-year career. (Honorable mention to Madison Bumgarner, whose dominance in the 2014 postseason will never be forgotten.)

Past Decade Division: OF Michael Conforto (New York Mets, 2014)

The past few years have been tough for Conforto, but there was a four-year stretch from 2017-20 where it looked like he was destined for the type of $162 million deal that the Mets later gave to Brandon Nimmo. Conforto was operating at a 162-game pace of 34 home runs and 95 RBI for those four years, which is a heck of a lot more than anyone selected 10th in the past 15 years can boast.

Kevin Appier Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images

Best Ever: RHP Kevin Appier (Kansas City Royals, 1987)

The No. 9 pick in the draft has produced a bunch of serviceable players, with 18 of them amounting to at least 5.0 bWAR.

For a top-10 pick, though, star power is considerably lacking, with Appier the clear choice here despite just one All-Star Game (1995) and one year receiving Cy Young votes (1993) in his career.

He deserved more respect, though. Despite pitching through the peak of the steroid era, Appier finished his career with numbers (3.74 ERA, 1.29 WHIP) nearly identical to those of CC Sabathia (3.74 ERA, 1.26 WHIP) and Mark Buehrle (3.81 ERA, 1.28 WHIP).

First Runner-Up: LHP Barry Zito (Oakland A’s, 1999)

Like previously mentioned Jason Heyward, it’s impossible to talk about Zito without being reminded of the $126 million contract that blew up in San Francisco’s face. But before his big sweeping curveball turned into a mashable cement mixer, Zito was a three-time All-Star who won a Cy Young as a 24-year-old with the A’s.

Past Decade Division: OF Ian Happ (Chicago Cubs, 2015)

Happ is having a bit of a rough go thus far in 2024, but he entered the season with a career OPS just a shade under .800. He was great during the truncated 2020 campaign and really hit his stride in 2022, just in time for contract negotiations, earning Gold Glove awards in each of the past two seasons.

Todd Helton Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Best Ever: 1B Todd Helton (Colorado Rockies, 1995)

For the entirety of his MLB career, Coors Field was Helton’s home stomping grounds. And goodness did that ever help get him into the Hall of Fame. Across his 17 seasons, he hit .345 with a 1.048 OPS at home compared to .287 and .855, respectively, on the road.

Granted, those road numbers are still solid. It’s not like he only hit well in Denver. He was also a three-time Gold Glove recipient on top of his career .316 batting average. But those are some of the wildest home/road splits you’ll ever see. Helton hit like Lou Gehrig at home and Scott Rolen everywhere else.

First Runner-Up: SS Francisco Lindor (Cleveland Guardians, 2011)

With more than seven years left on his mega contract with the Mets, Lindor might leapfrog Helton when all is said and done on his career. He is well on his way to 2,000 hits, 300 home runs and 200 stolen bases, all with a great glove at the most demanding position in baseball.

Past Decade Division: 3B Josh Jung (Texas Rangers, 2019)

From a purely wins above replacement perspective, both Kyle Freeland (2014) and Can Quantrill (2016) have been considerably more valuable than Jung. But while both of those current Rockies have been serviceable middle-tier starting pitchers for a while now, the Rangers third baseman has star potential—if he ever stops breaking bones in his hand/wrist. He was probably going to win AL Rookie of the Year last season if he hadn’t missed 40 games, and he came out on fire to start this season before landing on the IL for more than two months (and counting).

Clayton Kershaw Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Best Ever: LHP Clayton Kershaw (Los Angeles Dodgers, 2006)

Kershaw’s frequent struggles in October have been well-documented, but that’s because he is easily one of the greatest regular-season pitchers of all-time.

A 10-time All-Star with five ERA titles, three Cy Youngs, a Triple Crown and an MVP, Kershaw has a career ERA of 2.48 that feels borderline impossible. The only other pitcher in the past 35 years with at least 1,500 innings pitched and a sub-3.00 ERA is Pedro Martinez with a mark of 2.93.

If we ever develop the technology to hang a pitch in the Louvre, Kershaw’s 12-6 curveball will be there.

First Runner-Up: 1B Frank Thomas (Chicago White Sox, 1989)

Though he has been a spokesman for testosterone supplements over the past decade, the Big Hurt was one of the few sluggers from the steroid era who was never accused of juicing, batting .301 with 521 home runs en route to his spot in the Hall of Fame. Thomas was named AL MVP in both 1993 and 1994, slugging a ridiculous .729 in the latter, truncated season.

Past Decade Division: RHP Aaron Nola (Philadelphia Phillies, 2014)

It’s a toss-up between Nola, Trea Turner and Matt Chapman for who was the most valuable player drafted in 2014. However, there’s no debate whatsoever that the Phillies co-ace is the choice for this slot. His strikeout rate has waned considerably over the past few seasons, but he has remained a durable, top 20ish current starting pitcher with a career ERA of 3.71.

Barry Bonds Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Best Ever: OF Barry Bonds (Pittsburgh Pirates, 1985)

Say what you will about him in hindsight, but Bonds was going to go down as the greatest to ever play the game—until the steroids allegations irreparably tarnished his legacy.

Bonds was a 14-time All-Star, a 12-time Silver Slugger, eight-time Gold Glover and seven-time NL MVP en route to his mind-blowing combination of 762 home runs and 514 stolen bases. He is MLB’s all-time leader in home runs, walks drawn and (by a laughable margin) intentional walks, and you can count on one hand how many legends finished their careers with a higher OPS than Bonds’ 1.051.

First Runner-Up: So. Many. Great. Candidates.

Recently looking through the history of the No. 6 pick in the draft is what sparked the idea for this article.

Yes, Bonds is the no-doubter No. 1 choice, but he wasn’t the only member of the 500 HR club here. Gary Sheffield was taken sixth overall just one year after Bonds in 1986. Six years later was when “No. 2” (Derek Jeter) went at No. 6. One decade after that in 2002, it was Zack Greinke’s turn. And seven years after that Zack, another damn good one was taken sixth in Zack Wheeler. Andy Van Slyke (1979) and Anthony Rendon (2011) were also solid picks at No. 6, albeit afterthoughts compared to the main quintet.

If forced to pick a singular first runner-up, though, Jeter is the choice.

Past Decade Division: SS CJ Abrams (San Diego Padres, 2019)

The pre-2012 history of the No. 6 pick is rich with realized talent. More recently, though? Not so much. Jarred Kelenic and A.J. Puk had some moments, but the only player taken sixth in the past decade worth at least 1.0 bWAR so far was Abrams. One of the chips Washington got back from San Diego in the Juan Soto trade, Abrams had a breakthrough year in 2023 and has blossomed into even more of a star this year.

Dwight Gooden Photo by: Mike Powell/Getty Images

Best Ever: RHP Dwight Gooden (New York Mets, 1982)

Early career (pre-addiction) Gooden was unbelievable.

He won NL Rookie of the Year at 19 years young, and a Cy Young the following year with a minuscule 1.53 ERA.

Before even turning 25, “Doc” was a four-time All-Star with 100 career wins and a 2.64 ERA.

He was still better than average over the course of his next 10 seasons, but he was nowhere near the same wrecking ball on the mound.

First Runner-Up: C Buster Posey (San Francisco Giants, 2008)

If and when he gets into the Hall of Fame, Posey is going to be pretty low on the list of career plate appearances among Cooperstown’s residents. But he sure left a mark for his relatively short time in the majors, winning NL Rookie of the Year in 2010, as well as MVP and a batting title in 2012 and a trio of World Series before retiring at 34. He was a career .302 hitter and quite the stolen-base deterrent behind the dish, throwing out base stealers at a rate above the league average in every season that he played.

Past Decade Division: OF Kyle Tucker (Houston Astros, 2015)

Shoutout to Riley Greene (2019) as a younger star in the making, but Tucker has been one of the most valuable players in all of baseball dating back to the beginning of 2021. If he’s still the same hitter when he gets back from the leg injury sustained in early June, he’s one of the few players who might be able to chase down Aaron Judge for AL MVP.

Barry Larkin Stephen Dunn

Best Ever: SS Barry Larkin (Cincinnati Reds, 1985)

Nowadays, shortstops are almost expected to hit at least 15 home runs per season. But before the likes of Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra changed that narrative, Larkin was a premier slugger with 198 career home runs at what was otherwise a light-hitting position, winning nine Silver Sluggers from 1988-99.

The 12-time All-Star also stole nearly 400 bases in his career, including a 1996 campaign in which he had 33 homers and 36 swipes. That performance came the year after he was named NL MVP and at the end of his string of three straight years winning the Gold Glove.

First Runner-Up: OF Dave Winfield (San Diego Padres, 1973)

Kevin Brown is also a strong candidate here, but what’s great about Winfield’s legacy is the Padres drafted him to be a pitcher before immediately promoting him to the big leagues for his bat. We’re talking drafted in early June and made his MLB debut on June 19. And 22 years and 465 home runs later, the 12-time All-Star and seven-time Gold Glover made it to the Hall of Fame without ever throwing a single pitch.

Past Decade Division: OF Kyle Schwarber (Chicago Cubs, 2014)

Few have ever mastered the art of the three true outcomes quite like Schwarber. Among the 1,499 players in MLB history with at least 4,000 plate appearances, only Adam Dunn (49.9 percent) and Rob Deer (49.1 percent) have either homered, walked or struck out at a higher rate than Schwarber (48.6 percent). And Schwarber might pass them soon, as he has been north of 51 percent since the beginning of 2022.

Robin Yount and Paul Molitor Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Best Ever: SS/CF Robin Yount (Milwaukee Brewers, 1973) and DH/3B Paul Molitor (Milwaukee Brewers, 1977)

One benefit of the Pilots/Brewers going 614-836-2 in their first nine years of existence was consistently getting a top-six pick in the draft.

Some of those picks were great big duds. But this pair of No. 3 picks made four years apart eventually made it to the Hall of Fame.

Molitor was the more consistently productive of the two. He batted .306 for his career, thrice leading the league in hits and thrice leading the league in runs. He was a seven-time All-Star who ended up with 234 home runs and 504 stolen bases. But the closest he ever came to winning an MVP was in 1993 with the Blue Jays, after 15 good years with the Brewers.

Yount was only named an All-Star three times, but the 20-year Brewer won a pair of AL MVPs along the way, one in 1982 and the other in 1989. For his first 11 seasons in the majors, Yount never played any position other than shortstop. But then for his last nine years, he almost exclusively played centerfield. Don’t see that transition very often.

First Runner-Up: 3B Manny Machado (Baltimore Orioles, 2010)

By the end of his $350 million contract, there’s a decent chance Machado will leapfrog those two Brewers for the title of ‘best ever,’ as there’s a decent chance he’s going to finish his career with more home runs than they had combined. The Padres third baseman entered 2024 with 313 home runs, while Yount and Molitor combined for 485. Throw in the two Gold Gloves and the four times he almost won MVP and it has been a mighty fine career.

Past Decade Division: LHP Carlos Rodón (Chicago White Sox, 2014)

It took a while for Rodón to live up to the hype. After six seasons riddled with injury, he had a career ERA of 4.14 and was non-tendered by the White Sox. But they brought him back a couple months later, just in time for him to blossom into an ace. His first season with the Yankees (2023) was a massive bust, but he has bounced back to the Cy Young-caliber form he had in 2021-22.

Justin Verlander Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Best Ever: RHP Justin Verlander (Detroit Tigers, 2004)

Verlander is one of 11 pitchers in MLB history to win at least three Cy Young awards, and he easily could have had several more. He received at least 13 first-place votes in each of 2012, 2016 and 2018, but ended up in second place in three of the closest votes ever.

He did win three Cy Youngs, though, as well as AL Rookie of the Year in 2006 and AL MVP in 2011 for his marvelous Triple Crown campaign (24 wins, 2.40 ERA, 250 strikeouts). Only Verlander and Don Newcombe of Brooklyn Dodgers fame have won all three of those major awards.

First Runner-Up: OF Reggie Jackson (Kansas City A’s, 1966)

No one from MLB’s first draft in 1965 made the cut, and Jackson was the only player taken in the first round of the second draft that we’ve mentioned. But Mr. October sure did have an incredible regular-season career in addition to his well-documented World Series heroics. Jackson was a 14-time All-Star and the AL MVP in 1973, finishing his Hall of Fame career with 563 home runs.

Past Decade Division: SS Bobby Witt Jr. (Kansas City Royals, 2019)

Might enrage some fans in Houston with this selection, as Alex Bregman has had a damn good career since going second overall in the 2015 draft. But Witt is even more of a superstar three seasons into his career than Bregman was at that same juncture. If Aaron Judge ever cools off, Witt is the next-best candidate for AL MVP, this after placing seventh in that vote in his “sophomore” season.

Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. Otto Greule Jr

Best Ever: SS/3B Álex Rodríguez (Seattle Mariners, 1993)

Well, we’ve had Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire among our selections for ‘best ever.’

What’s one more complicated legacy for the road?

A-Rod was a three-time AL MVP who fell just a few dingers shy of 700 career home runs. Plenty of players had great five-year or seven-year peaks, but Rodríguez had a 15-year peak from 1996-2010 in which he received MVP votes 14 times, was an All-Star 13 times and was a Silver Slugger 10 times. He even won a pair of Gold Gloves in his final two years as a shortstop before shifting to third base.

He’ll never be a Hall of Famer, though, after admitting to using steroids.

First Runner-Up: OF Ken Griffey Jr. (Seattle Mariners, 1987)

No shortage of quality options here, as there have been 10 No. 1 picks worth at least 40 bWAR in their careers, including the still very good likes of Gerrit Cole, Carlos Correa and Bryce Harper.

For now, though, first runner-up is a toss-up between two no-brainer first-ballot Hall of Famers: Griffey or Chipper Jones (1990).

Jones certainly had the more consistent career, hitting at least 20 home runs in 14 consecutive seasons, usually with a batting average north of .300. He was named NL MVP in 1999 and received at least some MVP votes 12 other times in his career.

Give us Junior, though, because his first 12 years in the majors were sensational. The 1997 AL MVP won 10 Gold Gloves and eight Silver Sluggers, not to mention three Home Run Derbies.

Past Decade Division: RHP Paul Skenes (Pittsburgh Pirates, 2023)

Too soon? Yeah, probably. Especially with Adley Rutschman (2019), Dansby Swanson (2015) and Royce Lewis (2017) each drafted No. 1 overall recently enough to be included here. But Skenes has been an instant sensation less than one year after being drafted, just like Stephen Strasburg was back in 2010. Here’s hoping this phenom’s career is considerably less fraught with injury, though.