I am fascinated by the what-ifs of baseball. What if Mickey Mantle hadn’t destroyed his knee in the 1951 World Series? What if the Braves hadn’t passed on Willie Mays and, instead, put him in their OF with Hank Aaron? What if Joe Hardy hadn’t sold his soul to help the hapless Senators beat the Yankees? What if I had references that weren’t all from the 1950s?
The MLB Draft is littered with what ifs. We tend to focus on the picks that teams didn’t make – the players they passed over. Every team has their fair share of mistakes. The Mets picked Steve Chilcott over Reggie Jackson in 1966. The Rangers went with David Clyde in 1973 over Robin Yount and Dave Winfield. The White Sox used the 5th pick in the 1985 draft on Kurt Brown. The Pirates went next and picked Barry Bonds. The Reds, famously, ignored their top scout and picked Chad Mottola over an 18 year old shortstop from Kalamazoo, Michigan named Derek Jeter in 1992. That one stands out because Jeter became, well, Jeter and the Yankees snapped him up with the very next pick, but there have been quite a few other glaring misses over the years. For example:
* In 1994 the Reds chose HS LHP CJ Nitkowski with the 9th overall pick. Nomar Garciaparra, Paul Konerko, and Jason Varitek were chosen with picks 14, 15, and 16 respectively.
* In 1997 the Reds chose Brandon Larson with the 14th overall pick. Two picks later the Astros grabbed Lance Berkman.
* In 2002 the Reds chose Chris Gruler with the 3rd overall pick leaving Zach Greinke (5th pick), Prince Fielder (6th), Cole Hamels (17), Denard Span (20), and many more on the table.
* In 2006 the Reds chose Drew Stubbs with the 8th overall pick. The 10th and 11th picks from that draft (Tim Lincecum and Max Scherzer) have combined to win 219 games in the bigs.
* In 2010 the Reds chose Yasmani Grandal with the 12th overall pick. The White Sox went next and chose Chris Sale.
You could do the same exercise with every team in baseball. You win some; you lose some, right? And who’s to say how things would have turned out if the Reds (or any other team) chose differently? Even if the Reds had a second chance in 2002 it doesn’t mean they would have picked Cole Hamels? Or maybe they would have picked Cole Hamels and he would have blown out his shoulder like Chris Gruler did. Or choosing Lance Berkman in 1997 would have destined the Big Puma to a AAAA player tag while Brandon Larson would go on to have a borderline Hall of Fame career in the Lone Star State. So much of baseball – like life – is being in the right place at the right time. After all, the Reds might have blown it with their first pick in 2002, but they chose a no-name catcher from Canada in the 2nd round that turned out pretty darn good. Every other team in baseball could have picked Joey – some had more than one opportunity – but he ended up wearing #19 for our Reds.
While perusing past drafts during my lunch break I discovered, to my horror, that there’s another category of MLB Draft What Ifs: the guys the Reds drafted but, for one reason or another, didn’t sign. We spend so much time wondering what would have happened if the Reds had drafted Derek Jeter, but with this new list of players we don’t have to wonder; they did get drafted! The Reds quite publicly told the world that, in the words of Albert Schweitzer, “I fancy you.” But the two sides couldn’t agree on a contract and the player moved on to bigger and better things. Without any further ado (and I love a good ado), here are the ones that stand out over the last 15 years, including a real doozy at #1:
5. John Axford (42nd round, 2005)
The Reds drafted Axford after his senior year at Notre Dame and then said, “Meh.” That’s it. They just kind of decided that they didn’t want him after all. Axford transferred to Canisius for his final year of college eligibility (he missed a season with Tommy John surgery) and went undrafted in 2006. After a summer spent playing in independent ball, the Yankees gave him a shot. He pitched in A ball in 2007 and was promptly released. The Brewers took a flyer on him and Axford rewarded the Crew by being absolutely terrible in 2008. But the Brewers stuck with him and he rocketed up the system in 2009, eventually getting the call to the bigs in September. He had back-to-back outstanding seasons in 2010 and 2011 before declining a bit in 2012. Since then he’s bounced around, playing for four different teams between 2013 and 2015. He’s making $5 million with the A’s this year which, and I think I have this right, is more than our current bullpen makes collectively. Ouch.
4. Andrew Benintendi (31st round, 2013)
It might be a bit early to put the local boy this high, but his early results as a pro are really promising. Benintendi was named the Ohio High School Player of the Year in 2013 after a standout season at Medeira High School. He chose to attend the University of Arkansas instead and after a decent freshman season, Benintendi dominated the SEC in 2015 and won a slew of offseason awards. The Red Sox snagged him with the 7th pick in the 2015 draft – making him only the second Benintendi to ever play professional ball. (Robert Benintendi played for the Big Stone Gap Rebels in the Mountain States League from 1949-1950 and then again in 1953, but you already knew that.) Benintendi is widely considered a top 20 prospect in all of baseball.
3. Jimmy Nelson (39th round, 2007 draft)
It was well known that Nelson intended to honor his commitment to the University of Alabama after a standout high school career in Florida. That commitment made him drop in the draft (he was widely considered a top 150 talent) and the Reds took a flyer on him with the 1178th overall pick. Nelson struggled a bit at Alabama but the Brewers took him in the second round in 2010 and he thrived in pro baseball, shooting up the prospect rankings, before getting a call to the majors in 2013. He’s had a solid start to his MLB career so far in Milwaukee. Oh, and he is also a world-renowned photographer of indigenous peoples. Supposedly it is a different Jimmy Nelson – a British Jimmy Nelson – but I choose to believe it’s the same one. It’s more fun to live in a world where Jimmy Nelson spends his off-days traveling to remote jungles and asking people to pose for pictures.
2. Nick Markakis (35th round, 2001 & 23rd round, 2002)
The Reds really wanted Markakis but Markakis didn’t want the Reds. Markakis passed on the Reds offer after his senior year of high school and went to Young Harris College where he was named the Junior College Player of the Year after his freshman season. The Reds drafted him again and, sadly, Markakis rejected their offer again. After another standout year at Young Harris (where he was again named JuCo Player of the Year) Markakis was drafted 7th overall in the 2003 draft by the Orioles. It makes me a little sad to think about what could have been. Having Markakis in LF (with his .359 career OBP) during our 2010-2013 run could have given the Reds the extra nudge they needed to win at least one stupid playoff round. It also would have saved me thousands of dollars in therapy bills.
1. Jake Arrieta (31st round, 2004)
See? I told you it was a doozy. The Reds drafted Arrieta after his senior year at East Plano (TX) High School where he had a 1.30 ERA but Arrieta opted for junior college instead. Why? Because life isn’t fair, that’s why. After one year at JuCo Arietta transferred to TCU (where he was a teammate of St. Louis’ Matt Carpenter) and was drafted by the Orioles two years later in the 5th round of the 2007 draft. The Orioles eventually traded him to the Cubs for pennies on the dollar and, well, you know the rest.
The What-Ifs with Arrieta are off the chart. It’s both a little fun (and horribly, horribly depressing) to imagine the dynamic 1-2 punch Arrieta could have made with the Reds other high school RHP drafted out of Texas in 2004: David “Homer” Bailey. (They grew up about 300 miles apart and, apparently, are good friends who workout together in the offseason. Again, life isn’t fair.) I’ve spent the last hour thinking of awesome nicknames like “Texas Thunder” or “The Texas Tornados” or “Texas Two-Step” or “Jake and the Skinny Man” or “Why Dear God Didn’t You Let This Happen I Don’t Ask For Much.”