The Chicago White Sox have a checkered history with the MLB draft since it initiated in 1965. While there have been some terrific selections (notably Frank Thomas, Harold Baines and Chris Sale), there have been many more disappointments.
This is the fourth of an eight-part series which will detail the best White Sox selections in each of the first 40 rounds of the draft. There have been several White Sox picks who went unsigned, but made it big after being drafted in later years by other teams (Jimmy Key comes immediately to mind), but I’m simply looking at players who actually signed with the White Sox. Very few picks of recent vintage will make this list, as they’re still trying to add to their careers. In football and basketball, a clear picture of how successful a draft is can be determined within three years; in baseball, it’s closer to five.
Without further ado, here are the most successful selections in the first-fifth rounds.
It seems most fans remember the failures more than the successes of the first rounds of their teams’ drafts. White Sox fans are no exceptions. Including compensation picks, the White Sox have drafted 75 players in the first round from 1965 to 2018. This includes three first rounders who never signed with the team — Danny Goodwin (1971) who was the No. 1 pick overall, Steve Buechele (1979) and Bobby Seay (1996).
We remember even more the ones who signed that never made it — Courtney Hawkins, Keon Barnum, Keenyn Walker, Jared Mitchell, and Kyle McCulloch. Of the 72 signed first rounders, 43 made it to the majors, which is a 60% clip — of the 29 that never made it, this list does include recent selections who are still active players: Zack Burdi, Zack Collins, Jake Burger and Nick Madrigal.
Of the 43 who’ve made it to the majors thus far, only 11 produced career bWARs of over 10, although Tim Anderson and Carlos Rodon are reasonably close to the 10 WAR mark at the time of this writing. Without further ado, here are the two most successful first rounders based on bWAR.
It’s hard to believe that six players were selected ahead of Thomas in the 1989 draft, after he dominated his junior season with a .403/.568/.801 slash line with 19 doubles, 19 homers, 83 RBIs, 73 walks and just 25 strikeouts in 292 plate appearances. Perhaps it had something to do with Thomas being a first baseman? Regardless, the Big Hurt made his MLB debut on Aug. 2, 1990 and immediately made his case for the Hall of Fame. Thomas won two MVP awards (and it should’ve been three, if it weren’t for a steroid-consuming Jason Giambi), four Silver Sluggers, five All-Star games, and first place on many White Sox all-time statistical lists. It’s hard to say which was Thomas’ best full season. Was it with the division-winning 1993 squad, when he hit .317/.426/.607 with 36 doubles, 41 homers, 128 RBIs, 112 walks and just 54 strikeouts? Or it could’ve been 1997, when he slashed .347/.456/.611 with 35 doubles, 35 homers, 125 RBIs, 109 walks and 69 strikeouts? Or his spectacular season with the 2000 division champs, when he slashed .328/.436/.625 with 44 doubles, a career-high 43 homers, 143 RBIs, 112 walks and 94 strikeouts? His best season may not have been any of the above; what about the strike-shortened 1994 season, when he slashed .353/.487/.729 in just 113 games with 34 doubles, 38 homers, 101 RBIs, 109 walks and 61 strikeouts? Unfortunately, Thomas left as a free agent after an injury-riddled World Series season in 2005, but he did enjoy good seasons with the 2006 Oakland A’s and 2007 Toronto Blue Jays. Over his 19-year career, which ended in 2008, Thomas slashed .301/.419/.555 over 2,322 games, with 495 doubles, 521 homers, 1,494 runs, 1,704 RBIs, 1,667 walks, 1,397 strikeouts, and a 73.9 bWAR. Thomas currently reigns as the White Sox all-time leader in homers, RBIs, doubles, walks, slugging percentage, OPS, offensive WAR, extra bases, sacrifice flies, and numerous other offensive categories.
Oklahoma State University
It may come as a surprise to many that Ventura, and not new Hall-of-Famer Baines, isn’t in this spot. It may have a lot to do with Ventura’s defensive abilities, but that’s not to take away from his offensive skill as well. While an Oklahoma State sophomore, Ventura had a memorable 58-game hitting streak, which was finally stifled by future White Sox pick Jack McDowell during the 1997 College World Series. Ventura spent the first 10 years of his career with the White Sox, finishing up with the New York Mets, New York Yankees, and Los Angeles Dodgers. While in the majors, Ventura always eluded the spotlight, and despite some solid seasons only participated in two All-Star Games. Ventura’s best season with the Sox came in 1996, when he slashed .287/.368/.520 with 31 doubles, 34 homers, 105 RBIs, 105 walks, 82 strikeouts, and received the fourth of his six Gold Glove awards. Unfortunately, he broke and badly dislocated his right ankle in a spring training game the following year and missed the first 99 games of 1997. Just a week after he busted his butt to return to help the team make a division title push, the White Sox made their infamous “White Flag” trade. Ventura was allowed to enter free agency after the 1998 season, and he enjoyed a few highly productive years afterward. For his career, Ventura compiled a 56.1 bWAR over 16 years in 2,079 games by slashing .267/.362/.444 with 338 doubles, 294 homers, 1,006 runs, 1,182 RBIs, 1,075 walks and 1,179 strikeouts. Of course, Ventura went on to manage the Sox for five years. However, I prefer to remember him as the guy who hit two grand slams against the Texas Rangers on Sept. 4, 1995, against Dennis Cook and Danny Darwin in back-to-back innings.
Other first-rounders signed by the Sox who played in the majors include outfielders Carlos May (1966), Baines (1977), Cecil Espy (1980), Daryl Boston (1981), Aaron Rowand (1998), Joe Borchard (2000), and Brian Anderson (2003); infielders Rich McKinney (1968), Lee Richard (1970), Russ Morman (1983), Jeff Liefer (1995), Jason Dellaero (1997), Josh Fields (2004), Gordon Beckham (2008), and Anderson (2013); catchers Steve Swisher (1973), Ricky Seilheimer (1979), Ron Karkovice (1982), Mark Johnson (1994), and Josh Phegley (2009); and pitchers Larry Monroe (1974), Chris Knapp (1975), Steve Trout (1976), Joel Davis (1983), Tony Menendez (1984), Jack McDowell (1987), Alex Fernandez (1990), Scott Ruffcorn (1991), Chris Clemons (1994), Rocky Biddle (1997), Jim Parque (1997), Aaron Myette (1997), Kip Wells (1998), Matt Ginter (1999), Royce Ring (2002), Gio Gonzalez (2004), Lance Broadway (2005), Aaron Poreda (2007), Sale (2010), Carlos Rodon (2014), Carson Fulmer (2015).
After Thomas and Ventura, the other signed first rounders with a bWAR of at least 10.0 are Sale (42.7), Baines (38.7), Fernandez (28.4), McDowell (27.8), Gonzalez (27.6), Rowand (20.9), Karkovice (14.6), Trout (13.3), and May (10.5).
Unsigned first-rounders that made it to the majors include catcher Danny Goodwin (1971) and infielder Steve Beuchele (1979). The first rounders still playing in organized baseball include Gonzalez, Beckham, Phegley, Sale, Anderson, Rodón, and Fulmer, along with current minor leaguers Collins (2016), Burdi (2016), Burger (2017) and Madrigal (2018).
Left-Handed Relief Pitcher
Santana H.S. (Santee, Calif.)
To say Terry Forster was rushed to the majors would be a gross understatement. He made his MLB debut for the White Sox on April 11, 1971 — he was just 19 years old at the time, with just two months of A-ball under his belt. That said, the youngster acquitted himself quite nicely and posted a 3.99 ERA (3.28 FIP) in his rookie season with 48 strikeouts in 49 2⁄3 primarily relief innings. Forster’s best season arguably came in 1972, when he posted a 6-5 record, 29 saves, 2.25 ERA (1.73 FIP), 1.19 WHIP, and 104 strikeouts in 100 relief innings. While he did spot-start occasionally through the 1976 season, Forster was primarily a reliever who began losing his stuff. On Dec. 10, 1976, he was traded along with Rich “Goose” Gossage for slugger Richie Zisk and pitcher Silvio Martinez. In Forster’s 16-year career (spent with the White Sox, Pittsburgh Pirates, Atlanta Braves, Dodgers and Angels spanning 614 games and 1,105 2⁄3 innings, he compiled a 54-65 record, 127 saves, 791 strikeouts and 20.4 bWAR. Forster also pitched effectively for the Dodgers in the World Series during the 1978 and 1981 seasons, pitching a total of six shutout innings covering five games.
Right-Handed Relief Pitcher
University of Wisconsin-Whitewater
It’s difficult to remember, but Wickman was quite an effective starter in his two years in the White Sox system, eventually reaching as high as Double-A Birmingham in 1991. He never donned a White Sox uniform, however, as he was traded to the Yankees on Jan. 10, 1992 along with Domingo Jean and Melido Perez for second baseman/outfielder Steve Sax. While Sax ended up playing just two trying seasons on the South Side, Wickman enjoyed a 15-year career primarily out of the bullpen. His most effective season may have been in 2005 with Cleveland, when he posted a 2.47 ERA, 1.26 WHIP and league-leading 45 saves. What would be a surprise to many, Wickman saved 20 or more games in eight different seasons. For his MLB career spanning five teams, 835 games and 1,059 innings, Wickman compiled a 63-61 record, 267 saves, 3.57 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 785 strikeouts and a 16.9 bWAR.
Notes: Other (mostly forgettable) second-rounders who made it to the majors include infielders Hugh Yancy (1968), Jose Mota (1985), Greg Norton (1993), and Tim Hummel (2000); outfielders Bill Sharp (1971), Brian Simmons (1995), Jeremy Reed (2002), Ryan Sweeney (2003), and Trayce Thompson (2009); pitchers Jim Otten (1973), Jack Kucek (1974), Rich Barnes (1977), Brent Knackert (1987), Larry Thomas (1991), Gary Majewski (1998), Dan Wright (1999), Wes Whisler (2004), David Holmberg (2009), Jake Petricka (2010), Erik Johnson (2011), Chris Beck (2012) and Tyler Danish (2013); catchers Mike Colbern (1976), Josh Paul (1996) and Donny Lucy (2004). White Sox unsigned second rounders who made it to the majors including catcher Johnny Oates (1966) and A.J. Hinch (1992); pitchers Pat Osburn (1969) and Jeff Weaver (1997); and infielder Bobby Hill (1999). White Sox signed second rounders still playing in organized baseball include Thompson, Petricka, Beck and Danish, along with current minor leaguers Spencer Adams (2014), Alec Hansen (2016), Gavin Sheets (2017), and Steele Walker (2018).
Left-Handed Starting Pitcher
Huffman H.S. (Birmingham, Ala.)
In my discussion about Terry Forster above, I had mentioned that he was rushed rapidly through the Sox system. While that was true, Britt Burns actually had him beat. Burns, after pitching a combined 10 games for Appleton (Single-A) and Knoxville (Double-A) after being drafted, made his his MLB debut on Aug. 5, 1978 against the Tigers at the age of 19. His first full season in 1980 was perhaps his best, as he went 15-13 with a 2.84 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in his 238 innings of work. From 1980-85, Burns was extremely consistent; although he did have a full season career-worst 5.00 ERA (and 4-12 record) in 1984, he actually posted a career best 3.35 FIP. Burns posted a career-best 18 wins the following year with a solid 3.73 ERA and 1.26 WHIP, to go along a career-high 172 strikeouts in 227 innings. After that season, he was traded to the Yankees with Glenn Braxton and Mike Soper for catcher Ron Hassey and pitcher Joe Cowley. A degenerative hip condition put Burns’s career on hold for several years, and despite making a comeback attempt in 1990 with the Yankees Single-A+ and Triple-A squads, he never made it back to the majors. Thus, sadly enough, he ended up pitching his final major league game at the ripe old age of 26. For his eight-year career, Burns compiled a 70-60 record, 3.66 ERA, 3.53 FIP, 1.29 WHIP, 17.8 bWAR and 734 strikeouts over 1,094 1⁄3 innings spanning 193 games (161 starts). He completed 39 of those starts with 11 shutouts.
I remember two things most about Burns. Especially in the beginning of his career, his cap would seemingly fly off his head with every pitch; the games would often have to be stopped so he could attach pins to keep the cap from falling. Much more significantly, he’ll be fondly remembered for his one career postgame performance, in which he pitched 9 1⁄3 scoreless frames with eight strikeouts (and a 75 game score) against the Baltimore Orioles in Game 4 of the 1983 ALCS. At least, until the infamous Tito Landrum had something to say about it. Nonetheless, Burns easily pitched well enough to take the Sox to a Game 5 with ace LaMarr Hoyt on the bump if the offense could’ve pulled it out.
Right-Handed Starting Pitcher
As was the wont of the White Sox, the team rushed another of its top prospects rapidly through their minor league system. At least Vuckovich made a little more sense than Forster and later Burns, because he was at least drinking age (22) when he made his MLB debut against the Minnesota Twins on Aug. 3, 1975. Vuckovich didn’t really distinguish himself in his two years in a Sox uniform, going 7-5 with a 5.37 ERA, 1.71 WHIP, 67 walks and 67 strikeouts in a combined 120 2⁄3 innings. The Toronto Blue Jays selected Vuckovich with the 19th selection of the MLB Expansion Draft on Nov. 5, 1976. After the one year of the Blue Jays’s inaugural campaign, Vuckovich spent the rest of his 11-year MLB career with the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers. He won the AL Cy Young Award for the Brewers in 1982 with an 18-6 record and 3.34 ERA over 223 2⁄3 innings despite otherwise modest numbers (234 hits, 102 walks, 105 strikeouts, 4.04 FIP, 1.50 WHIP). He actually had a better year in the strike-shortened 1981 season, when he went 14-4 in 149 2⁄3 innings with a 3.55 ERA, 3.48 FIP, 137 hits, 57 walks and 84 strikeouts. For his career which concluded in 1986, this pitcher with a bulldog mound presence compiled a 93-69 record with a 3.66 ERA, 3.63 FIP, 1.37 WHIP, 16.4 bWAR, 545 walks and 882 strikeouts spanning 286 games (186 starts), 1,455 1⁄3 innings, 38 complete games and eight shutouts.
Other signed third-rounders who made it to the majors include pitchers Jim Magnuson (1966), Ken Kravec (1973), Scott Radinsky (1986), Robert Ellis (1990), Carlos Castillo (1994), Josh Fogg (1998), Jon Rauch (1999), Josh Rupe (2002), John Ely (2007), Addison Reed (2010) and Jace Fry (2014); infielders Lamar Johnson (1968), Fran Mullins (1979), Mike Robertson (1991) and Brent Morel (2008); outfielders Jerry Hairston (1970), Ken Williams (1982), Mike Morse (2000) and Jacob May (2013). White Sox unsigned picks who made it to the majors include outfielder Chris Ward (1967) and pitcher J.J. Putz (1995). Signed third-rounders still playing in organized baseball include Reed and Fry, along with outfielders Alex Call (2016) and Luis Gonzalez (2017), and pitcher Konnor Pilkington (2018).
Right-Handed Starting Pitcher
Pinecrest H.S. (Southern Pines, NC)
Unlike other top high school selections Forster and Burns, Baldwin wasn’t rushed to the majors. Baldwin had some excellent years in the White Sox system, particularly in 1992-93 when he finished both years with ERAs less than 2.50 and more than 165 strikeouts. He made his MLB debut on April 30, 1995 against the Red Sox, and pitched a total of seven years in a White Sox uniform. His career-high 14 victories came in the division-winning season of 2000, and his career-high 140 strikeouts came in the 1997 campaign. However, Baldwin’s best season may have been his first full season in 1996, when he posted a 11-6 record with a 4.42 ERA and 1.33 WHIP — both ratios being his personal bests as a starting pitcher. Despite his above-average stuff, Baldwin never posted ERA and WHIP numbers better than that 1996 season. Baldwin pitched well in Game 3 against the Seattle Mariners in the 2000 AL Division Series, as he surrendered just three hits and three walks while fanning two in earning a no-decision. In late July of 2001, Baldwin was traded to the Dodgers for Jeff Barry, Gary Majewski and Onan Masaoka. In addition to the Dodgers, Baldwin also pitched for the Seattle Mariners, Twins, Mets, Orioles and Rangers before finishing his MLB career in 2005. For his 11-year career, Baldwin compiled a 79-74 record, 5.01 ERA, 5.04 FIP, 1.46 WHIP, 9.3 bWAR, and 844 strikeouts spanning 1,322 2⁄3 innings over 266 appearances (202 starts).
Right-Handed Relief Pitcher
Mississippi State University
Despite displaying wildness with 29 walks over 42 innings for Mississippi State in 1985, the White Sox thought well enough of Thigpen to select him in the fourth round. After dominating that year in the low minors, Thigpen began the 1986 season with Birmingham but ultimately found his way into a White Sox uniform for his MLB debut on Aug. 6, 1986 against the eventual AL pennant-winning Red Sox. Without a doubt, Thigpen enjoyed his best season in 1990, when he posted a terrific 1.83 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and then-record 57 saves — fanning 70 hitters while finishing a league-high 73 games. The 1990 campaign wasn’t the only good season for Thigpen — he saved at least 20 games in every season from 1988 to 1992. On Aug. 10, 1993, the White Sox traded him to the Philadelphia Phillies for veteran starting pitcher Jose DeLeon. After struggling with the Phillies that year and then the Mariners in 1994, Thigpen called it a career. In his nine years, Thigpen posted a 31-36 record, 201 saves (all with the White Sox), 3.43 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 7.8 bWAR and 376 strikeouts over 568 2⁄3 innings. He is still the White Sox all-time leader in saves, ahead of Bobby Jenks, Roberto Hernandez, Keith Foulke and Hoyt Wilhelm.
Other signed fourth-rounders who made it to the majors include pitchers Fred Rath (1965), Bruce Tanner (1983), Steve Schrenk (1987), Johnny Ruffin (1988), Brian Boehringer (1991), Lucas Harrell (2004) and Brandon Brennan (2012); infielders Craig Smajstria (1981) and Chris Getz (2005); and outfielder Jeff Abbott (1994). Catcher Bruce Robinson (1972) is the only White Sox unsigned fourth-rounder who made it to the majors. Aside from Brennan, other signed fourth round picks still playing in organized baseball include pitchers Zack Erwin (2015) and Lincoln Henzman, along with infielders Jameson Fisher (2016) and Lency Delgado (2018).
Harding H.S. (Charlotte, N.C.)
Ray Durham worked his way up the Sox farm system, ultimately winning the White Sox Minor League Player of the Year award in 1994 after slashing .296/.363/.495 with 33 doubles, 12 triples, 16 homers, 66 RBIs, 89 runs, and 34 stolen bases for Triple-A Nashville. From the time he made his major league debut on April 26, 1995 until he he was traded on July 25, 2002 to the A’s for pitcher Jon Adkins, Durham was the White Sox’s underrated spark plug. It’s difficult to say which was Durham’s best season with the team, because he was so consistent. If I had to choose, his best year was 1998, when he slashed .285/.363/.455 with 35 doubles, eight triples, 19 homers, 67 RBIs, 126 runs, 73 walks and 36 stolen bases. In the eight seasons he spent in a White Sox uniform, Durham hit double-digit homers seven times, stole 20 or more bases seven times, scored 100-plus runs six times, and played in two All-Star Games (1998 and 2000). He concluded his 14-year career in 2008, with the San Francisco Giants and Brewers. For his career, which spanned 1,975 games and 8,423 at-bats, Durham slashed .277/.352/.436 while getting 2,054 hits with 440 doubles, 79 triples, 192 homers, and 875 RBIs. While compiling a career 33.8 bWAR, Durham also scored a whopping 1,249 runs, stole 273 bases, and walked 820 times.
Fatima H.S. (Westphalia, Mo.)
Joe Crede, thanks in large part to his offensive and defensive heroics in the 2005 postseason, will always be a favorite of White Sox fans. Although his career seemed way too short, he donned a Sox uniform in nine of his 10 MLB seasons. Crede first became a highly-touted prospect after slashing .315/.387/.514 with 20 homers and 88 RBIs in Double-A Birmingham in 1998. After suffering an injury-riddled 1999 season, Crede played well enough for Birmingham and later Charlotte to earn cups of coffee with the White Sox in the 2000 and 2001 seasons. Crede split his time fairly evenly betwee Charlotte and the White Sox in 2002, finally becoming the hot corner regular the following year. While it was rare for Crede to take a walk (his career high was 34 in 2004), he also struck out rarely — never fanned more than 81 times in a season.
In 2005, Crede slashed .252/.303/.454 with 22 homers; however, it was his postseason that won him the most fanfare. Against the Angels in the ALCS, he slashed .368/.350/.789 and two homers while faring similarly against the Houston Astros in the World Series by slashing .294/.368/.706 with two homers. Even more than his stickwork in that postseason, he performed a worthy Brooks Robinson impersonation with his glove that earned him many kudos and much consideration for postseason honors. Crede actually enjoyed his best season in 2006 by slashing .283/.323/.506 with 31 doubles, 30 homers, 94 RBIs, 28 walks and 58 strikeouts. However, back injuries took their toll on Crede, limiting his playing time significantly in 2007 and 2008. He played in one injury-riddled campaign for the Twins before calling it quits at the age of 31. For his 10-year career spanning 888 games and 3,377 at-bats, Crede produced a 14.7 bWAR by slashing .254/.304/.444 with 159 doubles, 140 homers, 470 RBIs, 199 walks and 459 strikeouts. He was the recipient of the Silver Slugger Award in 2006 and played in the All-Star Game in 2008.
Other signed fifth-rounders who played in the majors include pitchers Ken Frailing (1966), Adam Peterson (1984), David Lundquist (1993), Pat Daneker (1997), Josh Stewart (1999), Nate Jones (2007), Daniel Hudson (2008) and Scott Snodgress (2011); infielders Dan Rohrmeier (1987), Andy Gonzalez (2001), and Andy Wilkins (2010); and outfielder Brandon Allen (2004). The only White Sox unsigned pick who made it to the majors was pitcher Joey Eischen (1988). In addition to the aforementioned Wilkins, Jones and Hudson, other fifth-rounders still playing in organized baseball include pitchers Zach Thompson (2014), Jordan Stephens (2015), Jimmy Lambert (2016), Tyler Johnson (2017) and Jonathan Stiever (2018).