Bill Shanks

Draft picks essential in a rebuild

Ian Anderson, a pitcher from Clifton Park, New York, was drafted by the Atlanta Braves last week.
Ian Anderson, a pitcher from Clifton Park, New York, was drafted by the Atlanta Braves last week. AP

The one positive of a losing season is the ability to get a high pick in the next year’s draft. Teams in the state of Georgia have a spotty track record of turning something bad like a horrible season into a star player who can help make the team better.

The Atlanta Braves just took pitchers again early in this year’s draft, continuing the philosophy of rebuilding through young arms. But the best example of how the Braves used their poor record to get better talent is actually with a position player.

The Braves were awful in the late 1980s, and with the first pick of the 1990 draft, they took Chipper Jones. Not all top picks turn into future Hall of Famers, but Jones did. He was the cornerstone of the organization for 18 years.

Thank goodness the Braves didn’t take Todd Van Poppel that year. He was the heralded, can’t-miss pitching prospect expected to be the next Nolan Ryan. Instead, Van Poppel enjoyed a couple of seasons as a middle reliever. That was it.

Unfortunately, the two players the Braves picked before and after Jones didn’t pan out. In 1989, the Braves had the second pick and took Tyler Houston, a catcher from Las Vegas. Houston, who played here in Macon, never did much. Then in 1991, also with the second overall selection, the Braves took Arizona State outfielder Mike Kelly, who never lived up to his potential.

The Atlanta Falcons had their worst season in 1967, when they went 1-12-1. They turned that next top pick into Claude Humphrey, who recently went into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. When the Falcons went 3-11 in 1974, they turned that into quarterback Steve Bartkowski, picked first in the 1975 draft.

But after going 3-12 in 1987, the Falcons took Auburn’s Aundray Bruce with the top overall pick in the 1988 draft. Five future Hall of Famers were taken after Bruce, including receivers Tim Brown and Michael Irvin.

The worst stretch in the history of the Atlanta Hawks was from 2003 through 2006. They had four years in a row with top six picks in the NBA draft: Josh Childress (sixth in 2004), Marvin Williams (second in 2005), Shelden Williams (fifth in 2006) and Al Horford (third in 2007). Only Horford turned into a star player, making that a horrible percentage.

The Hawks could have had Luol Deng or Andre Iguodala in 2004. They passed on Deron Williams and Chris Paul in 2005, and they could have had Rajon Rondo in 2006. Getting only Horford for those four tough seasons is not a good track record for using the draft to get better.

With the NFL and the NBA, the immediate return is expected. If a team has a top pick, the belief is the player should be a candidate for Rookie of the Year. But in baseball, the process takes longer. We might not see pitcher Ian Anderson, Atlanta’s top draft pick last week, until 2020. That makes baseball’s draft even more important in a rebuilding plan.

The Braves had the 14th overall pick last year — high school left-hander Kolby Allard. They’ll have another high pick next year. If the Braves are to get out of this abyss, even in a couple of years, they desperately need one of these high draft picks to become a star. It could determine whether the Braves get back on track or not.

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