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June 10, 2013

Pebble Hunting

The Worst a Team Ever Did in the Draft

by Sam Miller

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If you were trying to find the worst draft ever, where would you start? “Bad” we could probably agree on, but “worst” would certainly lead to an argument. You might, for instance, argue that the 1968 Washington Senators (later Texas Rangers) had the worst draft ever. This is a sterling position to have. The Senators that year managed to draft -6.9 WARP, which is not only the worst draft class ever by cumulative career WARP, but it’s a) two wins worse than the second-worst class, a giant margin in an otherwise tightly packed trailerboard; and b) it came in 1968, the same year that the Los Angeles Dodgers managed a draft class that put together an incredible 192 career WARP, the most ever by any team in any single year (though it took both June and January drafts for the Dodgers to reach such peaks, just as it took Washington both June and January drafts to dig such deficits).

But those Senators were only two or six wins worse than a whole slew of other teams that were below replacement level. Why not make the case that the Giants had the worst draft ever in 1982, because their failure cost them dozens of WARP? That year, their first-round pick (11th overall) was a college first baseman who would manage to bat just .188 in 16 career at-bats. And their second-round pick (39th overall) was a high school outfielder, a local kid, who would go on to hit 762 home runs in the majors—but who, because of a failed post-draft negotiation, hit 176 of them with the Pirates, who drafted and signed him three years later. Plenty of great players get drafted, don’t sign, and end up on in another team’s history—but the Giants were sooooo close. According to columnist Glenn Dickey,

They couldn’t sign him because Tom Haller, then the general manager, wouldn’t go past $70,000. Bonds, the son of former Giants outfielder Bobby Bonds, wanted $75,000. When he didn’t get it, he went to college instead.

But the Giants ended up with Bonds anyway, and the timeline they ended up in turned out to be the good timeline. Maybe the worst draft has to lead to a bad timeline, so why not the Montreal Expos’ 1993 draft? They took Brad Fullmer, and a few years later Fullmer helped them acquire Lee Stevens, and a few years later Stevens was the final piece of the trade that helped shed Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee, and Brandon Phillips in one shake. So, sure, the Brad Fullmer draft. Awful.

But I’ll say no to the Senators, because five guys making the majors—even if they were bad—says something about the team’s talent evaluation. I’ll say no to the Giants, because in the end they missed out on Bonds no more than 24 other teams did. And I’ll say no to the Expos, because that sort of extrapolation will eventually lead me to realizing what a bizarre and arbitrary thing it is that I, out of all the infinite possibilities, was born. I’ll just keep it simple: The worst draft is the draft that produced no major leaguers. The worst draft was that of the 2001 Reds.

Major leaguers signed: 0 (The Reds are one of at least six teams that have had a draft, through the year 2007, that produced no signed major leaguers.)

Best career: David Shafer, a right-hander taken in the 32nd round. Occasionally dominant in relief, as when he struck out 18 and walked two in a scoreless 14-inning stint at High-A. Reached Triple-A. Traded to the A’s for Kirk Saarloos before his age-25 season. (Bobby Basham reached the highest prospect status of anybody in this draft, making a Baseball America top 100 18 months after the draft.)

Worst career: 13th-rounder Tanner Brock threw 2 ⅓ innings in instructs, as a 23-year-old, and then was gone. 39th-rounder Miles Carpenter lasted 10 times as many innings before washing out of instructs, but walked 16 batters and retired with a 7.71 ERA.

Near miss: They took a left-handed pitcher named Nick Markakis in the 35th round, but didn’t sign him. A year later, Reds scouting director Kasey McKeon explained: “He was almost like a high school junior. He wasn’t ready to go out and play. But he made great strides,” so the Reds drafted him again in 2002, in the 23rd round, and again didn’t sign him. Finally, the Orioles drafted him in the first round, and did.

Total value wrung out of this draft: Saarloos, acquired for Shafer, had a 7.17 ERA in 43 innings for Cincinnati before he was granted free agency. Third-round pick Alan Moye was traded, along with others, for Kenny Rogers; Rogers blocked the move. Months later, he and another prospect were sent to Kansas City for Jeff Austin and Brian Shackleford, who threw a total of 74 innings with a 5.81 ERA for the Reds.

But what about the supplemental pick? The one that they got the following year for failing to sign first-round pick Jeremy Sowers? They used it on Mark Schramek, an unsigned 45th-round pick in the 2001 draft. This time, as a first-rounder, Schramek signed, but the third baseman never reached Triple-A, either.

Great remaining hope: Jesse Gutierrez, a first baseman popped in round 20, is the last player from this draft still active. He has spent the past six years playing in Mexico, with one quick trip back to the States to play in an independent league. He hit .331/.416/.609 with 27 home runs in 2011, though his OPS dropped below .800 in his age-35 2013 season. If he eventually makes the majors leagues now, feel free to print this article out, crumple it up, and toss it in the trash bin.

Fun Fact: Just five players from this draft so much as reached Triple-A; no fewer than half of the teams that drafted that year had at least five players make the majors. The Reds’ Triple-A five combined for 310 innings pitched (5.52 ERA) and 1,596 plate appearances (.266/.320/.407) at the second-highest level.

Industry view at the time: “After several years of higher-than-average spending to sign amateurs, the organization found itself short on money to spend in the 2001 draft. The Reds took Jeremy Sowers with the 20th pick, in spite of his strong commitment to Vanderbilt and reported demands of more than $3 million to sway him from school. They did not come close to his price--and in fact many in the industry said they purposely drafted a player they couldn't sign.” —Baseball America

Club quote: “I still think it’s going to be a good draft,” said McKeon, after failing to sign Sowers.

Possibly pernicious lasting effects? A year after failing to sign Sowers, the Reds had the third overall pick. They had narrowed their choices to Chris Gruler and Scott Kazmir, but passed on Kazmir, who was asking for a $3 million-$4 million bonus. “Signability was a major issue for the Reds because last year's first-round pick, left-hander Jeremy Sowers, spurned Cincinnati,” according to an MLB.com article. Gruler signed for $2.5 million the same day he was drafted, “almost unprecedented,” per MLB.com.

Where are they now (player)? Richard Bartel, a 17th-round pick, went on to be an NFL quarterback, playing three games (all as a substitute) in 2010-2011. Most of these guys have disappeared into the private lives that come with having a common name; the ones that can be found online are property underwriters, or accountants, or working in scouting. Sadly, there’s Bart Hunton, a 46th-round pick who went on to work for a landscaping company, but who died suddenly at the age of 28.

Where are they now (executive)? Scouting director Kasey McKeon got one more draft, and was then gone. The twist: he might have been let go not for this draft, but for the following one, in which he popped Joey Votto in the second round. Tracy Ringolsby:

Cincinnati first baseman Joey Votto won the NL MVP. Many people also believe he is the reason Kasey McKeon was fired as Reds scouting director.

Votto, coming out of high school in Toronto, was an under-the-radar prospect in the spring of 2002. Reds scout John Castleberry saw him in a showcase in Florida and brought Votto to Cincinnati for a workout. McKeon, wanting to make sure nobody got wind of Votto, didn’t inform anybody else, including then general manager Jim Bowden. The Reds took Votto in the second round, and by the 2003 draft McKeon had been replaced.

He is now the Nationals’ director of player procurement.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

Related Content:  Cincinnati Reds,  Amateur Draft

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