The biggest MLB Draft steals ever

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Ryan Murphy

May 27th, 2020

There’s a simple reason why Major League Baseball’s First-Year Player Draft used to be 75 rounds: finding top shelf talent can be really, really hard. For every Ken Griffey Jr. or Bryce Harper there are dozens of "can’t miss" prospects that do nothing but miss as soon as they’re selected.

Conversely, sometimes players who seem underwhelming at first can mature into future stars. We’re talking about first ballot Hall of Famers like strikeout king Nolan Ryan, who was drafted 226th overall in 1965, or five-time batting champ Wade Boggs, who was nabbed with the 166th pick in 1976. It just goes to show that drafting is often more of an art, than a science.

Here are five more of the biggest draft day steals in baseball history.

5. Mark Grace (622nd pick in 1985)

Either 1985 was a really good year for incoming prospects or scouts simply fell asleep at the wheel. How else can you explain how Mark Grace was still available with the 622nd pick in the draft?

The North Carolina native enjoyed a fruitful 16-year career in the major leagues that included four Gold Gloves, three All-Star selections, and a World Series title in 2001 with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Not bad for a guy scouts broadly dismissed as a "utility type player."

4. Keith Hernandez (785th pick in 1971)

Scouting wasn’t as sophisticated in 1971 as it is now, but how in the world could so many teams think that Keith Hernandez was the 785th best prospect available?

"Mex" silenced his many critics by hitting .351 in Triple-A before embarking on a sterling 17-year professional career in which he won 11 Gold Gloves and a pair of World Series titles. He remains one of the finest fielders of all time.

3. John Smoltz (574th pick in 1985)

Most baseball fans know John Smoltz as an eight-time All-Star and former Cy Young winner who led the NL in strikeouts twice before becoming a lights-out reliever. However, back in 1985, he was still just a gangly 18-year-old who didn’t appear ready for primetime.

One scout labeled Smoltz a "fringe type player", while another suggested that he needed to “apply himself more to the game and work harder.” Those kinds of damning appraisals caused Smoltz to drop to the 22nd round, where he fell happily to the Detroit Tigers.

2. Albert Pujols (402nd pick in 1999)

Want a good laugh? Take a look at old scouting reports on Albert Pujols, who was alternately described as "lazy" and "laid back" and criticized for his "bulky body" and "extra weight." Many scouts felt the Dominican slugger would never pan out in the big leagues and identified his ceiling as Triple-A.

Turns out they may have been just a wee bit off. Pujols won three NL MVP awards over a five year span from 2005 to 2009 and ranks first among all active players in games, hits, walks, doubles, home runs, total bases, runs, runs created, and RBIs. His spot in Cooperstown is all but assured.

1. Mike Piazza (1,390th pick in 1988)

Thank god for nepotism. Los Angeles would never have considered drafting Mike Piazza in 1988 had his father not been childhood friends with Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. That serendipitous relationship paved the way for one of the most unlikely underdog stories in baseball history.

After switching from first base to catcher during his stint in the minors, Piazza went on to become one of the best hitting backstops the game has ever seen. The 12-time All-Star hit .300 or better nine times over the course of his Hall of Fame career and captured 10 Silver Slugger awards. He ranks first all-time among catchers in home runs (427), slugging percentage (.545), OPS+ (142), and Win Probability Added (39.066).

And that is how you use a 62nd round pick.

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