Free agent overcompensation

I’ve been thinking about compensation draft picks. You know, those things that teams get when they lose a player via free agency. I’m not talking about the disastrous compensation draft of 1984 that resulted in the New York Mets losing Tom Seaver to the Chicago White Sox for no good reason, but the amateur draft. Specifically, I’ve been wondering about overcompensation. Using 1999 as an arbitrary cutoff point, and acknowledging that hindsight is 20/20, here are a few picks that caught my eye…

Larry Sheets for Elliott Maddox, 1978

Maddox was a fourth-outfielder type who could play some third base as well. He’d enjoyed a couple of nice seasons for the Yankees in the mid-’70s before coming to Baltimore in a trade for Paul Blair prior to the 1977 season. That year Maddox hit .262/.357/.383 in 128 plate appearances—not a bad performance, but when guys like Dave Skaggs and Tony Muser are getting more playing time than you, you’re not exactly an irreplaceable part. Maddox spent three seasons with the Mets, with his first being his best (.257/.370/.329). He played his final big-league game in 1980.

When Maddox signed with the Mets in November 1977, Baltimore received New York’s pick in the second round of the ’78 draft (No. 29 overall) as compensation and used it to take Sheets, a Virginia high school outfielder. Although his career didn’t last long, Sheets enjoyed a fair amount of success with the Orioles, most notably in 1987, when he hit .316/.358/.563 and finished among the top 10 in batting average and slugging percentage in the American League. He retired following the 1993 season, with a career line of .266/.321/.437 in 2501 plate appearances.

Mark Langston for Bill Stein, 1981

Stein played third base for the Seattle Mariners from 1977 to 1980. He was the primary starter those first two seasons before losing his job to Dan Meyer in ’79. The following year, at age 33, Stein hit .268/.321/.379 in 225 plate appearances for Seattle, who decided to let him walk after the season. The Texas Rangers signed him in December 1980, forfeiting their second-round pick in the ’81 draft as compensation. Stein enjoyed a fantastic season for Texas at age 34, hitting .330/.360/.435… in all of 126 plate appearances. He remained in Texas, with some very bad teams that could have used a good young pitcher or three, before riding off into the proverbial sunset after the 1985 season.

With the pick they received as compensation for the loss of Stein, the Mariners tabbed San Jose State left-hander Langston, who first surfaced with the big club in 1984. He won 17 games that year and finished second to teammate Alvin Davis in AL Rookie of the Year voting. After a couple of down years, mostly due to spotty control, Langston re-established himself as a dominant pitcher in 1987 and continued to pitch at an All-Star level into his thirties (famously being traded for a young Randy Johnson along the way). Langston took the Steve Carlton path to retirement, finally calling it quits after the 1999 season with a career record of 179-158, 3.97 ERA and 2464 strikeouts.

Rafael Palmeiro for Tim Stoddard, 1985

Stoddard had been a standout reliever for Earl Weaver‘s Orioles in 1979 and 1980 before settling into a pattern of steady mediocrity (or worse). Stoddard won 10 games for the Chicago Cubs in 1984, though he didn’t pitch particularly well. Still, the Padres apparently felt the need to forfeit their first-round pick in ’85 to sign Stoddard, who gave them a year and a half of nothing. Stoddard kicked around the big leagues until 1989, retiring with a 41-35 record, 3.95 ERA and 76 saves.

The Cubs, meanwhile, got the Padres’ first-round pick (No. 22 overall) as compensation for the loss of Stoddard. With that pick, Chicago selected Palmeiro out of Mississippi State. They gave him away to Texas before he turned into a Hall-of-Fame caliber player, but still… Palmeiro retired after the 2005 season with a career line of .288/.371/.515, amassing 3020 hits and 569 home runs, numbers that would make him a mortal lock for Cooperstown if not for some Congressional messiness toward the end.

Bonus pain: The Padres ended up with the No. 23 pick that year as compensation for losing Ed Whitson to the Yankees. With that pick, San Diego took Joey Cora, who hit more like Orlando Palmeiro.

Hall of Inadequate Compensation?

Several Hall-of-Famers and would-be Hall-of-Famers have been signed as free agents over the years. What kind of compensation have the teams that lost them received? You be the judge:

Roberto Hernandez and Mike Fetters for Juan Beniquez, 1986

Beniquez first arrived in the big leagues as a 21-year-old in 1971 with the Boston Red Sox. He came up as a shortstop but quickly moved to the outfield, where he became a decent spare part for many years before blossoming into a surprisingly productive hitter with the California Angels in his mid-30s. Beniquez signed with Baltimore after the 1985 season, enjoying a nice campaign (.300/.372/.397 in 394 PA) for the Orioles at age 36 before being shipped to the Royals for a glass of water.

For their trouble, the Angels received Baltimore’s first-round pick in the ’86 draft as well as a supplemental first-round pick. With the O’s pick (No. 16 overall), California popped Hernandez, a right-hander out of the University of South Carolina – Aiken. Eleven picks later, the Angels took Fetters, a right-hander out of Pepperdine. Neither player did much for the team that drafted them (and California managed to parlay them into Chuck Crim and Mark Davis), but between the two, they saved 426 big-league games. Beniquez never did that.

Todd Zeile for Ivan DeJesus, 1986

DeJesus began his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers before becoming the Cubs everyday shortstop in 1977. He enjoyed a few passable seasons in Chicago before stumbling to a remarkable .194/.276/.233 line in an even more remarkable 460 plate appearances at the ripe old age of 28. Despite his miserable ’81 campaign, the Cubs somehow managed to extract Ryne Sandberg (and Larry Bowa) from Philadelphia for him after the season. DeJesus spent three years as the Phillies starting shortstop before being shipped to St. Louis for non-descript left-hander Dave Rucker. After serving as Ozzie Smith‘s caddy for a year, DeJesus signed with the Yankees in May 1986. His career in pinstripes lasted 55 days, during which time he went 0-for-4 with a walk. After 16 more games, he was done as a big leaguer.

DeJesus’ .222/.260/.292 performance in ’85 hadn’t cost the Yankees anything, but the Cardinals did receive a supplemental second-round pick as a result of his defection (I almost typed “defectiveness”—Freudian slip there). And with the 55th pick overall, they selected Zeile, a catcher out of UCLA. Zeile came up with the Cards in ’89 and placed sixth in NL Rookie of the Year voting the following season. In 1991 he moved to third base and became a solid contributor there until June 1995, when he was traded to the Cubs. Zeile proceeded to bounce around the big leagues for the next decade, finally retiring after the 2004 season with a career line of .265/.346/.423 that included 2,004 hits and 253 home runs.

Pete Harnisch for Rick Dempsey, 1987

Dempsey made his big-league debut with the Minnesota Twins in 1969, at age 19. He made brief cameos each of the next four years before garnering material playing time with the Yankees in ’74. After a couple of seasons backing up Thurman Munson (and occasionally playing right field—a position the aforementioned Maddox sometimes played for those same Yankees), in June 1976 he was shipped, along with four of his teammates, to Baltimore. There he became a fixture, providing solid defense behind the dish but little in the way of a bat. After a decade of service with the Orioles, Dempsey tested free agency and, at age 37, was signed by the Cleveland Indians, for whom he hit .177/.295/.270 in 170 plate appearances. (To provide some context for his offensive performance, this was 1987, the year Dale Sveum knocked 25 homers.)

The Orioles actually received two picks for Dempsey. The first, at No. 15 overall, was Virgina Tech right-hander Brad DuVall, who never reached the big leagues. (In hindsight, maybe they should have taken a certain catcher out of Seton Hall.) The second, a supplemental first-rounder, was Harnisch, a right-hander out of Fordham. Although Harnisch never did much in Baltimore (aside from leave town in one of the worst trades ever), he was a National League All-Star in 1991 and finished his career with a 111-103 record and 3.89 ERA. Harnisch wasn’t a great pitcher, but he provided a lot more value than a 37-year-old Dempsey ever could.

Shawn Green for Bud Black, 1991

Black was a fine pitcher who won 121 big-league games. By 1991, though, his best years were behind him. He spent most of the ’90 season toiling for the Indians, who shipped him to Toronto in mid-September for Steve Cummings, Mauro Gozzo and Alex Sanchez. If you remember them, congratulations—you’re a bigger dork than I am. Black’s career as a Blue Jay lasted exactly three games. Less than two months later, the veteran left-hander signed with San Francisco.

To make up for those three Black appearances, the Blue Jays received the No. 16 pick in the ’91 draft from the Giants as well as a supplemental pick at No. 42. The latter was used on California high school shortstop Dante Powell, who didn’t sign (ironically, the Giants drafted and signed Powell three years later out of Cal State Fullerton). The former was used on Green, another California high schooler, who went on to become one of the better outfielders of his generation, batting .283/.355/.494 while playing in nearly 2000 games. He finished his career with 2003 hits and 328 homers and received marginal MVP support in ’98, ’01 and ’02. Green ranks ninth in Blue Jays history in on-base percentage, third in slugging percentage and 10th in home runs—not a bad haul for three appearances from a fading left-hander.

Jim Pittsley and Johnny Damon for Kurt Stillwell, 1992

Stillwell, a first-round pick of the Reds in 1983, had the misfortune of beginning his career at the same time as Barry Larkin. After two forgettable years in Cincinnati, Stillwell was traded to Kansas City in a deal for left-hander Danny Jackson. In his first year with the Royals, at age 23, Stillwell hit .251/.322/.399 and made the American League All-Star team. He provided a second season of league-average offense before fading. After the ’91 season, Stillwell tested free agency. The San Diego Padres signed him and moved him to second base to replace Bip Roberts (who had been shipped to Cincinnati, where he became an All-Star). Stillwell hit .227/.274/.298 and did even worse the next year before being released in July 1993. He kicked around the league a little longer before retiring in 1996 with a career line of .249/.311/.349 over parts of nine seasons.

Pittsley was a highly regarded Pennsylvania high school right-hander whose arm miseries kept him from developing into a productive big leaguer. The Royals took him with the Padres’ first-round pick in 1992 (No. 17 overall), which probably was fair compensation for Stillwell. Kansas City also received a supplemental pick at No. 35. The Royals used this to pick Damon, a Florida high school outfielder. After a few false starts, Damon blossomed into a minor star with the Royals before taking his talents to Boston and New York, where he became mistaken for a major star. As of this writing, the 34-year-old Damon has 2233 hits to go along with a .289/.355/.434 line.

Torii Hunter for John Smiley, 1993

Smiley was a little like Bud Black—a left-hander without overpowering stuff who won 120ish games (126 in Smiley’s case). He’d been a 20-game winner and Cy Young Award contender for the Pirates in ’91 before being traded to Minnesota for Denny Neagle and Midre Cummings. In his only season with the Twins, Smiley went 16-9 with a 3.21 ERA. In December 1992, the Cincinnati Reds signed Smiley, who rewarded his new team by going 3-9 with a 5.62 ERA. He rebounded with three fairly strong seasons (even making his second All-Star team in ’95) before being forced to retire due to injury in 1997.

To compensate for the loss of Smiley, Minnesota received two picks. With the second, at No. 33, the Twins tabbed Arizona State right-hander Marc Barcelo, who never reached the big leagues. But at No. 20, with the pick that had belonged to Cincinnati, they selected Hunter, a multi-tooled outfielder out of Pine Bluff, Ark. Like Damon, Hunter struggled at first before becoming a productive center fielder. Hunter has been named to two American League All-Star teams and received semi-serious MVP consideration in 2002. He also has won the Gold Glove award for seven consecutive seasons entering 2008. Signed by the Angels before the season, the 32-year-old Hunter owns a career line of .271/.326/.470 as of this writing.

Brad Lidge for Darryl Kile, 1998

Kile, a talented yet enigmatic right-hander who alternated between brilliance and ineffectiveness throughout his seven-year career with the Houston Astros, bolted for Colorado in December 1997. Coming off a season in which he finished fifth in Cy Young Award voting on the strength of a 19-7 record and a 2.57 ERA, Kile enjoyed considerably less success with the Rockies, posting a 5.20 ERA in ’98 and a 6.61 ERA in ’99. Apparently the combination of spotty control and a reliance on breaking balls don’t work real well at high altitude, in an environment conducive to scoring runs. Kile was traded to St. Louis after the 1999 season and immediately became a Cy Young contender again, winning 20 games in 2000 and 16 more in 2001 before passing unexpectedly during the 2002 season.

The Astros received two picks as compensation for Kile’s defection to Colorado. They used the second (No. 37 overall) on Nevada high school right-hander Mike Nannini, who has been kicking around the minor leagues ever since. Before that, with the 17th pick overall, Houston took Lidge, another right-hander, out of Notre Dame. Injuries delayed the start of his career, but when Lidge finally arrived, he became an immediate force as Billy Wagner‘s setup man in 2003. Lidge took over as closer midway through the following season, notching 29 saves and a mind-blowing 157 strikeouts—nearly 43 percent of all plate appearances against him that year resulted in a strikeout. Except for a blip in 2006, he has continued to be one of the more dominant relievers in baseball. Now closing for the Phillies, Lidge owns 153 career saves as of this writing and is averaging 12.52 K/9 in more than 450 innings. For every three batters he’s faced as a big leaguer, one has gone down on strikes.

References & Resources
A blurb about Palmeiro and Stoddard on page 172 of the 1988 Bill James Baseball Abstract inspired this work. The draft database at Baseball-Reference was a huge time saver in compiling data.

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