Monday, October 1, 2012

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

In a recent piece, I discussed the possibility of Jonathon Niese being the third-best homegrown left-handed starting pitcher in Mets history, after Jerry Koosman and Jon Matlack.  Niese ranks in the team's top three in each of the following categories for homegrown lefty pitchers - starts, wins, ERA, WHIP, strikeouts and strikeout-to-walk ratio.  The other two players in the top three for those categories are Koosman and Matlack.

Of course, although Niese's numbers have improved from year to year, he might be No. 3 only because the Mets have not had much success drafting and developing left-handed starting pitchers, as can be seen by the inclusion of such non-legends as Eric Hillman, Pete Schourek and Bill Pulsipher in the team's top five in various categories.  Even promising left-handed starters like Jason Jacome (drafted by the Mets in 1991; made his debut for the team in 1994) couldn't maintain any early success they had in the big leagues.

Jacome made eight starts for the Mets in 1994 and pitched very well, going 4-3 with a 2.67 ERA in 54 innings, averaging nearly seven innings per start.  But the young southpaw couldn't duplicate his rookie success in his sophomore season.  Jacome went 0-4 with a 10.29 ERA in 1995, throwing only 21 innings in five starts for the Mets.  His slow start caused the Mets to give up on his once-promising potential.  In July, Jacome was traded to the Kansas City Royals for three players, including Derek Wallace, whose sole claim to fame with the Mets came on September 13, 1996, when he became the first pitcher in team history to strike out four batters in one inning.  Jacome would go on to win six more games in the majors with the Royals and Indians before bouncing around the minor league systems of the Diamondbacks, Astros, Cardinals and Giants.

Simply stated, the Mets have fared poorly when it comes to drafting and developing left-handed starters.  But that's not the point of this blog post.  What I'd like to discuss is something I came across when doing my research on the Jonathon Niese piece, particularly something I uncovered when looking back at who the Mets have drafted since 1965.

Did you know Roger Clemens was originally drafted by the Mets, but chose not to sign because he wanted to become a Texas Longhorn?  Did you also know that '80s nemesis John Tudor was also drafted by New York but said "no thanks" when he was asked for his signature on the dotted line?  They're not the only ones who said no to the Mets before saying yes somewhere else.

The following are a select group of players who were originally drafted by the Mets, but did not sign with the team, finding success elsewhere while the Mets and their fans were left shaking their heads at what might have been:

Ron Cey

The man lovingly known as the Penguin was originally drafted by the Mets out of high school in 1966, but chose not to sign and instead enrolled at Washington State University.  Two years later, he was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers, making his major league debut for them in 1971.  Cey became part of the famous infield that also included Steve Garvey at first, Davey Lopes at second and Bill Russell at shortstop.  Along with Cey at third base, the quartet played eight and a half seasons together, the longest of any infield in major league history.

Over his 17-year career spent with the Dodgers, Cubs and A's, Cey launched 316 HR and had 1,139 RBI.  Cey was also selected to six All-Star teams and played in four World Series while in Los Angeles, winning his only World Series ring as a member of the 1981 Dodgers.

In 1984, Cey helped the Cubs reach the postseason for the first time in 39 years by collecting 25 HR and 97 RBI for the long-suffering franchise.  Cey had more RBIs against the Mets that year (13) than he had against any other National League squad, as the Cubs held off the team that originally drafted Cey 28 years earlier for their first-ever NL East title.

Burt Hooton

Like Cey, Burt Hooton also spent the majority of his career with the Dodgers and Cubs, but he played for the two teams in reverse, making his major league debut with the Cubs, before spending the majority of his career with the Dodgers.  Also like Cey, Hooton was originally drafted by the Mets, but did not sign with the team that drafted him in 1968.  Instead, he increased his draft value by going 35-3 at the University of Texas at Austin before being drafted by the Cubs in 1971.  Hooton didn't do much with the Cubs, going 34-44 from 1971 to 1975.  But his stock went way up once he was traded to the Dodgers in May 1975.

In ten seasons with the Dodgers, Hooton went 112-84 with a 3.14 ERA.  Hooton pitched in three World Series for Los Angeles (1977, 1978, 1981), with the latter year being his best in the postseason.  In five October starts that year, Hooton went 4-1 with a 0.82 ERA.  Hooton did not give up an earned run against the Expos in the 1981 NLCS, earning him the MVP award for that series.  Hooton was also the winning pitcher for the Dodgers in the sixth and deciding game of the 1981 World Series, which gave the Dodgers their first championship since 1965.

Hooton finished his career with the Texas Rangers in 1985, which was fine with Mets fans.  After all, over his long career in the big leagues, Hooton wore more games against the Mets (21) than any other team he faced.  In 43 appearances (37 starts) against the team that couldn't get him to sign in 1968, Hooton went 21-14 with a 2.62 ERA, holding the Mets to a .218 batting average against him, his lowest mark against any team he faced.

John Tudor

John Tudor was drafted by the Mets in 1975 but did not sign with New York.  Instead, he hung around for the January 1976 secondary draft, where he was picked by the Boston Red Sox.  Tudor had several good seasons for the Red Sox, despite Fenway Park being notoriously unkind to left-handed pitchers.  From 1979 to 1983, Tudor went 39-32 with a 3.96 ERA for Boston.  He was then traded to the Pirates for Mike Easler and won 12 games for Pittsburgh in 1984.  After one season in the Steel City, Tudor was then flipped to St. Louis for George Hendrick.  It was in St. Louis that Tudor experienced his best seasons in the majors.

In 1985, John Tudor had arguably the best season by a Cardinals pitcher since Bob Gibson in 1968.  Tudor finished the year with a 21-8 record and a 1.93 ERA.  He also led the league in WHIP (0.938), while holding opposing batters to a .209 batting average.  Furthermore, Tudor led the league with 10 complete game shutouts in 1985.  No pitcher has reached double digits in shutouts since then.  But Tudor finished second to Dwight Gooden in the Cy Young Award vote, as Doc won the pitching Triple Crown in 1985.  Tudor got the last laugh, however, as his Cardinals team edged out the Mets for the division title in 1985.  The Cardinals went on to win the NL pennant, but were denied a World Series title when umpire Don Denkinger blew a call at first base in Game 6.  Tudor then lost Game 7 (after winning Games 1 and 4) to the Royals, giving Kansas City their first and only World Series championship.

Tudor returned to the World Series in 1987, going 10-2 in an injury-plagued regular season and finally won a World Series ring in 1988 as a member of the Dodgers.  Tudor had been involved in a mid-season trade with Los Angeles that sent Pedro Guerrero to St. Louis (the third time Tudor had been traded for a veteran slugger, following the Mike Easler trade and the George Hendrick deal).  After one more injury-plagued season in L.A. in 1989, Tudor became a free agent and returned to St. Louis, where he went 12-4 with a 2.40 ERA in his final season in the big leagues.  Tudor finished his career with a .705 career winning percentage with the Cardinals and a 2.52 ERA.  Both numbers place Tudor in the top three all-time in Cardinals history.  As good as his ERA was against the rest of the league, it was even better against the Mets, as Tudor finished his career with a 2.41 ERA vs. New York in 22 starts.

Roger Clemens

Mets fans will always hate Roger Clemens for a number of reasons.  Whether it was his headhunting incident with Mike Piazza in 2000 or his inability to determine the difference between a broken bat shard and a baseball in that year's Fall Classic ("I thought it was the ball"), there was never any love lost between those who root for the Mets and Clemens.  But perhaps those same fans would have loved him had he chosen to sign with the Mets after they drafted him out of San Jacinto College in 1981.  But he didn't, choosing to go to the University of Texas before signing with the Boston Red Sox two years later.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Roger Clemens struck out more batters than any other Red Sox pitcher and his 192 wins in Boston tie him with Cy Young (the man, not the award named after him) for most in club history.  Speaking of Cy Young, Clemens won his award a record seven times, winning it thrice in Boston, twice in Toronto, once as a Yankee and once as an Astro.

The baseball history books might have looked completely different had the Mets been able to sign Clemens in 1981, but looking back, would we really want that negative publicity surrounding Clemens for his subsequent "alleged" steroid use?  I'd much rather remember Clemens for all the home runs Piazza hit off him, the homer Shawn Estes hit off him in 2002 after the Mets pitcher failed to plunk Clemens in an earlier inning, and most importantly, I'm quite fond of the memory of a clean-shaven Clemens waiting to celebrate a World Series title in 1986 that never happened.  Looks like Roger Clemens never got over '86.

Rafael Palmeiro

The Mets couldn't sign Roger Clemens in 1981, who was accused of taking steroids but never tested positive for them.  One year later, they tried to sign another player who would end up becoming linked to performance enhancing drugs.  However, unlike Clemens, this player eventually did test positive for steroid use.  That player was Rafael Palmeiro, who said thanks but no thanks to the Mets in 1982 before signing with the Cubs one year later.

Rafael Palmeiro wasn't much of a power hitter when he was called up by the Cubs in 1986, but he did hit his second career homer against Dwight Gooden in the game that clinched the Mets the National League East title on September 17.  After two-plus seasons in Chicago in which he only managed to hit 25 HR, the Cuban-born Palmeiro was traded along with Jamie "I'm Never Retiring" Moyer to the Texas Rangers.  It was in Texas that Palmeiro's power fully developed.  Whether it was artificially assisted is another question.

In each of his first three seasons in Arlington, Palmeiro's extra-base hit total increased rapidly.  Palmeiro went from 35 extra-base hits in 1989 to 55 extra-base hits in 1990 to 78 extra-base hits in 1991.  In the latter year, Palmeiro hit 26 HR and led the majors with 49 doubles.  But that was just the beginning.  From 1995 to 2003, Palmeiro hit at least 38 HR in every season, after only topping 30 HR once in his first nine seasons in the majors.  Then in 2005, after wagging his finger before Congress claiming that he had never done steroids - period - MLB drug tests proved otherwise, putting an exclamation point on his career.  Palmeiro finished his career with 3,020 hits, 569 HR and 1,835 RBIs, but no support for the Hall of Fame.

(To read the second part of this lengthier-than-expected blog post, where we reveal the next five stars the Mets drafted but couldn't sign, please click here.)

No comments: