There is a measure of futility in any article about "what might have been" draft stories, but sometimes the only thing suffering fans have at the end of the day is fantasy about changing the past and hope for coming out on top in the future. For the post-1993, pre-1999 Oakland A’s and their fans, suffering was common. Who among A’s followers can forget the signings that kept the 1992 team together despite glaring signs of age and statistical decline? In 1997, we watched as Mark McGwire was sent to St. Louis for what amounted to a pair of infamous initials (T.J.), not to mention a front row seat in the Grand Theatre of What If when Big Mac destroyed Roger Maris’s single-season homerun record in 1998.
Those years marked the first and only A’s rebuilding period I’ve experienced as a lucid adult. That taste of losing colors every opinion I have about the state of baseball today. It was nasty – a kind of early-morning, pre-mouthwash period of time that makes my fear about what a similar period could do to the A’s chances of remaining in the Bay Area a bit more intense (and my manic dislike for the Giants a bit more pronounced). So with the recent trades of Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder in mind, and in the spirit of the hope and fantasy required to follow a low-revenue team in the flawed MLB economy, let’s take a walk through A’s drafts of the 1990s and ask: What if?
Before we get started, there are a few rules I came up with to make this exercise a bit easier to follow and swallow. I realized as I researched the topic that the possibilities for revision, even in a single decade, are without limit. To avoid a 300 page article, I decided that I’d follow five rules.
1. I will only "revise" one pick per draft.
2. If a first-round pick turned out to be a star, that draft will not be revised. I don’t think there are many A’s fans out there who would argue with the selections of Eric Chavez (1996) or Mark Mulder (1998), so we’ll keep those two and concentrate on the eight remaining drafts of the 1990s.
3.The "new" Athletic must have had success with the team that originally drafted him. I’m already stretching the boundaries of reality, so adding a change of scenery that may have contributed to a player’s eventual development doesn’t make much sense.
4. A player who wound up with the A’s later in his career is ineligible for consideration.
5. If a player was chosen in a draft but did not sign with the team that drafted him then he too is ineligible for consideration.
1990: This one looked good at the time. Let’s be honest, it looked like a coup. The World Champions of baseball waltzed into the 1990 draft with the 14th overall pick thanks to Milwaukee’s signing of free agent Dave Parker, and they walked out with the consensus top player in prep baseball, right-hander Todd Van Poppel. Unfortunately, the appearance of success was all the A’s got. Despite a pitching-rich talent pool that netted Oakland its "Four Aces" in Van Poppel, David Zancanaro, Don Peters and Kirk Dressendorfer, nobody from that draft class turned out to be more than a marginal major leaguer.
So who else might the A’s have taken with that 14th pick? This one isn’t tough, as most Bay Area fans are well-aware that Stanford product Mike Mussina was taken by the Baltimore Orioles with the 20th pick that year. In 1992 (his first full season in the Majors), Mussina went 18-5 with a 2.54 ERA and four shutouts in 241 innings. Considering the A’s starting pitching was exceptionally strong in their playoff series with Toronto that year, Mussina might not have had a chance to crack the club’s postseason rotation, but he would have been an excellent long-man in that series, especially in Game Six when Mike Moore melted down and didn’t make it out of the third inning. It’s also possible that with Mussina in the bullpen, one member of the dubious Kelly Downs/Jeff Parrett/Bobby Witt trio wouldn’t have thrown a pitch in the playoffs.
Others considered: Jeromy Burnitz, Garrett Anderson, Ray Durham, Troy Percival.
1991: The 1991 season was a tough one in the East Bay. Mark McGwire suffered through what was easily his most pathetic season as a pro, struggling most of the year to stay above the Mendoza Line and failing to hit 30 homers for the first time in his career. The team followed suit, finishing fourth in the AL West with an 84-78 record and missing the playoffs for the first time since 1987.
The draft was more of the same, as the A’s picked last in the first round and used their selection on University of Minnesota shortstop Brent Gates. Gates went on to have a solid rookie campaign in 1993, batting .290 with a .357 OBP in 139 games. The rest of his career was an exercise in regression and he was out of baseball by age 30.
There are several viable candidates to replace Gates as the best possible ’91 A’s draft pick, but the best is right-handed starter Brad Radke. Radke was taken by the Minnesota Twins in the 8th round of the 1991 draft. He debuted for the Twins in 1995 at age 22 and went 11-14 with a 5.32 ERA in 28 starts. For the next six years Radke averaged 14 wins and 226 innings-pitched with nearly an 11/1 K/BB ratio.
The teams Oakland fielded in 1993 and 1994 were just shy of hopeless, but a big reason for this is that the organization went against its better judgment to keep its aging 1992 Division Championship team together. Our new edition of the 1993 A’s has Mike Mussina anchoring the rotation, which will make Radke’s 11-win 1995 season even more important. With two young, front-of-the-rotation starters, the A’s might have had a different strategy heading into the 1995 draft. Are you cringing in anticipation yet? Hold that facial _expression – we’ll get to it later.
Others considered: Matt Lawton.
1992: What is the one position on the field that has plagued the A’s through the team’s stay in Oakland – the Spinal Tap drummer syndrome, if you will? Personally, I’ve always wanted to see a better second baseman in green and gold. Dating back to Dick Green the A’s have had players with serious deficiencies at the 4 spot. Green was all field and no hit. Since Green’s departure, the A’s have gone through one mediocre second baseman after another, from Phil Garner to Mike Edwards to Davey Lopes to an over-the-hill Joe Morgan to Tony Phillips to Glenn Hubbard to Mike Gallego. Ray Durham hit well for half a season in 2002 but was ugly on defense and signed with the Giants prior to 2003. Mark Ellis looked promising, but in keeping with the Oakland norm he slumped with the bat and then ruined his shoulder in a 2004 spring training collision.
In 1992, the A’s selected San Diego State right-hander Benji Grigsby with the 20th pick in the first round. Grigsby never made it to the big leagues, but a second baseman taken in the 6th round by Montreal did. It is for that reason that I dedicate our 1992 revised pick to second base and take Jose Vidro in place of Grigsby.
Vidro didn’t crack the show for good until 1999, but his numbers that year (.303 average/.822 OPS in 140 games with only nine errors at second base) may have helped the A’s catch Boston in the wild card race and return to the playoffs a year earlier than they did otherwise.
Others considered: Charles Johnson, Bobby Higginson, Jon Lieber, Shannon Stewart.
1993: The ’93 draft saw the A’s take Florida State right-hander John Wasdin 25th overall. Wasdin never did much in parts of nine seasons in the Majors, spending time with Oakland, Boston, Colorado, Baltimore, Toronto and Texas. His best season was in 1999, when he went 8-3 with a 4.12 ERA in 45 relief appearances with the Red Sox.
We want more from our first-rounders, don’t we? But which way do we go this year? Third base, where Scott Rolen would provide solid defense and right-handed power for years to come? Starting pitcher, where Kevin Millwood’s 17 wins in 1998 and 18 wins in 1999 would look great behind Mussina and Radke? Neither. In 1993, the A’s skip Wasdin and take first baseman Richie Sexson with their first round pick.
Sexson battled Jim Thome for Cleveland’s first base job before smashing 31 homers and an amazing seven triples while splitting time between 1B, DH and LF for the Tribe in his first full season in 1999. The following year he was traded to Milwaukee after 91 games and finished the 2000 season with combined totals of 30 homers, 91 RBI and a .349 OBP. Along with Jason Giambi, Sexson could have provided the A’s with the most competent DH/1B platoon in the majors.
Others considered: Rolen, Millwood, Matt Clement.
1994: The Year of Ben Grieve. Taken second overall behind right-hander Paul Wilson, Ben Grieve was the first real ray of hope A’s fans had had after a miserable 1993 season. He even had his moments in the majors, winning AL Rookie of the Year honors in 1998 with 41 doubles, 18 homers, 89 RBI and .844 OPS. Thanks to his declining peripheral numbers and an apparent fear of touching a baseball before it stopped moving while in the field, he was eventually traded for Johnny Damon prior to the 2001 season. Sorry Ben, it was fun while it lasted (and I’m talking about that gargantuan homer you hit into the Plaza Level bleachers in right-center during the 2000 season, not the confused look on your face every time a ball sailed past your flailing arms), but if we had it to do over…
…we’d take right-hander Javier Vazquez in your place. Vazquez hit the Majors for good in 1998 and had a disappointing season, going 5-15 with a 6.06 ERA in 172 innings. Then again, everyone on the Expos was similarly ineffective that year. The team went 65-97 and finished 41 games behind the division-leading Atlanta Braves.
It took Vazquez another year of work to find his sea legs, and in 2000 he was able to put it all together. At age 23, he won 11 games against nine defeats with a 4.05 ERA and 196 strikeouts in 217 innings. Again his team was terrible (67-95), but it didn’t affect his performance all that much.
I feel I should mention that Nomar Garciaparra was another strong candidate to be taken over Grieve, but that would have created a logjam at shortstop, and I don’t know many A’s fans who would take anyone over Miguel Tejada. It is also important to factor Vazquez’s intelligence and leadership into the equation. He was named Montreal’s player representative shortly after his arrival in the Majors and is an incredible presence in the community no matter where he plays.
Others considered: Garciaparra, Paul Konerko, Jaret Wright, Jason Varitek, Danny Graves.
1995: This is the draft that really prompted me to write this piece. For those who don’t know the story, the 1995 A’s were just like the 1993 and 1994 A’s – bad. Perhaps the strike-shortened ’94 season and resulting second place finish (despite a 51-63 record) gave them more hope than was warranted, but A’s brass thought the team needed a starting pitcher who could help the big league club immediately. They also wanted a draw to boost attendance, so the team targeted 25 year-old Cuban defector Ariel Prieto in the draft. Prieto debuted on July 2, 1995 and went on to post a whopping 15 wins in parts of six seasons in the Majors.
As I mentioned in the opening, the easiest choice to replace the Prieto pick is Colorado 1B Todd Helton. Helton cracked the Rockies lineup for good in 1998 when he hit 25 homers to go along with a .910 OPS in 152 games. That would look pretty nice in the A’s lineup, but Helton’s numbers would undoubtedly suffer at the spacious Oakland Coliseum. With Jason Giambi and Richie Sexson already occupying the first base and designated hitter jobs in Oakland, I’m going to go against the grain and suggest, instead, that the A’s take CF Carlos Beltran with the fifth overall pick.
Beltran won the AL Rookie of the Year award in 1999, playing excellent defense and posting a .293 average with 22 homers, 108 RBI and 27 stolen bases. His OPS was only mediocre due to a lackluster .337 OBP, but this deficiency eventually improved.
After suffering from the sophomore jinx in 2000 when he missed 64 games due to injury, Beltran rebounded in 2001 with 32 doubles, 12 triples and 24 homers to go along with 102 RBI and a much-improved .362 OBP. With Scott Boras representing him, the A’s would’ve had a large helping of stress trying to resolve his arbitration demands each year, but Beltran’s presence in centerfield would have eliminated the need for Terrence Long and Johnny Damon, each of whom found his own unique way of disappointing the A’s faithful – Long by having a strong rookie season only to regress every year afterward; Damon by slumping through most of 2001 only to leave for Boston at the end of the year.
Others considered: Helton, Matt Morris, Roy Halladay, Mike Lowell, Juan Pierre.
1996: Finally we reach a year when the A’s hit the proverbial nail on the head, selecting prep shortstop Eric Chavez out of Mt. Carmel High School in San Diego. Chavez was converted to the hot corner shortly thereafter and to date has won four consecutive gold gloves as one of the best third basemen in all of baseball.
Others considered (well, not really, but it is fun to list them): Eric Milton, Brad Penny, Jacque Jones, Milton Bradley, Joe Crede, Nick Johnson.
1997: Chris Enochs is the biggest curiosity of what has become known as the A’s Moneyball draft strategy. He was the first in a string of college pitchers taken by the club in the first round, and he is also the most disappointing. After a successful showing at Single-A Modesto in ’97, Enochs moved on to Double-A Huntsville where he showed promise, posting a 9-10 record with a 4.74 ERA in 26 starts. At that point he hit a wall, struggling in his second season at Double-A and eventually being demoted to Class-A Visalia. He made it back to Double-A as a reliever, but we haven’t heard much from him since.
A good fit at the number eleven pick instead of Enochs is Rice University first baseman Lance Berkman. Eventually converted to the outfield, Berkman’s first full year in the Majors came in 2000 at age 24 when he hit 21 homeruns with 67 RBI to go along with a .949 OPS in 114 games. From 2001 to 2004, Berkman averaged 33 homers and 114 RBI with a .995 OPS. Not much more to say except that he would look great with "Athletics" scripted across his jersey.
Others considered: Jayson Werth, Randy Wolf, Matt LeCroy.
1998: As with the Chavez pick in 1996, there is no need to argue with the selection of Mark Mulder in 1998. Mulder, a tall lefty out of Michigan State, was taken 2nd overall by the A’s and finished his A’s career with an 81-42 record and 3.92 ERA in five seasons. While his 2004 post-All Star break meltdown was frustrating, there isn’t another player from the ’98 draft I’d rather have.
Others considered: Adam Dunn, Aubrey Huff.
1999: The last draft of the 1990s saw the A’s select University of Southern California left-hander Barry Zito with the 9th pick in the first round. Like Mulder and Chavez, the selection of Zito is not one to argue over. Sure, Ben Sheets was there for the taking, but until 2004 Sheets was an average pitcher at best. It is possible that his performance would have been greatly enhanced had he played for a real Major League team (the Brewers hardly qualify), but the bottom line is that Zito won a Cy Young Award for Oakland while Sheets has a career record of 45-53.
Others considered: Sheets, Justin Morneau, Hank Blalock.
With our revised decade concluded, what would the A’s roster have looked like at this point? Giving Zito time to establish himself as a full-time major league starter, and assuming that Mike Mussina would have left as a free agent following the 2000 season, let’s take a look at the team the 2001 Oakland A’s would field. Along with 1999 call-up Tim Hudson and non-drafted free agents Miguel Tejada and Ramon Hernandez, the A’s would boast one of the best teams, top to bottom, in all of baseball.
The Revised 2001 Roster
C: Ramon Hernandez (.254, 15 HR, 60 RBI, .724 OPS)
1B: Richie Sexson (.271, 45, 125, .889)
2B: Jose Vidro (.319, 15, 59, .857)
3B: Eric Chavez (.288, 32, 114, .878)
SS: Miguel Tejada (.267, 31, 113, .802)
LF: Lance Berkman (.331, 34, 126, 1.050)
CF: Carlos Beltran (.306, 24, 101, .876)
RF: Jermaine Dye (.282, 26, 106, .813)
DH: Jason Giambi (.342, 38, 120, 1.137)
SP: Brad Radke (15-11, 3.94 ERA, 137/26 K/BB ratio in 226 IP)
SP: Javier Vazquez (16-11, 3.42, 208/44 in 223 IP)
SP: Tim Hudson (18-9, 3.37, 181/71 in 235 IP)
SP: Mark Mulder (21-8, 3.45, 153/51 in 229 IP)
SP Barry Zito (17-8, 3.49, 205/80 in 214 IP)
CL: Jason Isringhausen (34 saves, 2.65 ERA, 74/23 K/BB ratio in 73 IP)
Impressive, no? As Billy Beane is fond of saying, the playoffs are a crapshoot. It is impossible to know whether this revamped version of the Oakland A’s would get past its Divisional series with the Yankees, but considering how close the real team came, it isn’t hard to imagine that they would. After that the Seattle Mariners would’ve posed a difficult challenge, as would Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling and the eventual World Champion Arizona Diamondbacks. But could either of those teams handle the 1-8 combination of Carlos Beltran, Jose Vidro, Jason Giambi, Richie Sexson, Lance Berkman, Jermaine Dye, Eric Chavez and Miguel Tejada? I doubt it.
Hindsight and fantasy are truly wonderful things. As we count down to those magical, late-February words "pitchers and catchers report", here’s hoping that Brad Sullivan, John McCurdy and Ben Fritz, among others, get on track this year and make a 2015 version of this article unnecessary.
Todd Morgan is a Senior Writer for OaklandClubhouse.com.