MLB Draft: A History Lesson In First Baseman

Al Avila, Detroit Tigers (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
Al Avila, Detroit Tigers (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images) /

Firsts in the First. Breaking down the last five first basemen taken in the top 5 of the MLB Draft. 

The best indicator of the future is the past. With all signs pointing the Tigers taking Arizona State first baseman Spencer Torkelson with the first overall selection in the 2020 MLB Draft, we need to find out how recent first basemen taken this early have performed. Let’s see what we can find out below, beginning with a pick that occurred more than two decades ago.

1. Pat Burrell, Philadelphia Phillies, 1998 MLB Draft

12 MLB Seasons, Career WAR: 18.9

When you think about setting realistic expectations for Torkelson, Burrell is an outstanding comparison. One of the most prodigious hitters in college baseball, blossomed from a 43rd round pick to the Red Sox in 1995 to the first overall selection from the Miami Hurricanes. Burrell and Torkelson compare in the history leading up to their selection, their likely power and production profile, plus the athleticism that allowed the Phillies to move him to left field. Burrell, who played with three different MLB teams (Phillies, Rays, Giants), averaged nearly 30 home runs and 100 runs batted in throughout his big-league career. Like Burrell, Torkelson is believed by scouts to have a chance to play adequate defense in left field. These numbers feel like reasonable expectations for Torkelson in the long term, with a hope that he provides better defensive prowess wherever he plays. Speaking of which, that leads us to…

2. Adrian Gonzalez, #1 Overall, Florida Marlins, 2000 MLB Draft

15 MLB Seasons, Career WAR: 43.6, 5x All-Star, 4x Gold Glove

Back in 2000, a Marlins scouting director was ascending in Major League Baseball, and picking Gonzalez, one of the most consistent elite producers for more than a decade, was one of Al Avila’s early career highlights. Between helping to find Gonzalez and Miguel Cabrera, Avila has shown an ability to find talented first basemen. Gonzalez and Burrell are similar in their production from an offensive perspective, but Gonzalez represents how vital a quality defensive profile is to wins above replacement. Gonzalez (43.6) more than doubles the career WAR of Burrell (18.9) despite Burrell averaging two more home runs per season. The 15-year veteran stands as the only player on this list who made more than one MLB All-Star Game.

3. Eric Hosmer – #3 Overall, Kansas City Royals, 2008 MLB Draft

9 MLB Seasons, Career WAR: 16.7, 1x All-Star, 4x Gold Glove

Hosmer is a fascinating player to evaluate. The nine-year MLB veteran has hit nearly .280 in his career with an average of 20 home runs and approximately 90 RBI. Hosmer runs slightly better than most first baseman, averaging almost ten stolen bases per season. On the flip side, numbers tell us that Hosmer is extremely overvalued from a defensive perspective. You may be shocked to find out that the four-time Gold Glove winner has posted a *negative* defensive WAR in each of his nine big league seasons. Averaging less than 2 WAR per season, Hosmer provides another example of how vital quality defense is at his position.

4. Brendan McKay – #4 Overall, Tampa Bay Rays, 2017 MLB Draft

Rays #2 Prospect, #15 MLB Prospect (MLB Pipeline)

The jury is still out on McKay, but a career at first base looks to be in a supplemental role at-best, as McKay spent 49 innings on the mound with the Rays to just 11 plate appearances. The numbers indicate that the idea of McKay as a two-way player seems to be dwindling, but 2019 should’ve been the season that McKay was to hit his stride on the mound.

5. Andrew Vaughn – #3 Overall, Chicago White Sox, 2019 MLB Draft

White Sox #2 Prospect, #16 MLB Prospect (MLB Pipeline)

White Sox fans hope that Vaughn will become the net Jose Abreu for the better part of this decade. The 22-year old, who won the 2018 Golden Spikes Award, hasn’t shown any reasons for concern after his first half-season in professional baseball. He’s expected to be ready for the big leagues within the next two seasons.

Summary: The big takeaway for me was that we couldn’t simply disregard the importance of high-quality defense at first base. As much as people consider it a throw-away position, it can be a potential game-changer. The truth of the matter is that almost every solid first baseman should be capable of hitting .250 yearly with 25 homers and nearly 80 RBIs. As for Torkelson, if I had him, I would play him strictly at first base, rather than consider moving him to a position making him less effective. I’ll take an adequate first baseman over a below-average defensive player at a different position. There’s no doubting Torkelson’s power, but there’s an enormous difference between a career .250 hitter and one who hits .290.

Secondly, it’s fair to say that most of these players were safe picks. None of the last five first basemen picked in the Top 5 look like a bust, but none look like they’ll be heading to the Hall of Fame either, as only one (Gonzalez) made multiple All-Star games. A fair expectation for this pick would be a steady, everyday player. If Torkelson becomes the first pick on Wednesday night, we’ll hope he becomes even more than the first basemen who came before him.

Just missing the cut was when the Tigers selected Tony Clark second overall in 1990. Here’s more on that story.

Do you think the Tigers should select Spencer Torkelson with the first overall pick? If not, who should they take? Leave a comment below and find Dan on Twitter at @ThatDanHasty!