The Indians have had some success in the early rounds in recent seasons as first round draft picks from 2008 (Lonnie Chisenhall), 2011 (Francisco Lindor) and 2012 (Tyler Naquin) have already made a big impact in the Majors while others were used to trade for Major League assets including 2010 first rounder Drew Pomeranz (for Ubaldo Jimenez), 2013 first choice Clint Frazier and supplemental 2014 pick Justus Sheffield (for Andrew Miller). In the most recent seasons, the Indians picked up their current two top pitching prospects in the first round in 2015 in Brady Aiken and Triston McKenzie and 2014 first rounder, Bradley Zimmer, just made his MLB debut.
That being said, it hasn’t always been good. In fact, it’s almost always been really bad. Only about 40% of the Indians first round picks have even made it to the Majors, showing how difficult the journey is even if you are given all the advantages and expectations of a first round pick. The Indians don’t have a first round pick in 2017 thanks to the signing of Edwin Encarnacion, so we already know that no new players will be added to this list, but the list that follows contains the worst of the worst.
To begin, expectations aren’t as high for those picked in the second half of the first round since most of baseball selected their favorites first, so those picks after 15 are excluded from insult. Also, since the secondary June draft and January draft of old days weren’t as important as the June draft that remains today, those players aren’t held to as high of a standard, although they are included.
10. Michael Aubrey – 11th Overall in June 2003
Jim Thome left the Indians after the 2002 season, so obviously the search for the next Thome would begin in the 2003 draft. Aubrey became the “first baseman of the future” after hitting 15 home runs in 2004 between Akron (AA) and Kinston (A+) and after a few bad seasons, rejoined the MLB thought process after a solid year in AAA Buffalo in 2008, earning him a September call-up. While he did hit two home runs in 15 games, it wouldn’t be enough to get him back to the Majors in 2009 and he was sold to Baltimore in June of that year. He actually played well for Baltimore for 31 MLB games, but was let go at the end of a full season in AAA Norfolk and ended his career after a spending a season in the Nationals’ farm system as Washington tried to turn him into an outfielder for some reason. Luckily for the Indians, they got their next Thome from Texas in exchange for Einar Diaz.
9. Brian Howard – 2nd Overall in June Secondary 1982
The Indians have had plenty of bad years, yet somehow have never picked first overall in the primary June draft and just four times in the other drafts (three times in January, once in June secondary). They’ve picked second seven times and have been pretty successful with Rick Manning, Greg Swindell and Paul Shuey coming in that spot. Howard was not a success.
You might not know if you can sign a player that you draft late in the first and don’t expect to sign a player take in the latter half of the draft, but if you have the second overall pick you should be pretty sure you can sign a guy. In the case of Howard, he didn’t sign after being taken second overall, joining the Pirates a year later instead. What makes him a truly bad pick? He played all of 27 games in minor league baseball, all at low A before leaving the game.
8. Michael Weaver – 6th Overall in June 1968
The amateur draft didn’t begin until 1965, but it provided an opportunity for small market teams like Cleveland to have an equal chance at grabbing the top prospects around the league. Given the 6th pick (out of just 20 total) in 1968, the Indians had a great chance to improve the club and had a big swing and a miss.
Taken just two picks after Thurman Munson, Weaver would play in the Indians farm system through 1973, never making it past AA. In fact, he played only 20 total games even as far as AA. He had some speed, stealing over 100 bases in 337 games and even hit for a decent average, but was released after the 1973 season and never picked up with another team.
7. John Bohnet – 7th Overall in June 1979
We always hear about the dangers of rushing prospects to the Majors, but the Indians haven’t tried it in so long that the warning often falls on deaf ears. This may have been such a case. Drafted out of highschool, Bohnet dominated short season ball with a 1.98 ERA and 9.9 K/9 at 18 years old, then continued to succeed through AA at age 20. In 1982, the Indians needed a starter and called up Bohnet from AAA at 21 years old. He made three starts, posted a 6.94 ERA and never pitched in the Majors again. In 1983 he tried to return to AAA, but struggled and spent the majority his last two professional years pitching poorly in AA Buffalo. This wasn’t necessarily a bad pick, but poor prospect development .
6. Mark Snyder – 12th Overall in June 1982
The Indians deserve a slight pass on this one as the 1982 draft was dreadful as the second best first rounder was Ron Karkovice and the only great player, Doc Gooden, was taken well before the Indians’ selection. Even still, most of the first rounders eventually played in the Majors and they certainly made it to low A. That was not the case with Snyder.
After starting in short season A ball in 1982, Snyder pitched just two games before he lost the rest of ’82, all of 1983 and most of 1984 with injury. Back in Batavia in 1985, the 21 year old Snyder made five starts and allowed an 11.49 ERA before leaving the game for good. Wasting a first round pick on Barry Bonds or Barry Larkin (who were both taken in round two, but didn’t sign) would have been better just for the story even if they didn’t sign.
5. Mike Poehl – 9th Overall in June 1985
The late 1980’s were good for the Indians in the draft. They picked up Albert Belle in 1987, Charles Nagy in 1988 and Jim Thome in 1989. The earlier half of the decade was not so nice and Poehl could be the poster child. The starting pitcher threw well in his first two seasons at the low levels, then after an adjustment period, pitched well in AA in 1988, but only pitched in 9 games that year and 3 the next thanks to injuries. After four poor games a level lower in 1990, he was released and claimed by the Royals. He didn’t fit in much better there as Kansas City tried a failed experiment to turn him into a reliever at high A. He left baseball after the 1991 season.
4. Glenn Tufts – 5th Overall in June 1973
The top of the 1973 draft was stacked with Robin Yount going third and Dave Winfield going fourth right before the Indians picked Tufts. A high school pick, Tufts started in rookie ball, where he failed miserably before missing all of 1974. Back in ’75, he had a very average season at A ball, earning him another season in San Jose. Through 1977 he would play mostly in A ball with short call-ups to AA where he was unable to put anything together, hitting .163/.314/.196 as a 22 year old before being given his release.
3. Daron Kirkreit – 11th Overall in June 1993
While the 1993 draft wasn’t necessarily Hall of Fame laden after #1 (Alex Rodriguez), there were six first rounders with a career MLB WAR greater than 20 and 28 of 42 picked made it to the Majors. One of those who didn’t was the Indians pick Kirkreit (7 others were in the supplemental stage of round one, after 30 players had already been taken).
Kirkreit was fine as a 20 year old in low A and even after he skipped A ball and went straight to high A in 1994. Going into 1995, he was considered a top 100 prospect in all of baseball. He responded with a terrible season in Kinston and would repeat high A for a third year in 1996. He’d be just as bad in Akron the following season and ultimately was dropped prior to 1998. He joined up with Kansas City and Milwaukee that year, with nearly identical results in AA for both teams, then with Seattle in 1999 where he had his first good season in AA at the age of 26. Following his release at the end of the season, he played independent ball for three seasons. The Angels saw him pitch decently in 2000 and gave him one last shot in AA in 2001 and he had his worst season ever, a true accomplishment for a pitcher this bad.
2. Beau Mills – 13th Overall in June 2007
There may be some personal bias in this selection, but I’ve never heard a prospect more hyped than Mills was from the moment he was drafted. The Indians had just admitted to completely blowing every draft from 1999 through 2005 (with a few small exceptions) and had revamped their draft department. This was the pick that would turn around the entire farm system with his legendary power and strong baseball pedigree (his dad, Brad Mills, is the Indians bench coach although he was in Boston at the time, so this wasn’t nepotism).
Mills would play six years in the Indians farm system, knocking out 76 and knocking in almost 400 RBI, but he was never really able to cut it in AAA. In 2012, he was DFA’d and claimed off waivers by Cincinnati. Placed in AA by the Reds, Mills dominated, but he never made it any higher and left the game for good after that season.
1. David Sloan – 9th Overall in June 1971
It’s possible that the Indians terrible success rate with high school pitchers is what lead to their conservative picks decades later, but this one is particularly bad. While I’ve noted some high profile players taken after each pick, some of those came in later rounds after every team had a chance at them. In 1971, the Indians took Sloan just before Frank Tanana went to the Angels, then Jim Rice to the Red Sox. In the second round, two short stops who would turn into Hall of Fame third basemen were taken back to back right before the Indians picked another high school pitcher, Jim Umbarger, who didn’t even sign with the team. The Indians could have accidentally picked a franchise player.
Instead, they chose a pitcher who would never hold a single season ERA below 5.00. After three years in A Reno, Sloan missed all of 1974 and would go on to have two terrible years for San Diego in low A before leaving the game for good. They could have had Rice, Brett or Schmidt, but instead chose a pitcher who posted a 5.35 ERA in low A at the age of 24. The Indians deserved to be as terrible as they were from 1960 through 1993.