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Who Are Some of the Biggest Steals in MLB Draft History?

Mark Buehrle pitching for the White Sox in 2005; CC by License 2.0

The art of scouting and drafting is not a perfect science. More often than not, high draft picks do not live up to their perceived potential. Whether it can be attributed to organizational failure in development, bad scouting, or simply the injury bug, highly drafted players bust all the time. What doesn’t happen nearly as often is a team finding a player in the late rounds of the draft who becomes a contributor at the highest level. Everyone knows the story of Mike Piazza getting taken by the Dodgers in the 62nd round as a favor to his father, but every single year there is at least one player taken in the back end of the selection process who defies the odds and becomes a good-to-great MLB player. As a new batch of first-year players prepare to hear their name called on July 14th, we look back on some of the most underrated draft steals of all time.

Jeff Conine, 1987 (Round 58, Pick 1,226)

Conine, a mediocre college pitcher at UCLA, was taken by the Royals late in the 1987 draft on the basis that he might have some hitting potential. The Royals organization stuck him at first base while he developed a strong bat, working his way through the minors with relative ease. Conine was scooped up in the 1992 expansion draft by the Florida Marlins, who moved him to the outfield and played him every day. Conine’s career saw him accrue 19.5 bWAR as he slashed .285/.347/.443 across 17 seasons. He made two All-Star teams with the Marlins, won All-Star MVP in 1995, and is the only player in Marlins history to play for both the 1997 and 2003 World Series-winning teams. Conine’s 19.5 bWAR is by far the most in his round, and the most in the draft post-13th round, where Steve Finley was selected. Conine has the second most bWAR of any player selected in the 58th round or later, surpassed only by Piazza.

Mark Buehrle, 1998 (Round 38, Pick 1,139)

One of the best and most underrated pitchers of the 2000’s, Mark Buehrle was selected by the White Sox at the tail end of the 1998 draft, the same year that fellow All-Stars Mark Mulder, Brad Lidge, and CC Sabathia were selected in the first round. With 59.1 bWAR, Buehrle out-produced Mulder’s and Lidge’s bWAR totals combined, as he more than doubled Mulder’s 20 and Lidge’s 7.9. Even Sabathia accrued just 3.2 more bWAR than Buehrle, putting the 38th rounder on the same level. Over his career, Buehrle was a five-time All-Star, four-time Gold Glove-winner, and enjoyed a dominant 2005 season that saw him finish fifth in Cy Young voting and win his only World Series title with the White Sox. From 2001 to 2014, Buehrle never pitched less than 200 innings in a season, and he started 30 or more games in every full season of his career. Buehrle had a reputation as a quick-working iron man on the mound, and he provided Chicago with immense value from his draft slot.

Seth Lugo, 2011 (Round 34, Pick 1,032)

Although not at the level of Conine or Buehrle, Seth Lugo in 2024 has cemented himself as one of the more notable late-round selections of the 2010s. Taken in the 34th round of the 2011 draft by the New York Mets, Lugo made his big league debut in 2016 after persevering through the minors for five seasons. The Mets envisioned Lugo as a starter to help solidify a rotation that already included names such as Noah Syndergaard, Jacob DeGrom, and Matt Harvey. Unfortunately, the 2015 NL Pennant winners could not keep the talented rotation together and healthy, and Lugo was part of the downfall. After a strong rookie season that saw him transition from a reliever to a starter, Lugo struggled in 2017, his first season as a full-time starting pitcher. The Mets utilized Lugo out of the bullpen in 2018 and 2019, where he put together two good years, before trying him again in the rotation in 2020. Lugo struggled again as a starter, but continued to struggle even when New York sent him back to the bullpen. In the 2022 offseason, Lugo departed from New York to join the San Diego Padres, where he put together a solid season in the back end of their rotation. His true breakout has come for the Royals in 2024, however, as, going into July, he leads the American League in wins, games started, and ERA+. Lugo’s 2024 bWAR of 4.2 has grown his career bWAR to 14.9, far and away the best from the late rounds of his 2011 draft class.

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