Here’s a trivia question that is much more obscure now that Joe Mauer has retired: What Twins draftee who is still active has had the best MLB career?
The answer, as measured by Wins Above Replacement on baseball-reference.com, even stumps the man who did the drafting.
“Hmm. Brian Dozier, maybe?” said Deron Johnson, who from 2008 to 2016 was Twins scouting director, in charge of preparing and executing the annual draft. “Or Aaron Hicks, he’s had a couple of good years when he’s been healthy. I don’t think Mitch Garver or Rosie [Eddie Rosario] have been around long enough.”
All good guesses, and Dozier, with a career WAR of 23.5, ranks third on the list. But it’s a trick question, sort of: The answer — three-time All-Star outfielder George Springer and his 25.4 WAR — never signed with the Twins. Neither did the runner-up, Red Sox designated hitter J.D. Martinez (24.2). Or the fourth-place finisher, lefthander Jason Vargas (17.5), who is hoping his career isn’t over. Or fifth place, Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong (15.6).
“That’s some list,” said Johnson, who is now a senior adviser to Twins scouting director Sean Johnson. “Springer, Kolten Wong, Hicksie — man, if we had signed everybody from that 2008 draft, I could have retired right then.”
But those what-ifs aren’t uncommon around baseball, which for the past 44 years has employed an amateur draft of at least 40 rounds. AL MVP runner-up Alex Bregman was originally taken by the Red Sox, for instance, and the Blue Jays once selected 2016 NL MVP Kris Bryant.
Springer? The Twins took him in the 48th round in 2008, in the same draft in which they took Hicks in the first round, Wong in the 16th, and another major leaguer, lefthander Tyler Anderson, in the 50th. Likewise, they drafted Martinez in the 36th round in 2006 and Vargas in Round 43 in 2001. Only Hicks, as the 14th overall pick, signed with the Twins.
The best high school players are selected in the top couple of rounds each year and usually sign for seven-figure bonuses; Hicks got $1.78 million. But toward the end of the draft, teams frequently select teenagers whose skills aren’t as obvious or as developed, in hopes of persuading them to forgo college for much smaller sums. Most turn the money down in favor of getting an education and trying to improve their draft position, but for teams, “there’s nothing to lose at that point,” Johnson said.
Those long-shot picks are soon to become a relic, however. This week’s Wednesday-Thursday draft will last only five rounds (and the Twins will have only four picks), so scouts will focus on players who are relatively certain to sign. And even when the coronavirus pandemic passes, the MLB draft is unlikely to return to its previous 40-round size. A 20-round, or even 10-round, draft is reportedly being contemplated.
“It’s going to be tough on scouts, because we always want to sign all our [favorite] players,” Deron Johnson said with a laugh. “Teams put in a lot of time building a deep draft board, but you’ll probably see lists cut way down, fewer reports filed. And no more taking a flier on a kid who’s probably headed to college.”
Sorry, no deal
Which means, no more adding to the list of what-ifs. The Twins’ history, like every team’s, is littered with missed opportunities such as Springer, but scouts learn not to dwell on them. Well, they try not to.
“Mark Grace, we talked about that one for years,” said Terry Ryan, the former Twins general manager who got his start in the scouting department. “We took him out of junior college, but he wouldn’t sign. Then he becomes a Gold Glove [first baseman] for the Cubs.” He also finished with the fifth-most hits in Cubs history, won three Gold Gloves and became a World Series champion with the 2001 Diamondbacks.
The Twins feared the same might happen with Wong, who just won his first Gold Glove at second base with the Cardinals. They still do, actually.
“Kolten Wong, that one hurt. We thought we had a deal with him,” Johnson said. “I finally got the money from [then-GM] Bill Smith, 75 grand, to sign him. And then some agent got involved, we didn’t know who it was. But suddenly the number was 100 or 125 [thousand].”
Johnson didn’t give up, sending scout Mike Eaglin to Los Angeles to work out Wong, who had been a catcher and center fielder in high school in Hawaii. The Twins were interested in moving Wong to the infield, which would raise his value. “Mike called me and said, ‘D.J., this guy is going to be able to play second base for sure. Good hands, great action, good attitude. Awesome,’ ” Johnson said. “So we sent our area scout, Dan Cox, to a tournament in Michigan, and he said, ‘Something’s wrong. They’re avoiding me. I can’t get him.’ We lost him, and that one hurt, because our scouts had gotten close to the family.”
Wong attended college at Hawaii instead, and in 2011 he signed for $1.3 million with the Cardinals as the 22nd overall pick.
‘A tough sign’
While the Twins believed they could lure Wong into turning pro, they understood when they took Springer that the Connecticut native and UConn recruit probably wasn’t going to sign. But there was an extra element to their decision to draft the future Astros star anyway.
“I got the [scouting director] job in the fall of 2007, so I didn’t have time to see any of the East Coast prep guys. [Scout] John Wilson had filed a report on Springer, and loved his athleticism, but we knew he was a really tough sign,” Johnson said. “The family was from New Britain, where our Double-A team was. Terry Ryan knew George’s dad, because whenever he scouted New Britain, he was there and Terry got to know him.”
That relationship turned into a recommendation — but ultimately no signing.
“I met George and talked to him a little bit, but I never saw him play until he was in college a couple of years later,” Ryan said. “When he was in high school, I would sit with his dad and [New Britain Rock Cats owner] Bill Dowling. Bill one time said: ‘His kid is really good. He could be a pro.’ I didn’t know much about him, but our scouts did. So they took him, but he went to college.”
It worked out for Springer, if not the Twins. The Astros took him 11th overall three summers later, and paid him a $2.525 million bonus to sign.
“Every scout has a story like that. You can’t sign everybody, as much as you’d like to,” Johnson said. “Scouts are paid to see the future. And that’s not easy to do.”