By The Common Man
Last night was the 1st round of the Amateur Draft, which is where teams chart their courses and pin their destinies on talented young men from states like Oklahoma, Arkansas, Florida, Texas, and California. Indeed, teams can truly alter the course of their destinies in the first round of the Amateur Draft, for good or for ill, as a wasted pick can really set a franchise back (especially given that teams often have to wait until picks in the 60-90 range to get their second player). This is the story of one team that did hit in the very first Major League Draft, held in 1965, and that benefited from one of its first pick for more than thirty years. Ironically, this team is perhaps the most star-crossed franchise of all time, the Chicago Cubs.
|Ken Holtzman Trade Tree (Click to embiggen)|
The Cubs finished 76-86 in 1964, to earn the 6th overall pick in the inaugural 1965 Amateur Draft, but squandered their first three picks. Rick James, whose name was not nearly as hilarious then as it is today, was a big Alabama righty who got into three games as a 19 year old and was never heard from again. Local catcher Ken Rudolph, the second round pick, got just 467 PAs as a backup catcher for the Cubbies and posted a WAR of -0.1. The third round pick, SS Greg Werdick, never made it out of AA. But the fourth rounder was a big local righty who grew up in St. Louis, but went to the University of Illinois.
Ken Holtzman threw exactly 12 starts in the minors, before the Cubs called him up that same year. He then spent all of 1966 in the Majors, at just 20 years old, and pictched 220 innings. He pitched just 12 games in 1967 because of injuries, but Holtzman went 9-0 with a 2.53 ERA and it was clear he was in the Majors for good. After growing into the ace role in Chicago, he and the Cubs (and specifically manager Leo Durocher) suffered a falling out in 1971. He demanded a trade, and the Cubs were happy to oblige, trading him straight up for outfielder (and #1 overall pick in that 1965 draft) Rick Monday. Holtzman was glad to be gone, telling the Chicago Tribune, “The air is cleared now. I wouldn’t have cared if the Cubs had traded me for two dozen eggs.”
Holtzman was an ace and a workhorse for the Oakland dynasty of the early-70s, but Monday became a solid contributor in the Cubs for five seasons, even though he was probably stretched in centerfield, before he got traded with Mike Garman to the Dodgers for three players: Jeff Albert, Bill Buckner, and Ivan de Jesus.
People tend to forget that de Jesus was a heck of shortstop in the late-70s, earning 9.0 WAR from 1977-1980. After a rough strike-shortened 1981, de Jesus would, of course, famously be traded in one of the most lopsided deals ever. He went to the Phillies, where he had two more good seasons in four years, for Larry Bowa and a miscast 3B named Ryne Sandberg. Bowa was done, but Sandberg hit .285/.344/.452 as the Cubs 2B for 15 of the next 16 seasons, making 10 All Star teams, winning six Gold Gloves, seven Silver Sluggers, and, of course, an MVP Award in 1984, for helping the Cubs win the AL East and make it to the Postseason for the first time since 1945. He also was a key cog in the 1989 club that won the NL East and lost to Will Clark’s Giants. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005.
Buckner, too, would unwittingly play a large role in the Cubs’ 1984 triumph. He spent just over seven seasons on the North Side, hitting .300/.332/.439 as an underpowered first baseman, but by ’84 was seemingly cooked. The Cubs wisely installed Leon Durham as the full time 1B, and relegated Buckner to the bench. Less than 2 months into the season, they moved him to the Red Sox (where he never did anything noteworthy ever again), for prospect Mike Brumley and Dennis Eckersley, then a starter. Eckersley won 10 games down the stretch for the Cubbies, helping them to outpace the NL East and reach the postseason for the first time since 1945, before collapsing in front of the Padres in the NLCS. In three years, Eck was worth 10.3 Wins Above Replacement to the Cubbies, before they unloaded him to the A’s for three prospects (none of whom ever made the Majors). In Oakland, of course, Eckersley would beocme the most dominant closer in baseball history (until Mo Rivera, that is) and earn his way into the Hall of Fame in 2004.
Brumley never really had a chance in Chicago, as the Cubs were happy with middle infielders Sandberg and Shawon Dunston, but they needed a closer in 1988 after trading Lee Smith to the Red Sox. So the Cubs packaged him and Keith Moreland to Padres for pitcher Ray Hayward (who they flipped for a couple nobodies during Spring Training) and Goose Gossage, who was an old 36. Gossage really scuffled for the Cubs, saving just 11 games and posting an ERA of 4.33, and was released the next Spring. He’d go on to have a late-career renaissance in San Francisco, New York, Texas, Oakland, and Seattle, and pitch effectively until he was 42. He was elected into the Hall of Fame in 2008.
The Holtzman pick was inspired in 1965 because it gave the Cubs a terrific young pitcher to build around. But that’s not all. Because of the control they had over his young career, they managed to eventually parlay it into two division titles 20 years later and three Hall of Famers, including one of the 5 best players in team history. Will that happen with any of the young players drafted last night? Or any of the guys picked today? We’ll know in about 30 years.