When the Amateur Draft began in 1965 the only people who knew about the available talent were the Major League teams and their scouting staff. If you had a kid in your local area who was chosen it was likely a front page story in the sports section but drive 100 miles and likely no one knew who he was.
That started to change in 1981 when Baseball America, then known as the "All American Baseball News" published its first issue featuring University of Arkansas outfielder Kevin McReynolds on the cover. Founded by Canadian Allan Simpson, the magazine focused on amateur baseball and the professional leagues in Japan under the tagline, "Baseball News you can't get anywhere else."
In 1990 the magazine began publishing a Top 100 Prospect list, using information gathered from scouting and front office contacts throughout baseball. Their first number one was Braves lefthander Steve Avery, who went on to have a 13 year major league career although a 1993 arm injury kept him from reaching his full potential.
It's easier now to look back at the history of the draft and pick out players who either failed or exceeded their pre draft expectations, especially those post 1990.
Where we have to be careful in forming our opinions is how much weight should be given to things outside the player's control, such as injuries, trades, front office and organizational changes in development philosophies. We also have to give pause to where the information comes from because now it seems everyone with a blog does a list of some sort. While Baseball America and MLB.com are still the unquestioned leaders in the industry because of their deep contact lists there are others with no tie-ins to the sport whatsoever who have no shame in trying to sell us on the fact their list is better than those put out by the professionals.
The first year we'll look at is 1998. The first round saw 43 players chosen, with 30 making the majors which is a 69% success rate which sits right on the historical first round average. The second round saw 30 players chosen with 15 making the majors, which is slightly below historical average. It's difficult to look past the first round when looking at potential busts because not only is the hype much less but so are the signing bonuses and investments in development. The same is true for surprises too because the second round is expected to produce productive major league talent.
In terms of career WAR, the highest from the first round belongs to the still active CC Sabathia, chosen 20th overall by Cleveland. The highest for a position player is 44.9 by the JD Drew who went fifth overall to St. Louis. The leader in games played/appearances is 1640 by everyone's favorite whipping boy Pat Burrell, who went first overall to the Phillies.
In looking for draft success you have to look past the first few rounds, again, the higher the selection the higher the expectation of success. The 1998 draft saw 1446 players chosen over 50 rounds, so there were many options to chose from.
Aubrey Huff, fifth round by Tampa Bay, 13 years, 1681 career games.
Matt Holliday, seventh round by Colorado, 14 years, 1878 career games, 7x All Star, 2007 NL batting champ.
Jack Wilson, ninth round by St. Louis, 12 years, 23.5 career WAR
Juan Pierre, 13th round by Colorado, 14 years, 1994 career games, 4 200 hit seasons, 3x NL stolen base champ.
Nick Punto, 21st round by Philadelphia, 14 years, 28 career postseason games.
All of those players provided solid value as major league players although not all with the teams who signed them. The 1998 winner however is Mark Buerhle, who was chosen by the White Sox in the 38th round, the 1139th player chosen. Over the course of his 16 year career Buerhle won 214 games with the White Sox, Blue Jays and Marlins was a five time All-Star. Buerhle also registered two no-hitters in his career, one a perfect game. Buerhle becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2022 and there are some in the analytic community who believe he warrants consideration.
Honorable Mention: Erubiel Durazo. Durazo was born in Mexico and came to the States to attend high school. Undrafted, he attended Pima Community College in Tucson and posted a .434 career average in two seasons. Undrafted again when his class graduated in 1996, Durazo returned to Mexico and played two seasons there before being signed by the expansion Diamondbacks following the 1998 draft. Durazo spent four seasons as a reserve in Arizona including their Championship year of 2001 before being traded to Oakland where he spent two seasons as their full time DH.
The "bust" is somewhat easier simply because the list starts and stops with the first round. Sometimes a guy might drop to the second round over concerns of signability and it pays to look at them but no further.
Of the 13 players from the first round who didn't make it, none ever made a Top 100 list and I could only find brief comments about the Brewers first rounder (13th overall) JM Gold, a right handed pitcher out of Toms River, New Jersey.
The 1998 first round included Sean Burroughs and Drew Henson. I discount Henson because no one really considered him a prospect, including some in the Yankees front office. He appeared four times on Baseball America's Top 100 list, topping out at #9 in 2002. Henson would make the majors for eight games with the Yankees over two seasons, registering one hit in nine at bats.
Sean Burroughs, son of 1974 AL MVP Jeff and a Little League hero also appeared four times on a BA list, reaching #4 in 2002. Part of the hype surrounding Burroughs was his success on the national stage as a 12 year old and being his father's son but he also struggled with on field injuries as well as some off field issues. He played parts of seven seasons in the majors including two as the everyday third baseman for the Padres and was still playing Indy ball as recently as 2016.
But the clear winner of this dubious prize is Ryan Mills, a left-handed pitcher out of Arizona State University who was chosen sixth overall by the Minnesota Twins. Mills is the son of Dick Mills, who made two appearances for the 1970 Boston Red Sox.
Dick Mills operated a pitching camp in Phoenix which is now run by Ryan (pitching.com) which at the time was considered controversial because of it's then unknown philosophy of avoiding the "inverted W" in the pitching motion. Nowadays it's well known using the elbow to lead the arm back and then forward is a leading cause of injury but 20 years ago many thought Mills was a nut job.
Ryan pitched seven seasons in the Twins organization topping out with two at the Triple A level before being released.
Honorable mention to Chad Hutchinson, the Cardinals second round pick (26th overall). Hutchinson was a two sport star in high school and was chosen by the Atlanta Braves in 1995. A client of Scott Boras, they jerked the Braves around before deciding to attend Stanford. The starting quarterback at Stanford, Hutchinson left Stanford after being chosen by the Cardinals and eventually reached the majors, appearing in three games as a reliever. Hutchinson eventually left baseball and returned to football, reaching the NFL with both the Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears.