Gavin Cecchini and the recent history of first-round shortstops

The Mets picked SS Gavin Cecchini in the first round, as correctly forecasted by MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo. Cecchini becomes the first shortstop selected by the Mets in the first round since they grabbed the immortal Ryan Jaroncyk in 1995. It’s easy to poke fun at first-round draft picks that didn’t make it but recent history has proven that it’s a bad gamble to spend a first-round pick on a shortstop.

Many people like taking shortstops, as that is where teams typically put their most athletic players. If a player has to move off SS, he can still switch to just about any other spot on the diamond and still be a contributor, especially if his bat will play. David Wright was a shortstop in high school, but quickly moved to third base in pro ball.

Unfortunately, not many high school shortstops have David Wright’s bat and no one expects Cecchini to deliver much power. Here’s part of his scouting report from Baseball America:

” Cecchini’s best attributes are his steadiness and defensive skills at shortstop. He has good hands and feet as well as the infield actions to stay at short, and excels at cutoff throws and being in the right spot defensively. His arm strength is a tick above-average and unfailingly accurate. His speed is about the same and plays up like his arm–he’s a skilled baserunner who takes extra bases and steals bases intelligently. Cecchini’s bat involves some projection, though. Some scouts believe he will be a bottom-of-the-order hitter despite his polished approach because of a lack of strength and impact bat speed. Cecchini is one of the safer bets in the high school class due to his polish, but scouts are mixed on his true upside.”

So, his upside is a 30-SB version of Ruben Tejada.

Tejada is a fine player and Mets fans should be thrilled if Cecchini reaches that ceiling. But in a farm system with few impact hitters, it’s disappointing that with a relatively high draft pick, Sandy Alderson went for “one of the safer bets.” After gambling on upside with Brandon Nimmo last year, I was caught off guard by what the Mets did in the first round in 2012.

It is unrealistic to expect high school players to advance to the majors quickly. So let’s look at a time period which allows draftees to spend some time in the minors. I looked at the 10-year period from 1996 to 2005 and noted all of the guys drafted as shortstops in the first round. This gave us a sample of 35 players. How many of those 35 players do you think developed into impact players at shortstop?

Just one – Troy Tulowitzki.

There have been players who went on and found success at other positions, most notably the Upton brothers, but if you spend a first-round pick on a shortstop hoping for a guy to play the position in the majors and be a star – prepare to be disappointed.

Here’s a chart of all the players drafted at shortstop in the first round from ’96-’05:

Year Name Pick bWAR
2005 Justin Upton 1 11.5
2005 Troy Tulowitzki 7 25.8
2005 C.J. Henry 17 0.0
2005 Cliff Pennington 21 4.1
2005 Tyler Greene 30 0.5
2004 Matt Bush 1 0.0
2004 Chris Nelson 9 (-2.0)
2004 Stephen Drew 15 12.2
2004 Trevor Plouffe 20 (-1.5)
2003 Aaron Hill 13 17.5
2003 Brandon Wood 23 (-4.0)
2002 B.J. Upton 2 11.9
2002 Scott Moore 8 (-0.9)
2002 Drew Meyer 10 (-0.3)
2002 Khalil Greene 13 7.4
2002 Russ Adams 14 (-0.4)
2002 John McCurdy 26 0.0
2002 Sergio Santos 27 2.2
2001 Bobby Crosby 25 4.0
2001 Josh Burrus 29 0.0
2000 Luis Montanez 3 (-1.4)
2000 David Espinosa 23 0.0
2000 Corey Smith 26 0.0
1999 Corey Myers 4 0.0
1998 Felipe Lopez 8 6.0
1998 Josh McKinley 11 0.0
1998 Adam Everett 12 11.3
1997 Michael Cuddyer 9 10.7
1997 Brandon Larson 14 (-1.1)
1997 Jason Dellaero 15 (-0.9)
1997 Adam Kennedy 20 18.2
1997 Kevin Nicholson 27 0.1
1997 Troy Cameron 29 0.0
1996 Matt Halloran 15 0.0
1996 Joe Lawrence 16 (-1.1)

Seven players in our sample have posted a bWAR in double digits. Ten have a rank of 0.0 and another 10 are in negative numbers. That means 20 of our 35 first-round shortstops provided at best no value and Kevin Nicholson  at 0.1 was hardly any better. Our 35 drafted shortstops have combined for just seven All-Star seasons, four of those coming at a position besides shortstop. Only Tulowitzki (2) and Lopez (1) made the All-Star team as a shortstop.

Experts seem to think that Cecchini will stick at shortstop so wipe out those visions of either Upton or Cuddyer. If we’re lucky we’ll get Drew or Khalil Greene.

Perhaps drafting has gotten better in the last few years and the 1996-2005 class is no longer accurate to project guys drafted in 2012. That’s certainly a possibility and recent first-round draft picks Manny Machado (#11), Francisco Lindor (#37) and Javier Baez (#61) all are highly regarded by Baseball America in their 2012 Top Prospects list.

But Wood (#3), Drew (#5), Nelson (#26), Crosby (#32) and Lopez (#36) also were once ranked highly on BA lists and didn’t quite pan out the way their fans hoped.

There is no guarantee that any first-round pick will pay off in a big way. So you can play it safe or swing for the fences. The Cecchini pick falls in the former category. It seems like something we would have expected out of previous GM Omar Minaya, rather than Alderson.

You need solid major league players. One of the criticisms of the ’07-’10 Mets is that they had a collection of stars and stiffs. But this year’s team has one star hitter (Wright) and a bunch of solid MLB players. The Mets were in an excellent position to swing for the fences and instead they choked up and went the other way.

Nimmo may turn out to be a stiff that never makes it. He may also turn out to be a perennial All-Star. Cecchini doesn’t have the ceiling that Nimmo does and his floor is the exact same thing. Given the history of our 1996-2005 first-round shortstops, we cannot say he has a higher chance to reach the majors. Yes, you can remind me of the scouts’ opinions quoted from BA earlier in this article. But all of the players are seemingly stars on Draft Day.

I wish the Mets had gambled on being able to sign Lucas Giolito, instead. Giolito has the double whammy of being an injury risk, but the payoff if he reaches his ceiling is just so much higher than with Cecchini. I would prefer upside in the first round and safety with later picks.