MLB: Challenges and pitfalls are plentiful in draft

Former Cleveland pitcher Cliff Lee throws against Minnesota in the first inning a game in Cleveland in 2004. In the 2000 draft, the Montreal Expos selected Lee, Grady Sizemore, Jason Bay and Russell Martin, but none of those four standouts ever played a game for the Expos.

Associated Press

The top draft class of the past two decades is now a mere footnote in baseball history. Its players began scattering almost immediately, and many fans probably have no idea that they were all once drafted by the same team. Plus, that team doesn’t even exist anymore.

In 2000, the Montreal Expos selected Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, Jason Bay and Russell Martin. In hindsight, it was a group that could have potentially altered the franchise’s fortunes. In reality, it was another missed opportunity for baseball in Quebec.

None of those four standouts ever played a game for the Expos.

“It’s kind of just something that we have to live with,” said Jim Fleming, who was the Expos’ scouting director in 2000 and later went to the Marlins. “Sometimes we didn’t get to keep them.”

A common cliche about baseball is that it’s a game of failure because the best only get hits 30 percent of the time. Now imagine being a scouting director when the draft rolls around. Hundreds of players are chosen, but only a small number make significant contributions at the major league level.

Even if you defy the odds and make several great picks, that’s only a start.

Using the search engine at Baseball-Reference.com, The Associated Press reviewed every team’s draft history since 1996, the first year Arizona and Tampa Bay — the most recent expansion teams — participated in the process. Eleven players taken by Montreal in 2000 have played in the majors, and they’ve been worth 142.8 wins above replacement in their careers, the highest WAR of any draft class for any team in the sample. (Stats for this review were through May 25, a relevant point since Martin is still playing at age 36.)

What makes that Montreal class even more remarkable is that none of its four best players were taken in the first round. Sizemore went in the third round, Lee in the fourth, Bay in the 22nd and Martin in the 35th.

“I was the scouting director for four years with the Expos and then I ran the department with the Marlins, and it seems like all of the drafts I was associated, the best guys we got were always our second pick,” Fleming said. “Some of our first-round picks haven’t been quite as good. But as long as you get good ones, it doesn’t matter.”

Sizemore was Montreal’s second pick in 2000.

“In our situation with the Expos and the Marlins, we had to shoot high. We had to get our good players out of the draft, and so we took more chances. Maybe higher-risk but high-payoff guys,” Fleming said. “Grady Sizemore’s a perfect example. A high school kid from the Northwest that was going to play football, but he was a heck of an athlete, and a competitor, so we thought he had all of the ingredients, so you take the chance. And the payoff was good — not for us, but for Cleveland it was.”

Indeed, it was other teams that reaped most of the benefits from Montreal’s 2000 class. The Expos didn’t sign Martin. He went back in the draft and was taken by the Dodgers two years later. By 2002, there was talk about contracting the Montreal franchise. A new front office traded Bay that March.

Then Lee and Sizemore were dealt to Cleveland that June in a trade that brought Bartolo Colon to the Expos. Montreal was in the race for a postseason spot but ultimately fell well short. Three years later, the Expos were the Washington Nationals.

The fate of Montreal’s picks from 2000 underscores how difficult it can be to turn draft choices into big league success. Even top picks need more development before reaching the majors, and the process of building a successful team is full of pitfalls.

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