John Smoltz is about to be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY after having an excellent, if unusual, career as a pitcher primarily for the Atlanta Braves. His 213 wins, 154 saves, 81.6 career WAR, 3,084 strikeouts, and numerous awards and accolades as a pitcher got his name on 82.9% of the ballots in his first year of eligibility. He is rightly being recognized as one of the all-time greats, but the beginning of his career did not portend greatness.
In 1985, it was Smoltz's hometown Detroit Tigers, not the Atlanta Braves, that drafted him....in the 22nd round no less. Its safe to say that there are lot of teams that wish they had taken a chance on Smoltz, but no one could have really known that he would turn in to the force that he became. This includes the team that drafted him, as he was traded to the Braves as a minor leaguer in 1987 for veteran right hander Doyle Alexander. Alexander had a great second half for the Tigers, but was out of baseball two years later while Smoltz would go on to a Hall of Fame career. The trade, as it turns out, was possibly motivated by the Smoltz family forcing Detroit to honor a handshake agreement regarding $10,000 of his signing bonus.
Regardless, John Smoltz is one of the key examples given of finding tremendous value late in the draft (other examples being Albert Pujols and Mike Piazza), but who else was taken in the 1985? We will look at several of the players taken in the draft, some of whom were good, others....not so much.
Here is a short list of some of the players taken in the 1985 draft other than Smoltz that could be described as having good MLB careers (for the purposes of this exercise, a career WAR of 20 or more...an admittedly arbitrary distinction)
- Barry Bonds - Pirates (1st Round) 162.4 WAR
- Randy Johnson - Expos (2nd Round) 111.8 WAR
- Rafael Palmeiro - Cubs (1st Round) 71.6 WAR
- Barry Larkin - Reds (1st Round) 70.2 WAR
- Will Clark - Giants (1st Round) 56.2 WAR
- Mark Grace - Cubs (24th Round) 44.5 WAR
- David Justice - Braves (4th Round) 40.4 WAR
- BJ Surhoff - Brewers (1st Round) 34.3 WAR
- Brady Anderson - Red Sox (10th Round) 32.6 WAR
- Bobby Witt - Rangers (1st Round) 27.1 WAR
- Randy Velarde - White Sox (19th Round) 22.5 WAR
To say that this draft was loaded is a huge understatement because, as it turns out, Smoltz is not even the best pitcher in his draft class (although his injury and switch to relief and back certainly clouds the debate a bit) as fellow 2015 Hall of Fame inductee Randy Johnson was selected in the second round by the Expos. Much has already been written about the brilliant careers and extracurricular activities (or alleged activities at least) of Bonds and Palmeiro, but fellow Hall of Famer Barry Larkin was also in this draft as, drafted 4th overall by the Reds. The 1985 draft was also directly kind to the Atlanta Braves as they would draft David Justice in the 4th round and he would become a key cog in their offense in the 1990s. Also, it turns out that Smoltz was not the only late round value pick in this draft as Randy Velarde and Mark Grace both parlayed late draft picks into good (Velarde) to really good (Grace) MLB careers.
Swing and a Miss
Obviously, not all of the picks in the 1985 worked out well and even in a loaded draft like this one, the first round had its fair share of disappointments and outright busts
First Rounders w/ Negative Career WAR
- Cameron Drew - Astros (12th Pick) -0.1 WAR
- Bill McGuire - Mariners (27th Pick) -0.2 WAR
- Mike Cook - Angels (19th Pick) -0.3
- Randy Nosek - Tigers (26th Pick) -0.6 WAR
- Chris Gwynn - Dodgers (10th Pick) -1.2 WAR
- Mike Campbell - Mariners (7th Pick) -1.3 WAR
First Rounders Who Never Appeared in the Majors
- Kurt Brown - White Sox (5th Pick)
- Michael Poehl - Indians (9th Pick)
- Jeff Bumgarner - Twins (13th Pick)
- Trey McCall - Phillies (16th Pick)
- Dan Gabriele - Red Sox (21st Pick)
- Dave Masters - Cubs (24th Pick)
- Greg David - Blue Jays (25th Pick)
- Rick Balabon - Yankees (28th Pick)
The Mariners had a tough first round in 1985. They had two picks in the top 28 of what turned out to be a strong draft and their first rounders combined for a -1.5 career WAR. The highest pick to be a bit of a bust was catcher Kurt Brown who the White Sox picked up. Brown bounced around the minors for 6 seasons, getting as high as AAA in 1991 before hanging up his cleats with a career slash in the minors of .243/.306/.325. Chris Gwynn, Tony's younger brother was the 10th pick in the draft, but did not come close to following in his brother's footsteps in the majors. However, he is now a successful scout and Director of Player Development for the Mariners (who could have probably used his talents in this draft). Overall, half of the first round draftees in the 1985 MLB draft either failed to perform at replacement level or failed to make it to the majors at all.
Almost...but didn't sign
Just like this day and age, there were several players who were drafted based on their promise, but did not sign because of either contract issues or college commitments. Deion Sanders was drafted in the 6th round right out of high school by the Royals, but didn't sign because of his commitment to play football at Florida State. Tino Martinez was also drafted right out of high school, but by the Red Sox in the 3rd round. However, he elected to go to the University of Tampa instead. There was also Bo Jackson in the 20th round, who decided that he wanted to destroy opponents at Auburn in football and baseball and be the first overall pick in the NFL draft and be picked in the 4th round of the MLB draft in 1986 by the Royals instead. Other notable non-signees include Brian Jordan, Scott Servais, and NBA player Dell Curry who, while a fine player in his own right, may be better known at this point as the father of NBA MVP Stephen Curry.
The 1985 Draft was loaded...and its time to feel old
As Smoltzy enters Cooperstown this weekend, he won't have to even look away from the stage to remember just how good of a draft class he came from. Three HOFers now with a couple of other players that statistically would normally be in if they weren't strongly suspected of steroid abuse. Its easy to look back and remember that for a lot of us Braves fans, we grew up seeing guys like Smoltz and Glavine debut and create their legends. However, lets put some things in perspective. Of the Braves current 40 man roster, only 13 of them were alive when John Smoltz was drafted. For now, let us not only look back at a great draft, but a great player's career as Smoltzy is inducted in to the Hall of Fame.