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July 24, 2014

The Lineup Card

Seven Unsigned Top Draft Picks

by Baseball Prospectus


1. Matt Harrington
This is probably the most stereotypical case study of a player in which greed ended a pro career before it began. Not necessarily the greed of Harrington, or his family, agent, or even the Rockies, who took him seventh overall in the 2000 draft. His agent set the signing bonus bar at $4.95 million; Colorado came all the way up to $4 million before negotiations broke down. He would subsequently be drafted by San Diego and Tampa Bay with decreasingly smaller bonuses and he still never signed. Meanwhile he toiled in independent league ball while his arm deteriorated to the point of mediocrity, retiring with a 4.49 ERA over seven indie league seasons. Read Amy K. Nelson’s profile on him if you’re interested/feel like experiencing sadness today.

For their troubles, Colorado’s comp pick in 2001 for not signing Harrington was used on future infield spare part Jayson Nix. And Harrington, as of that 2009 article, works at Costco, which in many karmic ways is a fate better than becoming a Rockies pitcher. —Matt Sussman

2. Luke Hochevar
Dodgers' director of scouting Logan White told us this story at a BP stadium event a couple of years ago, and I'll try to get the details right: In 2005, the Dodgers picked Luke Hochevar 40th overall. Hochevar (who had already been drafted and refused to sign with the Dodgers three years earlier) was considered a tough sign, but the Dodgers didn't have a first-round pick so, if they wanted first-round talent, they had to do something risky. They offered around $3 million; Hochevar and his agent, Scott Boras, wanted $4 million, Hochevar went to independent ball and boosted his stock even further, but no deal was ultimately worked out. The Dodgers lost out.

The next year, Hochevar went no. 1 overall. Great move for Hochevar! Greater move for, as it turns out, the Dodgers. Hochevar going no. 1 bumped everybody else down a spot. It bumped Andrew Miller (the consensus best talent in the draft) down to no. 6, where the Detroit Tigers (who traditionally love to spend big on velo-monster draft picks) were able to grab him. Had they not, they were all set to take a big high school lefty out of Texas named Clayton Kershaw. (Bill Shaiken recounted many of these details in an LA Times piece last year. "I thought I was going to Detroit," Kershaw said.) Instead, Kershaw fell to the no. 7 pick, which just happened to be where the Dodgers sat that year. The way that White told it, Hochevar's unwillingness to sign the Dodgers' $2.98 million offer is what landed them Clayton Kershaw--who, it should be noted, the Dodgers actually had ahead of Miller on their draft board. —Sam Miller

3. John Elway
I'm cheating a little bit here. Elway was technically drafted out of high school by the Royals in 1979 in the 18th round and didn't sign. (The Royals, apparently concerned about their depth at the quarterback position, also drafted high school pitcher Dan Marino—yes, that one—in the fourth round that year. In the most #Royals moment ever, it makes the Royals the only MLB team to ever draft two Hall of Famers in the same draft.)

Elway went off to Stanford and apparently played a little bit of football here and there in addition to his baseball exploits. He had a good seat for one of the most famous plays in college football history, but in 1982, he was drafted by the Yankees in the second round. Elway did technically sign with the Yankees and played in the minors for a bit -- before leaving. That's sort of the same thing as not signing. Yankees farm director, general manager, and head trainer George Steinbrenner allegedly had plans to bring him to the Yankees within a few years, but Elway left the Yankees and from what I've heard, played a little bit more football. It makes for an interesting "What if...?" that crosses over two sports (and yes, crosses my little Cleveland heart on its way) What if John Elway, instead of playing for the Denver Broncos in the late 1980s had been patrolling the outfield in Yankee stadium rather than Dan Pasqua? Elway did put up a .318/.432/.464 line with 13 steals during his lone low-A stint, but only in 42 games, so we don't have a lot of info to go on to retroject him as a major leaguer.

Stories like John Elway's don't come along very often in the draft any more where teams draft a player in a high round without convincing him ($$$) to stick around. In 2010, the Dodgers drafted LSU quarterback commit Zach Lee in the first round (and signed him). Teams will sometimes take college football players in the later "Oh, you're the nephew of the finance director?" rounds, mostly as publicity stunts—the Padres drafted Johnny Manziel in the 28th round this year—but the idea of a baseball player being drafted and then leaving baseball for another sport just isn't a storyline that happens much any more. —Russell A. Carleton

4. Gerrit Cole
Not that there's anywhere to go from no. 1, but Brady Aiken's four-year school of choice has already been the launching pad for one player to cash in with a big bonus. Cole was the 28th-overall pick of the Yankees in 2008 but decided to go to UCLA, reportedly with very little negotiation. The Pirates picked him no. 1 overall three years later, while the Yankees settled for Slade Heathcott as the comp pick. —Zachary Levine

5. Mark Appel
The Pirates suddenly found themselves looking at a board with a name they didn't expect to see. Not when it was their turn to pick, at least.

Mark Appel was projected to be the first pick of the 2012 draft, but signability issues let him fall all the way to the Pittsburgh, sitting in the eighth slot. Over the next several weeks those signability concerns turned out to be valid, and Appel returned to Stanford for his senior year. Again projected as a top pick, Appel did go 1-1 in 2013 but the Astros are yet to find his on switch. The Pirates used their compensation pick to select Austin Meadows, a toolsy left-handed center fielder. It might be strange and invalid, but there will be some temptation to compare the careers of Meadows and Appel, especially if you're a Pirate fan. —Harry Pavlidis

6. Travis Lee
Although Lee was drafted by the Twins with the second-overall pick in 1996, and although he would sign with a franchise before the year ended, he did not sign with the Twins. That's because Scott Boras took advantage of a little-known rule that stated teams had to make an offer or relinquish a player's rights within two weeks of the draft. The Twins didn't tender an offer, and so Lee became a free agent (along with three others). He would sign a contract with the expansion Diamondbacks worth $10 million, more than he would've earned through the draft, and embark on a big-league career that lasted parts of nine seasons.

The Twins, for their part, selected Matt LeCroy the next year with the supplemental pick they received for failure to sign Lee. —R.J. Anderson

7. J.D. Drew
As Scott Boras’s client in 1997 and 1998, J.D. Drew came pretty close to taking his place near Curt Flood and Andy Messersmith as one of the game-changing titans of baseball economics and players’ salary rights. In the 1997 draft, Drew was selected no. 2 overall by Philadelphia. Boras demanded an $11 million, four-year contract; the Phillies countered at around $2 million.

On Boras’s counsel, Drew did not agree to terms with the Phillies. Instead, he signed a contract with the independent St. Paul Saints (for whom he hit .341/.443/.706 in just over 200 plate appearances that summer). This was not because it was Drew’s lifelong dream to, say, follow in the footsteps of Darryl Strawberry, who had played for the Saints briefly the previous year (and hit an astonishing .435/.538/1.000), nor because his lifelong WWF/E hero Jesse “The Body” Ventura was hatching plans to run for Governor of Minnesota. (I made up the first part of that sentence, but not the second—and Jesse “The Mind” won!) No, Boras used the Northern League loophole in the draft as a means of establishing Drew as a professional ballplayer—no longer an amateur, thus ineligible for the draft, and hence a free agent. Boras had tried the same gambit with Jason Varitek when Seattle drafted Varitek no. 1 overall in 1994, but the Mariners eventually agreed to Boras’s terms, and Varitek signed.

The Major League Baseball Player’s Association seized upon Drew’s case, and it went to independent arbitration. “Management spokesmen warned that a ruling for Drew could render the draft obsolete,” the late Doug Pappas wrote, ominously.” The arbitrator, Dana Eischen, upheld the MLBPA’s grievance, but in Drew’s case Eischen gave the owners a loophole of their own: as an indy-league ballplayer, Drew wasn’t in the union, and therefore not entitled to take advantage of Eischen’s decision in favor of the MLBPA. Drew had to sign with the Phillies or re-enter the draft in 1998. He chose the latter and went no. 5 overall to St. Louis, who signed him.

“The owners' own ineptitude [had] threatened to destroy [the draft] system,” Pappas wrote—a system that heavily favored them financially. After Eischen upheld the MLBPA’s grievance on behalf of Drew/Boras, the owners quickly closed the remaining loopholes (some of which they had sewn up earlier that decade, while forgetting to address others). Changing the draft’s official name from the “Amateur Draft” to the “First-Year Player Draft” was part of this needlecraft. The draft as the owners knew and loved it was narrowly saved.

I’m indebted to my BP colleague Eugene Freedman for providing the following epilogue to the grievance and arbitration: “Eischen resigned as baseball's interest arbitrator upon issuing his decision,” Freedman wrote in an email. “I asked him about it a few years ago and he said, more or less, both parties probably wanted to fire him after the ruling, so he spared them the trouble.”

The story would have had a nice final fillip had the Phillies signed a future star with their 1998 compensation pick, as the Mariners did in 2003: they inked Adam Jones after John Mayberry, Jr. (speaking of the Phillies) declined to sign in 2002 and went to Stanford instead. Instead, the Phillies chose outfielder Eric Valent, who was teammates at UCLA with future Philadelphia great Chase Utley. Valent played with Utley again in the minors, but he otherwise had little connection to the Phillies’ ascendant future in the following decade. Valent had one decent year, with the Mets in 2004, before retiring after five partial major-league seasons with a career WARP of -0.1.

The only other team with a compensation pick in 1998 for failure to sign a 1997 draftee was the Yankees, who didn’t come to terms with Tyrell Godwin. (No big loss, although he seems to be kind of a different cat—but isn’t calling his job in corporate banking “exhilarating” a stretch? Not even T.S. Eliot working at Lloyds Bank raises any gooseflesh.) With their 1998 comp pick, the Yanks took a guy who went on to have a much more noteworthy baseball story than Godwin’s to tell: Mark Prior. —Adam Sobsey

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