Biggest MLB Draft Busts: Part II (1984-1994)

Tom DubberkeCorrespondent IJune 10, 2010

2 Mar 1998:  Antone Williamson #11 of the Milwaukee Brewers in action during a spring training game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at the Maryvale Baseball Park in Phoenix, Arizona. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Carlick  /Allsport
Jeff Carlick/Getty Images

Back in March I posted Biggest Draft Busts, Part I, which listed the biggest draft failures selected from 1995 through 2004.

I had originally intended to go back to 1985, but the post got too long, so I decided to break it in half and make two posts.

Well, I never got around to the second half. Until now. This post will cover the biggest draft busts for the years 1984 through 1994. I decided to include 1984 because that was the year legendary draft bust Shawn “Lil’” Abner was taken with the first pick.

As described in Part I, a lot of these guys you will never have heard of, because I am looking for the highest drafted player for each draft year who was never an effective, honest to goodness major league player for even the better part of one full season.

1994: Antone Williamson, 3B Brewers (fourth pick)

Williamson is remembered by Brewers fans as a real dog, but it appears that his career was largely derailed by injuries. He had a fine year in the AA Southern League in 1995, posting a .309 batting average and .852 OPS at age 21. In 1997, he was pretty good at the AAA level, hitting .286 with a .823 OPS, in the year he got his only major league cup of coffee (54 ABs).

Williamson appears to have had major injuries in 1996 and 1998, the latter one ruining his chances of developing into a major league player.

Honorable Mention

1994 was a bad year for top picks with Josh Booty (SS, fifth pick Marlins), McKay Christensen (OF, sixth pick Angels), and Doug Million (LHP, seventh pick Rockies) all turning out to be dogs. Booty and Christensen never developed into major league hitters, and Million quickly blew out his pitching arm.

1993: Jeff Granger, LHP Royals (fifth pick)

Granger had a fine year at age 24 in 1996 at AAA Omaha, recording a 2.34 ERA with 25 saves and earning his third cup of coffee with the Royals. His career regressed after that, and he was finished by age 28.

Wikipedia’s article on Granger describes him as a cautionary tale against rushing prospects to the majors too quickly, but it looks to me like the bigger problem was that his organizations kept thinking they’d make a starter out of him even after he pitched so well in relief in 1996.

The Royals traded Granger to the Pirates after the 1996 season, and the Bucs tried to make him a starter again in 1997. The Rangers organization did the same in 1998. The Brewers made him a full-time reliever again in 1999, but Granger had apparently lost something and had a mediocre AAA season.

I also suspect that Granger may have had some arm problems that didn’t prevent him from pitching but which limited his effectiveness. At any rate, he pitched his way out of both the Dodgers and Braves organizations in 2000, and after a lackluster performance in five starts in the independent Atlantic League, Granger called it a career.

1992: B.J. Wallace, LHP Expos (third pick)

Wallace blew out his arm in 1994, and after a very short and not very effective comeback at the A+ level, he retired.

Honorable Mention: Chad Mottola, OF Reds (fifth pick)

Mottola developed into a classic 4-A player, who had a long, long minor league career mostly at the AAA level. He had over 6,000 minor league at-bats, hit 249 minor league HRs, and scored and drove in more than 1,000 runs in the minors.

Mottola’s best season was for Syracuse, the Blue Jays’ AAA team, in 2000. At age 28, he hit .309 with 33 HRs, 102 RBIs, a .925 OPS, and even stole 30 bases. That effort only earned him three games with the Blue Jays that year.

It’s more than a little surprising that Mottola never tried his luck in Japan. He would have been an ideal candidate after his fine 2000 season.

1991: Brien Taylor, LHP Yankees

One of the great all-time draft busts, Brien Taylor was the acclaimed best high school pitcher in America that year, and he signed a then-record $1.55 million bonus with the help of “advisor” Scott Boras the day before he was to begin taking junior college classes.

In 1993 at age 21, Taylor had a fine year at AA Albany, where he went 13-7 with a 3.48 ERA and struck out 150 batters in 163 IP. That offseason, he got into a fistfight with the friend of a guy who had beaten up his brother Brendan earlier in the day.

It was a stupid, stupid decision. Taylor ended up tearing the labrum of his pitching shoulder, possibly after missing with a haymaker and landing awkwardly on his shoulder, and he was never the same, although he tried for the next six years to come back.

1990: Kurt Miller, RHP Pirates (fifth pick)

Miller was only 17 years old when drafted out of high school, and like Jeff Granger, he was moved from one organization to the next. He got cups of coffee from the Marlins in 1994, 1996, and 1997 in what looks to have been desperation on the Marlins’ part to find some major league pitching.

Miller looked like he might finally have put it together in 1998, going 14-3 for the AAA Iowa Cubs with 145 Ks in 167.2 innings pitched at age 25. However, he got off to a poor start in 1999 and was either released or sold to the Hanshin Tigers in Japan.

Miller pitched in Japan in 1999 and 2000, but he wasn’t any better there, and his career apparently ended at the end of the 2000 season.

Honorable Mention: Todd Van Poppel, RHP A’s (14th pick)

Everyone remembers Van Poppel as a great draft bust, and he was, although he had far too extensive a major league career to meet my criteria of abject failure.

Van Poppel was the top high school pitcher in the country with a high 90s fastball who fell to the 14th pick only because he told everyone he was going to go to college. In fact, the Braves considered selecting him with the first pick of the draft, until Van Poppel told them he wouldn’t sign with them, and the Braves went with their second choice Chipper Jones. We all know how that turned out.

The A’s were able to convince Van Poppel to forgo his college experience by giving him a then-record $1.2 million major league contract. Van Poppel never really got hurt but also never developed into a really good major league pitcher.

The problem was that Van Poppel’s 95 or 96 mile per hour fastball was straight as a laser beam, and he never developed the command necessary to succeed at the highest level. However, Van Poppel was a decent major league spot starter and reliever for the A’s in 1995, and he had two strong years as a reliever for the Cubs in 2000 and 2001, so he can’t receive anything more than an honorable mention here.

1989: Roger Salkeld, RHP Mariners (third pick)

This year’s biggest bust was a tough call, because Salkeld in 1996 went 8-5 with a 5.20 ERA for the Reds in 116 IP, which arguably made him an adequate fifth starter for the better part of a major league season. However, he’s right on the lip, and after considering his remaining career performance, I think he gets the call.

It looks like Salkeld was yet another young pitcher who blew out his arm early in this professional career (he missed the entire 1992 season), and while he came back from it, he wasn’t as good as he had been before the injury. However, looking at his career minor league numbers suggests that his big problem was lack of command.

Honorable Mention: Tyler Houston, C Braves (second pick)

Houston was a pretty big disappointment, but he had an eight-year run as a solid backup major league catcher.

1989 was another bad year for top draft picks with Ben McDonald (first, Orioles) having a disappointing career, although he did win 78 major league games before his arm gave out; and Jeff Jackson (fourth, Phillies), Donald Harris (fifth, Rangers), and Paul Coleman (sixth, Cardinals) never learning how to hit. The first really good pick that year was Frank Thomas at No. 7.

1988: Bill Bene, RHP Dodgers (fifth pick)

A live arm that never found control.

Honorable Mention: Monty Fariss, SS Rangers (sixth pick)

Fariss is a somewhat remembered draft bust. He hit 30 HRs as a junior at Oklahoma State, but by the time he finally developed some power as a professional player, he’d made clear that he couldn’t play middle infield defense at the major league level. The high point of his major league career was 67 games and 166 at-bats in 1992 in which he hit .217 with a .622 OPS.

1987: Mark Merchant, OF Pirates (second pick)

He had a long, 11-year professional career in which he never played even one game in the majors. He was too slow to develop and didn’t hit with enough power to be a major league corner outfielder or first baseman.

Honorable Mention: Willie Banks, P Twins (third pick)

Banks is a better remembered bust than Mark Merchant, mainly because he disappointed at the major league level. Banks pitched parts of nine major league seasons, finishing with a 33-39 record and a 4.75 ERA. In his best year, Banks went 11-12 with a 4.04 ERA for the Twins in 1993.

1986: Brad Brink, RHP Phillies (seventh pick)

Brink looks like yet another example of a pitcher whose career was ruined by a blown elbow tendon.

Jeff King, who was taken No. 1 by the Pirates that year, is remembered as a draft bust because his selection was followed by Greg Swindell, Matt Williams, Kevin Brown, Kent Mercker, and Gary Sheffield, in that order.

However, King doesn’t even get an honorable mention in my book, because he hit 30 home runs and drove in 111 runs for the Bucs in 1996 and drove in 112 runs for the Royals the next year. King’s major league career may have been disappointing, but he was a no-doubt-about-it major league player for a number of years.

1985: Kurt Brown, C White Sox (fifth pick)

Never learned to hit.

Honorable mention (sort of): B.J. Surhoff, Brewers (first pick)

As I’m sure you know, he had a 19-year major league career in which he accumulated more than 8,200 ABs and 2,300 hits. However, he was never a particularly good offensive player, and he is remembered as something as a disappointment since Will Clark, Barry Larkin, and Barry Bonds were selected with the second, fourth, and sixth picks of that draft.

1984: Shawn “Lil’” Abner, OF Mets (first pick)

Abner is another all-time great draft bust. Like a lot of high school outfielders on this list, Abner just never developed into a major league hitter. In fact, he only managed to accumulate a grand total of 840 major league at-bats, I strongly suspect, because he had once been a No. 1 draft pick who people really thought was going to be great one day, statistics be damned.

Abner’s best major league season by far was for the White Sox in 1992, when he hit .279 with a .674 OPS in 97 games and 208 ABs. You could even make any argument that he was a useful major league player for the better part of a season that year.

However, Abner gets points for the fact that his career major league OPS was a truly awful .592, and his next best season was in 1990 for the Padres, when he hit .245 with a .596 OPS in 91 games and 184 ABs. That’s pretty awful for an outfielder.

Now that we’ve gone through the individual drafts, the questions remaining are: (1) Who was the biggest draft bust for the 1984-1994 period; and (2) Was that bust big enough to dethrone Matt Bush, the biggest draft bust of the 1995-2004 period? (I’m going to stick to my guns and continue to assert that two-time No. 1 draft pick Danny Goodwin is the biggest draft bust of all time.)

And the winner for the 1984-1994 period is—drum roll, please—Brien Taylor, selected first by the Yankees in 1991. In my mind, Taylor easily beats out Shawn Abner, because of Taylor’s then-record signing bonus, the fact that he did not play even one game in the majors, and the sheer stupidity involved in the fateful incident that ended his major league dreams.

But does Brien Taylor top Matt Bush as a draft bust? I think so. While I think it’s safe to say that Bush is a bigger jerk and even more of a knucklehead than Taylor, Bush’s selection as the first pick of the 2004 draft was not highly regarded at the time it was made.

Many commentators felt that the Padres passed up better prospects to sign a local boy (Bush is from San Diego) who would sign for less money than those better prospects.

Taylor, on the other hand, was regarded as the best high school pitcher in America in 1991, and the bonus he received (even though it was from the high-flying Yankees) was still about 25 percent more than the previous record set by Todd Van Poppel only the year before.

Thus, Brien Taylor ranks as the reigning champion for the last generation of MLB drafts.  I’d bet dollars to donuts that, in these days of rapidly escalating draft bonuses, he will have multiple challengers in the not too distant future.