The 10 most interesting Rule 5 draft picks, 1967-1980

So far, we’ve discussed some intriguing Rule 5 picks from 1903 to 1940 and from 1941 to 1966. Now we’re ready to pick up where we left off.

But first, let’s quickly review just what the Rule 5 draft is.

How it works

In its early years, the Rule 5 draft was held at the immediate conclusion of the regular season, at the end of September or the beginning of October. In the modern era, it takes place during the MLB winter meetings.

To be eligible for the draft in its current form, a player:

{exp:list_maker}Is not included on the 40-man roster of the organization holding his contract
Has been in the minors and/or majors for at least four years, if he was signed after his 19th birthday
Has been in the minors and/or majors for at least five years, if he was signed before his 19th birthday {/exp:list_maker}Rule 5 has always included a provision designed to encourage teams to draft carefully: For the entire first season after he’s drafted, the Rule 5 pick must remain on the drafting team’s 25-man active major league roster. If his team wishes to farm him out during that season, first it must offer him back to the club from which he was drafted, and that team has the right to take him back for the waiver price. Very often, however, the player’s original organization doesn’t have room for him, and declines the offer, and the drafting team then becomes free to handle the player as it would any other.

During that first season, Rule 5 draftees can be traded or sold to a new team, but the new team takes on the restriction of being unable to send him to the minors without first offering him back to the team that lost him in the draft.

Minor league teams also can participate in the Rule 5 draft (indeed in the early years of the arrangement, with minor league teams operating independently from parent major league organizations, this portion of the Rule 5 draft was a very big deal). As the draft currently is structured, Triple-A teams can draft any player eligible from Double-A, and Double-A teams can draft any players who are eligible from Single-A, in both cases for a nominal fee. Players chosen in the minor league part of the draft don’t need to be offered back to their original teams for any reason.

The drafted

Clearly, the manner in which the Rule 5 draft is set up means that first-tier players typically aren’t involved; teams rarely allow their stars and top prospects to be left unprotected off the 40-man roster. The great majority of players drafted under Rule 5, today and in the past, have been long-shot prospects (and in past decades many were major league-level role players as well, but the advent of free agency rendered that practice obsolete).

But not all Rule 5 draftees are destined for oblivion. Occasionally over the years—maybe more often than occasionally—a genuine star, even a superstar, has emerged from the Rule 5 process. In this series we’re identifying those cases, and examining as well those situations in which a Rule 5 draftee didn’t turn out to be much of a player, but his story is intriguing nonetheless.

10. Elrod Hendricks

Nov. 28, 1967: Drafted by the Baltimore Orioles from the California Angels.

The Orioles in the 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s—well, heck, actually since late 1954, when Paul Richards took over and methodically built the organization atop the small pile of dog poo that had been the St. Louis Browns—were about as consistently intelligent an operation as the sport has ever seen. Their sound wisdom wasn’t manifested only in getting the big things right—trading for Frank Robinson, promoting Earl Weaver, and so on—but also in being clever and resourceful when filling secondary needs.

There’s no better illustration of this than the case of Ellie Hendricks. Recognizing the potential value of this guy in 1967 was an act of shrewdness: Hendricks was about to turn 27, and since signing with the Braves in 1959 he’d passed through three north-of-the-border organizations, as well as playing four seasons in the Mexican League; his entire experience as high as Triple-A consisted of 13 games, in which he’d batted .222. But Orioles GM Harry Dalton saw something in the bush-league catcher that others didn’t, most obviously the Angels, who owned Hendricks’s contract at this point and had just as much need for what he had to offer as did Baltimore: Both teams could use some help behind the plate.

And once drafting him, Orioles manager Weaver made careful, proportional use of Hendricks, adroitly deploying him in a platoon role that took advantage of his strengths and minimized his weaknesses. Thus Baltimore smartly leveraged the Rule 5 process to cheaply acquire an asset who would provide solid service for several years.

The 18-year-old Hendricks appears in Pat Jordan’s hauntingly wistful memoir of his minor league career, A False Spring. Jordan presents Hendricks as a not-very-likeable Nebraska League teammate, something of a grinning bully. This should be understood within the context of both (a) the skillful manner in which Jordan reprises his experiences though the lens of youthful unsophistication with which he perceived the world back then, and (b) the fearfully insecure manner in which the equally young Hendricks must have been engaging with his 1959 Nebraska environment, very far from the Caribbean in every way. Hendricks would be, in his major league playing career and in his nearly 30-year-long coaching career, unfailingly popular.

9. Bill Plummer

Nov. 28, 1967: Drafted by the Chicago Cubs from the St. Louis Cardinals.

On the same day the Orioles were drafting Hendricks, here we see another team doing something, well, odd.

The Cubs in 1967 were categorically not in need of help behind the plate: Their catcher was 25-year-old Randy Hundley, the NL’s Gold Glove winner, one of the most exceptionally durable catchers in history, and at that point in his career a solid hitter.

Thus what purpose Cubs GM John Holland perceived in drafting Plummer is difficult to fathom. Not only had this soon-to-be-21-year-old catcher not yet risen as high as Triple-A, in Plummer’s three seasons in the Cardinals system he’d compiled an aggregate batting average of .219 in 639 at-bats. Moreover, in addition to Hundley the Cubs already had two competent young catchers on their roster, proven capable of providing major league backup work: Johnny Stephenson and John Boccabella.

Plummer’s uselessness on the Cubs’ roster in 1968 could hardly have been made more vivid by manager Leo Durocher, who despite having Plummer on the roster all season long used him in a grand total of two games.

No, seriously, two games. As in one-two. That’s it.

The grand total Plummer 1968 workload would add up to three innings, and two (uh-huh, two) plate appearances. Meanwhile Hundley was setting major league records with 160 games behind the plate, and 156 catching starts.

The Cubs’ retention of Plummer on the big league roster for the entire 1968 season succeeded in preventing the Cardinals from taking him back (whether they would have done so if offered the opportunity is another question), but beyond that it represented as complete a waste of a roster spot as has ever been perpetrated.

But wait, it gets weirder: In the following offseason, the Cubs finally were able to make some use of Plummer, by packaging him along with a couple of other prospects in a trade to the Reds, in exchange for Ted Abernathy, a very good relief pitcher. That’s right, the Reds, whose catcher was 1968 Gold Glove winner and Rookie of the Year Johnny Bench. What’s more, Cincinnati also had a perfectly good, young backup catcher on hand in Pat Corrales. And what’s even more, Cincinnati at that point was a heavy-hitting ball club struggling with pitching depth.

All of this strangeness might have turned out to make some sense if Plummer was a diamond in the rough, who would eventually emerge as a star, or even a solid journeyman. But no, when he finally was ready for the major leagues a few years later, Plummer would prove to be one of the weakest-hitting backup catchers of any era, delivering a career batting average of .188 in 892 at-bats, with an OPS+ of 53.

8. Jody Davis

Dec. 8, 1980: Drafted by the Chicago Cubs from the St. Louis Cardinals.

But here’s an example of the Cubs being smart. At this point they did have room for another catcher, and Chicago GM Bob Kennedy looked past the injury-marred season Davis had suffered in the Cardinals organization in 1980, and instead focused on the strong performances he’d presented in the Mets system, steadily climbing up their ladder in 1976-79, before having been traded to St. Louis.

Davis would prove to be an exceptionally good bargain. By 1982 he’d be the Cubs’ first-string catcher, and become one of the best backstops of the 1980s, a durable, consistent, well-rounded performer, winning a Gold Glove and making two All-Star teams.

7. Roy Foster

Dec. 1, 1969: Drafted by the Seattle Pilots from the New York Mets.

Rare is the player who produces a major league career OPS+ of 112 in 337 games; hitters that good tend to play a whole lot more than that. But this guy’s career was pretty much a study in abnormality.

Start with the fact that he played regularly for six seasons in the low minors, racking up 2,485 at-bats, but producing just 48 home runs and a bland .268 batting average. This lackluster offensive performance from a corner outfielder caused his first organization (the Pirates) to release him to a second (the Mets). Then all of a sudden, on his first exposure to Triple-A pitching, Foster hit .281 with 24 homers in 438 at-bats.

But this didn’t persuade the Mets to include Foster on their 40-man roster following their 1969 championship season, and the expansion Pilots nabbed him in the Rule 5 draft. Yet the Pilots (in the hasty process of becoming the Milwaukee Brewers) wouldn’t see fit to keep Foster on their roster. Instead, on the brink of the opening of the 1970 season, GM Marvin Milkes decided his fledging ball club would be better off by trading Foster to Cleveland in exchange for two over-the-hill veterans, Russ Snyder and Max Alvis.

Well, while Snyder and Alvis were petering out in 1970, Foster was hitting with serious power for the Indians, winning the starting left field job and earning second place in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting. Foster followed it up with a sophomore season in which he hit not quite as well, but pretty close.

Nonetheless, following the 1971 season Indians GM Gabe Paul traded the 26-year-old Foster to the Rangers. And then just before Opening Day of ’72, Paul made another trade to get Foster back. In this season Cleveland manager Ken Aspromonte chose to deploy the right-handed-hitting Foster in a strict platoon-based backup role: He batted Foster just 32 times against right-handed pitching, with 137 PAs against southpaws. In this mode, Foster hit well in his rare starting assignments (OPS+ of 120), but was bad when pinch-hitting or otherwise filling in, at .152/.250/.152 in 37 games.

The next season Foster was farmed out, and hit poorly in Triple-A. By 1974 he was in the Mexican League, and would never make it back to the majors.

6. Willie Upshaw

Dec. 5, 1977: Drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays from the New York Yankees.

A fledgling expansion team would seem to be precisely the sort of organization for which Rule 5 was made to order: a low-cost, low-risk method to import talent. Here we see rookie Toronto GM Pat Gillick, in one of his first moves just days after assuming the role, taking good advantage.

Gillick’s performance in constructing the Blue Jays almost from scratch (he inherited a one-year-old baby of a franchise with a 54-107 record) was one of the best, and the concept that summed up his approach was “patience.” He never panicked when the going was rough, always stuck with his master plan of building with home-grown young talent. The going did get quite rough, and Gillick attracted critics (most notably Bill James in the early 1980s Abstracts) who complained that he was being too patient. But in the long run the organization Gillick created was solid to the core, and from 1983 through 1993 the Blue Jays never won fewer than 86 games, while capturing three division titles, two pennants, and two World Series titles.

There’s little better example of Gillick’s patience than his handling of Gene Upshaw‘s young cousin. The 21-year-old Willie the Blue Jays drafted hadn’t yet played as high as Triple-A, and clearly wasn’t ready to make much of a major league contribution. But Gillick took the long view, keeping Upshaw on his big league roster throughout 1978, and then allowing him two seasons of Triple-A development. Gillick kept his cool as Upshaw struggled through the 1981 season in a utility role, and his patience was finally rewarded when Upshaw blossomed in 1982. He was never a great player, and his peak didn’t last very long, but for several years Upshaw was a solid all-around first baseman, one of the keys to the breakout success of the Blue Jays in the 1980s.

5. Willie Hernandez

Dec. 6, 1976: Drafted by the Chicago Cubs from the Philadelphia Phillies.

Since the Cy Young Award was instituted in 1956, there have been only seven instances in which its recipient was also voted as his league’s Most Valuable Player. To say that Willie Hernandez, pulling off this rare feat in the American League in 1984, was the least talented among the pitchers to do it is to stretch the concept of understatement to its limit. (Okay, here are the rest of them, so you can cash in on this slam-dunk bar bet: Don Newcombe in 1956, Sandy Koufax in 1963, Bob Gibson and Denny McLain, both in 1968, Rollie Fingers in 1981 and Dennis Eckersley in 1992.)

But that isn’t to say that the screwball-specialist Herndandez didn’t put together one hell of a great season in 1984. If ever a relief pitcher might genuinely deserve the Cy Ypung and/or the MVP, a season in which he works 80 games and 140 innings with an ERA+ of 204 (and zero unearned runs allowed on top of that) would seem to rise to the challenge. And while that performance was crazily superior to anything else Hernandez did, he was, over the rest of his 13-year major league career, a solid, if unspectacular, relief pitcher.

Nabbing him in the Rule 5 draft was another sharp move by the Cubs’ Bob Kennedy. Hernandez had been a starter in his three minor league seasons in the Phillies system, and while he’d gotten hit fairly hard in Triple-A in 1976, he’d been quite effective the previous two years. And the one factor he’d consistently presented was a splendid strikeout-to-walk ratio, an attribute that’s almost unfailingly a predictor of pitching success. Through nearly his entire career, slick K/BB marks would be an Hernandez signature.

4. Joe Foy

Nov. 30, 1970: Drafted by the Washington Senators from the New York Mets.

Just a year after believing they’d be better off with Foy on their roster than with Amos Otis and Bob Johnson, the Mets were happy to leave him off their 40-man altogether.

Here’s what Zander Hollander had to say about Foy in the 1971 edition of The Complete Handbook of Baseball:

Has power and speed … Erratic fielder with wandering concentration … Has tendency to go to fat … His attitude has been questioned along the way … “I know some people say I’m lazy and lackadaisical,” he says … Could be his last opportunity to prove otherwise.

Ouch. The “wandering concentration” part was 1970s-media code for “higher than a kite,” the most notorious instance of which was a 1970 game when a hard grounder was hit past Foy that he plainly didn’t notice. ‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky.

The opportunity with Washington would indeed be Foy’s last; the Senators would lose patience and release him in July of 1971, and Foy’s baseball career was finished at the age of 28, a terrific talent squandered. He died at the age of 46.

3. Cecil Cooper

Nov. 30, 1970: Drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals from the Boston Red Sox.

And you thought the Red Sox didn’t properly appreciate what they had in Cooper when they failed to play him full-time in the mid-1970s, and then traded him away. Here they were failing to protect Cooper on their roster despite his having compiled a .338 batting average over his three minor league seasons.

But the Cardinals, despite their interest in the young first baseman, would decide that they couldn’t squeeze him onto their 1971 roster, and when they offered Cooper back to Boston just before Opening Day the Red Sox were sharp enough to grab him. But for that, the Cardinals might have subsequently faced the “problem” of having Cooper and Keith Hernandez at the same time.

2. George Bell

Dec. 8, 1980: Drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays from the Philadelphia Phillies.

Bell’s career might be seen as a study in how to extract the greatest possible notoriety from a good-but-hardly-great talent.

First, just his name. When he arrived in the majors, the Dominican Bell was going by his given first name, “Jorge.” But he soon made it know that he preferred to be called by the English-language form of the name, “George,” both in spelling and pronunciation. (For reasons that remained George’s alone: His younger brother Juan Bell, also a major leaguer, would not request to be known as “John.”)

George-not-Jorge Bell was a solid, productive big league ballplayer, but unexceptional in every regard. He was a corner outfielder with a capable glove, but no defensive standout (though the Blue Jays toyed with him as a third baseman, and it’s interesting to ponder how he might have progressed at that position). He ran well but was no speedster, he hit for a nice average but never threatened to be a batting champ, and he had fine power but not tremendous power—well, except for one season.

That exceptional season was 1987, when the 27-year-old Bell suddenly clobbered 47 home runs, far more than he’d ever hit before, or would ever hit again. This achievement (particularly when combined with his league-leading RBI total of 134) was enough to gain Bell the American League’s MVP award, despite the fact that the Blue Jays had collapsed in the season’s final week, blowing a 3.5-game division lead by losing their final seven games, with Bell managing just three singles and one RBI in 27 at-bats.

And though Bell had enjoyed a splendid season overall, there were several players in the AL that year who’d produced better ones, including Wade Boggs and Mark McGwire, and especially including the best player on the Detroit team that surpassed Toronto in that closing week, Alan Trammell. Thus Bell gained the distinction of being one of the lesser-talented players to ever capture an MVP, in one of the least equitable elections.

But Bell had another historical footnote left to capture: In 1992 he was the guy for whom the White Sox would trade the toolsy 23-year-old Sammy Sosa, despite the fact that by that time Bell was 32, no longer helpful as a defender or baserunner, and just a so-so DH.

But before any of that, Bell was one of several fine young talents (along with Willie Upshaw, and another guy we’ll meet next time) that Pat Gillick cleverly brought to Toronto via the Rule 5 draft.

1. Darrell Evans

Dec. 2, 1968: Drafted by the Atlanta Braves from the Oakland Athletics.

Charlie Finley’s performance when acting as his own GM with the A’s was generally brilliant, but even Finley’s extraordinarily sharp eye for talent missed some. Here he not only allowed the 21-year-old Evans to be drafted out of his organization, but then early in the 1969 season Braves GM Paul Richards decided not to keep Evans on the Atlanta big league roster, and Finley declined the opportunity to take him back.

Oops. Handed this chance to develop Evans, The Wizard of Waxahachie made the most of it. If anything Richards was too patient with Evans, as the young left-handed-hitting third baseman methodically shredded International League pitching in 1969, ’70 and ’71, hitting .318 with 33 homers and 131 walks in 759 at-bats. Evans would, of course, go on to become probably the single most underrated player in baseball history, a major star the mainstream media and fans failed to perceive. But the Hall of Merit wouldn’t overlook him, electing Evans on the first ballot.

Next installment

We’ll take the tour right up to the present day.

References & Resources
Zander Hollander, editor, The Complete Handbook of Baseball: 1971 Edition, New York: Lancer, 1971, p. 66.

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