Sometimes you wind up with Ken Griffey Jr., a player so spectacularly talented he helped save a dying franchise. Sometimes you get stuck with Steve Chilcott, a catcher so injury-prone he never played a single game in the majors.
Each major professional sports league conducts a draft to divvy up talented newcomers, but in none of them is the payoff so routinely deferred — in some cases by five years or more — or so difficult to identify, even at No. 1. Barry Bonds and Derek Jeter both were selected sixth, after all, passed over at the top of their respective drafts while teams chose B.J. Surhoff and Phil Nevin instead.
“In the end, all you have to go on is your collective opinion as an organization. [It’s] informed by hours upon hours of scouting and investigation and hard work, but it still is just an opinion,” said Mike Radcliff, the Twins vice president for player personnel. “And opinions can be wrong.”
The Twins know that as well as anyone, having twice before in the draft’s 52-year history exercised the overall No. 1 choice, a selection they will utilize for a third time Monday. Their previous top overall picks were Tim Belcher, who never pitched a game for the Twins, and Joe Mauer, who could wind up playing more Twins games than anyone in history.
So yes, it’s a crapshoot.
“The growth of players can be a little bit unknowable,” said first-year Twins Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey, who has the ultimate say in whom the team will choose. “In the draft, you’re forced to make some decisions on what you think future value is, so I recognize that’s part of the scouting conversation.”
One thing that won’t be part of the conversation, though: whether the Twins can afford their top choice. That’s not to say that contract negotiations won’t take place, and it’s possible that Falvey and his staff will execute a strategy of shifting allotted draft bonuses around to lower picks. But money was a critical consideration in the drafting of Belcher and Mauer, in a manner that won’t even come up Monday.
When the Twins bypassed a Texas righthander named Roger Clemens in 1983 (he went 19th to Boston) in order to take Belcher, a pitcher from Mount Vernon Nazarene University, owner Calvin Griffith believed he could sign the righthander at a bargain rate. Belcher’s adviser, an attorney named Scott Boras, let it be known that wasn’t going to happen, and Belcher told the Star Tribune on the eve of the draft that “even if I don’t comment about the money they are willing to pay, you could figure that is part of it … I’m not going to say everything is all right.”
When Griffith offered him $90,000 — less than even Rick Monday received as the top pick in the very first MLB draft in 1965 — Belcher refused to sign, becoming only the second top pick ever to walk away. Catcher Danny Goodwin had done the same in 1971, turning down the White Sox’s offer, but that was because he was a high school player who wanted to attend college. Belcher, though, was made available in a supplemental draft the following January, was drafted and signed by the Yankees for $125,000 and went on to pitch 14 major league seasons.
The ordeal soured Griffith on the benefit of drafting No. 1.
“I hope we never have it again,” he said.
Money not an issue
The Twins did 18 years later, though, and Griffith’s successor, Carl Pohlad, was just as leery of contract demands. Largely because of Boras’ influence, bonuses had skyrocketed by that 2001 draft, and Pohlad told his employees he felt an obligation to the sport and his fellow owners to take a hard line against bonus inflation.
Mark Prior, the consensus top pick, was demanding more than $10 million to sign; the Twins wound up drafting Mauer and signing him for a little more than half of that.
But this draft will be different for a franchise long known for its unwillingness to overspend. Under rules negotiated with the players’ union and adopted in 2011, bonuses are capped and negotiations are limited.
The Twins can offer their top pick no more than $7.77 million without triggering penalties, a system that has largely ended the previous annual tradition of holdouts and brinkmanship.
“Typically, when you’re talking about the top end of the draft, the top 30 picks, really, a lot of these guys are going to sign,” Falvey said, especially since all first-rounders and most second-rounders are “slotted” at $1 million or more. “That’s not a guarantee, but an expectation going in.”
Too bad there are no guarantees, just expectations, about the talent and future of the top picks. Falvey and General Manager Thad Levine know this draft, their first in charge of the Twins, is an important one for the franchise’s future, especially with picks No. 35 and 37 under their control as well.
Hits and misses
“You don’t aspire to pick No. 1 very often — I’m pretty sure that would [follow] a tough year — but we recognize it’s an opportunity to add real talent to the organization,” Falvey said. “It’s the lifeblood of building a championship-caliber organization: scouting and player development.”
Plus, it’s become such a signature statement about your organization’s ability to judge talent, good or bad. Only one overall top pick so far has been elected to the Hall of Fame: Griffey, who helped transform the Mariners from downtrodden to thriving after being drafted in 1987. Several have won MVP awards, including Mauer, Jeff Burroughs (drafted first in 1969), Chipper Jones (1990), Alex Rodriguez (1993), Josh Hamilton (1999) and Bryce Harper (2010).
There have been embarrassing misses as well, of course, starting with Chilcott in 1966, the second draft ever held. He injured his shoulder, ruined his throwing arm, and never rose higher than Class AAA. Brien Taylor, a high school lefthander taken by the Yankees in 1991, is the only other top pick to fail to play in the majors, also due largely to injuries.
Surely, though, the Pirates wish they had chosen Zack Greinke or Cole Hamels in 2002, rather than Bryan Bullington. Or the Padres would like a do-over on their Matt Bush pick in 2004, so they could take second pick Justin Verlander instead. Or the Royals regret the years they spent developing Luke Hochevar, when Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and Tim Lincecum — and the seven Cy Young Awards they have won — were all available instead.
“There are plusses and minuses to every player you look at. These are young players with unknowable futures, so there always is risk,” Falvey said. “All we can do is put ourselves in position to get the best player possible.”