- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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The Major League Baseball draft will take place Monday night in Secaucus, N.J. Barring a surprise of Loch Ness monster-sighting proportions -- or the San Diego Padres' decision to take Matt Bush with the first overall pick in 2004 -- the Washington Nationals will use the top choice to select College of Southern Nevada catcher Bryce Harper.
Harper was guaranteed to be the center of attention when he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 16 and christened "The LeBron James of Baseball." He left high school two years early to play junior college ball, hit 29 homers in a wood-bat league, and is now days away from beginning a new, exciting chapter in his life.
Harper is the focus of extraordinary attention as draft day approaches. But then, he's not the first. The buzz spreads more quickly these days thanks to Twitter, YouTube, countless draft blogs and extensive coverage by ESPN, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, MLB.com and other sources. But a select few players have the talent and cachet to make a splash regardless of the media landscape.
"As an industry, we have a tendency every year to take the top guy in the draft and make him 'the best player who ever lived,"' said Eddie Bane, scouting director for the Los Angeles Angels. "We do that every single year."
In this week's pre-draft edition of Starting 9, we assembled an All-Star panel and asked them, "Who were the most-hyped picks in draft history?" The group consisted of Bane, Chicago Cubs special assistant Gary Hughes, longtime baseball scout and executive Al Goldis, Baseball America editor Jim Callis and a pioneer of draft coverage and the man who founded Baseball America in 1981, Allan Simpson.
If there's a lesson to be drawn from the names on this most-hyped list, it's that hitters have a pretty good track record of living up to their billing. And pitchers? They bring to mind the advisory that comes with mutual fund brochures: Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.
RHP Stephen Strasburg, 2009
This one had all the elements for great pre-draft theater. The story began with the "soft," chunky kid who couldn't make it through early workouts at San Diego State without losing his lunch, then transformed himself into a lean, mean, triple-digit-fastball-throwing machine.
Strasburg was the only amateur player for Team USA at the 2008 Olympic Summer Games in Beijing. As a college junior, he posted a 13-1 record with a 1.32 ERA, struck out 195 batters in 119 innings, and whiffed 23 in a 1-0 victory over Utah despite a case of the flu. His strikeouts became a YouTube staple, and some autograph hounds who were fortunate enough to snag his signature rushed to turn it around on eBay.
Strasburg's coach, Tony Gwynn, raved about his work ethic and potential, and his adviser, Scott Boras, dropped Daisuke Matsuzaka's name into enough conversations with reporters that Dice-K's six-year, $52 million contract with Boston was frequently cited as a comparison in contract negotiations.
"Stephen Strasburg is the best amateur pitcher I've ever seen," Bane said, "and I think he did a great job of pulling the draft into prime time. I'm not just talking TV prime time. The draft was important last year because Stephen Strasburg headlined it."
The Nationals signed Strasburg to a record $15.1 million deal in August, and he's one more Triple-A start away from making his major league debut against Pittsburgh on June 8 in Washington. The Nationals are heralding Strasburg's debut with a "New Era 4-game flex plan" promotion, and seats are hard to find. If anything, the hype surrounding Strasburg has increased compared to this stage a year ago.
LHP Jim Abbott, 1988
"Everyone has limitations," Jim Abbott once said. "It's just that mine are different from most people's."
Abbott was born without a right hand, but that disability didn't prevent him from pursuing his baseball destiny. Toronto selected him in the 36th round of the 1985 draft, but Abbott, a Flint, Mich., native, chose to stay home and pitch for the Michigan Wolverines. He won the Golden Spikes and Sullivan awards, and posted a 26-8 record in three seasons in Ann Arbor. Abbott also pitched the U.S. to a gold medal in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and beat Cuba in the Pan American Games before a raucous crowd of 50,000 in Havana.
As the draft approached, Abbott's future was the focus of great curiosity within and beyond baseball. Although scouts loved Abbott's determination, poise and left arm, some questioned whether his handicap might be a liability in professional ball. Would teams try to exploit his disability by bunting on him, and would he be quick enough to respond if, heaven forbid, someone hit a line drive up the middle?
The California Angels provided the answer on draft day when they chose Abbott with the No. 8 pick in the first round. They envisioned him as a whole lot more than Pete Gray and Monty Stratton, players who overcame physical disabilities to prolong their playing careers.
"Take a look around the big leagues and see where the left-handed pitching is," Angels scout George Bradley said at the time. "Our club needed left-handed pitching and there were only a few in the draft."
Abbott skipped the minor leagues, won 12 games as a rookie, posted an 18-11 record and finished third in the AL Cy Young balloting in 1991 and threw a no-hitter for the Yankees two years later. Abbott's career record of 87-108 was less than dazzling. But it was a lot better than Bill Bene, Monty Fariss and Willie Ansley -- the players who went in the three spots ahead of him.
RHP Mark Prior, 2001
After spurning a $1.5 million offer from the Yankees out of high school, Prior made a pit stop at Vanderbilt before transferring to Southern California. As a junior at USC, he posted an otherworldly 15-1 record with a 1.69 ERA, and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 11-1.
Beyond that, Prior's smarts, maturity and fluid delivery inspired scouts to wrack their brains for worthy comparisons. Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer and Roger Clemens were three names that routinely made the rounds.
Baseball America suggested that Prior might be the best college pitcher ever, and entire paragraphs were devoted to the power in his calves. Cubs executive Jim Hendry said he possessed "mechanics as pure as you're going to get from the amateur world," and scouts gushed about how he was able to maintain his mid-90s velocity from the first inning through the ninth.
There was speculation that the Twins would select Prior with the top overall pick, but they took the more affordable route and chose high school catcher Joe Mauer over Prior and Georgia Tech first baseman Mark Teixeira. The Cubs, picking second, pounced on Prior and signed him to a then-record guarantee of $10.5 million.
It looked like a wise investment when Prior won 18 games and combined with Kerry Wood for a formidable one-two punch in 2003. But injuries quickly took their toll on Prior, and he was out of baseball by age 26. He remains a classic "what-might-have-been" tale.
RHP Ben McDonald, 1989
When McDonald pitched in the 1989 College World Series for Louisiana State, his father, Larry, entertained reporters with the revelation that Big Ben's favorite dish was crawfish etouffee with squirrel's head gravy. A story also circulated about the time the younger McDonald put an alligator in the bathtub and sent an unsuspecting teammate screaming from the room in terror.
McDonald's fondness for offbeat cuisine and locker-room pranks were mere sideshows to the main attraction.
Two decades before Stephen Strasburg was generating nonstop attention in sunny San Diego, McDonald emerged as a pitching phenomenon on the Louisiana bayou. He was a 6-foot-7, 212-pound country boy with a mid-90s fastball, impeccable control and a hunger for success. In three years at LSU, McDonald posted a 29-4 record and averaged 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings. He also won the Golden Spikes Award as the top amateur player in the country, and picked up a gold medal for the U.S. Olympic team in Seoul as Jim Abbott's wing man. Or maybe it was the other way around.
"This is my 28th year around this game," LSU coach Skip Bertman said two weeks before the 1989 draft, "and at this juncture, he's better than [Roger] Clemens, [Frank] Viola, Greg Swindell, any of those guys. None of those guys had the control this guy has. He has also handled adversity. If he gets lit up and 11 minicams come around, he can handle that. He knows the ways of the world."
With Boras as his adviser, McDonald signed a major league deal with the Baltimore Orioles for a then-record $350,000 bonus and $950,000 in guaranteed salary. But after a promising start, he endured a series of shoulder injuries that brought his career to an end before his 30th birthday.
The final numbers: A 78-70 record and a 3.91 ERA. Last year, when the Nationals were negotiating with Strasburg and GM Mike Rizzo wanted to cite an example of how "sure thing" pitchers don't always perform to expectations, Ben McDonald was among the first names he mentioned.
OF Bo Jackson, 1986
Jackson grew up in Bessemer, Ala., not far from Willie Mays' hometown of Fairfield, and his athletic skills were readily apparent during his high school days. At McAdory High, he won two state decathlon titles, set a national prep record with 20 home runs as a senior and rushed for 17 touchdowns and 1,100 yards in football.
Jackson turned down an offer to sign with the Yankees as a second-round pick in 1982. Three years later, the Angels drafted him in the 20th round, even though they were virtually certain that he would stay at Auburn and play football. Jackson did, and rushed for 1,786 yards to win the 1985 Heisman Trophy.
"I remember standing in the dugout with Gene Mauch and Reggie Jackson, and I told Reggie, 'We drafted a kid today who's faster than Willie Wilson, can throw like Dave Winfield and has more power than you," said Goldis, then a scouting supervisor with the Angels. "I told them, 'We just drafted a kid who's potentially the best player ever.'"
The buzz surrounding Jackson persisted through the following spring, amid constant questions about his future. The Kansas City Royals refused to give up, picked him in the fourth round, and offered him a five-year, $5 million deal to dissuade him from signing with the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers. On the day the Royals signed Jackson, champagne corks reportedly popped in co-owner Avron Fogelman's office.
Jackson ultimately found a way to fit two sports into his schedule. He hit 141 career homers and made one All-Star team in eight seasons with the Royals, White Sox and Angels, and rushed for 2,782 yards in four seasons with the Los Angeles Raiders. Injuries brought his playing career to a premature end in 1994, but Jackson will long be remembered as a cultural phenomenon. Before "Be Like Mike" became an American catchphrase, it was all about "Bo Knows."
SS Alex Rodriguez, 1993
A-Rod was a magnet for attention long before he made 12 All-Star teams, got nabbed for performance-enhancing drugs, jogged across Dallas Braden's mound or passed Mark McGwire and Frank Robinson on the career home run list.
When Rodriguez stepped on the field for his senior year opener at Westminster Christian School in Miami, more than 60 scouts were watching his every move. Before a road trip to St. Petersburg in June, the local paper ran the headline, "Superman is Coming to Town." Sports Illustrated devoted a two-page spread to him, and Rodriguez spent 30 minutes doing interviews and signing autographs for kids at the Upper Deck Tournament in California.
"When I get off the bus, the whole team looks at me, and when a guy gets a strike on me, he pumps his fist, even though it's only one strike," Rodriguez said in a Los Angeles Times interview in 1993. "You can see the intensity in their eyes."
Meanwhile, baseball people rated him as equal to or better than Garry Templeton, Robin Yount, Barry Larkin and the other highly acclaimed shortstops of recent vintage.
"If you were to sit in front of a computer and say 'How would I construct the perfect shortstop?' you'd put all the data in, and then you would see Alex Rodriguez," said Augie Garrido, then the coach of Cal State Fullerton.
After some pre-draft intrigue, the Mariners decided to take the plunge. Rodriguez's draft-day experience overshadowed the Mets' decision to take pitcher Kirk Presley, Elvis' third cousin, with the eighth overall pick.
Roger Jongewaard, then Seattle's scouting director, had previously recommended that the Mets take a lanky high school outfielder named Darryl Strawberry. He was around when the Mariners picked Ken Griffey Jr. first overall, and made the call to select Rodriguez ahead of Wichita State pitcher Darren Dreifort.
"Roger is an excellent scout, a great scouting director and a wonderful human being," Gary Hughes said, "but he's also the luckiest guy in the world. Let's just say his timing was very good."
LHP David Clyde, 1973
The 1973 draft included two players, Robin Yount and Dave Winfield, who each accumulated 3,000 hits and made the Hall of Fame. Almost four decades after going first overall, David Clyde has a different legacy: His name is synonymous with how not to develop a promising young pitcher.
The Texas Rangers were an abomination on the field and a failure at the gate when they selected Clyde out of Houston's Westchester High with the No. 1 pick. Rangers owner Bob Short, desperate for a quick fix to bolster interest in the team, made no effort to conceal his plan to jump Clyde directly from high school to the big leagues.
After signing for a bonus of $62,500, Clyde made his debut before a crowd of 35,698 at Arlington Stadium. He received a good-luck telegram from Sandy Koufax, and warmed up in the bullpen as a crowd of sportswriters stood and watched from a few feet away. "It was a three-ring circus," Clyde later recalled.
Clyde struck out the side against Minnesota in the first inning on the way to a win in his debut, and that week's Sports Illustrated story bore the headline, "Bonny Debut for Clyde." But his career quickly spiraled downhill. Rangers manager Billy Martin didn't want him on the roster and refused to pitch him for a month. Clyde underwent two shoulder surgeries, was traded twice, released once and made an aborted comeback with Houston in the early 1980s before calling it quits with a career record of 18-33.
Eddie Bane, the Angels' scouting director, went directly from Arizona State to the Minnesota Twins' rotation as a first-round pick in 1973. But he was a lot more prepared for the transition than Clyde was.
"David was a high school guy going right to the big leagues, and he was going to save the Texas Rangers organization," Bane said. "Talk about pressure. Looking back at it, David needed the minor leagues really bad. He had better stuff than Clayton Kershaw, and that's saying a lot, because Kershaw has great stuff. He just wasn't ready to pitch in the big leagues at 18 years old."
RHP Todd Van Poppel, 1990
Throw a Texas pedigree, a 95 mph fastball and a tug-of-war between college and the pros into a pot, and you have the recipe for Todd Van Poppel's draft saga.
Van Poppel was talented enough as a high school pitcher to elicit Nolan Ryan comparisons. He honed his skill with guidance from pitching guru Tom House, who said he was good enough to be in the majors in two years.
House wasn't alone. Al Goldis, then scouting director for the Chicago White Sox, told USA Today that Van Poppel had "the best arm on any pitcher I've ever seen." But Goldis also thought Van Poppel's delivery made him a prime candidate to break down physically, and advised the Sox to take Alex Fernandez over Van Poppel.
Van Poppel's contract demands scared off a lot of other clubs. With a scholarship from the University of Texas in his hip pocket and Boras as his adviser, Van Poppel had lots of leverage to seek top dollar. The Atlanta Braves passed on him to take Chipper Jones with the top overall pick, and a dozen more names went off the board before Sandy Alderson and the Oakland A's chose Van Poppel with the 14th pick in the first round.
The media dubbed Oakland's young pitching quartet of Van Poppel, Don Peters, Kirk Dressendorfer and Dave Zancanaro as the "Four Aces," but none lived up to expectations. Van Poppel endured a series of arm injuries in Oakland, and compiled a 40-52 career record with the A's, Cubs and four other clubs. He threw his last big league pitch for Cincinnati in 2004, and was out of baseball at age 32.
CF Ken Griffey Jr., 1987
Moeller High School in Cincinnati was a perennial football powerhouse in the 1980s. But talent scouts weren't flocking to the school to check out gap-plugging linemen and cover corners in the spring of 1987.
They were coming to see center fielder Ken Griffey Jr., who created a buzz with a rare blend of power, speed and designer genes. Griffey's father, Ken Sr., had made three All-Star teams with the Reds, and Junior was about to become the first son of a big leaguer to go No. 1 overall in the draft. Dick Schofield's son, Dick Jr., went to the Angels with the third overall pick in 1981, and Bill Kunkel's boy Jeff was drafted by Texas as the third pick in 1983.
Moeller High coach Mike Cameron said that Griffey was more advanced than Barry Larkin at the same age. Scouts were also infatuated with Griffey's ability, even though he tended to play harder on some days than others. Griffey drove a BMW at age 16, and told one interviewer, "I'm spoiled, everybody knows it. My mother calls me a spoiled brat."
Incredibly, there was some debate in the scouting community over whether Griffey or Florida high school shortstop Mark Merchant should go first overall. Pittsburgh chose Merchant with the second pick in the draft, and he spent 12 years in the minors before retiring at age 29.
"There really were some people who said they would have taken Merchant ahead of Griffey," Goldis said. "That's like comparing a Pulitzer Prize winner to a kid who writes for his high school paper."
Griffey signed for a $160,000 bonus, and was starting in center field for Seattle at age 19. In 1990, Junior and Senior Griffey made history as the first father-son teammates in baseball history. Ken Griffey Jr. went on to make 13 All-Star teams, hit 630 home runs and assure himself a place in Cooperstown. He's lived up to every bit of the hype, and more.
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