Compared to the NFL and NBA, the MLB Draft garners very little attention from the casual sports fan. While interest has grown over the past decade, most fans still do not realize that the Draft will be conducted over a three-day period starting this Thursday.
Because of the relative lack of attention, most fans are unaware of the many, many great stories that the MLB Draft has provided since it was implemented in 1965. Heck, I myself did not realize that the San Diego Padres passed on Justin Verlander in 2004 in favor of Matt Bush, who never set foot in an MLB clubhouse as a member of the team.
That story ranks right up there with three of the most famous top-pick tales in MLB Draft history:
1966: Mets help build dynasty in Oakland
Most of the New York Mets’ scouting department was convinced that Reggie Jackson was the best player in the draft, and for good reason. Jackson, who originally went to Arizona State to play football, replaced Rick Monday (the top pick in 1965) as the Sun Devils’ centerfielder and wound up setting a new school record for home runs in a season while earning first team All-America honors.
New York’s top brass, however, had other ideas. According to Jackson, the Mets’ ownership and high-level executives were uncomfortable with the fact that Jackson had a white girlfriend at Arizona State. While several in the Mets’ organization deny this claim, the team wound up passing on Jackson in favor of Steve Chilcott, a high school catcher who is one of three top picks never to have made the Majors.
Jackson wound up falling right into the hands of the Oakland Athletics, a club that has never been afraid of new ideas and outside-the-box thinking. Jackson would go on to lead the A’s to three consecutive World Series titles in the 1970s and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1993.
Considering the Mets won the 1969 World Series without Jackson, who knows how many postseasons were altered by New York’s draft blunder.
1987: Mariners Alter Course of Franchise
Baseball had not exactly worked as planned in Seattle, as the Mariners were still searching for their first winning season and were desperately searching for the right player to connect with the fanbase.
Owner George Argyros wanted righty pitcher Mike Harkey, largely because the Los Angeles resident was familiar with his work in college at Cal State Fullerton. Much of the scouting department preferred Mark Merchant, a switch-hitting outfielder from the prep ranks.
Head scout Roger Jongewaard, however, was so smitten with his favorite high school prospect that he had fellow scout Bob Harrison alter the scouting report on the player in order to push him up the draft board. Argyros reluctantly agreed, though not without making the threat of tying the player’s progress to the job security of the two scouts.
To say that pick paid off in spades would be a severe understatement, as many experts credit the Mariners’ selection of Ken Griffey, Jr. with being the first –and most important – move in saving baseball in Seattle. Harkey and Merchant, meanwhile, never made an impact.
2001: Twins go cheap, end up with best pick
By 2001, players at the top of the draft were being taken as much for their cost and signability as they were for their talent. Bonuses for draftees had creeped up to the point where they were now higher than the average MLB salary, leading many teams to (incorrectly) believe that they were being priced out of the market for top young talent.
This was a major concern for the small-market Minnesota Twins, as top college prospects Mark Prior and Mark Teixeira were both expecting to command deals nearing eight figures in salary. It is easy to see why the Twins balked at those prices, considering their payroll was a mere $24.35 million at the time.
Instead, Minnesota opted for Joe Mauer, a local prep legend who passed on a football scholarship to Florida State in order to become a catcher in the organization of his hometown team. The Twins also saved a pretty penny in the deal, as Mauer signed for half the price that Prior and Teixeira commanded from the Cubs and Rangers, respectively.
Prior made an early splash but quickly flamed out, while Teixeira has enjoyed a productive career as a corner infielder. Mauer, meanwhile, has provided similar value to Teixeira and is on track to become the greatest position player in the history of the Minnesota Twins franchise. With the possible exception of Derek Jeter, no player in baseball is more associated with his team than Mauer.
And the ironic thing is that the Twins got him primarily because they were being cheap.