Derek Jeter isn't the best player of the past 50 years. I don't think that's a very controversial opinion, even if I'm addressing a roomful of Yankee fans. One of the best? Without question. But if you use Baseball Reference's WAR rankings, Jeter is the 20th-best position player ever drafted. He has to contend with Mike Schmidt, Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, and others.
But Jeter is the greatest draft pick of all-time. We're going to make a distinction between best player and best draft pick here. They don't call the place where they make draft selections the WAR room. I mean, they kind of do. So maybe that's a confusing point. But let me explain what a great draft pick is. And I'll use one of my favorite rhetorical techniques: rambling.
Teams that have one of the first 10 picks of the draft had to lose a lot of games to get that privilege. Their fans just went through 162 games of bad hitting, bad pitching, bad managing … and the odds are pretty good that the team is awful again during the season they use the draft pick.
The NFL and NBA drafts have a ton to do with the short term. Need a center? Draft one. Plug him in right away. Problem solved. And that allows for short-term dreams. An NBA team can go from bad to good within a single year on the strength of one draft pick; a good draft can turn an NFL team around in a single year. In the NHL … look, I'll be honest with you, I think they have a draft, but I'm not sure. They don't even use a ball in that sport. We should probably just move on.
But the baseball draft isn't about quick fixes. With a few rare exceptions -- the Stephen Strasburgs of the world -- the players picked in the Rule 4 draft on Monday aren't going to show up for at least a couple of years. The vast majority of them won't show up in the majors at all. Teams can't count on them for the following season. Heck, if two homegrown, above-average starters come out of 50 picks, that's a successful draft.
The draft in baseball isn't about what the team is going to be like the next season, or the season after that. It's something larger -- how the organization is going to accumulate talent for a distant season. Some of it will come through free agency, some will come through trades, and the draft is just one component of that larger roster puzzle.
Things are a little different at the top of the draft, though. After all of the losing to get a high draft pick, fans can dream big about that player. The first few picks of a draft are oases in the desert of sucking. You can kick back and think about the ways that one prospect is going to improve the fortunes of the franchise. Mark Appel can lead the next great Astros rotation. Gerrit Cole can take the Pirates to the playoffs. Bryce Harper can hit in the middle of the order for the next 20 years.
The ultimate best-case scenario of a draft pick isn't just about a sustained level of All-Star and MVP-caliber play, though that certainly is the main point. But we're talking about best-case scenarios. You can dream bigger. The best-case scenarios include a championship or five. with the draft pick serving as a chunk of the foundation. The best-case scenarios have to do with players becoming synonymous with a franchise, like Banks with the Cubs, Aaron with the Braves, or Williams with the Red Sox.
And Jeter did that. He did all of it. The Yankees drafted him 20 years ago after losing 91 games. The season before, they lost 95 games. It was the lowest point of the franchise in almost 30 years. And while it was going on, the Yankees had high draft choices that allowed their fans to think "Man, wouldn't it be something if this kid could turn the franchise around." And after he showed up, they never had a losing season again. They missed the playoffs once.
This makes Jeter the best draft pick ever. Tied with Chipper Jones and Barry Larkin, if you want to get technical. Those two qualify for the title as well -- top-of-the-draft prospects who accompanied the sea change in their organization's fortunes, won a championship or two, and became synonymous with the team. They'll all be around their respective franchise for the next 20, 30, and 40 years. There will still be ballpark promotions centered around them. People will still be wearing their jerseys to games, and the numbers on their backs will be the same numbers hanging on the outfield wall.
Chipper and Larkin would have fit this piece just as well, but I centered it around Jeter because a) I figured it would annoy a lot more people, and b) usually when you slobber over Jeter like this, you get a gift basket. I'm hoping for some fancy almonds.
But players like Jeter, Jones, and Larkin are what teams are looking for on Monday. The teams are looking for hits and home runs and wins, sure, but they're also looking for a change in the direction of the franchise. They're looking for the player to be a part of something bigger, while at the same time becoming a piece of the lore and tradition of the franchise. That's the big dream. That's the best-case scenario for these teams going through a particularly miserable stretch.
For a few minutes in 1992, Yankees fans took the time to wonder what could be. They would have done it if the Yankees had drafted Jeffrey Hammonds or Chad Mottola. They had no idea. And when the teams put in their picks for the 2012 Rule 4 Draft on Monday, they and their fans will be looking for the next Derek Jeter, even if the next Ray Durham would be something of a coup.