In the 1990 Major League baseball draft, the perpetually awful Atlanta Braves had the #1 overall pick. While Atlanta was in the midst of another last place finish, the franchise had reason for optimism. With young pitching phenoms like John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery in the fold, the Braves had a bright future. In the amateur draft that Summer, they were looking to build on that solid core of young pitchers with a can’t-miss high school prospect.
A Texas high school kid by the name of Todd Van Poppel was turning the heads of several MLB General Managers and talent scouts. With an explosive 95 MPH fastball and command of his other pitches, then Texas Rangers manager Bobby Valentine declared Van Poppel ready to pitch in the big leagues immediately. As is often the case, a team with the #1 overall pick hones in on a player they want to select. Then the negotiations begin in an effort to sign that player. However, Van Poppel made it known that he had no interest in playing for the awful Braves. He flat out told the organization that if they draft him, he would enroll at the University of Texas which would cause the Braves to lose his rights. The Atlanta brass pleaded but to no avail. Not wanting to risk wasting its #1 pick, the Braves decided to settle for a high school infielder out of the state of Florida.
His name was Larry Wayne Jones, Jr., better known to baseball fans as “Chipper”. In Jones’ 12 big league seasons, he has been instrumental in helping the Braves to three World Series appearances, which includes their 1995 championship his rookie season. Jones also has a career batting average of .304 with 357 home runs. As for Van Poppel, he has not pitched since 2004. His 11 injury-plagued seasons saw him make only 98 starts, accumulating a mere 40 wins.
Sometimes it’s the deals you don’t make which have a positive impact on your team.
Fast forward to 2001. My beloved Minnesota Twins had the honor of selecting first overall in the draft. The most highly coveted player that season was right-handed pitcher Mark Prior of the University of Southern California. The Twins were desperate for a front-line starting pitcher. Prior fit the bill with an overpowering fastball and excellent off-speed stuff. The Twins floated several offers toward Prior in an attempt to reach an agreement on a contract before draft day. Like the Braves with Van Poppel, the Twins were unable to meet Prior’s demands. Instead, the Twins selected a high school kid out of St Paul, MN, whom they expected to be their catcher for many years to come. At least that’s how they tried to sell it to us fans. Cynics like me accused the franchise of pandering to the local base of fans rather than attempting to improve their team. “Why in the world did we draft a catcher?” many fans (including me) wondered aloud. After all, we had A.J. Pierzynski who was only 25-years old at the time and a perennial .300 hitter. Besides, this St Paul kid won’t even be ready for at least a few years. Prior is ready for the big leagues right now!!
Two seasons in, it wasn’t looking good for the Twins. Prior, who ended up being drafted second overall by the Chicago Cubs, went 18-6 in 2003 and had his team within five outs of going to the World Series. He had become one of baseball’s premier pitchers. Meanwhile, the Twins had gone out with a whimper in those same ’03 playoffs, losing 3 games to 1 to the New York Yankees.
In early 2004 the Twins declared their future superstar catcher was ready for the big leagues. As a result the Twins jettisoned Pierzynski to the San Francisco Giants for three pitchers no one ever heard of. Meanwhile, Prior had already had two solid seasons under his belt and seemed to be living up to the hype surrounding him when he was drafted.
Fast forward another three years to Spring Training this season. It has been reported that Prior’s mental and physical stature has taken a turn for the worse. His confidence has been shattered and the velocity on his fastball is only in the 80s. He has missed more than half his starts from 2004-06 due to injuries. The player the Twins selected #1 overall in 2001? St Paul native Joe Mauer, who happened to win the American League batting title in 2006, the first catcher to accomplish such a feat in over 60 years. And how did Prior fare last season? He missed most of ’06 because of elbow problems and had an ERA over 7.00 when he did pitch. In addition to Mauer being an upgrade from the previous catcher, the Twins acquired three potential cornerstone pitchers in the Pierzynski trade. Francisco Liriano (a dominant 12-3 in ’06 before injuring his elbow), Boof Bonser (came up big in his August and September starts in helping the Twins win the division) and Joe Nathan (averaged over 40 saves in each of his three seasons with Minnesota).
Just like the Atlanta Braves learned in 1990, the Major League Baseball draft is far from an exact science.