One thing that interests me more than most baseball fans, I think, is the process of evaluating and selecting top amateur baseball talent. Unlike the NFL or the NBA. where first round picks all go directly into the top professional league, almost no players selected in baseball’s amateur draft go directly to the major leagues without at least a few games in the minor leagues first (Pete Incaviglia and a few others, perhaps, notwithstanding). It makes the process of picking baseball talent more difficult, because top performance has to be projected further into the future.
For a great book on the MLB Draft and the process of evaluating amateur talent, read Kevin Kerrane’s Dollar Sign on the Muscle. It’s in my library of the fifty best baseball books ever written.
Most hard-core baseball fans know immediately when asked who was the biggest MLB Draft Bust ever. The answer for those of you who are not hard-core is — drumroll, please — Danny Goodwin. What makes Goodwin far and away the worst draft pick ever is that he was not once the first player selected in the draft, but he achieved that distinction twice.
Out of high school, Goodwin was the first player selected in the 1971 Draft by the Chicago White Sox. Instead of taking the big money (it wasn’t so big then, compared to today, but it was still big money in 1971), he chose to go to Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Four years later (did he graduate?), he was the first player selected in the 1975 Draft by the California Angels.
Maybe Goodwin knew something all the major organizations didn’t when he chose to go to college and get an eduction. His major league career was a failure. His best season was 1979 when he had an .832 OPS in 58 games and 159 ABs for the Twins.
That fits my personal definition of a true Draft Bust: a player who was never an effective, honest to goodness major league player for even the better part of one full season.
I thought it would be interesting to look at the biggest Draft busts from the drafts from 1985 through 2004. That goes back far enough that we can have a pretty good idea whether the player selected is a really a bust. For example, an 18 year old drafted in the 2007 Draft would only be 21 today and could still reasonably become a superstar, unless he’s a pitcher who’s already blown out his arm.
I decided to go back no further than 1985 for a couple of reasons. First, in theory at least, the teams have gotten better in selecting top talent than they were in the first twenty years of the Draft from 1965 through 1984. Also, I found that I have so much to say about the flops from the last twenty years that I have to make this a two-part series, and most of you may well have lost interest by the end of the first chapter. I’m sure I will by the end of the second installment.
My ranking system for worst flop in any particular year of the Draft is pretty simple: it goes to the highest drafted first-round pick who was not even an adequate major league regular for the better part of one full season. Of course, I have supplemented my selections with honorable mentions, who may have met the base-line criteria but were still pretty big flops.
The biggest busts are listed by year, where they were picked in the first round, position, the team that selected them, whether they were selected out of high school or college, and finally, why (in my estimation) they never amounted to anything (a little hint: the top reason is arm injury). Here goes for the years from 2004 to 1995:
2004: (1) Matt Bush, SS, Padres, HS: couldn’t hit, head case, arm injury.
Matt Bush is a particularly notorious Draft Bust. Even before he started playing in any meaningful way, he had several run-ins with the authorities. Even in the low minors, he couldn’t hit, not even a little bit and not even for a shortstop. His hitting was so bad that finally the Padres tried to convert him into a pitcher.
In the new role, Bush was incredibly effective in the low minors, with an 8-to-1 Ks-to-BBs ratio and better than 2Ks per inning pitched. For all of 7.2 innings pitched. Then he tore his elbow tendon and that was the end of that experiment.
Bush is only 24 years old this year, so there is still an outside chance he’ll have a career, especially given thirty major league organizations hungry for talent and a plethora of Independent-A leagues out there. Still, from everything I know about Bush since he was drafted, the word “loser” keeps popping into my mind.
2003: (3) Kyle Sleeth, RHP, Tigers, College; arm injury limited him to three professional seasons.
2002: (3) Chris Gruler, RHP, Reds, HS: arm injury.
Chris Gruler was perhaps the most brittle prospect selected in the ten year survey period covered by this chapter. Arm problems limited him to only 92.2 professional innings pitched.
2001: (6) Josh Karp, RHP, Expos, College: arm injury.
Honorable Mention: Dewon Brazelton. Dewon was the third player selected that year by the Rays. He doesn’t qualify under my criteria because he went 6-8 for the Rays in 2004 with a 4.77 ERA in 21 starts and 120.2 IP. In my mind that qualifies as a useful No. 5 starter for the better part of one season. Still, he is well remembered as a Draft Bust.
Brazelton is still pitching. In 2009 he pitched well in the Independent-A Atlantic League, but at age 29 this year, he didn’t pitch well enough that any major league team is likely to give him another shot.
Other than Brazelton and Karp, 2001 was a particularly good year for top draft picks, with Joe Mauer, Mark Prior, Gavin Floyd and Mark Texiera rounding out the top six. Anyone who remembers Mark Prior as a flop doesn’t remember 2003, when Prior was the Senior Circuit’s best pitcher.
2000: (2) Adam Johnson, RHP, Twins, College: Johnson suffered a major arm injury in 2003, and while he came back from it, he never regained effectiveness. He’s still pitching, though, but at the lowest level of professional baseball. He pitched in the Independent-A Atlantic League in 2008 and the Golden Baseball League in 2009. He got his brains beaten out even at this level (6.08 and 8.21 ERAs and equally horrendous ratios). At age 30, it’s time to move on and get a real job, Adam.
2000 was a particularly bad year for top draft picks. No. 3 Luis Montenez (Cubs), No. 4 Mike Stodolka (Royals) and No. 5 Justin Wayne (Expos) were all flops too.
1999: (4) Corey Myers, SS, Diamondbacks, HS: Myers is the first qualifier on the list, except perhaps Matt Bush, who just plain wasn’t good enough. A high school shortstop, he was almost immediately moved to third as a professional, and also played a lot of first base and corner outfield later on in his major league career. He could hit a little bit, but unfortunately for him, he didn’t have enough power to become a major league player at the positions he could play adequate defense.
Honorable mention: (3) Eric Munson, C, Tigers, College. While Munson is a more renowned flop than Myers, Munson had two seasons (2003 and 2004) in which he played reasonably well and reasonably often for the Tigers.
Honorable mention: (1) Josh Hamilton, OF, Rays, HS. Hamilton would have been one of the all-time great Draft Busts, but he got off the drugs, found Jesus, and the rest is history that everyone knows.
I kind of wish it was possible for people to get off drugs without having to find god to do it. I suspect that there are a certain number of relatively rational drug addicts, who just are never going to be convinced to turn their lives over to a “higher power”, as the twelve-step programs reportedly require. Kind of like Jim Bouton writing in Ball Four that he’d like to hear a player for once say he hit the big homerun or pitched the big shutout because he didn’t believe in God.
1998: (4) Jeff Austin, RHP, Royals, College: arm problems.
1997: (6) Geoff Goetz, LHP, Mets, HS: arm problems.
Honorable mention: (1) Matt Anderson, RHP, Tigers, college: Matt Anderson is another famous Draft Bust. However, he was a serviceable relief pitcher for the Tigers for several years. In fact, in an incredible case of wishful thinking, he was the Tigers’ closer for much of the 2001 season, recording 22 saves despite an ugly (for a closer, at least) 4.82 ERA.
1996: (7) Matt White, RHP, Giants, HS: arm problems.
While Matt White was only the 7th player selected in his draft year, he is a notoriously big Draft Bust because of his own special circumstances. Young White, you see, was represented (unofficially, of course) by Scott Boras.
Boras, a very bright man who makes his own opportunities, noticed that for some years, the major league teams (as they were want to do, particularly before the formation of the players’ union) didn’t follow their own draft rules. Specifically, teams were required to offer draft picks a contract (in an amount selected unilaterally by the team) within a narrow ten-day window, in order to maintain their rights to negotiate exclusively with the amateur player for the year until the next year’s draft.
But here’s the rub: the teams weren’t doing it. For top picks who were expected to spend a good long time negotiating as a big a bonus as they could get, many teams weren’t bothering to make the perfunctory offer during the ten-day window. When the Giants failed to make the necessary offer during the ten-day window, Boras announced that Matt White was a free agent, and with the MLBPA in place and insistent that teams consistently follow their own G–D— rules, Boras was able to make it stick.
White ended up signing with the Rays, who weren’t even fielding a major league squad yet, for an enormous for the time, what-the-market-would-bear bonus of $10.2 million. In a huge fit of karma, White never amounted to anything due to arm problems, and like so many teams signing Boras-represented players, the Rays found themselves having paid millions they, in particular, really couldn’t afford for dross.
Everything I know about life, I learned from baseball…
Honorable mention: (6) Seth Greisinger, RHP, Tigers, Colllege. Seth doesn’t quite make the list because in 1998, he went 6-9 with a 5.12 ERA in 21 starts and 130 IP for the Tigers, arguably making him a serviceable fifth starter for the better part of a season. Of course, he suffered a major arm injury which derailed his major league career.
However, Greisinger was able to make a comeback, only not in America. He has been one of the top starters in Japan’s NPB for the last three seasons and has worked his way up to the Yomiuri Giants, the Yankees-and-Dodgers-combined of Japanese baseball.
Unlike Colby Lewis, who signed with the Rangers this off-season after several years of dominating NPB hitters, Seth probably has no hope of doing the same. Greisinger is 34 this year, and his strikeout rate plummeted in 2009, although he was still an effective pitcher in Japan. I don’t see a major league team giving him another shot.
I still consider NPB to be professional baseball’s 4-A league. I’ve said before that if, on a scale from one to ten, MLB is 10 and AAA is 1, then NPB rates about a 4.
That still holds. While Japanese players have gotten appreciably better as a group since 1985, MLB is now skimming the cream off the top of the Japanese player pool. Anyone who doesn’t know that Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui are far and away the best Japanese hitters of their generation hasn’t been following Japanese baseball.
1996: (6) Jaime Jones, OF, Marlins, HS: another of the much smaller group of players who just didn’t have enough talent. Jones played professional baseball for ten seasons and finished with a career minor league OPS of .745 — not bad, but also not major league worthy.
In a final note, Jones was born James Paul Jones, but being born in and growing up in San Diego, he became known by the Spanish version of James — Jaime. How modern America is that?
In my list of biggest Draft Busts from 1995 through 2004, Matt Bush is awarded the prized for biggest all-around Draft Bust, with Matt White getting a well-deserved honorable mention. Stay tuned for the next installment (when I get around to writing it) to find out the identity of my biggest Draft Bust for the period from 1985 through 1994, and my biggest Draft Bust for the entire twenty-year period.
Will anyone be able to dethrown Matt Bush? I, for one, can hardly wait to find out.