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Stop calling bad draft picks ‘busts’

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We don’t get to make that call.

.MLB: Colorado Rockies at San Francisco Giants
Not a bust.
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

From the 1920s through the 1960s or thereabouts, Sam Rayburn was the most important person in the U.S. House of Representatives. He didn’t like many people, and to those he didn’t like, he would scarcely give the time of day. If he argued with someone, it was a sign of his utmost respect for them; if he would let argumentative people pass on front of him, unbothered, it meant they meant nothing to him.

Rayburn remains a legend; one of the House office buildings is named for him. This anecdote, which I hope I’m remembering correctly, comes from the first book of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, which I am currently reading because it’s pandemic winter time, baby. What else am I gonna do? I mention all this not just to not-so-humblebrag, but to set the stage for a criticism of someone I like.

Recently, Chad Finn of the Globe wrote a column with a simple conceit: N’Keal Harry might the biggest “bust” at wide receiver for the Patriots among their long list of underwhelming draft picks at the position:

First off: I know that’s a football blog and this is a baseball blog, but whatever. Each sport has a draft and the importance of baseball’s draft has skyrocketed as lying owners cry poor and increasingly, like football owners, rely primarily on cheap rookie contracts to move them from season to season. Even the Dodgers, the team that’s actually spending money these days, has spent that money on top of an excellent draft apparatus—something the Red Sox forewent under Dave Dombrowski but are building under Chaim Bloom.

Here’s the thing about drafts: the reason they keep salaries down is because they are as immoral and bad as they are exciting and fun. We have long sublimated the first part to the second one, but the first part is no less true for it. Not only does the draft order make a mockery of the sport, giving the worst franchises the chance at the best players, which leads to tanking, an actual mockery; the deflated salaries of the draftees equal pure profit for the owners that ought by any right be going to the talent. There’s room for disagreement here, but ultimately it doesn’t much matter: This is way beyond our control, as fans and analysts.

Solidly in our control is how we talk about the draft, and the players subject to it. In Harry’s case, no one forced the Patriots to take him over A.J. Brown (widely acknowledged at the time to be the best WR prospect in the draft) or his college teammate DK Metcalf (widely considered to have the highest upside because he’s built like LeBron James), but pick him they did, and his possession receiver savvy hasn’t yet translated on a stuck-in-the-mud offense. How any of this is his fault, and why he deserves to be labeled a bust less than 1.5 worth of seasons into his career, is far beyond my capabilities of reason. It seems like being mean for the sake of being mean.

By the same logic, you know who was a bust, albeit as an international free agent signing rather than a draft pick? David Ortiz. His numbers through his first few seasons with the Twins (not even the team that signed him, but ignore that) were... fine, and actually if he did them today, he’d almost certainly keep his job, but knowing what they did at the time, the Twins let him walk and yadda yadda yadda you know the rest. Maybe in a better organization his contributions would have been properly recognized, just like maybe on a team with a quarterback who can throw, Harry could be utilized better, if still not actuarially befitting his status as a first-round pick.

A better example, I think, is Daniel Bard. Insofar as you could properly enough apply the term “bust” to a pick, Bard would be near the top of the list. The first-round Red Sox selection of 2006 was out of baseball by 2013, barring later comeback attempts, as he more or less lost the ability to pitch. In many cases that would be the end of it, but Bard inexplicably returned to baseball in 2020 to not only survive but thrive for the Colorado Rockies, earning the Comeback Player of the Year award. The “bust” had boomed.

As the Sox start to build near exclusively through the draft and relative penny contracts to the likes Hunter Renfroe, we will have many opportunities to classify their picks. All I’m asking is we don’t label teenagers and young adults as “busts,” through respect of both what got them there and our perpetual inability to see more than a few games into the future. We don’t define players. Players do. They deserve the chance to do it.