By Nick Shepkowski-
(CBS) Back in the early ’90s I had it all planned out: I would collect as many Todd Van Poppel rookie cards as possible and pay for college with the money I made from selling them after his surefire Hall of Fame career.
Update: Those cards now sit somewhere in my old bedroom closet collecting dust as I continue making a payment to Sallie Mae each month and will continue to do so for some time. Todd Van Poppel did spend parts of nine seasons in the big leagues but finished his career at the age of 32 with a career ERA of 5.58. He was one of the several “sure things” in baseball’s draft who never lived up to the hype.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and both the Cubs and White Sox hold top-four picks in this year’s draft with many fans of both squads hoping their team calls a pitcher’s name with their first-round selection on Thursday night.
Yes, an ace pitcher is nearly impossible to find, and some, like Justin Verlander, have been discovered with early first-round picks since 2000. But for every Verlander (No. 2 overall to Detroit in 2005) or David Price (No. 1 overall by Tampa Bay in 2007), there are several more whose careers go the way of Adam Johnson (No. 2 overall to Minnesota in 2000, with a 10.25 career ERA in nine MLB games) or Mark Rogers (No. 5 overall to Milwaukee in 2004, with just 11 career MLB appearances).
Since 2000, there have been 37 pitchers selected with top-five overall draft picks. Of those, Verlander, Price, Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole stick out as top-tier pitchers (or on pace to become one), but that’s a grand total of four of the 37. Other “can’t miss” guys like Bryan Bullington (No. 1 overall to Pittsburgh in 2002), Phillip Humber (No. 3 overall to New York Mets in 2004) and Luke Hochevar (No. 1 overall to Kansas City in 2006) are all over this list. It’s great to think just because a guy is a top-five pick that he’s bound to be the next perennial Cy Young candidate, but that’s that simply couldn’t be further from the truth.
Now, All-Star appearances aren’t the be-all-end-all in determining how good a pitcher is, but since 2000, of those now 37 pitchers to be selected in the top five, just four of them have made it to an All-Star Game (Verlander, Price, Strasburg and Mark Prior). And as those in Chicago well know, Prior, who was believed to have the so-called “perfect mechanics,” couldn’t stay healthy enough to remain in the big leagues for long.
Last year we saw the Cubs pass on the chance to select Jon Gray with the second overall pick and instead go with what might be a very big bat for years to come in Kris Bryant, a selection that took many by surprise.
Tomorrow the White Sox will pick third overall, with the Cubs right behind them at fourth. As tempting as it may be for them to try and add that “next ace” to their farm system in a draft that is believed to be pitching heavy, I’ll be the last person complaining if one or both select position players.
Nick Shepkowski is the associate producer of McNeil and Spiegel on 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @Shep670.