Draft day parallel universesby Paul Francis Sullivan
June 09, 2011
The draft has taken place, and it is virtually impossible to accurately analyze who did well and who flopped. Time will make that clear.
But going back to drafts of the past, imagine how different a team's history could have been if the front office had picked one person over another in the draft. Imagine how a superstar’s trajectory could have been altered and baseball history could be rewritten had a team made another pick. These are possible scenarios, the “What ifs” of teams zigging instead of zagging.
Now keep in mind a few things. Each of these alternate realities is independent. Please don’t read one and say, “Wait a second, that doesn’t take into account the other draft pick you wrote about that didn’t really happen.”
Also I do realize that changing one thing of the past can unravel lots of little details. I have seen Back to the Future. I know how the space/time continuum works. So should you!
The Mets draft No. 1 in 1966 and pick Reggie Jackson instead of Steve Chilcott
The brash and charismatic Reggie Jackson takes New York by storm as the Mets suddenly piece together a World Series winner in 1969. With Tom Seaver leading the pitching staff, the over confident Reggie matches his big personality with his big homers. With protection from Cleon Jones, he becomes the biggest left-handed power hitter the National League had seen since Willie McCovey and Willie Stargell.
But the Mets management sabotages the team. First they traded Nolan Ryan. Then Reggie was sent to Baltimore. Finally, Seaver was shipped to Cincinnati. When free agency kicked in, Jackson returned to New York and led the Yankees to the 1977 World Series, making Jackson the first player to lead two New York teams to the top.
Meanwhile the talented A’s never quite got over the top. They have able players in their lineup, but without a superstar to stir the drink, they constantly fall just short in the American League West.
1982, the Blue Jays draft Dwight Gooden No. 2 instead of Augie Schmidt
The Blue Jays bring the talented Dwight Gooden north of the border and under the watchful eye of Bobby Cox, where Gooden harnesses his power arm and intelligence on the mound into the stuff that aces are made of. By 1984, the 19-year-old Gooden was an All-Star. By 1985, he was putting up Cy Young stuff and combined with Dave Steib for the best 1-2 punch you never heard of.
Away from the spotlight, media glare and temptations of a big market, Gooden became a steady and focused ace. The 1985 Blue Jays steamrolled over the inferior Royals and Cardinals for their first World Series title. Steib and Gooden later take pitchers like Jimmy Key, David Wells, Todd Stottlemyre, Duane Ward and others under their wings. The Blue Jays become a dynasty in the late 1980s and 1990s.
Gooden never wins the Cy Young. His defenders say, “If he played in New York, he’d have won a Cy Young.” Gooden shrugs and said, “If I were in New York, who knows what distractions would have been in the way?”
Realizing that Tim Belcher wouldn’t sign, the Twins draft Roger Clemens in 1983
Roger Clemens signs with Minnesota and teams up with Frank Viola and veteran Bert Blyleven to create one of the strangest, most unique 1-2-3 punches in American League history. The crafty lefthander from Long Island…the fireballer from Texas…the veteran curveball native Dutchman.
Match that starting staff with the Terminator Jeff Reardon in the bullpen and Kirby Puckett leading a beer league lineup with Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti, Tom Brunansky and Steve Lombardozzi. AL West teams didn’t stand a chance in the late 1980s. Not since the A’s of the 1970s had a more colorful team been constructed. Even their stadium, the quirky Metrodome, seemed out of a cartoon.
The Twins would win their share of division titles and a World Series championship. By the 1990s, Clemens left the Twins to return home to Houston, where he pitched well in the Astrodome. But his skills started to decline, and Clemens decided to step away. With Cy Young awards, millions in the bank, an easy road to Cooperstown and a World Series ring, he called it quits.
His Astros teammate Ken Caminiti offered him a new boost to his career, but the prideful Rocket said, “No, thanks. If I can’t do it with this body, I’m not doing it.”
He was elected to the Hall of Fame in the same year as his Twins teammate Kirby Puckett.
In 1984, the Mets avoid Shawn Abner and take a chance on Mark McGwire
New York was looking for raw power to insert into the lineup and a right-handed slugger to compliment Darryl Strawberry. Mark McGwire, the young third baseman from Southern Cal, entered the Mets clubhouse in 1987 and was right away a fish out of water. Replacing popular Kevin Mitchell as the right-handed power option, McGwire simply didn’t fit in with the crazy, drug-using, heavy-partying atmosphere of the defending World Champions.
Howard Johnson was entrenched at third. Keith Hernandez wasn’t going anywhere at first, and the outfield was already crowded with Kevin McReynolds, Mookie Wilson, Lenny Dykstra and Strawberry. McGwire fought for at-bats but was prone to striking out and became the victim of boo birds.
By 1989, the Mets started dropping many of their hell-raising players to have a more buttoned-down image. With Dykstra, Wilson, Backman, Hernandez and soon Strawberry out the door, the Mets tried to make McGwire the face of the new Mets along with Juan Samuel and Gregg Jefferies. Now the No. 1 target of disgruntled fans, the Mets mercifully ship McGwire off to Kansas City in the Bret Saberhagen deal.
McGwire would eventually land in Oakland as a part-time DH and is considered to be one of the biggest busts in baseball history. Then he would meet Jose Canseco who would ask, “Do you need a boost?”
Then McGwire would become the greatest home run hitter of all time and save baseball. And still be booed mercilessly whenever he came back to New York.
The White Sox draft Barry Bonds in 1985 instead of Kurt Brown
Barry Bonds arrived on the south side of Chicago in 1986 just as the awkward dismissal of Tony LaRussa simmered down. Ken Harrleson was running the team, and Jim Fregosi became the new manager. The team was a mess, and their uniforms were even uglier. But veterans like Carlton Fisk and Harold Baines took Bonds and 1985 Rookie of the Year Ozzie Guillen under their collective wings. There was a right way to play, and Bonds clearly was the biggest potential star.
The arrival of Jack McDowell and Frank Thomas alongside Bonds gave the White Sox star power like they had never seen before. The combination of Thomas and Bonds in their prime in the early 1990s was the most feared 1-2 punch in the game—other than McGwire and Canseco.
McGwire and Canseco got the publicity, but baseball purists saw that Bonds and Thomas were the better duo. In 1988, whispers started going around the league about Canseco and steroids, but these rumors went ignored. By the early 1990s, the White Sox overtook the A’s.
It all came together in 1993. Thomas and Bonds were co-MVPs, and Jack McDowell won the Cy Young award, while the White Sox won the World Series over the scrappy Phillies. Owner Jerry Reinsdorf saw that Thomas and Bonds were the baseball answer to Jordan and Pippen, and the parades kept rolling through Chicago.
When the steroid scandals exploded, Thomas and Bonds avoided the scrutiny as Canseco and McGwire’s exploits were considered to be a joke. Bonds, talents vindicated, says, “We did it the RIGHT way!” in his Hall of Fame speech.
In 1990, the Braves draft Todd Van Poppel No. 1 overall
The Braves had the No. 1 pick and EVERYONE knew that Todd Van Poppel was a can’t-miss phenom. He had the goods and the strong arm. But he was committed to the University of Texas. The Braves decided not to make a safe pick like Chipper Jones but go for the gold in Van Poppel. Ted Turner opened up the vault for him. Negotiations stalled when Van Poppel’s agent insisted on a major league contract that would keep him on the parent club. The Braves balked and threw in some more money to ease the tension.
The Tigers are left drafting Jones, who becomes Alan Trammell’s heir appearant. At the 14th pick, the A’s had hoped to draft Van Poppel. Instead, they drafted Stanford star Mike Mussina, who under Dave Duncan’s tutelage and Dave Stewart’s influence, became the A’s ace of the 1990s.
Van Poppel was brought up slowly through the system. By 1993, he was ready to come up for the stretch run. The Braves already had Tom Glavine, Steve Avery and newly-acquired Greg Maddux on the staff along with John Smoltz. Van Poppel was in good hands, and by 1994 he was a mainstay on the best staff baseball had seen in more than a generation.
Leo Mazzone made sure that injuries didn’t catch up with Van Poppel. By 1995, the Braves moved Smoltz to the closer role, where he flourished. With no bullpen issues and Van Poppel joining Glavine and Maddux (and later Denny Neagle and Kevin Millwood) in the rotation, the Braves would win the next five World Series titles in a row.
Jones played a long, productive career. Towards the end, he signed on to play in Atlanta. Tiger fans all felt it was strange seeing Chipper in a Braves uniform.
The Yankees use the No. 1 overall pick in 1991 on local product Manny Ramirez
With George Steinbrenner in exile, GM Gene Michael had the first pick in the draft as the first major step to revive the moribund Yankees franchise. The consensus was that Brien Taylor was the best pitcher available, and the Yankees needed an ace badly.
But soon, messages and dispatches started arriving in Michael’s office. They were anonymous or signed by manager Stump Merrill. But their author was undeniable.
“We need a local kid! Someone who will get the fans of New York going crazy! Local kid done good! I saw this kid Ramirez right across the river. George Washington High! Great story. Get him in pinstripes, or when I come back you'll need to find a new gig!”
To the amazement of the baseball world, the Yankees used the No. 1 pick on George Washington High School star Manny Ramirez. The baseball world rolls its eyes, knowing this has Steinbrenner’s fingerprints all over it. Taylor went No. 2 to the Braves and broke his arm in a bar fight.
Ramirez shot up through the farm system and arrived as a Yankee for good midway through the 1993 season. He electrified Yankee Stadium, sending tape-measure shots into the left field stands that were filled every night with screaming fans waving Dominican flags. And Ramirez’s bizarre, flaky personality may not have pleased the straight-and-narrow Buck Showalter, but he gave the Yankees their first box office draw in a generation.
During the 1995 season, Ramirez was joined by another first rounder, shortstop Derek Jeter. The combination of the extraordinarily talented, yet bizarre, Ramirez and the all-business, Yankee-tradition-adhering Jeter gave the team the most startling contrast of superstars since Reggie Jackson and Thurman Munson.
The question, “Are you a Manny guy or a Jeter guy?” became a generational debate. Do you like the “look at me having fun” individualism of the 1990s in Manny or the respect for the game and tradition from Jeter. Players like David Wells and Jim Leyritz became “Manny guys” on the team. Low-key Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada were "Jeter guys."
The Yankees won titles, and new manager Joe Torre tried to keep an oddly divided clubhouse together and focused on the championship. But Manny’s days in New York came crashing to a halt after he got angry and pushed public address announcer Bob Sheppard to the ground. Manny is shipped off to Cleveland. He is a vagabond the rest of his career, arriving super happy at a place and then wearing out his welcome.
But for many, Ramirez will ALWAYS be the guy who made it fun to go to Yankee Stadium. And Steinbrenner would never forget to tell people, “He was MY idea! Mine!”
The Mariners use the No. 1 pick on Darren Dreifort; Alex Rodriguez goes No. 2 to the Dodgers
With Miami high school star Alex Rodriguez the consensus top pick, the Mariners looked like they were ready to pick a right-handed superstar to compliment Ken Griffey, Jr. But there was a problem in the Pacific Northwest. The player who would be known as A-Rod didn’t want to play in anonymity.
At 18, he already fancied himself a marquee player and wanted to play in a glamorous market. The Dodgers had the No. 2 pick, and Rodriguez wanted to join Tommy Lasorda and company in Chavez Ravine. He told the Mariners that if they drafted him, he would attend the University of Miami. (FYI, that part of the story is 100 percent true.)
The Mariners hem and haw and realize that the aggravation isn’t worth it. Seattle drafted Darren Dreifort, who shot through their system and for a few years gave the Mariners a nice 1-2 punch with Randy Johnson.
Meanwhile, the Dodgers used the No. 2 pick on Rodriguez, who did NOT disappoint. A-Rod became the National League Rookie of the Year in 1996, joining teammates Eric Karros, Mike Piazza, Raul Mondesi and Hideo Nomo as recent recipients of the award.
The combination of Piazza and Rodriguez gave the Dodgers the biggest pair of made-for-Hollywood stars since Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. And Lasorda was possibly putting together his greatest team of all time. Piazza and A-Rod bled Dodger blue. And when people complained that the team was too right-handed, Lasorda laughed. “Am I supposed to platoon Rodriguez? Karros? Piazza? Mondesi? I’d rather have eight great right-handed bats than three lousy left-handed bats!”
But Lasorda’s health cost him his job in 1996. Then, in 1998, Fox took over the Dodgers from the O’Malleys, and new GM Kevin Malone fancied himself an architect of a new team. He dealt away Piazza, and it looked like it was going to be A-Rod’s team. But free agency loomed, and Rodriguez, on his agent's advice, left the Dodgers for Texas and the biggest contract anyone had ever signed.
The Dodgers countered by signing Dreifort to a $55 million contract that was nothing short of a disaster.
In 2001, the Twins go with the consensus No. 1 Mark Prior, leaving Joe Mauer to the Cubs
Some sentiment in Minnesota suggested the Twins should draft local product Joe Mauer. But clearer heads prevailed. Mark Prior was the top college pitcher at USC and was looked upon as the next great ace.
The minor leagues were no challenge for Prior, and the temptation was strong to rush him to the majors. But his minor league pitching coach, Rick Anderson, preached patience. Anderson was promoted to the major league club. When Prior looked ready to make the leap to Minnesota in 2002 and 2003, Anderson convinced Twins management not to rush him, but instead to let Prior develop arm strength and become a complete pitcher.
By 2004, he was in the majors and looked ready to dominate. The Twins, three years removed from a contraction threat, had become a regular participant in the playoffs. Prior joined Johan Santana—who was on his way to his first Cy Young award—Brad Radke, Carlos Silva and Kyle Lohse to form a devastating rotation. Anderson and manager Ron Gardenhire made sure not to wear down their filly. By 2006, Prior and Santana were the two best pitchers in the American League.
On the last weekend of the regular season the Twins passed the Tigers and stormed into the postseason. It was no contest as the Twins beat the A’s and the Tigers to get into the World Series where, like in 1987, they topped the Cardinals. Five years after the contraction threat, the Twins became a World Series winner in three straight decades. In the celebration, Anderson remarked, “Can you imagine if someone overused Prior's arm when he was younger? His career might have been OVER in 2006!”
Mauer became a solid-hitting catcher for the Cubs but jumped ship to the Yankees. What loyalty would a Minnesota kid have to the Cubs?
Padres draft Justin Verlander No. 1 in 2004
The Padres were struggling with what to do with the top pick. They didn’t want to pay the big draft bonus that the top choice would command but couldn’t squander their pick, either. Jered Weaver looked like a consensus top selection, while Stephen Drew looked like one of the top talents. Instead they chose Justin Verlander and gave him $3 million.
The gamble paid off. The Padres brought up Verlander in their 2005 division-winning season as a September call-up, and he pitched an inning in relief. But in 2006 he was the Rookie of the Year, showing off his durability and blazing fastball.
In 2007, he was second in the Cy Young vote to his teammate Jake Peavy. The two of them created a devastating 1-2 punch. Pitching in the cavernous PETCO Park, Verlander became a Cy Young contender each year, throwing two no-hitters.
The Padres would win three straight NL West division titles and the 2007 pennant. When injuries and a trade sent Peavy to Chicago, Verlander stayed with the club in 2010. With free agency looming for him and a trade of Adrian Gonzalez a foregone conclusion, the Padres made a surprising at for the pennant. Verlander led the way along with teammates Mat Latos, Clayton Richard and Wade LeBlanc to create a solid rotation.
The Padres beat the Giants on the last day of the season to clinch the West. They then beat the Braves, stunned the Phillies and made short work of the Rangers, with Verlander winning the clincher. San Diego had its first ever world championship.
During the celebration, members of the Padres front office saluted Verlander. One chuckled to himself, “Can you imagine if we had drafted Matt Bush with that No. 1 pick in 2004?”
They all laughed. That would have been absurd.
And finally remember, each of these scenarios is 100 percent plausible. There is nothing tongue in cheek about this article at all. And if you believe that one…
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