The number one pick in the draft comes with a certain amount of pressure. Get it right, and you've just acquired a huge asset for your team. Get it wrong, and you may have set your team back by years. When it comes to a GM's first pick, they want the best player available, but, given the inherent risks in baseball prospects, they also want the player that is most likely to contribute to their team over the long haul. At the time of the draft it is not always completely obvious who that player that will be.
Mark Prior was a famous can't miss prospect who did have an immediate impact for the Cubs, helping them almost make the World Series. When he went down due to injuries in 2004, his career was never the same. He came back to pitch for a few seasons, but was nowhere near as effective as he was previously. The example of Mark Prior became a cautionary tale, one that looms large in the minds of GM's. He had poor mechanics, was called up too early to the major league team, had too big of a workload, and refused any surgery options until it was too late. Prior is basically THE textbook case for how to ruin a pitcher's career, and modern teams have learned from it; they limit workloads, work with pitchers to improve mechanics, make sure they have a lot of development time in the minors, and opt for Tommy John surgery very quickly when injury occurs.
Unfortunately, in many cases this hasn't led to improved health for many young pitchers. Jose Fernandez, Jarrod Parker, Matt Harvey, Kris Medlen, Matt Moore, the litany of young pitchers who are blowing out their arms and having Tommy John surgery hasn't decreased at all.
When it comes to the draft, Mark Prior, along with many other young pitchers like Carlos Rodon, may be Player A: The best player available, but they may not be Player B: The player that is most likely to contribute to their team over the long haul. Given the inherent risk with pitching injuries, and the lower success rate for top pitching prospects vs. top position player prospects, does it make sense to use a valuable commodity like the number one pick on a riskier asset? Let's take a look at previous number one picks to see which pitchers have panned out and which haven't. We'll also be looking at opportunity cost, which players the team passed up, to see what the best alternative choice would have been. In real terms we will only be looking at round one (and in a few cases round two) picks because these were the players deemed to have round one value. This means that for the Roy Oswalts of the world, drafted in the twenty-third round, even if they were the better choice there was virtually no opportunity cost to drafting them because they slipped so low in the draft; whether due to injury risk, signability issues, or just plain lack of scouting the player.
With the first professional draft starting in 1965, we are subject to sample size issues, especially with limiting ourselves to the first round. That doesn't mean that with the hundreds of players who have been drafted over this stretch that we can't draw any meaningful conclusions though. One caveat before we start is that it wouldn't be fair to use WAR as a quick and dirty way to assign value, since WAR favors hitters who play everyday over pitchers who pitch every five days. Instead we'll have to use a common sense approach to decide what the best possible alternative would have been. Let's start the list:
1973: The Rangers are the first team to select a pitcher 1-1 with David Clyde. As the first pitcher to be selected with the first pick Clyde did not have an auspicious career. He pitched for three years with Texas and two with Cleveland before flaming out. Even more painful for the Rangers were the selections of Robin Yount and Dave Winfield right behind him. Ouch.
1976: The Astros select Floyd Bannister. Bannister had a decent career, but the Astros weren't too enamored by him, trading him two years after they drafted him for Craig Reynolds. Reynolds played close to replacement level for about 10 seasons with the Astros before retiring. They probably would've been better off selecting Mike Scoscia.
1981: Mariners draft Mike Moore. Moore had some good seasons with the Mariners, and when he left Seattle he helped win a World Series for Oakland. It wasn't for Seattle, but still, if they had to do it over again would they draft Mike Moore? For whatever reason there was actually more top tier talent taken in the second round of this draft than the first. The Mariners could've skipped everyone taken in the first round and gone straight to Frank Viola with 1-1, then taken Sid Bream with their second pick before settling down with Tony Gywnn on their third pick. Hindsight is 20/20, but this draft throws off our criteria for opportunity cost a bit. Still, Mike Moore had a solid career and was a reasonable first round pick.
1983: Tim Belcher would have been an okay first pick for the Twins had he actually signed with him. If they had to do it over again they would unquestionably take Roger Clemens and change baseball history a little bit.
1988: Padres take Andy Benes. This worked out okay for the Padres, Robin Ventura and Tino Martinez were available but probably wouldn't have made the team significantly better in the absence of Benes. He spent fourteen years in the majors compared to Ventura's and Martinez's sixteen.
1989: Ben McDonald had an up-and-down career with the Orioles during his nine years in the big leagues, but can you imagine the mid 90's Orioles teams with Frank Thomas instead? It hurts big for Orioles fans that they didn't get Thomas instead.
1991: The Yankees taking Brien Taylor became THE cautionary tale for taking young flame throwing pitching talent in the first round. After getting injured and never finding his control, Taylor never pitched in the majors at all. The Yankees really didn't need Manny Ramirez to win a couple of championships a few years down the road, but they could've drafted him and he wouldn't have hurt their chances.
1996: The Pittsburgh Pirates' downfall began when Barry Bonds left, but it didn't get any better when they decided to draft Kris Benson at number one. He did have a major league career, which is better than most can say, but they would've been much better off with Eric Chavez.
1997: Drafting starting pitchers is one thing, but drafting relievers with the first pick is another. Matt Anderson has the distinction of being the only pitcher to be drafted first and pitch in the majors but never start a game. If the Tigers and other teams overvalued relievers in the late 90's then Matt Anderson is walking proof of that. Astros fans are just glad that the Tigers didn't steal Lance Berkman from them.
2002: The Pirates select Bryan Bullington. It probably isn't fair to count late 90's and early 00's Pirates draft picks in any study on the draft because they did a terrible job at identifying or even trying to sign top talent during that period, but there it is. Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels, and Matt Cain all would have been good pitching choices at 1-1. B.J. Upton and Prince Fielder also would've been great choices on the hitting side. Unfortunately the Pirates picked Bullington who was last seen pitching in Japan. Yikes.
2006: Luke Hochevar could end up having a decent career with the Royals, but picking him over Clayton Kershaw stings. Evan Longoria would've been a nice pick as well. Had the Royals drafted just a little bit better during this period they might've been serious contenders in the AL central.
2007: Tampa selects David Price in what is easily the best 1-1 pitching pick to date. There was some good talent in that draft but there's no way Tampa has any regrets about this pick.
2009: Stephen Strasburg was one of the most hyped pitching prospects ever, and he's been pretty good. He may even take over David Price's title of best 1-1 pitching pick ever at some point. If the Nationals could've looked into the future would they have taken Mike Trout instead? Probably not since they got Bryce Harper the next year but....they also had the tenth pick in the first round where they took Drew Storen. Would they have taken Mike Trout instead of Drew Storen, and have the most ridiculous outfield combination since Mantle and Maris? Absolutely. It's insane that this actually could've happened.
2013: Astros fans hope that Mark Appel is the ace they've been missing since Roy Oswalt. Hopefully he sorts his troubles out in the minors.
2014: Astros select Brady Aiken as the first high-school lefty drafted 1-1 since Brien Taylor. Hopefully his story has a happier ending.
As we can see the history of drafting pitching 1-1 is pretty spotty. Teams could end up with a David Price or a Stephen Strasburg, but in most cases they left superior talent sitting on the table. It's also worth noting that until David Price, none of these pitchers pitched postseason games for the teams that drafted them.
Of course that doesn't mean that teams shouldn't draft a pitcher with their first pick. If we broaden our scope to the entire first round, Dwight Gooden is probably the most famous example of a pitching phenom making a huge impact on his big league team. The Boston Red Sox certainly don't regret drafting Roger Clemens with the 19th overall pick in 1983. Of course the benefit of having the number one pick overall means a team has the most commanding position to take top tier talent and make the most out of the draft. Opportunity cost is a serious consideration. In fact, if we go back over the draft years where pitching went 1-1, we can see that not only did most teams pass up position players that would have helped them more in the long run, but in many cases they also could've gotten similar or better pitching talent during later rounds in the draft (with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight of course).
Either young pitcher's are very difficult to project, or teams haven't figured out how to properly identify talent, and how to keep that talent healthy. It could be the latter, but so far no one has found the secret formula.