Scouts' Dishonor: The Most Regretted Unsigned Draft Picks in MLB History
Last year, when agent Scott Boras refused to lower the asking price for his client, No. 1 draft pick Stephen Strasburg, there was a realistic chance that the Washington Nationals would not come to terms with the prolific young fireballer.
The most hyped prospect the game has ever seen going unsigned would have been a huge deal, but each year, several hundred drafted players don't end up signing with the teams that pick them.
If a team doesn't show serious interest in a guy it picks, sometimes a high school player will decide to give college a try, or an underclassman undergrad will choose to play another season in hopes of earning a more lucrative contract offer in the next year's draft. Plus, there's a whole plethora of personal problems that no one can predict.
Most of them disappear and are never really heard from again; the executives who snubbed them sleep just fine knowing that "the one that got away" wouldn't make for a very exciting fish story.
But a small minority end up haunting those scouts' dreams for the rest of their lives.
Some snubbed stars are now top prospects. Others are perennial All-Stars, and a few are unquestioned studs who would have dramatically changed the futures of the franchises who forgot about them.
Here are the 20 most regrettable unsigned draft picks in MLB history.
No. 20: Andrew Bailey, Brewers
Round 16 (No. 475 overall), 2005
As Trevor Hoffman struggles in Milwaukee, the Brewers would surely love to have a stable closer. A reigning Rookie of the Year in the bullpen would sound pretty good to the Brew Crew right about now.
But they missed their chance, and now Bailey is dominating opposing hitters in Oakland, biding his time before he becomes the next great closer to be traded by Billy Beane.
No. 19: Daniel Bard, Yankees
Round 20 (No. 604 overall), 2003
A flamethrowing right-hander with a knack for notching K's, Bard is widely recognized as one of the best young relievers in the game.
Of course, the fact that he would have been the perfect heir to Mariano Rivera's throne isn't the only reason he's on this list. Bard wouldn't have beaten out Bailey if he now pitched for any team besides the rival Red Sox.
No. 18: Buster Posey, Angels
Round 50 (No. 1,496 overall), 2005
That's right—Posey, one of the top catching prospects in the game and an eventual No. 5 overall pick, was once the last-round pick of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
Before you judge the Halos too harshly, though, consider that every other team in the league had at least 49 opportunities to take him.
No. 17: Brian Matusz, Angels
Round 4 (No. 133 overall), 2005
So, the Angels almost had two of the top prospects in the game. If any LA fans are reading this, I hope it's not a sore subject.
To be fair, the Halos aren't desperate for pitchers or catchers. But come on—is there any team in the game that wouldn't kill to have Posey and Matusz for the foreseeable future?
Nos. 15 and 16: Ian Kinsler, Diamondbacks
Round 29 (No. 879 overall), 2000; Round 26 (No. 788 overall), 2001
Okay, so he's having a down year in 2010, but he's still been one of the best second basemen in the game over the last couple years, even joining the 30/30 club in 2009.
Apparently, the D-Backs saw enough in him to draft him twice, but not enough to actually sign him.
No. 14: Jacoby Ellsbury, Rays
Round 23 (No. 674 overall), 2003
From Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton to Desmond Jennings and Ben Zobrist, the Rays have more speedy young outfielders than they know what to do with. They probably aren't losing too much sleep over this one.
Still, I would love for someone to try and explain why Tampa Bay wouldn't be better off if they had held onto Ellsbury.
No. 13: David Price, Dodgers
Round 19 (No. 568 overall), 2004
Notice a pattern yet? Of the 17 players on this list, four of them were drafted by a Los Angeles team.
Price was the hero of the Rays' 2008 pennant run and was named Baseball America's No. 2 prospect heading into 2009. Oh, and so far this year he's 8-2 with a 2.29 ERA.
No. 12: Jonathan Papelbon, Athletics
Round 40 (No. 1,208 overall), 2002
Unthinkable as it may sound, the anchor of Boston's bullpen and the franchise's all-time saves leader was almost an Oakland Athletic.
The A's picked Papelbon in the same draft as Nick Swisher and Jeremy Brown, as described in Michael Lewis' bestselling book, Moneyball.
No. 11: Mark Teixeira, Red Sox
Round 9 (No. 268 overall), 1998
Everyone knows that the Red Sox aggressively pursued Mark Teixeira when he became a free agent in 2008, but some Boston fans don't realize how close they had been to getting him 10 years earlier.
Don't let his current .698 OPS fool you; Tex slammed 216 homers from 2004-09 with 714 RBI and a .295/.385/.554 slashline. That would be a boon for any lineup.
No. 10: Jason Giambi, Brewers
Round 43 (No. 1,118 overall), 1989
Bailey wasn't the only future Athletic to almost play in Wisconsin. Three years before Oakland took him in the second round, the Brewers nabbed him and left him hanging with a quadruple-digit pick.
Sure, 10 years ago, the Brewers had Richie Sexson, but I wouldn't have to think twice before saying I'd prefer Giambi's bat in the heart of my team's order.
No. 9: Todd Helton, Padres
Round 2 (No. 55 overall), 1992
Given his recent decline and injury history, it's easy to forget that Helton was one of the best sluggers of his generation. How many players can say that they've posted 49 homers or an 1.162 OPS? It's a pretty exclusive club.
Add in the fact that Helton has become the face of the division rival Rockies, and the Padres are probably kicking themselves pretty hard for this one.
Nos. 7 and 8: Cliff Lee, Orioles and Marlins
Round 8 (No. 246 overall), 1997; Round 20 (No. 608 overall), 1998
Having donned three different uniforms in the space of a year, Lee's done a lot of traveling lately, but he did a lot of moving around even before he reached the majors.
Four years before he was traded to the Indians, Lee was drafted and left unsigned by the Orioles in the 1997 draft. Then, the Marlins made the same mistake a year later.
No. 6: Chase Utley, Dodgers
Round 2 (No. 76 overall), 1997
I assume there is nothing left to be said about Chase Utley. So, instead of throwing out endless superlatives, I'll let the numbers speak for themselves.
The Dodgers' second basemen has combined to hit .260 this year with no homers, 19 RBI, and a .702 OPS.
Meanwhile, Utley has 10 homers, an .879 OPS, and the second-best WAR (2.5) among NL hitters. And that's in a down year.
Nos. 4 and 5: Tim Lincecum, Indians and Cubs
Round 48 (No. 1,408 overall), 2003; Round 42 (No. 1,262 overall), 2005
In hindsight, this whole fiasco reeks of widespread criminal incompetence. In the words of The West Wing's Leo McGarry, it is proof that scouts were "put on this planet to make astrologists look good."
The Freak, now a fixture atop any fan's list of the game's best pitchers, fell to the very last rounds of the draft. Twice.
Then, both times, he was allowed to return to the University of Washington, where he bided his time before unleashing his unholy fury upon helpless hitters around the league.
No. 3: Mark McGwire, Expos
Round 8 (No. 199 overall), 1981
You knew when Lincecum didn't crack the top three that some serious name-dropping was about to go down.
McGwire had one of the best careers of any hitter in baseball history, even if his success was aided by PEDs. In 16 MLB seasons, he smashed 583 homers with a .982 OPS. His 70 homers in 1998 set a record that stood for all of three years.
A lot of people forget that Big Mac was almost a Montreal Expo.
No. 2: Randy Johnson, Braves
Round 4 (No. 89 overall), 1982
A surefire Hall of Famer, Johnson is arguably the best left-handed pitcher in baseball history.
In 22 MLB seasons, the Big Unit racked up 4,875 strikeouts and won five Cy Youngs (both the second-most of all-time). He was the co-World Series MVP in 2001, and became the oldest pitcher to throw a perfect game in 2004.
Imagine that kind of once-in-a-generation talent thrown into the legendary Braves rotations of the 1990's. Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Johnson.
Sound like a pipe dream? Maybe it is, but it could have happened if the Braves had signed their fourth-round draft pick 28 years ago.
No. 1: Barry Bonds, Giants
Round 2 (No. 39 overall), 1982
For those of you who have never heard of baseball, Bonds holds the records for both home runs in a season (73) and in a career (762).
Forget the steroids and just look at the numbers. His 13.0 WAR in 2002 was the highest anyone had posted since Babe Ruth in 1927.
Even before the he loss of his agility and exclusively swinging for the fences, Bonds was a once-in-a-generation talent; he averaged 8.7 WAR a year from 1989-98 while stealing at least 28 bags a season.
As the Red Sox tried to do with Teixeira, the Giants corrected their mistake by signing Bonds as a free agent 10 years after leaving him to dry in the draft.
He had his best years in San Francisco, but by the time he arrived, the Giants had already missed out on two of Bonds' seven MVP seasons.