The Fish(es) That Got Away
Posted by JD on June 8, 2011
With the Major League Draft in full swing these past few days, Baseball-Reference.com has been running a special draft section on it’s front page. Today’s section included a link to the 1982 Mets’ draft. That was the Dwight Gooden draft, but I have no idea why they linked to it today. The Mets picked up several useful players in that draft: Roger McDowell, Floyd Youmans (later included in the trade that brought Gary Carter to the Mets), Gerald Young (included in the trade for Ray Knight), Barry Lyons, and Rafael Palmeiro. Well, that caught me by surprise.
It turns out that the Mets drafted Palmeiro in the eighth round (189th overall) out of Jackson High School in Miami, Florida. For reasons unknown to me (maybe the money wasn’t right?), Palmeiro opted to enroll in Mississippi State University. Three years later the Cubs selected him with the 22nd pick in the first round and a long and ultimately controversial career was launched. A career that could have included the Mets had it worked out differently.
While Palmeiro’s story is not an uncommon occurrence (draft picks fail to sign each year only to grow as players and re-enter the draft at a later date), it got me wondering how often it happened to the Mets over the years. Furthermore, how good would a team of these “fish that got away” turn out to be? So I went through each Mets draft from 1965 (the first year of the amateur draft) to 2010 and picked out a team of the best players who never signed. These were my criteria:
1). The player had to be drafted by the Mets but be signed and start their professional career with another franchise. Obvious enough, but I wanted to point this out because there is one key player who actually played for the Mets later in his career.
2). I used Baseball Reference’s version of WAR and ranked the players by position. I took some liberties here: while there were plenty of pitchers to chose from (though not many were lefthanded) it was a little sparse in the middle infield. I had to make some judgment calls and some guys are not in the positions you may remember them for, but they did have major league playing time in the positions I assigned them.
3). I went with the “standard” lineup configuration used by most clubs today: 25 players, 13 position players (eight starters and a five-player bench) and 12 pitchers (five starters, six relievers, and a closer).
The following is a lark, an exercise in “what if” and “what might have been”. Without further ado, here’s what I came up with:
(Name, Draft Year, career rWAR)
Roger Clemens, 1981, 128.8
Burt Hooton, 1968, 34.6
John Tudor, 1975, 31.8
Scott Erickson, 1986, 21.9
Rick Helling, 1990 18.6
I figured I’d start with a bang. The Mets drafted the Rocket out of high school in the 12th round. After he turned them down he went on to star at the University of Texas before being drafted by the Red Sox. He ultimately went on to become one of my least favorite players of all time but man, I think I 128.8 wins above replacement could help me get over it. While the Boston years of his career would have left him second behind Tom Seaver on the franchise’s rWAR leaderboard, what really struck me is that each of the other segments of his career would have qualified for the top ten as well. Still, he’s a dick.
John Tudor was a personal menace to me. 1985 was the first year I really paid attention to baseball and Tudor went on an absolute rampage that season. I didn’t remember this, but he actually started that season 1-7. From that point on he sandwiched one loss between nine and eleven-game winning streaks, picking up ten complete game shutouts along the way. He had a 21-8 record, and the Cardinals went 24-11 in games he started on their way to a World Series loss to the Kansas City Royals. This was Dwight Gooden’s career year and he was amazing, but he was on our side: Tudor was his “evil” counter part in my mind. My mind’s eye surely exaggerated Tudor’s performance that season (even though he posted a ridiculous 0.938 WHIP), but it was fun seeing his name pop up here. For the record, the 1985/86 rotation would have had Gooden, Clemens, and Tudor on it if these hypothetical signings occurred. I can’t even process that.
Since we’re dealing with hypotheticals, why not throw in a pitcher who had a no-hitter in his fourth career start? That would be Burt Hooten, who might have ended the no no-hitter nonsense before it got a chance to really get going. Or not. We’ll never know.
Scott Erickson had a mop of mahogany hair and was one of People Magazine’s “Sexiest People” List. So there’s that.
Rick Helling makes a decent fifth starter, and swingman Jeremy Guthrie (who’s in the bullpen for now) can pick up the slack if needed.
Jeremy Guthrie, 1997, 15.7 (long man/sixth starter)
Darren Dreifort, 1990, 6.2
Mark Davis, 1978, 6.5 (lefty specialist)
Randy Wells, 2001, 6.7
Charlie Lea, 1975, 7.1
Todd Jones, 1986, 11.1
John Wetteland, 1984, 20.6 (closer)
That’s not a bad bullpen at all. Wetteland was one of the premier closers of his time, Jones has extensive closing experience, and Davis famously (infamously?) won a Cy Young as a closer. Billy Koch, another former closer, just missed the cut (6.0 rWAR) and could be “called up” if need be. Our team is in decent shape pitching-wise. How does it stack up on offense?
Dan Wilson, 1987, 13.7
Wilson was part of the same draft class as Todd Hundley, who obviously signed and went on to set the franchise single season record for home runs. If I had to pick between the two I’d still take Hundley, but Wilson was an important piece of the Mariners’ division winners in the late 90’s.
John Olerud, 1986, 56.8
The Mets drafted Olerud in the 27th round (682nd overall) out of high school, but he opted to enroll in Washington State University. Had he signed with the Mets he would have been the perfect replacement for the aging Keith Hernandez.
Mark Grudzielanek, 1989, 24.3
According to the Baseball Almanac, Grudzielanek’s nickname is “Grudzie”. I find this unacceptable and continue to refer to him as “Grudz”, which I find to be infinitely more gritty.
Ron Cey, 1966, 52.0
Our earliest non-signer, Cey was selected in the 19th round of the second-ever MLB draft. He went on to be a six-time All Star for the Dodgers in the 70’s, a time when the Mets’ hot corner was a revolving door. Hindsight drives this list for obvious reasons, but none more painful than this one: had Cey been in the Mets system, the Mets might have kept Nolan Ryan. Sure, they might have traded him anyway, but for a couple thousand dollars more in 1966 they might have had an All Star third baseman and future Hall of Fame pitcher on their roster. It’s all “could-have-been” nonsense, but ouch.
Matt Williams, 1983, 43.9
This is admittedly the biggest position stretch on the roster, but Williams did have experience there: he played in 119 games for the Giants over five seasons and even appeared in two games for the Diamondbacks in 2001 when his career was almost over. Could he have played his whole career there? Maybe. But it sure would be nice to have a shortstop who hit 316 career home runs.
Rafael Palmeiro, 1982, 66.0
I’m putting Palmeiro in left because he played 209 games there over his career. I think it’s fair to say that Palmeiro was a “compiler”, a player who built his gaudy career numbers by having many “good-but-not-great” seasons. That being said, his career numbers would absolutely dominate the Mets’ offensive leaderboards had he played for the club that originally drafted him.
Darrin Erstad, 1992, 27.8
I have a feeling that Erstad would have been a fan favorite in Flushing: a tough, gritty, tobacco-chewing, ex-football playing, wall-crashing center-fielder who would have arrived just in time to fill the void left by Lenny Dykstra. I’d bet he make a better financial advisor, though.
David DeJesus, 1997, 21.3
A Brooklyn kid who played his college ball for Rutgers, I slotted DeJesus in right to accommodate Palmeiro in left. Could you imagine if the Mets had DeJesus from 2006-08? He would have been the perfect replacement for Cliff Floyd and the Moises Alou experiment might have been unnecessary. This one stings a little bit more because of how recently it happened, but I can easily see how having DeJesus would have resulted in playoff appearances in 2007 and 2008.
Aaron Rowand, 1995, 19.5 (outfield)
Garrett Atkins, 1997, 9.6 (corner infield, corner outfield)
Scott Servais, 1985, 3.3 (catcher)
Tracy Jones, 1982, 2.3 (outfield, pinch hitter)
Adam Piatt, 1994, 0.5 (backup infielder)
As you can see, the talent level drops off consistently. It was really difficult to find a middle infielder with a positive career rWAR (I almost had to go with Kurt Bevacqua, he of the -4.4 rWAR). That’s how Piatt “earned” his spot on the squad. Jones was part of the class of ’82 that started this exercise. He bounced around for a few years and was somewhat of a journeyman. In other words, Omar Minaya might have signed him if he was available last season. Scott Servais, not to be confused with Scott Service, was a prototypical back-up catcher and fills that roll here. Atkins’ career started strong (he even received MVP votes in 2006) but has been ending with a whimper: he hasn’t played in the majors yet this season. But we’ll find him a spot on our bench. Rowand was originally drafted by the Mets as a shortstop. I was sorely tempted to put him there but Matt Williams’ presence combined with Rowand’s lack of playing time at the position conspired against me.
So there you have it, the Mets’ ultimate team of “fish that got away”. It definitely has a bit of a patchwork feel to it, but it seems like it would be a pretty decent team. All told, the players listed above accumulated 650.6 rWAR over the course of their careers (with Roger Clemens accounting for a staggering 20% of that all by himself). Would they have replecated that as members of this fictional team, or even as members of the Mets? Probably not, but it’s fun to think about it.