Friday, June 4, 2010

Remembrances of failures past, Part I

Baseball's June entry draft starts Monday, and -- you're never going to believe this -- the Pirates have the second overall pick!

I know, right? I was stoked, too.

It's with this in mind that we're going to revisit the careers and whereabouts of all the Pirates' first-round draft picks since the team selected Barry Bonds sixth overall in the 1985 draft, TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO. We'll review 1986-1996 on Friday, 1997-2002 on Saturday and 2003-2009 on Sunday.

1986 - Jeff King, SS, University of Arkansas (1st overall)
As first-round picks go, Jeff King was a pretty good one, in that he turned out to be a serviceable major league player. Mostly manning the corner infield spots, he played 11 seasons in the bigs, his best coming in 1996, when he put up .271/.346/.497, with an OPS+ of 116, making him about 8% better than the average big league hitter. Following that year, the Bucs dealt King to Kansas City along with Jay Bell for Joe Randa. Drafted immediately behind King were Greg Swindell, Matt Williams, Kevin Brown, Kent Mercker and Gary Sheffield.

1987 - Mark Merchant, OF, Oviedo HS - Oviedo, FL (2nd)
Since the June draft was started in 1965, only four players picked second overall have failed to make the majors (I'm excluding Mike Moustakas, Pedro Alvarez and Dustin Ackley, the three most recent second overall picks). Mark Merchant holds the distinction of being one of those guys, having topped out at Triple-A. Merchant floundered about the minors for a dozen years, and because teams didn't track silly stats like on-base percentage back in those days, we might not ever know how bad he truly was. But from the extant numbers upon which we're able to extrapolate, Merchant's career slash line reads .263/.302/.397. Contrary to popular belief, Ken Griffey, Jr. wasn't the consensus top pick that year. Many teams had Griffey and Merchant equally atop their draft boards. What happened? Nobody's really sure, but while playing in the minor leagues, Merchant suffered a seizure of unclear origin, causing doctors to speculate that he had a form of epilepsy that caused him to suck at baseball. Note that this is not the same form of epilepsy suffered by Grover Cleveland Alexander, who was obviously awesome at baseball.

1988 - Austin Manahan, SS, Horizon HS - Scottsdale, AZ (13th)
Selected ahead of Tino Martinez, Royce Clayton, Charles Nagy, Alex Fernandez and Brian Jordan, as well as eventual future Pirates Jon Ericks, Ed Sprague and Dave Wainhouse, Manahan struggled to get out A-ball, playing four years in the Pirates system before a brief stint with their Southern League affiliate, the Carolina Mudcats. He gave up after eight seasons in the minors and never made it to the bigs. He lives in Phoenix, where he works as the sales director for something called Glad2bhome.

1989 - Willie Greene, SS, Jones County HS - Gray, GA (18th)
The year of the unsinkable Ben McDonald proved to be pretty weak, so it's certainly understandable that the Pirates wound up with a garbage player. Still, Greene found a way to play nine years in the league with four different teams. His career achievements include being packaged with Moises Alou in the Pirates' trade for Zane Smith, and being born in the same town where Ben Roethlisberger celebrated his 28th birthday. Mr. Greene's whereabouts are currently unknown.

1990 - Kurt Miller, RHP, West HS - Bakersfield, CA (5th)
The 1990 draft was even more disappointing across the board than the 1989 draft. The Pirates could have saved themselves some trouble and taken future disappointments Jeromy Burnitz, Todd Ritchie, Todd Van Poppel or Midre Cummings, or the once and future Mayor of Altoona, Adam Hyzdu. Instead, they chose high school hurler Kurt Miller. Miller played two years in the Pirates' system -- for which there are few extant statistics -- before he was traded to Texas for Steve Buchele. He went on to play parts of five seasons in the majors and two in Japan before hanging 'em up. His current whereabouts are unknown.

1991 - Jon Farrell, C, Florida JC - Jacksonville, FL (24th)
Looking back on these drafts, I'm beginning to wonder how baseball survived the 90s. Maybe steroids were a good thing. The only players of any consequence taken in the first round in '91 were Manny Ramirez and Shawn Green, with a tip of the cap to the certifiably insane Cliff Floyd. Farrell put up .246/.314/.399 over six minor league seasons. His current whereabouts are unknown.

1992 - Jason Kendall, C, Torrance HS - Torrance, CA (23rd)
As far as Wins Above Replacement (WAR) goes, Jason Kendall was the third best player selected in the first round in 1992, eclipsed only by Derek Jeter, who went sixth, and Johnny Damon, whom Kansas City took 35th overall with a supplemental pick. The face of the franchise for several years -- and the face of the payroll even long after his departure -- Kendall is best remembered for being a colossal asshole who never hit any home runs and once suffered a horrifying injury. The Pirates unloaded Kendall and his six-year, $60 million contract to Oakland for Mark Redman and Arthur Rhodes. He is currently the starting catcher for the Kansas City Royals, where he's hitting.282/.345/.343, though he no doubt leads the American League in being miserable.

1993 - Charles Peterson, OF, Laurens District HS - Laurens, SC (22nd)
The '93 draft was actually top-heavy with talent. Trouble was, all of it was gone by the time the Pirates' pick rolled around. A-Rod, Trot Nixon, Billy Wagner, Derrek Lee, Chris Carpenter, Torii Hunter and Jason Varitek were all off the board by the 22nd pick. Peterson lasted six years in the system, stole a ton of bases, and put up relatively pedestrian numbers overall. Peterson must have had some kind of substantive character issue, because while his minor league numbers weren't great, they weren't terrible, and where a lot of teams will take a flier on a former first-rounder as a low-cost reclamation project, the only work Peterson found after the Pirates let him go in 1998 was in the independent leagues. He played in the Northern League, Mexican League and the Canadian-American Association before falling off the map after 2006. His common name and presumably murky past have, but for his minor league numbers, rendered him all but anonymous in the vast jungle of the Internet.

1994 - Mark Farris, SS, Angleton HS - Angleton, TX (11th)
I'm not a terribly superstitious fan. I recognize that these drafts have nothing in common with the ones we've seen so far from Neal Huntington's office. That said, I'm still a wee bit freaked out by the Bucs' awful luck with first-round shortstops. When the Pirates took Farris, they knew full well that there was a possibility he might decide to honor his letter of intent to play quarterback for Texas A&M. Call it an assumed risk. They also knew that still left on the board were Nomar Garciaparra, Paul Konerko and Jason Varitek, who had gone back into the draft pool after not signing the previous year. And those three players were subsequently drafted in that order as soon as the Pirates took Farris. Farris played four seasons over five years in the Pirates system, reaching Double-A before deciding to try his hand at college football. That didn't work out, either. Farris currently runs an insurance agency in Texas.

1995 - Chad Hermansen, OF, Green Valley HS - Henderson, NV (10th)
We were told he could walk on water. Scouts salivated over the power and the speed. And as we sit here now, this center fielder of the future might be one of the biggest reasons the fan base still distrusts the club with regard to its scouting and drafting. Pirates fans know Chad was a colossal bust, given his hype. They know he bounced around the minors for a while. So rather than hash out the story with numbers and anecdotes, I'm just going to paste some quotes from Chad's twitter page that I feel accurately illustrate just how sad this story was and continues to be:

"please vote for my business partners daughter Kylie at for the next Victoria Secret model which will be featured tonight!"

Mark McGwire leading candidate for Cardinals hitting coach. Very interesting!"

just saw The Time Traveler with my wife, it was ok!"

1996 - Kris Benson, RHP, Clemson University (1st)
Peter Gammons swore that Benson would win a Cy Young Award before his career was over. He had four solid pitches, he located effectively and he was powerful. But then he blew out his arm and married a mouthy stripper. After the Pirates dealt Benson to the Mets, his wife unleashed herself on the New York media, culminating in her telling Howard Stern that if Kris ever cheated on her, she would get revenge on him by sleeping with everyone in the Mets' organization. Later she contended that Mets GM Omar Minaya was attempting to assemble an all-Latino team. Kris Benson later acknowledged that it was likely his wife's behavior that sent him packing from the Mets. And so began the great string of Pirates first-round pitchers to succumb to chronic arm injuries and the drawbacks of having married mouthy strippers. Benson is currently pitching for the Reno Aces, Triple-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

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