A past Draft game of 'what if?'
Revising history would lead to interesting outcomes
The late singer/songwriter Steve Goodman wrote about wishing his life were on videotape, so he could edit it, long before Tivo or reconstructing reality on an iPhone. The idea is simple: If we could go back over the first 46 First-Year Player Drafts, what would be the 20 most interesting what ifs?
Whitey Herzog, unquestionably one of the best minds and evaluators who ever graced the game, used to hear the Mets fans' "Lacrimosa." When the Mets had the first pick of the 1966 Draft, what would have happened if they'd taken Reggie Jackson instead of high school catcher Steve Chilcott? Jackson, of course, hit 563 career homers, became one of the sport's heroic personalities and is a Hall of Famer.
Chilcott played parts of seven years in the Minors, batted .248, hit 39 home runs and made it as high as Triple-A for 22 games. "There's no doubt Reggie was a great player," said Herzog, who was part of the Mets organization at that time, an organization that built a World Series champion three years later. "But Chilcott was a heck of a good young catcher. He hurt his shoulder sliding into second base, and that ruined his career. It was really unfortunate, but that's the nature of the business."
Because Reggie became the straw that stirred the drink and the front piece of George Steinbrenner seizing the sport's biggest market, the Jackson-Chilcott debate is "what if" No. 1. What Mets fans may not want to revisit is "what if" No. 2: What would have happened if the Dodgers had signed Tom Seaver when they took him in the eighth round of the 1965 Draft? Seaver went back to USC, but never pitched and eventually ended up with the Mets in a bizarre lottery that gave them one of the greatest pitchers in history and pitched them to a championship in 1969 and a pennant four years after that.
Think about Seaver as a Dodger, pitching through the mid-'80s on a team that had Don Sutton and Andy Messersmith, won one World Series and three other pennants and won 90 games eight times. What would they have been with Seaver? Nolan Ryan might never have been traded by the Mets.
3. What if the Astros, with the third pick in the 1968 Draft, had taken Thurman Munson? Houston took Martin Cott, a left-handed-hitting catcher from Buffalo, who caught 199 Minor League games, batted .231 with 14 home runs and was out of the game after three pro seasons. Cott had the better body at 6-foot-3, 190 pounds. Munson had the talent, the career and won two World Series rings. Houston has never won a World Series.
4. What if the Royals, with the fifth pick in the second round of the 1971 Draft, had selected Mike Schmidt instead of George Brett? Schmidt went to the Phillies on the next pick, meaning that back-to-back selections were Hall of Fame third basemen. Boston was in love with Jim Rice and Brett, whose brother, Ken, they'd picked in 1966. They figured Rice would never last to the second round, so the Red Sox took him at No. 15. Their legendary California scout, Joe Stephenson, didn't think anyone else would pick Brett before Boston's second-round (39th) pick, so they gambled, but the Royals chose Brett over Schmidt and prevented the Sox from their dream scenario of Rice and Brett in the same Draft.
5. What if the Blue Jays had picked Cal Ripken Jr. with the 30th pick in the 1978 Draft? Pat Gillick had a longtime relationship with Cal Ripken Sr. -- who caught Gillick, Bo Belinsky and Steve Dalkowski in Appleton, Wisc. -- but picked first baseman Tim Thompson, and Baltimore took Cal with the 48th pick. Before selecting Ripken, the Orioles drafted Robert Royce, Larry Sheets and Edwin Hook.
6. What if Mariners ownership had allowed GM Lou Gorman to pay Kirk Gibson what the Michigan State two-sport superstar was asking for in 1978? Gorman thought he had permission and was ecstatic, but in the end was denied the cash and selected Tito Nanni. Detroit got Gibson and history.
7. What if Montreal had selected Billy Beane with the 22nd pick of the 1980 Draft? As it turned out, the Expos took Terry Francona and the Mets took Beane with the next pick. But where would their paths have led them had Beane started out in Quebec and Francona had gone elsewhere?
8. In 1984, the Mets had the first pick. Some of their people badly wanted Mark McGwire, but they decided to take Pennsylvania High School outfielder Shawn Abner, the Steve Chilcott of the '80s. Think about that turn of baseball history.
9. One year later, what if the White Sox had drafted Barry Bonds instead of high school catcher Kurt Brown? Brown did not make the Major Leagues, went to college and got his degree and became a college administrator, while Bonds ranks as one of the 10 best players who ever lived.
10. During the entire 1990 Draft process, Texas high school pitcher Todd Van Poppel was the consensus No. 1 pick, his generation's Stephen Strasburg. In the days leading up to the Draft, Braves GM Bobby Cox, who had the first pick, went to Ft. Worth to begin the negotiation process. Cox felt something wasn't right in Van Poppel's makeup, flew to Jacksonville and signed the player his guy told him to pick. When Atlanta announced it had drafted Chipper Jones, they were ridiculed. Van Poppel won 40 Major League games, while Jones and Cox are headed for Cooperstown.
11. In this decade's Astros story, what if the scouting department had been allowed to draft on talent instead of signability in 1992? They broke it down to Phil Nevin or Chad Mottola for the No. 1 pick, and if Nevin didn't take what they were offering, Mottola had agreed he'd sign. Nevin accepted, Mottola went with the fifth pick, and the player the Reds scouts wanted went sixth, which is how Derek Jeter became a Yankee for life.
12. What if the A's hadn't take Ariel Prieto with the fifth pick in 1995? All along, Beane and his scouts had wanted Todd Helton, but the decision was made to pick Prieto, a Cuban refugee pitching in an independent league, because he'd be quick to the big leagues. He was quick to The Show, and was equally quick to the operating table.
13. What if Palmdale, Calif., pitcher Matt Harrington had taken the $4.1 million he was offered by the Rockies after being selected with the seventh pick in 2000? Harrington was in the middle of a war of words between Colorado officials and agent Tommy Tanzer and turned down the money. Harrington ended up pitching in an independent league and turned down further opportunities to sign, but hired Scott Boras, who between a suit against Tanzer and an insurance policy recovered more than $3 million for Harrington, offsetting some of what he lost by not signing.
14. What if the Pirates hadn't taken Bryan Bullington with the first pick of the 2002 Draft because he was affordable? Thus they passed on Prince Fielder, who went No. 7.
15. We all have read about the 2002 Moneyball Draft. But what if Beane hadn't been forced to try to find affordable, undervalued players? They took Nick Swisher with the 16th pick, one spot before the Phillies took Cole Hamels. At 24, they took Joe Blanton, one spot in front of the Giants taking Matt Cain. At 26 and 30, they took John McCurdy and Ben Fritz, no fixed addresses. Incidently, the best player drafted by the Athletics that year was their 40th-rounder, a Mississippi State junior reliever name Jonathan Papelbon, who went back to school, was taken in the fourth round the next June by the Red Sox and four years later closed out the 2007 World Series.
16. In 2004, what if San Diego's troubled ownership had allowed Kevin Towers to take Jared Weaver, Justin Verlander or Stephen Drew with the first pick in the country? Nope. Had to make Matt Bush.
17. The next year, the Mariners had the third pick. Club president Chuck Armstrong was told the night before they were taking Troy Tulowitzki. Come Draft time, they took Southern Cal catcher Jeff Clement, and the next four players selected were Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Ricky Romero and Tulowitzki.
18. Mariners fans will quickly pick up this one: The next June, what if Seattle had picked local hero Tim Lincecum at No. 5 instead of Brandon Morrow?
19. What if the Pirates in 2007 had used the fourth pick to select Matt Wieters instead of saving money and taking Daniel Moskos?
And, finally, 20. What if the Rays in 2008 had used the first pick in the Draft on Buster Posey instead of Tim Beckham? There's a very smart general manager in Tampa Bay who doesn't choose to even think about it.
Now, back in 2001, there were a lot of "experts" who thought the Twins were being cheap and provincial for picking Joe Mauer over Mark Prior. They badly underestimated Terry Ryan's scouting judgment, Mauer's talent, and, unfortunately, Prior's delivery. Like Cox in 1990, Ryan was right, the "experts" dead wrong.
Obviously with free agency and the narrower windows of protection, it's practically impossible to build a team entirely from the Draft and international signings. Take the 2010 World Series participants: The Giants had six pitchers and three positional players signed and developed by their organization. The Rangers had five pitchers and one positional player developed by their organization.
In Monday's Draft, there is little buzz about catchers, with good reason. There is no more unpredictable position when it comes to projection.
From 1996 through 2009, there were 36 catchers selected in the first round:
Six have caught 1,000 Major League games: Jason Kendall (2,025), Jason Varitek (1,444 through Saturday), Dan Wilson (1,281), Mike Lieberthal (1,170) and Charles Johnson (1,160).
Craig Biggio caught 438 games in five years and moved to second base and the outfield.
Joe Mauer has caught 728 games and is a .326 lifetime hitter with 81 homers and an .885 OPS.
Eight never played in the Major Leagues, 12 never caught in the majors. Jayson Werth, Neil Walker, Daric Barton, Brandon Snyder, Brett Lawrie and Mitch Maier switched positions.
Matt Wieters, J.P. Arencibia and Buster Posey are current regulars in the Major Leagues.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.