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Only one Piazza, but Draft hides late gems

Only one Piazza, but Draft hides late gems

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Only one Piazza, but Draft hides late gems
First and foremost, Gerrit Cole, hometown hero Bubba Starling and all of the other top picks in the First-Year Player Draft have the spotlight now. Some will progress as expected and keep it. Realistically, however, they now all enter a melting pot in which development, not Draft status, decides fates.

As the 2011 First-Year Player Draft winds down into four-digit territory on Wednesday, the downtrack selections can look for hope and encouragement from predecessors who started out in Draft shadows and surfaced into Major League sunshine.

In pro football circles, they called him Mr. Irrelevant, the very last Draft pick who was toasted and celebrated for coming in as the last selection in the seventh round.

Baseball's Draft goes much deeper than that, but there are no Messrs. Irrelevant. Everyone matters, because the top can be reached from any depth with a perseverance that deserves an award, not mockery.

And, so, we at MLB.com would like to unofficially introduce an annual honor to be presented to the lowest-ranked player appearing in the Majors, the Mike Piazza Award.

The name on the trophy -- which thus far this season belongs to Angels reserve catcher Bobby Wilson -- is a natural, dedicated to the catcher who went from being pick No. 1,390 in 1988 to very likely a Hall of Fame career.

Piazza is not the lowest draftee ever to make the big leagues. Not even close: Scott Seabol, pick No. 1,718 in 1996, made the Yankees' 2001 Opening Day roster. But Piazza achieved the greatest career from the south side of the Draft.

Piazza's entry will be an enduring legend, on a par with the Red Sox's trade of Babe Ruth and the Pirates' hijacking of Roberto Clemente out of Brooklyn's farm system. Just about everyone else had gone home by the time the Dodgers -- as a courtesy to manager Tom Lasorda, the Pennsylvania native's godfather -- selected Piazza with their 62nd and final pick.

Merely an honorary choice? Really? Put it this way: The White Sox took Carey Schueler, the softball-playing daughter of general manager Ron Schueler, with their 43rd-round pick in 1993.

Yet, four years after being drafted, Piazza was behind the plate in Chavez Ravine. That's the kind of swift ascent that can give you a nosebleed. And infuse others with that can-do attitude.

Incidentally, recognizing the Major Leaguers who overcame low Draft status overlooks a group that scoffed at even longer odds, the guys who weren't drafted at all yet made it. Like Matt Stairs, who is still swinging it for the Nationals in his 20th big league season. And Heath Bell, San Diego's lights-out closer.

Ten who are doing it (lowest-drafted players currently in the Majors):
No. 1,417: Bobby Wilson, Angels (48, 2002)
Six years after first reaching the Majors, the catcher-first baseman still has room on the Halos' bench.

No. 1,333: Tony Sipp, Indians (45, 2004)
A key piece of the American League Central-leading Indians' bullpen.

No. 1,290: Kyle Farnsworth, Rays (47, 1994)
In his 13th season and with his sixth team, the right-handed reliever has finally found his calling -- which now comes in the ninth inning for the Rays.

No. 1,286: Wil Nieves, Brewers (47, 1995)
The still-solid defensive catcher is lending his smarts and his mitt to Milwaukee.

No. 1,280: Orlando Hudson, Padres (43, 1997)
Four Gold Glove Awards and two All-Star selections later, the second baseman is still going strong with his fifth club.

No. 1,220: Todd Coffey, Nationals (41, 1998)
He was only 17 when drafted and, at 30, is enjoying his best season yet out of Washington's bullpen.

No. 1,157: Jason Isringhausen, Mets (44, 1991)
The big right-hander has traveled a long road that has led back to his original club, for which he has done limited, but excellent, relief work.

No. 1,143: Randy Wells, Cubs (38, 2002)
Recently activated after missing the season's first two months with a forearm injury, the right-hander has the nasty stuff to help the Cubs rally in the National League Central.

No. 1,139: Mark Buehrle, White Sox (38, 1998)
Two no-hitters, one of them perfect, and 153 wins say it all.

No. 1,134: Rajai Davis, Blue Jays (38, 2001)
In his seventh season, Davis is among the leaders in the AL with 18 stolen bases.

Ten who did it (lowest-drafted standouts in history):

• No. 1,512: Marcus Giles, 1996; 2003 All-Star second baseman.

• No. 1,488: Gabe Kapler, 1995; played 12 seasons, won ring with '04 Red Sox.

• No. 1,390: Piazza, 1988; repute as the best-hitting catcher of all time should get him into the Hall of Fame.

• No. 1,226: Jeff Conine, 1987; .285 hitter for 17 seasons and member of Marlins' 1997 and 2003 World Series champs.

• No. 1,193: Julio Lugo, 1994; .270 hitter across 11 versatile seasons.

• No. 1,028: Al Cowens, 1969; 1977 AL MVP runner-up and .270 career hitter across 13 seasons.

• No. 816: Kenny Rogers, 1982; 219 wins in 20-season career.

• No. 785: Keith Hernandez, 1971; Five-time All-Star hit nearly .300 in 17 seasons as silky first baseman.

• No. 646: Jorge Posada, 1990; a rock on most recent Yankees dynasty.

• No. 511: Ryne Sandberg, 1978; he already is in the Hall of Fame.

Tom Singer is a national reporter for MLB.com. Follow @Tom_Singer on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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