Reimagining the 1987 draft (Part 1)

With the recent retirement of Ken Griffey Jr., the first pick overall in the 1987 draft, I thought it might be fun to reimagine that draft—well, the first round—with the benefit of hindsight. In other words, now that we know who turned out to be good, what if teams had picked players in descending order of their eventual big-league success?

First off, that would be frightening on many levels. Second, since we’re playing make-believe, we need to lay out a few assumptions:
{exp:list_maker}Assumption 1: WAR is the best way to determine a player’s value. We’re using WAR because it is both a good metric and easy to find when examining drafts at Baseball-Reference.
Assumption 2: A player spends his entire career with the team that drafted him. This is ridiculous, of course, but so is the entire exercise of reimagining a draft in light of what we know 23 years after the fact. I can live with that.
Assumption 3: Every player drafted signs with his team. Some of these guys didn’t (and wouldn’t, which is why they slipped in the actual draft) sign out of high school. For our purposes, we’re pretending that, e.g., the promise of a Stanford education holds no value and that every kid wants to play pro ball right now.
Assumption 4: A player performs at the same level he actually did. There is no regard for potential changes in development, ballpark, etc. We’re working with the real statistics these guys compiled in their careers. {/exp:list_maker}Now that we’ve established some guidelines, let’s start the draft.

1. Seattle Mariners

Actual pick: Ken Griffey Jr., OF, Moeller HS (Cincinnati, Ohio), 79.3 WAR
Revised pick: Griffey

This was a no-brainer. The right pick at the time turned out to be the right pick, period. The only question was whether Seattle owner George Argyos would drop down the necessary cash to complete the deal. Argyos did and, to put it mildly, was handsomely rewarded for the decision.

Griffey hit 630 homers in his 22-year big-league career, won the American League MVP while with the Mariners in ’97, and generally speaking was the player of the 1990s. No regrets here, nothing to change. The Mariners drafted a future Hall-of-Famer; what’s not to like?

2. Pittsburgh Pirates

Actual pick: Mark Merchant, OF, Oviedo HS (Oviedo, Fla.), N/A
Revised pick: Mike Mussina, RHP, Montoursville HS (Montoursville, Pa.), 74.6 WAR

The Pirates followed with a high school outfielder of their own. This one didn’t work out so well. In fact, by 1990, Merchant had joined Griffey in the Mariners organization. Here’s a quick comparison of the two that year:

Player   Level  PA   BA  OBP  SLG
Griffey  MLB   666 .300 .366 .481
Merchant A+/AA 295 .233 .322 .310

Given a second shot in our alternate reality, the Pirates tab Mussina. In actuality, Mussina slipped to the Baltimore Orioles in the 11th round because of a commitment to Stanford. The Orioles couldn’t sign him, he honored that commitment, and Baltimore drafted him again (in the first round) three years later.

There’s no reason to believe that Mussina would have signed with the Pirates, but can you imagine a team anchored by him and Barry Bonds? (Add to that the possibility of their taking Kevin Brown, Gary Sheffield, or Matt Williams with the first overall pick in 1986 instead of Jeff King, and the mind boggles.) It’s interesting to think of how those ’91 and ’92 seasons might have played out for the Pirates had they had Mussina in their rotation instead of guys like Bob Walk and Danny Jackson. Maybe they bring a championship to Pittsburgh. Maybe Bonds doesn’t leave.

But it didn’t happen. Mussina went on to win 270 games for the Orioles and Yankees before retiring in 2008. He notched 20 wins that year, becoming the first pitcher since Sandy Koufax in 1966 to walk away as a 20-game winner. Among Mussina’s most comparable pitchers are Hall-of-Famers Juan Marichal and Jim Palmer. The kid from Montoursville, about four hours east of Pittsburgh, likely will follow in their footsteps, although not as a member of the Pirates that might have been.

3. Minnesota Twins

Actual pick: Willie Banks, RHP, St. Anthony’s HS (Jersey City, N.J.), -0.4 WAR
Revised pick: Craig Biggio, C, Seton Hall U. (South Orange, N.J.), 66.2 WAR

The Twins had the right idea, but missed by about 11 miles. Just down Route 510 from where Banks dazzled scouts with his fastball, Biggio was catching less accomplished pitchers. Had the Twins taken Biggio, he might never have gotten out from behind the dish and become a (probable) Hall-of-Fame second baseman.

Biggio shot through the minors and made his big-league debut in 1988. He was Houston’s starting catcher from then through 1991 (although he saw some action in center field in 1990) before making the remarkable shift to second base and blossoming into one of the most dangerous leadoff men of his generation.

The Twins, meanwhile, had a second base prospect in their system named Chuck Knoblauch. In 1991, he took over the position occupied by veteran Al Newman and won AL Rookie of the Year honors. It’s not like Biggio was going to move Knoblauch off the position.

That leaves Biggio at catcher, which has another fascinating ramification. If Biggio comes up with Minnesota at the same time he actually came up with Houston (June 26, 1988), it’s quite possible that Brian Harper‘s career never happens.

Harper, then 28, signed with the Twins before the ’88 season and was assigned to Triple-A Portland, where he hit .353 with 13 homers in 46 games. He joined the big club toward the end of May that year and quickly established himself as the starting catcher, a job he would retain through 1993.

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Harper wasn’t a great player, but he had a nice six-year run for the Twins. In our world, with Biggio still behind the dish because of Knoblauch’s presence at second base, Harper doesn’t get his second shot.

And what impact might Biggio have had on the ’91 championship Twins? Not much. Here’s how his numbers that year stack up against those of the man he would have replaced:

Player  PA   BA  OBP  SLG OPS+
Biggio 609 .295 .358 .374 113
Harper 469 .311 .336 .447 111

Of course, Biggio would have himself a ring… and a shorter career (or at least one that more closely resembles that of Jason Kendall than Ryne Sandberg).

4. Chicago Cubs

Actual pick: Mike Harkey, RHP, Cal State Fullerton (Fullerton, Calif.), 5.1 WAR
Revised pick: Kevin Appier, RHP, Antelope Valley College (Lancaster, Calif.), 49.9 WAR

Once again, the team was in the right general area (within 58 miles) but missed the mark. Harkey had talent—he won 12 games in 1990 and finished fifth in National League Rookie of the Year voting—but couldn’t stay healthy. He never came close to duplicating his initial success and pitched his last big-league game at age 30, becoming another in a line of forgettable pitchers that includes Francisco Barrios and Roy Smith before him, and Garrett Stephenson after him.

Appier, meanwhile, also won 12 games as a rookie in 1990 (good enough for third in AL ROY voting) but went on to become one of the most durable pitchers in baseball over the next several years, ranking eighth in innings pitched from 1990 to 1997. Although he was not the same pitcher after missing almost all of 1998 due to shoulder problems, Appier managed to coax five more semi-productive seasons out of his right arm before retiring in 2004 with 169 big-league wins under his belt.

People forget how good Appier was. He pitched at a very high level for a few years, and in the end, his career resembles that of a poor-man’s Dave Stieb or David Cone. That said, it’s difficult to imagine Appier having much of a meaningful impact on the Cubs. During his best years, they finished no higher than third in their division and had a combined winning percentage of .474. By the time the Cubs were finally ready to contend, Appier had blown out his arm.

5. Chicago White Sox

Actual pick: Jack McDowell, RHP, Stanford U. (Stanford, CA), 26.8 WAR
Revised pick: Steve Finley, OF, Southern Illinois U. (Carbondale, Ill.), 40.5 WAR

We can’t call this pick a mistake. McDowell was a fantastic pitcher who won the AL Cy Young Award in 1993, a year after finishing second to Dennis Eckersley. However, McDowell logged a ton of innings early in his career and effectively was done by age 29. Aside from the fact that Stickfigure may never have formed, what other impact would the White Sox passing on McDowell in favor of Finley have had?

Well, the 1993 and 1998 World Series might have looked a little different. Finley, who in the real draft wasn’t taken until the 13th round by the Baltimore Orioles, later became a part of a few trades that altered the course of more than one organization.

In January 1991, the Orioles shipped him, Pete Harnisch and Curt Schilling to Houston for Glenn Davis. In April 1992, the Astros sent Schilling to Philadelphia for Jason Grimsley (oops); in December 1994, they sent Finley, Ken Caminiti and change to San Diego for Derek Bell (who makes an appearance in part 4 of the current series) and a boatload of nothing (double oops).

Without Schilling and his 16 wins in ’93, the Phillies might not have held off the Montreal Expos, who finished three games out of first place that year. Without Caminiti and Finley, the ’98 Padres might have been able to win the NL West (they won by 9.5 games in a down year for Finley), but making it past Atlanta in the NLCS would have been difficult.

Finley, for his part, probably wouldn’t have helped the White Sox much. A late bloomer whose career was just getting started as McDowell’s was on its final legs, Finley is one of those freaks who produced more in his thirties (.277/.343/.482, 111 OPS+) than in his 20s (.274/.324/.386, 100 OPS+). He wouldn’t have made as much of an impact on the ’93 playoff team as McDowell did.

Actually, if the White Sox stuck with Finley long enough, he could have helped in 2000. Even at age 35, he would have represented a significant upgrade over the White Sox’s real-world center fielder, Chris Singleton:

Player     PA   BA  OBP  SLG OPS+
Finley    623 .280 .361 .544 120
Singleton 563 .254 .301 .382  71

Then again, the White Sox got swept in the ALDS by Seattle that year. It’s unlikely that Finley’s presence would have changed the outcome.

6. Atlanta Braves

Actual pick: Derek Lilliquist, LHP, U. of Georgia (Athens, Ga.), 4.0 WAR
Revised pick: Reggie Sanders, SS, Spartanburg Methodist College (Spartanburg, S.C.), 38.4 WAR

Sometimes the Braves’ infatuation with local talent serves them well (Adam Wainwright, Jason Heyward). Other times, not so much (Macay McBride, Jeff Francoeur). Put Lilliquist into the latter category. After a year and a half of middling success in the Atlanta rotation, Lilliquist bounced around the league and eventually enjoyed marginal success as a reliever for the Indians in the early-’90s. It didn’t last, though, and he was done by age 30.

Sanders was a disaster at shortstop (42 errors in 77 games at Greensboro in 1989) but had abundant tools and came from a part of the country the Braves liked to tap (from 1980 to 1984, they drafted six players from Sanders’ alma mater, although none reached the big leagues). Sanders could have helped the Braves somewhat, but considering that they dominated the NL during his most productive years, it’s hard to say how much.

Sanders’ best year came in 1995, when Atlanta won it all. The Braves clearly didn’t need him then. Maybe Sanders could have helped in ’92, when the entire team stopped hitting just in time for the World Series. Sanders might have made a difference in the ’96 Series, when the Braves ran Jermaine Dye out to right field and he went 2-for-17 against the Yankees. The next year, Michael Tucker went 1-for-10 against Florida in an NLCS loss. Sanders had a down year in ’98, and besides Tucker enjoyed a great NLCS against the Padres.

In ’99, it was Brian Jordan slumping (1-for-13) in the World Series, but again, the entire team slumped against the Yankees and got swept. The following year, Sanders actually did play for Atlanta and suffered through the worst season of his career (.232/.302/.403, 76 OPS+). He went 0-for-9 in the NLDS, as the Braves were swept by St. Louis. I could go on (and I already have), but the point is that although Sanders would have made the Braves better than they were with Lilliquist, it’s far from certain that he would have made enough of a difference to affect their legacy in the Bobby Cox era.

7. Baltimore Orioles

Actual pick: Chris Myers, LHP, Plant HS (Tampa, Fla.), N/A
Revised pick: Ray Lankford, OF, Modesto JC (Modesto, Calif.), 38.4 WAR

I originally had Lankford going to Atlanta, with Sanders slipping to the Orioles. Since both players ended up with identical career WAR totals, I gave the guy who got picked first in real life the nod (Lankford went in the third round, Sanders in the seventh). Then I decided that, given Sanders’ geographical compatibility and the fact that the Braves had a much more pressing need at shortstop (where 23-year-old Andres Thomas was hitting .231/.268/.312, 51 OPS+) than in center field (where 24-year-old Dion James was hitting .312/.397/.472, 126 OPS+), it made more sense to flip the two.

Whichever of the two Baltimore ended up with would have represented a huge improvement over who they actually drafted. Myers reached Triple-A but never did much there. The best he can claim is to have been teammates with Mussina, Finley, and Harnisch (who appears in part 3 of our series).

In real life, when Lankford arrived in St. Louis in 1990, he caddied for Willie McGee briefly before taking over center field duties the following year. In Baltimore, the then-23-year-old Lankford would have been stuck behind 27-year-old Mike Devereaux and 26-year-old Brady Anderson (but not 25-year-old Finley, who played 44 games in center for the real Orioles but who is with the White Sox in our altered reality).

The Orioles didn’t do much of consequence during the period they would have had Lankford. Their only two good seasons came in 1996 and 1997, when Anderson went berserk. Lankford was terrific those years, but would his addition really have meant the difference between winning and losing the ALCS in each? Here’s how both players did over that two-year stretch:

Player     PA   BA  OBP  SLG OPS+
Anderson 1383 .293 .395 .553 142
Lankford 1200 .284 .387 .532 140

I guess Lankford could have played left field over Jeffrey Hammonds (.226/.301/.383, 72 OPS+) in 1996 or replaced Geronimo Berroa (.260/.347/.403, 98 OPS+) at DH the following year. Then again, maybe the Orioles would have traded Lankford and change to Houston for Glenn Davis.

8. Los Angeles Dodgers

Actual pick: Dan Opperman, RHP, Valley HS (Las Vegas, Nev.), N/A
Revised pick: Albert Belle, OF, Louisiana State U. (Baton Rouge, La.), 37.4 WAR

Drafted out of the same high school that produced Mike Morgan (en route to 17 losses for the Mariners that year) and Greg Maddux (then taking his lumps as a rookie for the Cubs), Opperman never reached the big leagues. He worked a tick over 300 innings in his minor-league career before retiring at age 23. Apparently there had been concerns about Opperman’s elbow before the draft and the situation deteriorated from there.

Belle slipped to the second round. After a couple false starts, he made an impact with the Indians in 1991, hitting .282/.323/.540 (134 OPS+). Had he done that in Los Angeles, it might have made a difference.

The Dodgers went 93-69 that year, finishing one game behind Atlanta in the NL West. The Dodgers started Kal Daniels in left field; his WAR was 1.0. Belle’s WAR in 1991 was 2.2. It is possible that Belle’s presence might have been enough to lead the Dodgers past Atlanta and push them into the NLCS against Mussina’s Pirates.

With Belle, the Dodgers almost certainly win the NL West in ’96. Todd Hollandsworth enjoyed a fine rookie campaign, but there is no comparison between him and Belle that year:

Player         PA   BA  OBP  SLG OPS+
Belle         715 .311 .410 .623 158
Hollandsworth 526 .291 .348 .437 113

Add in the fact that the Padres don’t have Caminiti (who won NL MVP that year) or Finley, and it’s looking good for LA. How well the Dodgers would have done in the postseason is another story altogether. They hit just .147/.204/.221 while being swept by Atlanta, and Hollandsworth is the only guy who contributed anything on offense.

Of course, if the Dodgers had drafted Belle, this would have affected another organization as well, although perhaps not as much as you might think. The Indians produced some terrific young talent in the early-’90s (Belle, Kenny Lofton, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome), and although they would have taken a talent hit without Belle, they also ran away with the AL Central in 1995 (finishing 30 games ahead of the White Sox) and 1996 (winning by 14.5). After the ’96 campaign, Belle signed with the White Sox, who—you guessed it—finished second to Cleveland.

* * *

Next time, we’ll examine picks 9 through 16. With Appier off the board, who do the Royals take? Can the Orioles draft someone useful with their second first-round pick? Stay tuned…

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Very insightful.  Ray Lankford was a favorite of mine, really doesn’t get the credit he deserves.  Didn’t have a long career and his peak was pretty short, but when he was on, he was one of better OF’s in the game.

Jacob Rothberg
Jacob Rothberg

this is great, but do you think you could post the original slot that the ‘revised’ player was taken in?

Don W
Don W

I get using WAR to make the picks but shouldn’t you factor in the number of years it took for the player to accumulate their career WAR?

I’d much rather have Albert Belle and his WAR over a shorter career than Lankford, Sanders and Finley.  I might even take him over Appier as well.

John C
John C
I think Biggio would have changed positions regardless of who drafted him. The reason for the switch was that: 1) Biggio had impressive speed, which he would have lost quickly had he continued to catch; and 2) he wasn’t all that good of a defensive catcher that his glove would be missed any behind the plate. Any good organization would have seen that Biggio’s impressive and broad-based skills would be better served at a different position. And if the Twins had been in the position of having Biggio and Brian Harper in their organization at that time, I believe they… Read more »
Geoff Young
Geoff Young
@Jacob: That is an excellent idea. I will make sure to work the original slot into the next installment. Thanks! @Don: Yes, that would be another way to “reimagine” the draft. It’s the usual peak vs career argument. On the one hand, as you note, Belle’s peak is monstrous (from 1991 to 1999, only Lankford’s 35 WAR comes close to Belle’s 37 over the same period). On the other, guys like Finley and Sanders provided value for several years after Belle had retired. A lot depends on our Assumption 2, i.e., that the player will spend his entire career with… Read more »