The old saying is it takes five years to evaluate a draft class, though I’ve always felt that’s a little generous. Three years is usually enough time to give teams an idea of what they have. There are always exceptions, but after three years, the prospects should have separated themselves from the suspects.
With the 2021 amateur draft set to begin this coming weekend, this is as good a time as any to go back five years and review the 2016 draft. That 2016 draft class has already produced one Cy Young winner and two Rookies of the Year, as well as a few World Series champions and a handful of All-Star Game selections.
Wins Above Replacement, or WAR, is neither perfect nor the definitive stat to measure performance. It does work very well for an exercise like this though. So, with an assist from Baseball-Reference, let’s review the 2016 draft class.
Top 10 players to date
The 2016 draft class was considered one of the weakest classes in recent memory at the time, and that has proven to be true five years later. The best players were all drafted outside the first round and only one player has eclipsed 10 WAR in his career. Five players had reached 10 WAR five years after the 2014 draft, by comparison. The shortened 60-game 2020 season plays in a role in that, but yeah, the 2016 draft doesn’t look any better than expected all these years later.
At UC Santa Barbara, Shane Bieber was a control pitcher without blow-you-away stuff, so much so that Baseball America wrote his “lack of a present plus pitch limits him to a back-of-the-rotation ceiling” in their pre-draft scouting report. Cleveland loved Bieber’s control and delivery, and his work ethic, and he made enormous gains under their pitcher development program. Bieber was in the big leagues two years after being drafted and won a Cy Young four years after being drafted.
In retrospect, it’s sort of amazing Bryan Reynolds was not drafted in the first round. He had an excellent track record at Vanderbilt and was an athletic switch-hitter with power and offensive upside. There were enough swing-and-miss concerns at the time to drop Reynolds into the second round, where the Giants grabbed him. Less than two years later they sent him to the Pirates as the headliner in the Andrew McCutchen trade. Reynolds made his MLB debut in April 2019 and has been among the game’s most productive outfielders since, even with a weak 2020.
The “Stanford Swing” was still a thing when Tommy Edman played for The Cardinal. Stanford’s old coaching regime preached a one-size-fits-all swing that was level and geared toward the opposite field, and more or less negated power. By no means is Edman a power hitter, though the Cardinals were able to coach the Stanford out of his swing in the minors, and now he’s a pesky switch-hitter who has played every position other than pitcher, catcher, and first base with St. Louis. Playing multiple positions inflates Edman’s WAR a bit, though he is a quality big leaguer.
Injuries hampered Pete Alonso during his freshman and sophomore years at Florida, though his massive power was always evident. In fact, Alonso hit the first ever home run to dead center field at TD Ameritrade Park in 2015. The ballpark, which opened in 2011, hosts the College World Series each year and is very spacious and pitcher friendly. Alonso was essentially a power-only prospect at the time of the 2016 draft, and the Mets believed in the power enough to select him in the second round. Three years later he set an MLB rookie record with 53 home runs, and he’s made himself into a solid defensive first baseman.
As a high schooler in Florida, Bo Bichette was difficult to scout because opposing teams never pitched to him. He got the Barry Bonds treatment and was intentionally walked on the regular. That plus some swing funkiness (Bichette still has an exaggerated load at the plate) caused him to fall out of the first round despite obvious offensive upside and big-league bloodlines. It did not take Bichette long to develop into one of the game’s top prospects, and he’s been among the most productive shortstops in baseball since making his MLB debut in July 2019.
Similar to Bieber, Zac Gallen was a command pitcher in college, and it wasn’t until he learned his trademark cutter from his pitching coach at North Carolina that he really jumped onto the draft map. The Cardinals selected him in the third round and traded him to the Marlins less than two years later as part of the Marcell Ozuna deal. Miami then sent him to the Diamondbacks for Jazz Chisholm two years later. Gallen has retained his above-average command while improving his stuff in pro ball, and he’s been good to great in parts of three MLB seasons now.
Cavan Biggio was a very good college player at Notre Dame whose modest tools played up because he reads the game well and is very instinctual, as you’d expect from the son of a Hall of Famer. Questions about his ability to catch up to premium velocity persist, though Biggio has settled in as a productive hitter who isn’t desperate for a platoon partner and can play just about every position other than shortstop and catcher (and pitcher). The Blue Jays really hit the jackpot with the sons of former big leaguers in the 2016 draft.
The Dodgers held three of the top 36 picks in 2016 (their own first rounder, a compensation pick for losing Zack Greinke to free agency, and a compensation pick for failing to sign 2015 first rounder Kyle Funkhouser) and they used the Greinke pick on Will Smith, Funkhouser’s teammate at Louisville. Louisville had a stacked roster at the time (Funkhouser, Corey Ray, Nick Solak, etc.) and Smith benefitted from the extra scouting exposure. He always hit in college and was a good defender behind the plate, and Los Angeles helped him unlock his power once he got into pro ball.
The 2016 draft was a good year for prospects with big league bloodlines. Bichette and Biggio are the sons of former big leaguers, and Zach Plesac’s uncle, Dan Plesac, played 18 years in the show and was an All-Star closer. Plesac (Zach, not Dan) battled an arm injury his draft year at Ball State and slipped into the 12th round, and never once did Baseball America rank him among Cleveland’s top 30 prospects during his time in the farm system. Similar to Bieber, Plesac made significant gains under Cleveland’s pitching development gurus, and is now a rock solid MLB starter.
Cleveland landed three of the 10 best players (and three of the four best pitchers) to date in the 2016 draft, and did not select any of them in the top two rounds. Getting three major league starters, including one Cy Young winner, in a single draft class is a massive success. Aaron Civale starred at Northeastern and, like Bieber, was a command guy who improved the quality of his stuff considerably in pro ball. No team turns unheralded pitching prospects into above-average big leaguers like Cleveland.
Only one other 2016 draftee, Braves righty Ian Anderson, has cleared 4 WAR in his career (Anderson is at 4.2 WAR). Anderson was the No. 3 overall pick out of an Albany area high school and is the only true first-round pick among the top 11 players in the draft class by WAR (Smith was a supplemental first rounder). High school righties are a risky bunch but it sure looks like Atlanta found a keeper in Anderson.
Brewers righty Corbin Burnes (3.3 WAR as a fourth rounder) and Athletics catcher Sean Murphy (3.0 WAR as a third rounder) are the only other 2016 draftees to reach 3 WAR in their careers. Gavin Lux (2.8 WAR as the No. 20 pick), reigning AL Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis (2.6 WAR as the No. 11 pick), and Tony Gonsolin (2.4 WAR as a ninth-round pick) should clear the 3 WAR threshold before the end of the season.
Best picks after the 10th round
First-round picks get all the attention and understandably so, but late-round picks are often the difference between contenders and pretenders. The ability to find hidden gems and turn those late round picks into useful big-league players (even if they’re middle relievers or bench players) can make a huge difference in a pennant race. Plesac is, by far, the best player drafted after 10th round (the rounds tied to the bonus pool) in 2016. Here are other notable late round picks from that year.
It’s somewhat incorrect to say Anthony Bender is a late-round success story. The Royals selected him in the 20th round out of a California junior college in 2016, then released him three years later. Bender started 2019 in an independent league, latched on with the Brewers in May, pitched at three minor-league levels before being released after the season, spent 2020 in an independent league, then signed with the Marlins this past offseason. He has been a revelation since his callup in May, racking up strikeouts and ground balls with his high velocity, high spin sinker/slider combination out of the bullpen. Miami signed Bender as a free agent but he is technically a late-round success story, so I’ll include him here.
Daniel Castano went from the Cardinals to the Marlins in the Ozuna trade with Gallen, and he made his MLB debut last year amid Miami’s COVID outbreak. He is still essentially the same pitcher he was at Baylor (lefty with three usable pitches), but he’s a cheap and serviceable back-end starter at a time when teams need all the pitching depth they can muster. Castano made four starts for the Marlins earlier this year before landing on the injured list with a shoulder impingement.
Nate Lowe was never considered much of a prospect in college or early in his pro career. It wasn’t until 2018, when he tweaked his swing and got into better shape, that Lowe put himself on the map. He reached the big leagues in 2019, though with Ji-Man Choi and Yandy Díaz entrenched at first base, the Rays cashed Lowe in as a trade chip this past offseason and sent him to the Rangers. He’s now settling in as a productive lefty first base bat who can hold his own against southpaws. Lowe is the best player drafted after the 10th round in 2016 other than Plesac.
Sometimes a reliever and sometimes a starter at South Carolina, Taylor Widener moved into the rotation full-time with the Yankees, and pitched well enough early in his pro career to become a tradeable prospect. New York sent him to the Diamondbacks in a three-team trade with the Rays that netted the Yankees infielder Brandon Drury. Widener had a difficult 2019 season in Triple-A but bounced back to make his MLB debut in 2020, and be part of Arizona’s Opening Day rotation in 2021.
Jury still out
Even though players are getting to the big leagues and making an impact quicker than ever before, there are several 2016 draftees who are either still developing in the minors or just now getting their feet wet in the majors. These players aren’t busts. They’re still developing. Here are five 2016 draftees who are on the cusp of making a name for themselves.
There were times when it looked like Jay Groome could be the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft. He slipped to the Red Sox and the No. 12 pick because there were some off-the-field makeup concerns, and also because he was committed to Vanderbilt, and it can be difficult to sign players away from the Commodores. Boston paid Groome a $3.65 million bonus, though it wasn’t until last month that he eclipsed 100 career innings because of injuries (including Tommy John surgery) and the pandemic. Groome remains highly regarded but has a lot of catching up to do after missing so much developmental time.
There is a huge disconnect between what Carter Kieboom can be and what Carter Kieboom has been in his various MLB looks. He’s dominated the Triple-A level throughout his career and has ranked among the game’s best prospects multiple times, but he’s been sub-replacement level in 46 games with the Nationals. He’s currently at Triple-A, a level where he has nothing left to prove. Kieboom is still only 23 and middle infielders who can bang will keep getting opportunities. It seems likely his next opportunity will have to come with another team, however. He’s a classic change-of-scenery candidate.
The son of former NBA player Rich Manning, Matt Manning was the prototypical projectable high school pitcher when the Tigers drafted him out of the Sacramento area. He steadily climbed the minor-league ladder and spent last season at Detroit’s alternate site, and he made his MLB debut last month. It hasn’t gone well at all (8.16 ERA in his first three starts), though Manning is hardly the first young pitcher to get hit around in his first taste of the big leagues. Our R.J. Anderson ranked the 23-year-old the No. 28 prospect in baseball coming into the season.
During his time at Florida, AJ Puk was one of those pitchers who looked like he would never give up a hit. He’s physically huge, he throws very hard, and his slider is vicious. The Athletics summoned him to the big leagues to help their bullpen down the stretch in 2019 and he fanned 13 in 11 innings, but he’s mostly been hampered by injuries in his career, including Tommy John surgery. Puk turned 26 in April and there’s way too much talent here to cast him aside. It is fair to wonder whether the potential will ever turn into consistent production though.
At one time Astros righty Forrest Whitley was the No. 1 pitching prospect in baseball. He dominated at three levels as a 19-year-old in 2017, but injuries limited him to only 136 2/3 innings from 2018-19, then he spent 2020 at Houston’s alternate site. Whitley blew out his elbow in spring training and will spend this year rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. He turns 24 in September and still possesses tremendous upside, so it would be silly to give up on him entirely despite all the physical setbacks.
Inevitably, some high 2016 draft picks simply have not worked out. That’s baseball. Here are some of the most notable busts from the 2016 draft class.
It’s too bad he isn’t working out, because “Mickey Moniak” is an outstanding baseball name. There was no clear-cut No. 1 prospect in the 2016 draft class and the Phillies chose Moniak with the No. 1 pick because they believed he offered the best combination of upside and financial flexibility (he signed for $6.1 million, well below the $9.015 million slow value). In the five years since, Moniak has put up a sub-.300 on-base percentage in the minors and been unimpressive in 19 big-league games. There’s still a chance he can carve out a career as a lefty platoon bat, though it is clear at this point Moniak won’t come close to meeting the expectations that come with being the No. 1 pick in the draft.
At his Kansas high school, Riley Pint touched 102 mph during his draft year, and even flashed three potentially above-average secondary pitches. He drew Justin Verlander comparisons at the time and the Rockies paid him a $4.8 million signing bonus. Pint developed the yips in pro ball, however, and battled injuries as well. He never advanced above High Class-A and announced his retirement last month. In parts of six minor-league seasons the right-hander had a 5.56 ERA with 134 walks in 166 2/3 innings.
Ray starred at Louisville and the questions at the time of the draft were about his long-term defensive home, not his bat. He was named Double-A Southern League MVP in 2018, though he’s been hurt and ineffective since, and he’s struck out in roughly 30 percent of his minor-league plate appearances. Ray turns 27 in September and made his MLB debut earlier this year. At this point, he’s a long shot to put together a big-league career as anything more than an up-and-down platoon outfielder.
The ones who got away
As always, many players who were drafted in 2016 did not sign professional contracts. They opted to go to college (or return to college) and re-enter the draft in future years. And, inevitably, some players who did not sign in 2016 went on to become top prospects in future years. Here are the biggest names who did not sign in 2016.
On talent, Hunter Bishop could have been a top three rounds pick in 2016, but questions about his signability and hit tool dropped him to the 24th round, where the Padres selected him out of a California high school. Mechanical tweaks in his draft year at Arizona State turned his bat speed into usable game power and prompted the Giants to select Bishop with the No. 10 pick in the 2019 draft. His brother, former Mariners outfielder Braden Bishop, is also in Giants organization. Bishop (Hunter, not Braden) ranked near the back of most top 100 prospect lists coming into this season.
Despite not being a highly regarded prospect as a high schooler on Florida’s panhandle, JJ Bleday developed into a dominant hitter at a top college program (Vanderbilt). A monster junior season (.347/.465/.701 with 27 homers in 71 games) earned him a $6.67 million signing bonus from the Marlins as the No. 4 pick in the 2019 draft. The Padres took a look at him as their 39th-round pick in 2016 but couldn’t buy him away from the Commodores. Our R.J. Anderson ranked Bleday as the No. 33 prospect in the minors before the season.
The track record of high school catchers in pro ball is not good at all, so unless you’re a tippy-top prospect, you’re probably better off going to college and developing your game there for a few years. The Blue Jays drafted Shea Langeliers out of his Texas high school in 2016, but he didn’t sign, and after three years at Baylor, the Braves made him the No. 9 pick in the 2019 draft. Langeliers has a well-rounded defensive game and is showing big time power in Double-A this year. You can find him near the back of most top 100 prospect lists this year.
Nick Lodolo was, by far, the highest drafted player in 2016 to not sign. The Pirates selected him out of a California high school with the No. 41 pick that year, but the two sides couldn’t agree to terms, and Lodolo followed through on his commitment to TCU. Three years later he was the first pitcher selected in the 2019 draft. The Reds grabbed him with the No. 7 pick and paid him a little more than $5.4 million. Our R.J. Anderson ranked Lodolo the No. 39 prospect in baseball coming into the season.
Long before he was the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft and long before he starred at Oregon State, the Mariners selected Adley Rutschman out of an Oregon high school in the 40th round of the 2016 draft. He was a known commodity at the time. Had teams considered Rutschman signable, he likely would’ve been selected in the top five rounds somewhere. Instead, Seattle took a shot in the 40th round because why not? Rutschman went to school, won a National Championship and was named College World Series Most Outstanding Player in 2018, and is now with the Orioles and the top prospect in the minors.