10 Top-10 Draft Picks Who Never Played an Inning in MLB

Ely Sussman

The MLB draft is a crapshoot. The surprisingly low success rate of former top-10 picks attests to that.

History shows that some of the earliest amateurs selected in the 2013 edition on Thursday night may never play an inning in the majors.

Scrolling through the draft section at Baseball-Reference.com led to this revelation: Of the 400 ballplayers selected in the top-10 from 1965-2004, 95 of them—23.75 percent—failed to make it to the big leagues.

More highly touted players taken in the years since will fail in the same fashion. However, it's premature—and downright disrespectful—to comment on those who continue to play professionally, regardless of how bleak their prospects seem.

Details about many of those 95 top-10 busts are scarce. For that reason, this article focuses on 10 of the most compelling stories by chronological order.

In order to accommodate the curious readers out there, the final slide lists the remaining busts.

C Steve Chilcott (New York Mets, 1966)

Pick: No. 1 overall

School: Antelope Valley HS (Lancaster, Calif.)

Player evaluation methods weren't all that complex in 1966, the second year in which the MLB amateur draft was held. However, along with outfielder Reggie Jackson, Steve Chilcott was believed to be a surefire contributor at the highest level.

The versatile catcher/third baseman was a two-sport star, according to Jeff Fletcher of the Los Angeles Times. New York persuaded him to forgo football and the entire college experience with a $75,000 signing bonus, which wasn't far off the top professional salaries of the era.

Chilcott spent parts of seven seasons in the minors. Unfortunately, he was never healthy enough to play more than 100 games in any single summer. He admitted to Fletcher that he suffered from a recurring posterior semi-dislocation (shoulder), an infection in his shin and a broken hand. 

His last professional appearance came in 1972 with the Double-A West Haven Yankees. Chilcott batted only .146/.352/.146 in 18 games before calling it a career.

Fletcher noted that Chilcott found work as a full-time firefighter before settling into contracting.

3B Ted Nicholson (Chicago White Sox, 1969)

Pick: No. 3 overall

School: Oak Park HS (Laurel, Miss.)

Ted Nicholson was selected amid a humiliating nine-year stretch of first-round incompetence by the Chicago White Sox.

The poor souls who went earliest to the organization between 1967 and 1975 combined to perform well below replacement level, according to Baseball-Reference.com.

He split the 1969 season between two rookie leagues, combining for an underwhelming .645 OPS (2 HR in 308 PA) while adjusting to the outfield. The following summer was only slightly better. Nicholson advanced to Single-A Appleton, although his poor plate discipline resulted in about five times as many strikeouts as walks.

Then came an interesting twist. Nicholson went overseas in 1971 and 1972 to help resolve the conflict in Vietnam, but he returned to the playing field as a raw 25-year-old. His attempt at professional baseball lasted all of 185 games. That abbreviated career led Bleacher Report's Avi Wolfman-Arent to dub Nicholson the "ultimate bust" in White Sox draft history.

In the four decades since, Mississippi has continued to lag behind its neighboring states when it comes to producing great major league talent.

OF/C Jay Schroeder (Toronto Blue Jays, 1979)

Pick: No. 3 overall

School: Palisades HS (Pacific Palisades, Calif.)

Jay Schroeder went on to have a decade-long NFL career, but baseball was his first love.

He had the potential to be a great power hitter, but his primary roadblocks to realizing his  dream were his struggles at putting balls in play (477 SO in 1,590 PA) and a lack of the necessary instincts to be a defensive asset.

Schroeder advanced to Single-A Kinston in the Carolina League, but never any higher. During his four seasons in the Toronto Blue Jays system, Schroeder had a .213/.339/.343 batting line.

According to his testimony on TheGoal.com, after this initial failure, faith began playing a much larger role in his life and decision-making. To each their own, right?

OF Mark Merchant (Pittsburgh Pirates, 1987)

Pick: No. 2 overall

School: Oviedo HS (Oviedo, Fla.)

Though many draftees would kill for a 12-year professional baseball career, they would probably wish to be killed if that meant spending the entirety of it in the minors and independent circuits.

Mark Merchant broke in with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization as a teenager. He bounced all around the country—from the Gulf Coast and South Atlantic regions to leagues in California and Mexico—so that his dream wouldn't fade.

The outfielder amassed 1,059 games of experience, with the majority of them at Double-A or higher. Merchant shed his reputation for being an aggressive baserunner after his first few summers and didn't mesmerize anybody with a career .754 OPS. 

Beginning in 1988, a total of 22 straight No. 2 draft selections reached the big leagues. James Taillon (2010), Danny Hultzen (2011) and Byron Buxton (2012) are all near-locks to continue that tradition.

RHP Bill Bene (Los Angeles Dodgers, 1988)

Pick: No. 5 overall

School: California State University, Los Angeles

What an ill-advised pick on the part of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Bill Bene showed absolutely zero ability to command his powerful velocity during a three-year college career. He pitched primarily in relief with a horrific 108/133 SO/BB and 5.62 ERA in 147.1 IP. The tall right-hander had no business going in the first round.

Predictably, his professional career was a train wreck. Bene posted a sub-4.00 ERA in only one of his nine seasons and issued more walks than innings pitched (543 BB in 515.2 IP).

He actually made it as far as Triple-A with the Dodgers and Anaheim Angels once relegated to a relief role.

Like several others coming up on this list, he fell into serious legal trouble. According to Lindsay William-Ross of LAist, he pleaded guilty to operating a counterfeit karaoke business in March 2012.

LHP Brien Taylor (New York Yankees, 1991)

Pick: No. 1 overall

School: East Carteret HS (Beaufort, N.C.)

The eternally competitive New York Yankees haven't held a top-10 draft pick in more than two decades. Maybe that's for the best.

They selected flamethrower Brien Taylor first overall in 1991, expecting that he would become the long-term leader of their starting rotation. New York forked over an unprecedented $1.55 million signing bonus to appease all-powerful advisor Scott Boras.

Through two professional seasons, Taylor struck out more than a batter per inning and despite occasional wildness, he seemed destined to make an impact in the majors.

Then, the infamous bar fight. Actually, as Wayne Coffey of the New York Daily News clarifies, the tragedy took place at a trailer park.

On Dec. 18, 1993, the soon-to-be 22-year-old abandoned his reserved nature to exact revenge on Ron Wilson, an acquaintance who beat up his older brother earlier in the day. Taylor unleashed a forceful punch with his golden left arm, whiffed on his target and suffered a torn labrum. Renowned orthopedist Dr. Frank Jobe performed surgery to repair it, but it took a year-and-a-half for the shoulder to heal.

The numbers were gruesome from there on out, as Taylor couldn't throw more than 91 mph or command his deteriorated stuff. The Yankees deemed him a lost cause in 1998 following three pathetic seasons at Single-A Greensboro (1-10, 14.13 ERA, 130 BB in 71.1 IP).

Taylor was subsequently found guilty of distributing crack cocaine that resulted in a 38-month prison sentence. He is serving that time at Federal Correctional Institution Fort Dix in New Jersey.

RHP Matt Harrington (Colorado Rockies, 2000)

Pick: No. 7 overall

School: Palmdale HS (Palmdale, Calif.)

Matt Harrington never joined an MLB franchise despite being selected in the amateur draft five times. He's the only player in history who can make that claim.

"I don't think we'll ever know what really happened," former teammate Craig Briggs told Amy K. Nelson of ESPN's Outside the Lines

Speaking on behalf of Harrington in 2000, agent Tommy Tanzer said his client was seeking a $4.95 million signing bonus. That didn't deter the Colorado Rockies from pursuing the right-handed fireballer.

According to Steve Henson of the Los Angeles Times, however, there was some sort of misunderstanding between Tanzer and then-assistant general manager Josh Byrnes. Tanzer seemed convinced that they were in agreement about $4.95 million, which Byrnes disputed.

From there, the Rockies countered with lesser guarantees: $2.2 million followed by $3.05 million and then larger incentive-based deals. None of them were what Tanzer originally sought for his client. Nelson writes that for the Harringtons, life "became increasingly insufferable" in the town of Palmdale.

Harrington went on to pitch for Team USA in the Pan American Games, followed by several independent teams, but not for big bucks and certainly not in the major leagues.

RHP Chris Gruler (Cincinnati Reds, 2002)

Pick: No. 3 overall

School: Liberty Union HS (Oakley, Calif.)

In past MLB drafts, this spot has produced Hall of Famers Robin Yount (1973) and Paul Molitor (1977). Evan Longoria (2006) and Manny Machado (2010) could someday have similar prestige attached to their names.

Chris Gruler, on the other hand, didn't come close to becoming a memorable major league player.

What happened to the right-hander with the mid-90s heater and devastating curveball? Why did he overpower opposing lineups as a senior at Liberty High with 135 strikeouts in 66 innings, yet scarcely pitch in the pros?

Shoulder injuries.

OurSports Central details his brief career and traces the red flags back to early 2003. He underwent surgery that summer, and then again in 2004.

Jeff Wallner of MLB.com writes that Gruler explored "acupuncture and both weight-bearing and non-weight-bearing exercises to regain strength in his shoulder." All attempts proved futile.

Thankfully, Gruler is at peace with his 2007 release. He's now doing something completely different.

SS Matt Bush (San Diego Padres, 2004)

Pick: No. 1 overall

School: Mission Bay HS (San Diego, Calif.)

The San Diego Padres claimed they had "narrowed their choices" of potential No. 1 picks to Stephen Drew, Jered Weaver and Jeff Niemann prior to the 2004 draft. Signability concerns led them to go in another direction: two-way high school player Matt Bush.

Immediately, they would regret selecting the cheap route.

Padres president Dick Freeman admitted that Bush was "off to a bad start" following a June 2004 arrest (h/t Bill Center, The San Diego Union-Tribune). The local kid received a suspension for his involvement in a nightclub scuffle—all of this before even participating in a professional game. "I had a serious off-the-field problem with alcohol," he later admitted to Dawn Klemish of MLB.com.

The only thing more enigmatic than his conduct in society was his mediocrity in uniform. Bush finished with a sub-.600 OPS in three of his first four seasons, barely making an impact on the basepaths with 15 steals in 205 games as a position player.

 From there, serious injuries and more arrests stunted his progress. He desperately latched on with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2010 as a hard-throwing relief pitcher. 

At only 27 years old, we can close the book on Bush (a.k.a. inmate number C07392).

RHP Wade Townsend (Tampa Bay Devil Rays, 2005)

Pick: No. 8 overall

School: Rice University

As usual, the lowly Tampa Bay Devil Rays were picking near the top of the draft in 2005. The class was stacked at most positions, so it was supposedly impossible to come away empty-handed.

Somehow the Devil Rays did just that.

Wade Townsend looked the part of an ace in the making. The 6'4" right-hander drew comparisons to Roger Clemens with a filthy curveball that should have made him a strikeout machine in the majors. Coming from a college baseball juggernaut like Rice, he understood how to pitch in pressure situations.

Still, taking Townsend with the eighth pick was considered a big reach. This became apparent immediately when he posted a 5.49 ERA and 5.5 BB/9 that summer in 12 Low-A appearances. The college workload caught up to him soon after, forcing him to undergo Tommy John surgery and miss the 2006 season.

Upon returning, he demonstrated the same old command issues. Townsend rose to Double-A, thanks to his punch-out potential, but pitched primarily in relief.

Tampa Bay released him in August 2009 when several other 2005 draftees were already thriving against major league competition.

The Other Top-10 Picks Who Never Made It

Listed alphabetically: 

Willie Ansley, Ted Barnicle, Alex Barrett, Brien Bickerton, Michael Biko, Bobby Bradley, Kurt Brown, Matt Brunson, Dean Burk, Juan Bustabad, Tim Cole, Paul Coleman, Martin Cott, Bob Cummings, Earl Cunningham, Jackie Davidson, Jim DeNeff, Wayne Dickerson, Steve Englishbey, Clint Everts, Les Filkins, Glen Franklin, B.J. Garbe, Kevin Garner, Josh Girdley, Geoff Goetz, Bobby Goodman, Rex Goodson, Chad Green, Colt Griffin, Ty Griffin, Jim Haller, Garry Harris, Ryan Harvey, Ken Henderson, Nick Hernandez, David Hibner. Stan Hilton, Condredge Holloway, Jeff Jackson, Pete Janicki, Jamie Jones, Johnny Jones, Josh Karp, Mike King, Ed Kurpiel, Chris Landis, Phil Lansford, Mike Lentz, Chris Lubanski, Mike Martin, Art Miles, Doug Million, Ryan Mills, Curtis Moore, Chris Myers, Corey Myers, Tito Nanni, Rick O'Keeffe, Lew Olsen, Dan Opperman, Larry Payne, Mark Phillips, Michael Poehl, Kirk Presley, Jeff Pyburn, Roger Quiroga, Kevin Richards, Brian Rosinski, Augie Schmidt, Kyle Sleeth, David Sloan, Chris Smith, Ron Sorey, Mike Stodolka, Billy Taylor, Joe Torres, Glenn Tufts, Ronnie Walden, B.J. Wallace, Michael Weaver, Matt Wheatland, Matt White and John Wyatt.


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