Monday, October 1, 2012

Stars The Mets Drafted But Couldn't Sign (Part Two)

Welcome to Part Two of "Stars The Mets Drafted But Couldn't Sign".  In the first part (which you can read by clicking here), we looked at five stars who were originally selected by the Mets in the amateur draft, but as the title of the post suggests, they decided not to sign with New York.

Some of them went to college to continue their intellectual pursuits.  Some of them wanted to play an additional year or two so they could be drafted higher.  Some of them just wanted no business with the Mets.  But all of them went on to lengthy and successful careers in the big leagues.

Here are five more players I uncovered that became All-Stars at the major league level, but only after passing on the Mets:

Matt Williams

In 1983, the Mets drafted Matt Williams as a 17-year-old out of high school, but Williams did not sign.  Instead, he accepted a scholarship to play baseball at UNLV.  Three years later, Williams was drafted by the Giants with the third overall pick and was in the majors the following year.  His career in the big leagues started out very slowly, as Williams hit a combined .198 from 1987 to 1989 with the Giants.  But a World Series appearance in 1989 gave Williams a little extra experience, which served as a springboard for a fantastic major league career.

In 1990, Williams had a breakout season for the Giants, hitting .277 with 33 HR and a league-leading 122 RBIs, which earned him his first Silver Slugger Award.  Over the next three seasons, Williams continued to shine, averaging 31 HR and 92 RBI in that span.  But he showed that he was not a one-dimensional player, as evidenced by his Gold Glove Awards in 1991 and 1993.  But Williams saved his brightest season for a year that was baseball's darkest.  In 1994, Williams was leading the majors with 43 HR in early August, putting on pace to challenge Roger Maris' home run record.  But labor unrest ended Williams' quest, as a strike put the kibosh on the 1994 season and shortened the 1995 season.  Williams played two more seasons in San Francisco, although both were truncated due to injuries.  Following the 1996 season, Williams' decade-long affiliation with the Giants came to an end, as the third baseman was traded to the Cleveland Indians for Jose Vizcaino, Julian Tavarez and some guy Jeff Kent (never heard of him, although I hear he's some kind of survivor).

In 1997, Williams had an exceptional season for the Indians with 32 HR and 105 RBIs, earning him another Silver Slugger Award.  He also won his fourth Gold Glove Award, helping Cleveland win the American League pennant.  Had it not been for a walk-off win by the Marlins in Game 7 of the World Series, Williams might have won the World Series MVP Award, as he hit .385, scored eight runs and reached base an amazing 17 times (10 hits, 7 walks) in the seven-game series.  His stay in Cleveland lasted just that one season, as Williams was traded to the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks prior to the 1998 season.

Following a lackluster 1998 season in Arizona (20 HR, 71 RBI), Williams had a renaissance season in his second year in the desert.  In 1999, Williams hit 35 HR and collected a career-high 142 RBIs, but he and his teammates still fell to the Mets in the NLDS.  Two years later, Williams finally won his first World Series ring, driving in seven runs in Arizona's seven-game World Series victory over the Yankees.  Williams was part of another division-winning team in Arizona in 2002, but by then, injuries had depleted him of much playing time, causing him to call it a career after the 2003 season.  Williams was a five-time All-Star who ended his career with 378 HR, 1,218 RBIs, four Silver Slugger Awards, four Gold Gloves, three World Series appearances (with three teams in three decades) and one championship.

John Wetteland

Big Brother was watching us in 1984, but the Mets had their sights on someone else.  New York selected John Wetteland in the 12th round of that year's June amateur draft, but the pitcher chose not to sign with the Mets.  Instead, he put his John Hancock on the Dodgers' contract the following January after Los Angeles drafted him in the second round of the 1985 secondary draft.  Wetteland never became a star in Hollywood, but once he went north of the border, he became one of most feared closers in baseball.

During his three-year stay in Los Angeles, Wetteland was used as a reliever and spot starter.  From 1989 to 1991, Wetteland appeared in 59 games for the Dodgers, including 17 starts.  He wasn't very impressive in Dodger Blue, going 8-12 with a 3.84 ERA and one save.  Following the 1991 season, Wetteland was traded to Cincinnati for All-Star outfielder Eric Davis and pitcher Kip Gross, who in turn sent Wetteland to Montreal two weeks later for Dave Martinez, Willie Greene and Scott Ruskin.  The Expos immediately named Wetteland their closer.

From 1992 to 1995, Wetteland saved 105 games for Montreal and registered a sparkling 2.32 ERA.  But the 1994 strike that killed the Expos' best chance of winning their first pennant also caused them to let go of their star players after baseball resumed play.  In April 1995, the Expos traded Wetteland to the New York Yankees for Fernando Seguignol, who never made much of a mark in a short big league career.  But Wetteland made a big impact in New York, combining with Mariano Rivera to become a fearsome tandem in the back of the Yankees' bullpen.  Wetteland helped the Yankees make the playoffs in 1995 and 1996, recording the final out in the 1996 World Series to give the Yankees' their first title since 1978.  But after recording 31 saves in 1995 and a league-leading 43 saves in 1996, the Yankees decided to let Wetteland walk as a free agent so that Rivera could become their new (and much less expensive) closer.  Less than two months after winning the World Series, Wetteland signed a free-agent deal with the Texas Rangers.

In four seasons with Texas, Wetteland saved 150 games and helped the Rangers win two division titles (1998, 1999).  He was at his most dominant in 1997 and 1998, when he was 10-3 with 73 saves, a 1.98 ERA and 0.98 WHIP.  In 1999, Wetteland made his third All-Star team and reached the 40-save plateau for the fourth time in his career.  One year later, he pitched his final year in the big leagues, going out with a 34-save season.  Wetteland finished his career with 330 saves and a 2.93 ERA, and his 295 saves in the 1990s were the most of any pitcher in the decade.  To this day, Wetteland remains the Rangers' all-time leader in saves and is a member of their Hall of Fame.

Mark Grudzielanek

In June 1989, the Mets selected Mark Grudzielanek, a scrappy middle infielder from Texas in the 17th round of the June amateur draft.  But Grudzielanek chose not to sign with the Mets and was picked by the Montreal Expos in the 11th round of the amateur draft two years later.  It didn't take very long for Grudzielanek to establish himself as one of the most dependable middle infielders in the National League as well as one of the more underrated hitters in the major leagues in recent history.

After making the Expos out of spring training in 1995, Grudzielanek got off to a poor start and was sent back to the minors in July.  His time in the minors must have helped, as Grudzielanek responded by batting .306 in 1996, collecting 201 hits, scoring 99 runs and stealing 33 bases, which earned him a trip to the All-Star Game.  One year later, the Expos' shortstop led the majors with a franchise-record 54 doubles.  But by 1998, Montreal surprisingly gave up on Grudzielanek, trading him to the Dodgers at the trade deadline.  He did not disappoint his new team after the deal.

In 1999, Grudzielanek was one of the majors' best table-setters, hitting a career-high .326 and scoring 72 runs despite missing 39 games due to injury.  The following year, Grudzielanek was healthy and reached triple digits in runs, scoring 101 times for the Dodgers.  Injuries limited Grudzielanek to 133 games in 2001, but they didn't stop him from hitting a career-high 13 HR that year.  After a so-so year with Los Angeles in 2002, Grudzielanek was traded to the Cubs in 2003, where he batted .314 as the Cubs' starting second baseman.  Had it not been for Steve Bartman and the untimely error by his double play partner at short (Alex Gonzalez), Grudzielanek might have played in his first World Series on the Cubs' first pennant-winning team since 1945.  After his time in Chicago ended after the 2004 season, Grudzielanek bounced around from team to team, with stops in St. Louis, Kansas City and Cleveland, before finally calling it a career following the 2010 season.

Whereas most middle infielders' skills fade as they get older, Grudzielanek ended his career with a flourish.  In a six-year stretch from 2003 to 2008, Grudzielanek batted .302 and became one of the best contact hitters in the sport, striking out a total of 347 times over the six years, an average of 58 whiffs per season.  Grudzielanek was also a steady defensive player, winning his first Gold Glove Award with Kansas City as a 36-year-old in 2006.  By the time he called it a career following the 2010 season, Grudzielanek had quietly amassed 2,040 hits, 391 doubles and 133 stolen bases.  The Mets were certainly glad to see their former draft pick retire, as Grudzielanek batted .332 in 82 games against them, his highest average against any National League team.

Darin Erstad

In 1992, the Mets were putting together the team that would become "The Worst Team Money Could Buy".  One player who the Mets couldn't buy was Darin Erstad, who chose not to sign with them after they selected him in the amateur draft.  Instead, the two-sport star enrolled at the University of Nebraska where he became a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award as well as the punter for the Cornhuskers, who won the National Championship in 1994.  Three years after the Mets failed to sign him, Erstad was selected by the California Angels with the first overall pick in the draft, beginning what was to become a long career with the Angels.

After a short stay in the minors, Erstad was called up to the major leagues in June 1996, playing in 57 games for the Angels.  In 1997, the Angels dropped the California from their name and switched to Anaheim.  The Angels also made the switch to Darin Erstad as their full-time first baseman.  Erstad rewarded them by hitting .299 with 34 doubles, 16 HR and 77 RBI.  He also scored 99 runs and stole 23 bases.  It was more of the same for Erstad in 1998 (.296, 39 doubles, 19 HR, 82 RBI, 84 runs, 20 SB), which earned him his first All-Star selection.  But Erstad regressed in 1999 (.253, 22 doubles, 13 HR, 53 RBI, 84 runs, 13 SB), as did most of the team, who didn't take too kindly to the way manager Terry Collins was running the team.  Collins was gone in 2000 and Erstad became an everyday outfielder.  Needless to say, the changes did wonders for Erstad's career.

Erstad had his finest season in the majors in 2000, tying or setting career-highs in batting average (.355), hits (240), doubles (39), triples (6), home runs (25), RBIs (100), runs scored (121) and stolen bases (28).  Erstad won his first Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Award, and also made the All-Star team for the second time.  Although Erstad was not able to maintain his power stroke after his breakthrough 2000 season, he was still productive in 2001 and 2002, averaging 32 doubles, 94 runs and 24 stolen bases during those two years, with the latter year ending with the Angels' first-ever World Series title.

Over the next seven seasons, the last three being spent with the White Sox (2007) and Astros (2008-09), Erstad had trouble staying healthy, missing an average of 59 games per year.  But he still managed to win his third Gold Glove in 2004 despite missing 37 games and helped the Angels win back-to-back division titles in 2004 and 2005.  Erstad was also one of the best postseason hitters in Angels history, batting .339 with 12 extra-base hits (9 doubles, 3 HR) in 118 postseason at-bats.  Erstad completed his 14-year career with a .282 batting average, 316 doubles, 124 HR and 179 SB, as well as three Gold Gloves, two All-Star selections and a Silver Slugger Award.

Aaron Rowand

In 1995, the Mets took a chance on a 17-year-old shortstop named Aaron Rowand, selecting him late in the draft.  But as had happened with many other just-out-of-high-school kids drafted by the Mets in the '80s and '90s, Rowand chose to go to college instead, passing up on the chance to play professional baseball in the Mets organization so he could attend class at Cal State Fullerton.  Rowand became an All-America player in college and was drafted by the White Sox in the first round of the 1998 June amateur draft.

Rowand took three years to make it to the majors, playing his first game for the White Sox in 2001.  In limited action, Rowand played all three outfield positions and hit .293 in 123 at-bats, scoring 21 runs and driving in 20 more.  The following year, Rowand played in 126 games, mostly as Chicago's fourth outfielder and late-inning defensive replacement, hence why he only managed seven home runs and 29 RBIs.  It was more of the same in 2003, with Rowand playing 93 games, but only accumulating 157 at-bats.  But like Darin Erstad before him, it took the departure of another future Mets manager to bring out the best in Rowand.  When Jerry Manuel was replaced as White Sox manager by Ozzie Guillen after the 2003 season, Rowand finally got a starting job with the team.  He rewarded them by hitting a career-high .310 in 487 at-bats.  Rowand also collected 38 doubles, 24 HR and 69 RBI, while scoring 94 runs and stealing 17 bases.

In 2005, Rowand was a key contributor in Chicago's run to their first championship since 1917.  After a good regular season (.270, 13 HR, 69 RBI, 77 runs, 16 SB), Rowand had 12 postseason hits for the White Sox, half of which were doubles.  But when Jim Thome became available during the offseason, Rowand became expendable. A month after holding the World Series trophy, Rowand was traded to the Phillies for Thome.  The White Sox also sent Gio Gonzalez (yes, that Gio Gonzalez) to Philadelphia to complete the deal a month later.  Rowand got off to a fast start for the Phillies in 2006, batting .310 with six home runs and 17 RBIs through May 11.  But after a violent face-to-fence collision on a ball hit the Mets' Xavier Nady, Rowand's season took a turn for the worse.  After returning from the injury in late May, Rowand hit .240 the rest of the season, with six home runs and 30 RBIs over his last 76 games.

Rowand played a full season for the Phillies in 2007 and had his most complete season to date.  The centerfielder hit .309, establishing career highs in doubles (45), home runs (27), RBIs (89) and runs scored (105).  Rowand also became an All-Star for the first time and won his first Gold Glove Award, helping the Phillies win their first division title since 1993.  But despite his success in Philadelphia, Rowand showed no brotherly love to his former team, leaving the Phillies to sign a lucrative five-year deal with the Giants.  Although Rowand hit 67 doubles in his first two years in San Francisco, he couldn't reproduce the other numbers from his breakthrough 2007 season, averaging 14 HR, 67 RBIs and 59 runs scored in 2009 and 2010.  Despite his decline, Rowand did win his second World Series ring in 2010, as the Giants ended their 56-year championship drought.  It was the second time Rowand was a member of a World Series-winning team that was finally ending a lifetime of postseason futility.  Rowand hasn't played in the majors since September 2011, but at age 34, he might still be able to hook on with another major league team.  Players with 267 doubles and 136 home runs in their careers at such a relatively young age tend to come back somewhere.

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