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October 27, 2007

Future Shock

Managers as Failed Prospects

by Kevin Goldstein

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A small bit was made during Thursday night's broadcast about Clint Hurdle's playing career, which is most notably marked by his cover appearance on Sports Illustrated in 1977, when the 20-year-old Royals prospect was declared "The Next Big Thing."

Needless to say, he wasn't, but he's not the only one. Terry Francona was a helluva player himself at one time. In 1980, he was the College Player of the Year at the University of Arizona, as well as the Golden Spikes award-winner (the honor given to the top amateur player each year). He hit over .400, and also was named outstanding player at the College World Series, setting a record at the time with seven consecutive hits (a record later broken, first by Dave Magadan and then Barry Bonds). Francona was the 22nd overall pick in the draft that year, falling towards the bottom half of the first round because he didn't really fit the profile for a first baseman because of his lack of power. While he did play 10 seasons in the majors, he was never a full-time player, with a single-season high of 281 at-bats.

That got me wondering--Hurdle and Francona were both once highly-regarded prospects who failed to live up to expectations, and the manager ranks are filled with them. Check this out, and keep in mind, that this is just 2007 managers:

  • Bobby Cox, Braves: Back before there was a baseball draft, top players were subject to bidding wars in the same manner that international players are today. In 1959, everyone wanted the kid from Oklahoma, and Cox signed with the Dodgers for $40,000, which depending on how you compute relative value, is somewhere around $300,000 today. Remember bonuses in the draft didn't reach that level until the 1990s; in 1959, $40,000 was big-time money. An outstanding defensive player with power, Cox was usually good for a .280 or so batting average with 15-20 home runs annually in the minors, but bounced around to the Cubs, Braves, and finally Yankees, who gave him one shot in 1968, where he hit .229/.300/.316 as their starting first baseman. He'd play just 85 more games in the majors.
  • Bob Geren, Athletics: Geren was one of the top high school players in California in 1979, going in the first round (24th overall) to the hometown Padres that June. Less then 18 months later he was sent to the Cardinals as part of an incredible 11-player deal that included Rollie Fingers, Gene Tenace, and Terry Kennedy. The Cardinals gave up on Geren after the 1985 season, but the Yankees signed him as a minor league free agent, and he started to show some power at Triple-A, getting a few shots at starting in the majors, but never hitting enough to hold onto the job, ending his career with a .233/.283/.349 line in 307 big league games.
  • John Gibbons, Blue Jays: Gibbons was actually selected just two picks after Francona in 1980, going 24th overall to the Mets. He had a bit of a minor league breakout in 1983 as a 21-year-old, earning Texas League All-Star honors, but he was unable to repeat that success, while also eventually being blocked at the big league level by Gary Carter. In the end, he played in just 18 major league games. As an aside, the player selected in between Francona and Gibbons that year? None other than Billy Beane.
  • Eric Wedge, Indians: An absolute monster in college as part of a 1989 Wichita State team that won the College World Series and scored 831 runs in 84 games, Wedge led the nation with 206 total bases and 88 walks in 83 games, while finishing sixth in hits, fifth in doubles, third in home runs, and second in RBI. Had the internet been what it is now, he would have been quite the statistical darling. A third-round pick by the Red Sox that year, dropping that far mostly because of his defensive shortcomings, Wedge had some nice minor league totals, but injuries derailed his career and his finished up with just 86 major league at-bats.
  • Ned Yost, Brewers: An outstanding amateur catcher at Chabot Junior College in California, in 1974, he was drafted twice, going in the second round of the Janaury phase to the Expos, but not signing until after the year, after the Mets had made him the seventh overall pick in the secondary phase of the June draft. Much like his big league playing record, Yost never hit much in the minors, but was a fine defender, drawing enough attention to get nabbed by the Brewers in the 1977 Rule Five Draft, and finishing his brief six-year career by moving on to Texas and Montreal, finishing up with just 219 games played.

Again, that's just from this year. Managerial history is loaded with stories like that. Here are some other recent examples:

  • Buck Showalter was an All-American selection at Mississippi State in 1977 and set a team record with a .459 batting average. A fifth-round pick by the Yankees, he never reached the majors as a player.
  • As one of the top catchers in the country, Gene Lamont was the 13th overall selection in the very first draft, going to the Tigers and playing a total of 87 major league games for them. Later in that same draft, 23 picks after Lamont, the Reds drafted another top high school catcher, a kid named Johnny Bench.
  • Jerry Manuel was the 20th overall pick in 1972. He would play in just 96 big league games, which is 96 more than his high school teammate, Mike Ondina, who was selected 12th overall by the White Sox, would play. The pair were the first duo from the same high school to be selected in the first round.

Is there something to be learned from this? I honestly don't know, but I do have a hypothesis. Making it to the big leagues as either a player or manager takes a tremendous amount of drive, and it's possible that many of these men were even further driven by their failures as players in the face of high expectations. Because let's face it, nobody likes to lose.

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

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