The Pittsburgh Pirates have many first round draft blunders in their history, but this one might be the worst for many reasons.
The Pittsburgh Pirates finished out the 2001 season with a 62-100 record, the worst in baseball. They only had two players who produced above average numbers, but a good amount of their position players didn’t even come remotely close to league average. Their team OPS+ was just 79. In terms of pitching, they had a team ERA of 5.05, and team FIP of 4.63. On average, they gave up 1.442 walks and hits per inning. This led to them being the worst team during the season, and getting the number one overall pick in the 2002 draft.
Getting the number one overall pick can really help a team’s situation. Sometimes you can get the next big star but other times, it can be a complete waste. Unfortunately, the latter happened to the Pirates.
With the first overall pick in the draft, the Pirates selected pitcher Bryan Bullington from Ball State University. In 2003, Bullington was outstanding with a 3.01 ERA in the regular season. However, during the conference tournament, Bullington was struck in the face by a line drive. He fought back three days later and appeared in the semifinals where he gave up seven runs.
Regardless, Bullington was considered a top college pitcher, and the Pirates used their number one overall pick to select him. He quickly made his presence known in 2003, his first full season as a professional baseball player. In 142.2 innings across Mid-A and High-A, Bullington had a 2.52 ERA, 3.27 FIP and 1.150 WHIP. He allowed just eight home runs, resulting in a strong 0.5 HR/9. Although he wasn’t a big strikeout pitcher with a 19.1 K percent, he was great at limiting free passes with a 6.4 walk %.
Entering 2004, Bullington was considered the 52nd best prospect by Baseball America, but he wasn’t nearly as dominant at Double-A. In his next 145 innings, Bullington posted a 4.10 ERA, 4.55 FIP, and 1.428 WHIP. After surrendering just eight home runs, that number reached over double digits at 18. He also walked more batters (7.4 percent), and struck out less (15.9 percent).
In 2005, Bullington was moved up to Triple-A where he did rebound. He lowered his ERA to 3.28, FIP to 3.88 and WHIP to 1.179 in 104.1 innings of work. He also saw his walk rate drop to just 5.7 percent, but his strikeout rate still was unspectacular at 17.7 percent. He still managed a 3.08 K/BB ratio, which was the best so far in his career.
Bullington made his debut after his solid work at Triple-A, but only pitched one and one third of an inning on September 18th, 2005. It eventually came out that the first overall pick would need surgery on his throwing shoulder, and that kept him out all of the next season.
Going into 2007, Bryan was now 26-years-old, which is old for a prospect. But it seemed the shoulder surgery did the trick, as he had a 1.17 ERA through the first month of the season. The shoulder issues quickly resurfaced as on June 10th as Bullington was placed in the 15-day disabled list. Bullington really struggled once being activated, having an ERA over 5.00 for the remainder of the season in the minors. Overall he produced an ERA of 4.00, FIP of 4.13 and WHIP of 1.361 in 150.2 innings. Bullington posted his worst strikeout rates (14 percent) and walk rates of his career (9.3 percent).
He did pitch a few innings in the majors, 17 to be exact, where he allowed 10 earned runs on 24 hits, and three home runs. Bullington struck out just seven batters and walked five. Going into 2008, the prospect status had worn off. The right handed starter lasted just 75 more innings in the Pirates’ system where he allowed 90 hits, 25 walks, and 46 earned runs. Eventually, the Pirates designated Bullington for assignment where he was claimed off waivers by the Indians.
What made Bullington a huge bust wasn’t only because he never panned out. It was partially because who else was drafted in 2002, and where Bullington was drafted. In the first round of the 2002 draft alone, there was a Cy Young winner, five players who went to multiple all star games, one player who finished top five in MVP voting at least once, and two total players who finished top 10 in MVP voting at least once. Those players included Matt Cain, Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels, Prince Fielder, and Scott Kazmir. They were far from the only quality major leaguers who were selected in the first round. There was also long time slugger Nick Swisher, Denard Span and James Loney, all of who had successful major league careers. This was only in the first round. The second round might have been even better as Joey Votto, Brian McCann and Jon Lester were selected. You can find many other players who had great major league careers throughout this draft like Curtis Granderson, Josh Johnson, Adam Lind, Howie Kendrick, Jason Hamel, and Russell Martin. That’s through the first 17 rounds. Not only did the Pirates have an opportunity to draft any of those players, but they used the first overall pick in the draft on Bullington.
The question I want to ask is was this the worst first round selection by the Pirates in recent history? The Pirates have a long history of making bad first round selections like Daniel Moskos in 2007, Tony Sanchez in 2009, and Mark Appel in 2012, but I think this one takes the cake. Bryan Bullington was selected with the first overall pick and neither of the other three were selected with the pick that is supposed to signal the best player in the draft. The Pirates opened the draft with the chance to draft a Cy Young winner, an MVP, one of the best sluggers of the mid-2000’s to early 2010’s, or one of the players who went to multiple all-stars, instead they drafted a player who threw 81.2 career innings.