For the current state of sports in Detroit, you’d think that the recent drafts of our four professional teams have been remarkable—but that’s not really the case when it’s come to first round picks. Much of the Red Wings success has come with later picks, the Lions had a well-publicized run of terrible draft picks in the early to mid-2000s, the Tigers picks have been mostly down—with Justin Verlander being an obvious exception—and the rebuilding Pistons have been much better at booking washed up, one-hit wonders for Palace halftime shows this season than they have been at drafting the last decade plus.
Outside of Verlander, nearly all the recent draft success has come in the last half decade in Detroit. The Lions acquired an All-Pro caliber trio—Calvin Johnson, Matt Stafford and Ndamukong Suh—with three extremely high picks in 2007, 2009, and 2010. The Tigers took Rick Porcello in 2007, and despite missing on Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller the previous two years, they were the key pieces to a deal that netted Miguel Cabrera from the Marlins. After a nightmarish record of first round draft picks, Joe Dumars finally got it right as the Pistons netted key contributors Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight the last two drafts. The Wings, for the most part, get a pass on the draft. Due to their success, the highest draft pick they’ve had since 2000 has been #19. They’ve often traded out of the first round and focused their efforts on later picks, where they’ve found stars such as Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.
Despite the recent improvements, the first round has shown us a ton of failure in Detroit the last dozen years. Because of this—and in order to help our general managers grow from the past—I’ve compiled my list of the 12 worst draft picks in Detroit in the last 12 years—with a couple notes. These are all first rounders, the higher the pick the more value is added to the bust label and an alternate pick is listed as well.
12. Thomas McCollum, G Red Wings (2008 – 29th pick) As I said, the Wings are nearly exempt from this list…however, if any first round pick of theirs will sneak in it’s McCollum. He’s been bad at Grand Rapids and was worse in his only NHL action last year. After replacing Joey McDonald in a March 30th 2011 contest, McCollum surrendered three goals on eight shots. Expecting to be a goalie of the future, McCollum seems to be relegated to backup duty at best with the emergence of Jimmy Howard. Alternate pick: Jacob Markstrom G Panthers, 30th pick.
11. Scott Moore, 3B Tigers (2002 – 8th pick)
The Tigers had a string of awful draft picks in the early 2000 thanks to Randy Smith’s dartboard draft strategy. Unfortunately, Scott Moore was probably the best of those early picks. Even with that title he checks in at #11 on this list. Unlike the other picks in that era, Moore has actually played in the majors. However, with a career statline of . 227/7 home runs/23 RBIs, you might think you’re looking at a forecast of Brandon Inge’s 2013 season. Ironically, the Tigers just paid $214 million to sign the player picked one spot ahead of Moore—Prince Fielder. Alternate pick: Cole Hamels P Phillies, 17th pick.
10. Austin Daye, F Pistons (2009 – 15th pick)
Seen as an eventual heir apparent to Tashaun Prince, the only thing that Daye has had in common with Prince is his low-calorie diet. The rail-thin forward was expected to be a deadly shooter that could be a piece added to a rebuilding Pistons core, however he has been severely outshined—and outhustled—by 2009 second round pick Jonas Jerebko. Dumars ability to get Jerekbo in the 2nd round shouldn’t overshadow the terrible pick of Austin Daye. During his short career, the only thing worse than Daye’s attitude has been his defense. Under Lawerence Frank, Daye’s been relegated to mop-up duty this season. Alternate pick: Dejuan Blair PF, 37th pick
9. Kenny Baugh, P Tigers (2001 – 9th pick)
I can’t help but think of Kenny Powers—the lead character in HBO’s Eastbound and Down—when I recall the pick of Benny Baugh by the Tigers in 2001. Amazingly, the lead character from the comical TV series had far more success than Baugh. It’s a pretty bad sign when you were the 9th overall pick in an MLB draft and don’t have a Wikipedia page—I think I have a Wikipedia page. A career minor-leaguer, Baugh made it to Triple-A Toledo in 2005, but never to the big leagues—his minor league career 4. 45 ERA in nearly 800 innings probably being the biggest reason why. Alternate pick: David Wright 3B, 38th pick
8. Joey Harrington, QB Lions (2001 – 3rd pick)
If there was ever a match made in you know where, it was Joey Harrington and the Detroit Lions. It’s never been more apparent what an awful pick he was for this organization than with the current emergence of 2009 #1 pick Matthew Stafford. Stafford’s rugged, gun-slinging approach is a perfect fit for a blue collar, hard-nosed city—and the anti-thesis of Harrington. Harrington was eloquent and well-spoken, and became gun shy after too many hits behind a brutal offensive line—unfortunately, he was picked to save the franchise and doomed from the start. Alternate pick: Dwight Freeny DE, 11th pick
7. Mateen Cleaves, PG Pistons (2000 – 14th pick)
If ever there was and obligation pick it was Mateen Cleaves. The darling of the MSU Spartans 2000 NCAA title run was on the board with this hometown Pistons—in need of as much publicity as possible—due to pick. It was a no-brainer for rookie GM Joe Dumars—but it was a bad pick. Cleaves simply wasn’t talented enough to compete in the NBA and made his way out of the league after playing minor roles with four teams. It really is a shame since what seemed to be a perfect marriage fell apart so quickly. Cleaves is still visible in the community and in the Detroit media, but he never had the impact that was expected with the Pistons. Alternate Pick: Michael Redd G, 37th pick
6. Matt Wheatland, P Tigers (2000 – 8th pick)
Man, these early 2000s Tigers picks just roll off the tongue. Wheatland was no-doubt the least productive of any of the four terrible Randy Smith picks early in the 2000s—again, no Wikipedia page. After suffering through nightmarish shoulder problems—including three surgeries—Wheatland never made it above Single-A ball, and was out of baseball by 2006. He did, however, hit six home runs in 2006 with independent San Diego Surf Dawgs after being converted to a LF/1B. Alternate Pick: Chase Utley 3B, 15th pick
5. Kyle Sleeth, P Tigers (2003 – 3rd pick)
2003 was not a good drafting year for Detroit GMs. The Lions and Tigers had the 3rd overall picks and the Pistons had the 2nd overall pick. You’ve seen the Lions pick, will soon see the Pistons pick, and not to be outdone, the Tigers pick bombed just as fantastically as the other two—despite his less recognizable name. After a tremendous college career at Wake Forest, Sleeth was named the Top Pitching Prospect in College Baseball by Baseball America in 2002. He was never close to living up to his potential thanks to, again, arm injuries. Sleeth underwent Tommy John surgery but was unable to find any success, going 12-21 with a 6. 30 ERA across 62 minor league appearances, all in the Tiger organization. Alternate Pick: Paul Maholm P or John Danks P, 8th and 9th pick. Jonathan Papelbon was a 4th round pick in 2003, as well.
4. Rodney White, F Pistons (2001 – 9th pick)
With the Pistons in desperation mode to replace a recently departed Grant Hill, Joe Dumars turned to the ESPN national collegiate player of the year in Rodney White. He was expected to be the face of the franchise, but instead became the face of busted draft picks by Dumar. White quickly clashed with head coach Rick Carlisle and was shipped off to Denver, where he quickly out of favor again due to his bad attitude, poor work ethic, awful defense and streaky offense. Dumars did save some face by being able to acquire a first round pick for White from Denver. Alternate pick: Zack Randolph F, 19th pick
3. Mike Williams, WR Lions (2005 – 10th pick)
The thing about Mike Williams isn’t so much that he was a bad pick, rather that he was obviously a bad pick immediately when he was picked. When Paul Taglibue announced “With the 10th pick of the 2005 NFL Draft the Detroit Lions select…”, not one person on the planet was expecting the name to come out that did. Declared ineligible for the 2004 NCAA season, Williams threw his name in the 2005 draft. No one expected him to be selected in the top 10—except Matt Millen. Williams represented the 3rd top-10 wide receiver selected in consecutive drafts by the Lions and rightfully led draft pundits to declare that Millen’s strategy was BAW–Best Available Wideout. Williams flamed out with the Lions, failed to catch on with the Titans, but has encountered moderate success in Seattle the last few years. Williams admittedly never took his opportunity seriously in Detroit. It’s incredibly alarming that Millen selected Williams with all the red flags surrounding him. Alternate pick: Demarcus Ware DE, 11th pick – ouch.
2. Charles Rogers, WR Lions (2003 – 2nd pick)
The total and complete culmination of Matt Millen’s failure could be personified in Charles Rogers. While injuries were what ultimately derailed his career in Detroit, there is no doubt that drug abuse and poor work ethic would have been the downfall if not for two broken collar bones. Rumors about Rogers persisted regarding his “party” mentality at MSU and despite those, and a failed test for a marijuana masking agent on the eve of the draft, the Lions still selected Rogers with the second pick in the draft, hoping to give the Lions a dynamic QB-WR duo with Joey Harrington. It ended up being a punchline for nearly a decade. Luckily for the Lions, they have that duo with Stafford and Calvin Johnson—the only 1st round wideout that Matt Millen actually got right. Alternate pick: Andre Johnson WR, 3rd pick
1. Darko Milicic, C Pistons (2003 – 2nd pick)
It’s utterly amazing to think that Milicic is still only 26 years old. I’ll never forget my reaction to the first time I saw Milicic in person after months of rumors of this hidden savior from Serbia. Milicic was a gangly, awkward boy when drafted by the Pistons #2 overall and I was actually embarrassed for him attempting to give post-draft interviews. It was immediately obvious that he had a long, long, long way to go and would be among the biggest projects in NBA history. He made Kwame Brown look polished. Needless to say, Milicic never did much except dribble balls off his knee and get blocked by the rim in his tenure with the Pistons. A truly awful pick by Dumars. I find it hard to believe any fan would have selected Darko in the same scenario. Thanks to genetics, Milicic and his 7-foot frame has stuck around the league, but he’s been little more than a below-average player at best. His immaturity and exposure to a new country without a support structure didn’t help him early in his career, either. Milicic is probably a Sam Bowie away from being the worst pick in NBA history. Alternate Pick: Take your pick. Milicic was the sole pick in the 2003 Top 6 picks to never play in an All-Star Game. Carmelo Anthony F #3, Dwayne Wade G #4 are probably the two players most painful for Pistons fans to see play.
There you have it—the 12 most cringe-worthy picks by Detroit teams the last decade. While the last several drafts have been much better cumulatively among Detroit teams, I can’t help but wonder how the 2011 Detroit Lions draft will look in another 11 years. Three picks have already been arrested for Marijuana and only one pick—Titus Young—appears to be a building block for this team at this point. Maybe Matt Millen talked his way back into the Lions war room last year.