The Nationals were given a huge opportunity in the June amateur draft when they offered Adam Dunn arbitration and he chose not to re-sign. When the White Sox signed Dunn, the Nationals received Chicago’s first-round pick and a supplemental pick after the first round as compensation, giving them a total of three first-round picks. While it remains to be seen whether the Nats capitalized on the extra picks and the players they used those picks on — Anthony Rendon, Alex Meyer, and Brian Goodwin sign and pan out — it serves as a reminder of a time the franchise wasted an even bigger opportunity.
If things had turned out a little differently in the 1997 draft the Nationals/Expos franchise might not have been in the current competitive drought that it’s in.
That year the Expos had eight first-round picks, their normal pick at 23, and then the 37th, 38th, 44th, 45th, 47th, 48th and 52nd selections as compensation for losing Mel Rojas and Moises Alou, as well as failing to sign John Patterson as a draft pick the year before. The baseball draft is even less of a sure thing then the other major sports. The storied 2002 Oakland Athletics draft of Moneyball fame only produced 13 players who saw time in the big leagues out of 50 rounds. However, it’s much more likely that a player picked in the first round gets to the majors than someone picked in the 25th round, so it was a distinct advantage for the Expos to have eight picks out of the first 52.
With those picks Montreal selected in order: Donnie Bridges, Chris Stowe, Scott Hodges, Bryan Hebson, Thomas Pittman, T.J. Tucker, Shane Arthurs and Clarence Myers. You’re forgiven if you don’t recognize any of those names. They combined to appear in 175 major league games, 173 of them belonging to Tucker. Over his career, Tucker amassed 0.3 wins above replacement, a 4.57 ERA and a 1.47 WHIP. Thanks to a negative WAR for the only other “major leaguer,” Bryan Hebson, as a group these players produced 0.2 WAR for the franchise.
Now guess how many wins above replacement the Nats/Expos could’ve had if they had just selected players after their selections who turned out to be major leaguers: 109. Just picking from the crop of amateurs selected in the first and second rounds after the Expos’ picks (I chose to do it this way, because while some teams find a diamond in the rough, guys picked in the first couple of rounds are usually on every team’s radar. If they weren’t, the team that picked them probably would’ve waited a few rounds because they knew they could get them later in the draft.), the team could’ve had in order: Jack Cust, Randy Wolf, Scott Linebrink, Jeff Weaver, Aaron Cook and Chase Utley. While Utley may be the only bona fide superstar on the list, these guys still collectively produced about 10 wins a season over 10 seasons more than the guys the Expos actually selected. That’s a big difference.
Now that’s only a list of seven players. Texas Rangers shortstop Michael Young also went in the 1997 draft, in the fifth round! The guy has 27 wins above replacement over his career and he wasn’t an unknown high-schooler. He was drafted out of the University of California.
It’s fascinating that the franchise was so inept at drafting players at that time. The general manager, Jim Beattie, went on to preside over four more drafts and did redeem himself in 2000 with a draft for the ages that produced Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee, Fred Lewis, Jason Bay and Russell Martin. The fact that none of those guys made significant contributions to the Nationals isn’t Beattie’s fault. The Bartolo Colon trade (Expos gave up Sizemore, Lee and Brandon Phillips) in 2002 was the franchise’s biggest gaffe, even bigger than the 1997 draft. Beattie then brought his talents to the Orioles where he landed Nick Markakis and not much else.
The scouting director for the Expos in 1997, Ed Creech, quickly moved on to the Cardinals after the 1997 season and spent a good piece of the past decade in the same role for the Pirates (you can draw your own conclusions based on the Bucs poor play).
The lesson from the cache of picks in 1997 is that current general manager Mike Rizzo was given a huge opportunity to improve the team through this year’s draft. Time will tell whether the class will be a bonanza or a bust.