“Fantasy draft”:  1969 edition

Some time ago, I looked at the original expansion years in the major leagues through a peculiar lens, asking how the new teams would have fared with the players they had drafted playing at their career peaks. That view showed us one juggernaut (the Angels), two strong teams (the Senators and Colt .45s), and one failure (inevitably, the Mets).

Playing off that idea, a couple weeks ago I undertook a similar examination of some of history’s worst baseball teams, reimagining them with their players at their all-time heights. All, including the woebegone 1899 Spiders, ended up with good winning records or better. It was the 1916 Philadelphia A’s, in the second year of Connie Mack‘s original sell-off, that actually underperformed the Spiders in that scenario.

That was a fantastical spin on what was already a rather fantastic notion, so this time I’m returning a little closer to reality. I’m going to put the expansion class of 1969—the San Diego Padres, Montreal Expos, Kansas City Royals and Seattle Pilots (which would become the Milwaukee Brewers a season later)—through the same “what-if” scenario. They’ll be getting their drafted players, not as used-up veterans or doubtful youngsters, but in the primes of their careers.

How great will those teams be? And with the benefit of hindsight, having seen what worked and what didn’t, will they do better than their predecessors in the early 1960s?

Rules of the game

When I set forth ground rules for the original 1961-62 version of this article, I did so in full realization that the draft classes being taken up by the teams were not, by themselves, going to stock those teams for their inaugural years. The 1962 draft did not even give the New York Mets and Houston Colt .45s a full 25-man roster each. The AL draft in ’61 gave away more players, but was such a scrambling ad-hoc affair that it wouldn’t have been remotely fair to found a baseball team solely on that product.

The 1969 expansion drafts—and they were separate drafts, entries in each league selecting players only from that league—built on the experience gained (read: mistakes made) in the earlier expansions. There weren’t separate stages for different position categories (pitcher, infielder, etc.) as was done in 1961; there weren’t price tags put on each draft slot, with the option to pay extra for “premium” picks, as happened in 1962.

This greater sophistication led to the possibility that a new team could have stocked itself fully from its expansion cohort, at least to open the season. This meant I might want to change the rules for how to handle over-fulfillment at some positions and under-fulfillment at others. It turned out, though, that the incoming teams definitely were not thinking along lines of being self-sufficient from the draft. They could go in heavily on one area, and leave another nearly bare.

One good example is the San Diego Padres. Out of their 30 selections, they took eight players listed as outfielders, four listed as shortstops, but only one pick, Fred Kendall, listed as a catcher. A second pick, Ron Slocum, was considered an infielder/catcher, but he didn’t play an inning behind the plate in 1969. Kendall logged only 28 plate appearances with the Padres that year. They got the bulk of their catching duty from, ironically, original 1962 New York Mets draftee Chris Cannizzaro, whom they got in a preseason trade.

The Padres didn’t draft a third baseman at all. Two of their four shortstops did limited duty there, but the starter was Ed Spiezio, gotten as part of a trade package from St. Louis. The Cardinals sent over Spiezio and three other players to get back pitcher Dave Giusti, drafted away by San Diego.

There are further examples with other teams, but this shows that the new franchises depended on more than their draft classes to fill out their Opening Day squads. This established, I decided to stay mostly with the scenario rules I composed for my look at the ’61-’62 drafts. I’ll restate them here, though in less detail: you can consult the original article for the fine print. I did carry over a few changes from the rule set I used in the all-time futility survey, which I’ll note.

I will tally up how much value (measured by bWAR) the drafted players produced in the expansion years, then how much they produced in their best individual years, and finally in their best three-year stretches. If a player’s best single season had a negative WAR value, I counted that rather than some 0 PA/0 WAR years when they weren’t in the majors. For three-year periods, I would consider years out of the majors as part of the string only if they played major league ball both before and after that time.

As I did last article, I took league-wide averages of plate appearances and innings pitched to come up with the numbers that I set as targets for the expansion clubs to reach. I also took average numbers of pinch-hitting appearances, figuring an approximate split between pitchers and position players replaced, so I could both spread out some surplus PAs and lower the target PAs for low-offense positions. (Not always the standard ones: you won’t be pinch-hitting often for peak-value Maury Wills at shortstop, for example.)

Players are credited for playing value whether or not playing for the teams that drafted them. So Dave Giusti would count for the Padres, despite having been sent back to St. Louis, but Ed Spiezio, not having been drafted by them, would not. When this leads to too many plate appearances piling up at a position, I adjust the PAs and WAR down in proportion, taking bigger chunks from the worse players, until reaching the expected number of PAs. When a player handled multiple positions, I sometimes used that flexibility to slide PAs and WAR over to an under-served position.

For positions with not enough plate appearances to fill out the season, even counting part-timers and pinch-hitters, replacement-level placeholders got the remainder of the playing time. Even more so than with my original article, I am skeptical that replacement-level players were as freely available as they are assumed to be. (You’ll see some charts soon that demonstrate the point.) However, I went with this assumption the first time, so to keep the comparison as unbiased as possible, I will make it again.

One new twist imported from the all-time futility survey is that I tried to balance not only innings pitched but games started with the pitching staffs. A roster with six full-time starters who started 200 games total is as unrealistic as one with a passel of spot-starters getting the total up to just 120. I juggled to get both to match up, which sometimes meant having to add in some replacement-level innings, either starting or relieving.

The draft class of 1969

Though the drafts were segregated by league, the AL and NL used effectively the same rules. The main change from the early ’60s was in who was exposed to and protected from drafting. The first time around, teams had to make seven active-roster players available, along with eight others from the 40-man roster. For 1969, each established team could protect 15 players on the 40-man roster at the start, plus three more after each round.

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The two expansion clubs in each league alternated picks, in somewhat differing orders. In each set of 10 picks, one player from each existing team had to be selected, after which the extant teams could protect an added three players. Six rounds of picks constituted the draft, giving the new teams 30 players apiece.

The requirement to take a player from each team before going back for seconds made it painfully apparent which existing franchises were considered the weak sisters of their leagues. In the American League, the last-place Washington Senators had their players picked last in five of the six rounds, and second-to-last to the tied-for eighth White Sox in the remaining one. In the National League, the anchorman in the first three rounds was the eighth-place Dodgers, giving way to Mets-Pirates-Mets in the later rounds.

The ndew teams’ judgment of the league’s doormats left something to be desired. The 1969 Senators, under Ted Williams, would leap to their only winning season before the move to Texas. All three tail-enders in the NL draft, the Dodgers, Pirates and Mets, also finished their seasons above .500, with the Mets amazin’ the world and winning it all.

Despite the example I made of Giusti, the San Diego Padres didn’t trade away much of their draft class. Only Giusti and Zoilo Versalles, one of the four shortstops they picked, got swapped before their first game. Neither trade panned out.

The Versalles move got them Bill Davis, who had a .481 OPS for them in 31 games, the last he’d have in the majors. Trading Giusti brought over Spiezio as noted, plus Ron Davis, whom they packaged into a further trade that brought in Cannizzaro and Tommie Sisk, who had a 2-13 record for San Diego in 1969. The two combined gave San Diego 0.0 bWAR in 1969. Add in two other players, who never played for the Padres, and San Diego got effectively nothing for Giusti, who had many years of effective work ahead. (Cannizzaro did have a pretty good 1970 in San D., but that was it.)

So San Diego was building mainly from the draft class, which did put up a total of 16.3 bWAR in 1969, for either the Padres or other teams. Trades, purchases, and other acquisitions should have added value, but the Versalles and Giusti deals were an ill harbinger. Team WAR for the season comes out at just 6.1 bWAR, meaning the team managed to lose 10.2 wins to replacement level with its non-draft moves. Just one of the four earlier expansion clubs managed to lose WAR in this category (not the Mets, the Colt .45s), and not nearly on this disastrous scale.

The real-life Padres ended their inaugural season at 52-110, which managed to beat their Pythagorean projection of 48-114 by four games. As replacement level is set at a .294 winning percentage, a 0-WAR team would be expected to finish right there at 48-114 (rounded up from 47.6-114.4). Their actual 6.1 WAR (1.8 batting, 4.3 pitching) would have put them at 54-108, which they underperformed even while beating Pythagoras.

The Montreal Expos were somewhat more active trading their draftees. Before the season began, they packaged Jesus Alou and Donn Clendenon to send to Houston, but Clendenon refused to report to the Astros. Montreal had to send over Jack Billingham, Skip Guinn, and $100,000 cash in his place. It was worth it: their return was Rusty Staub, Le Grand Orange himself, the heart and soul of the early Expos and still beloved among long-time Montreal fans.

Their other draft-class move was less historic. In early June, Montreal traded Maury Wills and Manny Mota to the Dodgers for Ron Fairly and Paul Popovich. They immediately flipped Popovich to the Cubs for Jack Lamabe, who was through, and Adolfo Phillips, who treaded water at 0.0 WAR for the Expos that season. Wills and Mota, who had been struggling, woke up and did much better for L.A., Mota notably in the long term as a pinch-hitting specialist. Ron Fairly, however, did fairly well in 1969 and better in years to come, so Montreal eventually came out ahead.

The Expos’ moves are reflected in the stats. Their draft class produced 7.1 bWAR in 1969, while the team overall posted 13.7 bWAR, the gain spread fairly evenly between pitching and position play. That still doesn’t make a good team, however. Their WAR projects to a 61-101 season; their Pythagorean performance came in at 59-103, while the team itself flailed to a tie with San Diego at 52-110. The Expos drafted worse than the Padres, traded better, then undershot on the field.

Between the two expansion clubs, they managed to warp the entire National League standings. Out of 12 NL teams, only those two and the Phillies finished with losing records. Houston came in even, and everybody else was over .500: eight winners to three losers. It was a virtual rerun of 1962, when New York and Houston were two of the only three teams in the National League without a winning record. The AL expansion clubs in 1969 wreaked no such distortions on the standings.

The Seattle Pilots were busiest of the expansion quartet on the trade front. Preseason, they traded early pick Chico Salmon to Baltimore for pitcher Gene Brabender and shortstop Gordy Lund. Salmon ended up a utility infielder for the Orioles’ 1969-71 mini-dynasty, but was just replacement level overall. Brabender had a decent 1969 but a bad 1970, and Lund made little impression. The move was a slight short-term win for Seattle, but an overall wash.

Another draftee trade, at the end of April, sent pitcher Gerry Schoen and third baseman Mike Ferraro to, again, Baltimore. Two of the three players Seattle got back never played in the bigs for the Pilots, but hurler John O’Donoghue had a nice 1.7 bWAR in relief for them in ’69. He’d fizzle out after that, but ’69 alone, plus the lack of production that Schoen and Ferraro managed, made it a good move for Seattle.

The biggest move, however, the Pilots made with their companions in expansion, the Royals. They traded away Lou Piniella, drafted from the Indians, in exchange for outfielder Steve Whitaker and pitcher John Gelnar. Whitaker didn’t do much, and though Gelnar had a good 1969 in swing duty, he soon faded away. I’ll note Piniella’s ups and downs in the Royals section, but suffice now to say that the trade was a slight loss for Seattle.

The draft class produced 10.8 bWAR for the 1969 Pilots. Trades and other moves added a subsequent 6.8 bWAR, all in the pitching department. (Actually, more than 100 percent was pitching: batting went a bit retrograde.) WAR projected a 65-97 mark for them, which matched their Pythagorean projection, and was one win clear of the 64-98 they actually posted. I’ll take neat numbers like that whenever I can get them.

The Kansas City Royals almost duplicated that neatness. Their players in 1969 put up a combined 23.3 bWAR, 15.3 for pitching and an even 8.0 for batting. That pointed to a 71-91 record, but they finished 69-93 instead, matching their Pythagorean numbers. It could have been better, though: the draft cohort produced 24.8 bWAR in 1969, meaning K.C.’s other moves cost the team a win and a half.

This presumably came through filling in the bench with players who ended up sub-replacement, because their trades went all right. One that might look bad to us today was sending off drafted knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm to the California Angels for utility man Ed Kirkpatrick and catcher Dennis Paepke. Wilhelm, though, was getting old, and though he produced, it wasn’t at his old level. Kirkpatrick, for his part, put up 3.1 bWAR in 1969, and over six more in four future years with Kansas City. Despite Paepke’s sub-zero production, Kirkpatrick’s good work made it a plus trade for the Royals, short and long-term.

And then there was Piniella. A two-WAR 1969 earned him Rookie of the Year honors, but then the roller coaster started. He slumped for 1970 and 1971, bounced back to a 3.5 WAR campaign in ’72, then crashed to a stunning -3.1 WAR in 1973. This got him shuffled over to the Yankees, where the coaster kept rolling. He produced more for the Royals than they gave up for him, and his award win helped legitimize the team, but it isn’t nearly as lopsided a trade as our memory of the names involved would suggest.

Judging the talent

By the nature of an expansion draft, we expect the best players to get scooped up in early rounds, with the lesser lights taken later on. With the data I had on hand, I decided to test how well this held up in the actual drafts.

I charted the drafts of all four 1969 expansion franchises, by how well each selected player performed in 1969. This is not a perfect method, as some players were surely chosen for future promise rather than present value, but it’s the best method available. I added trend lines on each chart, and noted the coefficient of determination (r-squared), showing how strong the relationship is between draft round and the performance of the player selected in that round.

A special incident must be noted for the Expos. With their 12th pick, they selected pitcher Larry Jackson from the Phillies, but Jackson chose to retire rather than play for Montreal. Philadelphia ended up sending shortstop Bobby Wine to the Expos in compensation. It is Wine’s stats that occupy Jackson’s place, and since they are all inferior to Jackson’s, I think this fair. Signability is always a factor in today’s drafts, and it should have been then also, so Montreal is paying a just penalty.

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The draft turned out to be close to a crapshoot for the incoming teams. The Padres’ leading r-squared figure still meant only a relatively low relationship between draft round and player quality, and observe how their best 1969 player came in the latter half of the draft. For the Pilots and especially the Expos, there was effectively no statistical relationship.

The Pilots also had their best performer arrive in the second half of the draft, and for three of the four clubs, their worst draftee performance came from the first half. The latter may be explainable as due to higher expectations leading a manager to leave a substandard player in the lineup longer, waiting for him to come around.

Overall, though, it strikes us as being only a moderate improvement from throwing darts at a roster. And if it was this bad then, how bad was it in the earlier drafts of 1961 and ’62? Well, I’m glad you asked.

For added comparison, I worked out charts showing the same values for the National League expansion draft of 1962. I’ve left out the AL draft in 1961 because it doesn’t allow a proper comparison. Remember, the Angels and Senators were locked into selecting players by position: pitchers, then catchers, then infielders, then outfielders. I’ve given the 1962 teams the same horizontal scale (note how many fewer players the older teams got to draft), but the vertical scale has to change due to more extreme bWAR peaks and valleys.

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Not only was it just shy of random, but for the Colt .45s, the correlation that exists shows their players getting better the later they were drafted. Eddie Bressoud was a good first pick (traded before the season), but Turk Farrell in the 21st slot was a gold strike, skewing the line strongly. (Also note how few of the Colts’ selections had negative WARs in 1962, compared to everyone else.)

The differences likely are due to draft structures. In 1961 and 1962, the pool of eligible players remained the same throughout the draft. In 1969, extant teams could withdraw more players with each passing round, causing the talent pool, deeper at the start, to dry up faster. The incoming 1969 clubs were competing both against their expansion mates and the established teams to snap up the best players before they were gone.

Not that they always succeeded. In the American League draft, the Baltimore Orioles dangled a bit of sucker bait: a previously-successful young pitcher whose pitching shoulder had gone sore in 1967, who pitched only in the minors in 1968 and not successfully. Sources disagree as to whether the Orioles finally protected him after two rounds, or left him exposed for the whole draft. Whichever is true, neither the Royals nor the Pilots took a chance on Jim Palmer.

The learning curve for expansion drafts was still steep in 1969. Now to give them a rocket boost up that curve.

As good as it gets

So how would these teams have done, playing their draftees at their career peaks? We’ll start with the single-season case, which gives us a pretty tight bunch at the top plus one laggard. As in the original installment, I took the difference between a team’s real-life WAR and its draftees’ best-year WAR, adding it to their real-life win total to project a best-case record.

Team     Tm. WAR  Tm. Record  Best Yr. WAR  Best Yr. Record  Players w/5+ WAR (Best/1969)
Royals     23.3     69-93         66.4          112-50             3/0
Pilots     17.6     64-98         62.8          109-53             3/0
Padres      6.1     52-110        63.8          110-52             6/0
Expos      13.7     52-110        53.7           92-70             2/0

Either the Royals or the Pilots would have had the best record in the American League that season, Seattle by dint of presumably getting at least one extra win against the likewise 109-53 Baltimore Orioles. This was the first year of divisional play, and both teams were placed in the American League West, so their closest competition for a playoff berth would have been the 97-65 Minnesota Twins. Obviously, either one would get through if they weren’t competing with each other. (If they were, Seattle might have been the hardest-luck second-place baseball team ever.)

The Padres would also have blown away the NL competition, but Montreal would have been the odd club out. Static scoring puts them eight games behind the Mets in the NL East, so to have a shot at playoff baseball, at least eight of the Expos’ added wins would have needed to come at New York’s expense. Given an even distribution of added wins, they could have expected four, maybe five. Fantasy must bow to miracle.

I again toted up how many drafted players on each team ever achieved a five-WAR season. There were 14 among the four clubs, the same as for the first wave of expansion, but none of them had those great years in the actual expansion year. (The Angels and Colts managed one apiece in their time.) The Padres had the most such players, despite which they ended up the weakest of their expansion cohort, the last of the four to the 70-win mark that denoted some true respectability.

The other best-case scenario, using the three-year peaks of the drafted players, predictably has much less eye-popping results. There is still some success to go around for all four teams: nobody left out in the cold like the Mets were the last time.

Team/Yr.    Tm. WAR  Tm. Record  "Best" WAR  "Best" Record
Royals '69    23.3     69-93        53.3         99-63
Royals '70    22.1     65-97        39.3         82-80
Royals '71    35.3     85-76        41.8       91.5-69.5

Pilots '69    17.6     64-98        50.5         97-65
Brewers '70   21.0     65-97        24.1         68-94
Brewers '71   25.4     69-92        35.7         79-82  

Padres '69     6.1     52-110       41.1         87-75
Padres '70    23.1     63-99        30.3         70-92
Padres '71    25.4     61-100       46.5         82-79
Expos '69     13.7     52-110       27.6         66-96
Expos '70     20.3     73-89        32.4         85-77  
Expos '71     19.6     71-90        33.9         85-76

The Royals would still pull out an inaugural division title, and presuming that one of the Pilots’ many added wins came from the Twins, so would Seattle. Kansas City would maintain a winning record its first three seasons, a mark matched only by the Angels in the earlier best-case examination. Oakland was too far ahead in 1971 for the Royals to have challenged for the divisional crown, even if I had rounded up.

Even with their discouraging real-life starts, both NL entries would have mustered two winning seasons in their first three. All the teams had at least one, avoiding the fate of the “fantasy” Mets who couldn’t even get to 70 wins. The class of ’69 beats its forebears by the three-year measure, though it is the outlying case of the Mets that is decisive in that result.

In conclusion

At first glance, the 1969 expansion draft structure looked kinder to that year’s incoming teams than those of 1961-62. In practice, 1969’s entries did a bit worse in near-term performance with their selections. Combined with other front-office moves, this left the new teams of 1969 with almost the same cumulative record as the original expansion four.

The spread of one-year best-case records had much less correspondence to actual performance than the early ’60s teams did, though the worst “fantasy” team, the Expos, was also tied for the worst actual record. The three-year projections did support Kansas City’s claim to be at the head of its expansion class, and to place both AL entries ahead of their NL cousins.

Giving this massive advantage to these teams does get most of them into historically great territory, but none of them approach what the “fantasy” Los Angeles Angels managed with the same head start, beginning with a 120-41 single-year mark. This comparison emphasizes just how good a job the Angels did with their draft, eight days into their existence. Owner Gene Autry’s point men, GM Fred Haney and manager Bill Rigney, did work that could rightly draw intensive study from any future expansion franchise—except those future teams would have so much more time in which to plot out their decisions, the situations would be too dissimilar to produce useful lessons.

The Los Angeles Angels of 1961 still hold the record for the best expansion-year record of any incoming team, at 70-91. If other clubs outperformed them in medium-term success—the quick titles by Florida and Arizona being the prime examples—one must remember than they had modern free agency with which to propel themselves to those heights. Given the differences in the business of baseball between eras, there’s still a case to be made for the Angels as the best expansion-team success story, even if it was one of the very first.

It’s a question I may revisit another time. There are still six expansion teams, in three separate phases, that I could give this unusual treatment. The Blue Jays and Mariners came just at the beginning of the free-agency era, while the other four arrived deep into it. It would be interesting to find what the before-and-after effects are, seen through this lens. So there may be one chapter left to come.

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A writer for The Hardball Times, Shane has been writing about baseball and science fiction since 1997. His stories have been translated into French, Russian and Japanese, and he was nominated for the 2002 Hugo Award.