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How Walt Jocketty saved the disastrous 1991 draft

The Cardinals used the 1991 draft to replenish their system, just not in the way you normally would

Houston Astros v St. Louis Cardinals

The 1990 Cardinals are not a team that is remembered fondly. After the first 80 games, Whitey Herzog quit with the team last in the NL East. They then traded beloved Cardinals CF Willie McGee at the waiver deadline in August. Two staples of Whiteyball leaving represented the end of an era. At the end of the year, they remained in last place in the NL East, with a 70-92 record and a pythagorean record of exactly the same. They were not good.

They weren’t in a horrible position however. They traded one month of McGee for Felix Jose, who put together 2.3 and 3 fWAR seasons in his time in St. Louis. Due to the bad season and some departing free agents, they were also ridiculously well set up for the 1991 draft. They received the #21 and #39 overall picks for Ken Dayley, the #22 pick for losing Vince Coleman, and the the #28 pick for losing Terry Pendleton. I have no idea how free agent compensation worked then, but Ken Dayley had 2 saves and a 3.56 ERA as a reliever so how the hell did losing him get two picks?

They also had the #4 overall pick, and I assume as a result of other teams losing picks, they had the 2nd pick of the 2nd round and the 1st pick of the 3rd round. In total they had three picks in the 1st round, two picks in the supplemental 1st round, and seven picks in the top 75. This should have been the draft that catapulted the Cardinals back into relevancy in the mid-to-late 90s, but that didn’t really happen. At least not because of the draft and the relevancy was mostly just Mark McGwire hitting home runs.

So what happened? They drafted badly. Simple as that. They went heavy on drafting high school players at a time when drafting college players would have made much more sense. Of those seven picks within the first 75 picks of the whole draft, five of them were high schoolers and one of them was drafted from the New York Institute of Technology, which sort of feels like as much of a longshot as a high school player unless I’m vastly misjudging the baseball program there. They drafted four college players and three high school players from Rounds 4-10, which feels like a better mixture, but nobody gets much value from those rounds, so the damage was done.

They “hit” on one of those high school players, but he didn’t provide much value in his career and what value he did provide didn’t come with the Cardinals. With the #4 overall pick, they drafted Dmitri Young. Young had 0.3 total fWAR with the Cardinals in 126 games played. If the draft worked at all similar to today’s draft, and it probably doesn’t, the pool of the players the Cardinals would have realistically chosen from as the #4 pick was probably players who ended up drafted in the top ten. And boy was this a weak top 10. The #5 and #6 picks didn’t sign with their teams. Brien Taylor is a famous #1 bust. #8 pick Joey Hamilton is easily the best player of this bunch, but he was only good for a couple years while under team control.

The 1991 draft is a weird draft. The #11-#16 picks are an insane group of players: Shawn Estes, Doug Glanville, Manny Ramirez, Cliff Floyd, and Shawn Green. Except for Glanville, the weakest of that group, everyone of those guys was drafted out of high school too. So it seems like the Cardinals just got unlucky, although this presupposes they planned to draft one of these guys if they could. The only other pick drafted in the 1st round who is a regrettable miss is Aaron Sele, who was drafted out of college and came right after the back-to-back 21 and 22 picks. So yeah that is actually a huge miss.

Who did they draft instead? They drafted Allen Watson, one of only two college players drafted in the first 75 picks. He was the #9 overall prospect by Baseball America by the 1993 season. Of course there’s a reason few know who this player is, so obviously his #9 prospect status amounted to not much. The #22 pick was high schooler Brian Barber, who was a top 100 prospect for three straight seasons, but he hit the fictional brick wall once he reached AAA and just couldn’t hang with the competition. His B-R bullpen biography was obviously written by himself, since it says “some” blame his lack of success for the Cardinals rushing him. I’ve seen rushed prospects before and this guy just seems to have not been any good to me, cause he doesn’t seem particularly rushed. I’ve definitely seen considerably worse cases than this guy.

With the #28 pick in the supplemental 1st round, the Cardinals drafted high school pitcher Tom McKinnon. Now this pick, this is an awful pick. I don’t just mean because he didn’t work out. B-R bullpen page notes that he held hitters to a .118 average in high school, but that he also walked 81 batters in 120.1 IP. In just 15.2 professional innings, he walked 25 batters and hit 7 others before the Cardinals tried to convert him to hitting. They may have drafted him as a two-way player, but it... doesn’t seem like it? His professional high of games played was 68, and I would think he’d play more than that if they ever believed he was a legitimate prospect. With the #39 pick, the Cardinals drafted Dan Cholowsky, who was a 3B out of UC-Berkeley. He never made the majors.

As for the rest of the draft, notable players the Cardinals drafted are John Mabry in the 6th round, Mike Difelice in the 7th, and Mike Busby in the 14th round. Yes, the most valuable draft pick in the 1991 draft for the Cardinals turned out to be John Mabry. This is the kind of draft we’re dealing with here.

Jocketty didn’t become general manager until after the strike-shortened 1994 season, so you may be wondering what exactly he has to do with this draft. After all, he had nothing to do with the 1991 draft and inherited the players from that draft. Where Jocketty fits in is that he was able to squeeze value out of this truly horrendous draft through trades.

Jocketty’s first trade involving the 1991 draft actually didn’t result in much, but I admire the effort. At the beginning of the 1995 season, the Cardinals traded a whole bunch of nothing for 29-year-old starter Ken Hill. The whole bunch of nothing included 26-year-old reliever Bryan Eversgerd, 25-year-old reliever Kirk Bullinger, and 21-year-old OF DaRond Stovall. Eversgerd was replacement level in 67.2 IP, and Bullinger was a 32nd rounder of the 1992 draft who hadn’t reached AA yet. Stovall was a 5th rounder from 1991 who clearly couldn’t hit a lick, with a .680 OPS and a 26.7 K% in High A in 1994.

Hill was quite bad - replacement by fWAR, -0.8 by bWAR - and they dealt him after 18 starts. It was actually an absurdly good return for half a season of that guy, but neither guy they got worked out. Rick Heiserman was a 22-year-old starter who was just drafted in the 3rd round of the 1994 draft and David Bell was a 22-year-old infielder who already reached the majors. Heiserman didn’t pan out, it happens, and Bell couldn’t hit at all as a Cardinal and was eventually selected off waivers before he broke out into a decent player for the Mariners.

The Cardinals traded Allen Watson as well, but it’s not like Jocketty traded him when he was the #9 prospect in baseball. He was not particularly impressive in his debut season and then he was worse in his next two seasons. By December of 1995, Watson had 56 career starts of being not very good and was going to be 25 in 1996. He would be what we would now call a post-hype sleeper prospect, but you wouldn’t get much for this guy, and certainly not, say, a league average shortstop with three years of team control.

Watson was paired with two other players, but in modern day terms, these two players would be worth zero. The Cardinals drafted 30-year-old reliever Rich DeLucia in the 1994 Rule 5 draft, and he put together 0.5 bWAR and 0.3 fWAR in 82.1 IP. I mean that’s a fine season, but let’s just say it wasn’t a surprise when he followed that with a -1.1 bWAR and -0.2 fWAR season. You can’t count on these guys. They also included fellow 1991 draftee, 7th rounder Doug Creek, who was going to be 26 in 1996 and had never made the majors. So it’s basically just post-hype sleeper prospect who wasn’t really a prospect and filler.

They got Royce Clayton for those three, and while he maybe didn’t work out like Cardinals fans hoped, he also provided exactly what was advertised. It’s not his fault he was replacing Ozzie Smith, but he was a 2.2, 2.2, and 2.4 fWAR player in the three seasons before the trade and a 1.9 fWAR and 2.9 fWAR player as a Cardinal before being traded in the middle of 1998. Watson was a 1 fWAR starter for the next couple seasons and then hung around past the point where he was any good until 2000.

Jocketty was also lucky. Before the 1995 season, Todd Stottlemyre signed with the Oakland Athletics. I’m guessing here based on Baseball Reference data, but he seemed to have signed a 4 year, $15.5 million deal. A couple things happened in 1995. The owner of the Athletics, Walter Haas Jr. died and the Haas family sold the team. La Russa was friends with them and chose to leave the Athletics. Also, the team went 67-77. Stottlemyre enjoyed working with pitching coach Dave Duncan and asked to be traded to either the Yankees or Cardinals. The Athletics obliged and the return is basically indicative of a trade where one team is forced into a trade.

It’s hard to say how valued the four prospects the Cardinals gave up were, so I’ll just give you my modern day take on them. As far as I can tell, they gave up two somewhat desirable prospects and two guys I’d say no thanks to. Jay Witasick, drafted in the 2nd round of the 1993 draft, appears to have been a legitimate pitching prsopect. In 1995, at 22, he had 109/36 K/BB in 105 innings as a starter in High A. He did pitch poorly in AA, but this isn’t nothing. Bret Wagner was the 19th overall pick in the 1994 draft who was formerly the #84 prospect in baseball, but his minor league results in 1995 are pretty underwhelming and he wasn’t a top 100 prospect going into 1996. Carl Dale was a 2nd rounder from that same draft who had not particularly impressive season in Single A in 1995. Allen Battle was going to be 27 in 1996 and was an 89 wRC+ hitter in the MLB in 137 PAs as a bench outfielder.

Baseball America has the Cardinals with three top 100 prospects in 1996, so we know that it was not anybody in the top 3 of the system. Wagner seems likely to have been top 10 purely because of his former status as top 100 and Witasick would seem to be top 10 as well. Dale might squeeze in, but if he squeezes in, it’s more a product of the system than Dale as a prospect. Meanwhile, Stottlemyre had a 4.41 ERA and a 4.20 ERA, and even after about seven full seasons of play, you would still expect that to level out a bit. Now I doubt Jocketty was thinking about that, but his ERA with the Cardinals was 3.77 and his FIP was 4.10. Stottlemyre was worth 6.7 bWAR and 8.4 fWAR in the 2 and half seasons he was a Cardinal.

Both Stottlemyre and Clayton were put together in a trade in the middle of the 1998 season for Darren Oliver and Fernando Tatis. Oliver was worth 3.6 bWAR in a season and a half before he became a free agent, while Tatis was worth 5.9 fWAR in 2.5 seasons before being traded. Tatis turned into Steve Kline and Dustin Hermanson, which isn’t a great return for the player Tatis was, but Tatis immediately fell apart and it ended up being positive for the Cards.

One more note on the 1991 draft that is kind of funny to me. In the 26th round, they drafted Rigo Beltran. He didn’t make the majors until 1997, at 27-years-old. Beltran was pretty good in 54.1 IP, which included 4 starts - 0.4 bWAR, 1 fWAR. They traded him for Juan Acevedo, who had a career year in his first year (3 bWAR) and a below replacement season in his 2nd. They then traded him for Fernando Vina and immediately locked up him to a three-year extension.

So let’s tally it all up. I’m going to use fWAR for hitters and bWAR for pitchers here. We’ve got Ken Hill (-0.8), Royce Clayton (5.4), Todd Stottlemyre (6.7), Darren Oliver (3.6), Fernando Tatis (5.9), Dustin Hermanson (0.5 fWAR), Steve Kline (1.8 fWAR), Juan Acevedo (2.3), Fernando Vina (3.1), Rick Heiserman (-0.1), and David Bell (-1.3). Value received from who they drafted includes John Frascatore (-0.4), who was traded for Clint Sodowsky (-0.5). John Mabry was worth 1.4 WAR in four seasons as a starter, Mike Busby -1 WAR in the bullpen, and Mike DiFelice 0.2 WAR before being selected off wiavers. There’s also -1.2 WAR from Allen Watson before being traded for someone useful. There’s also Dmitri Young, worth 0.3 WAR, who was traded for Jeff Brantley, worth 0 WAR. Would have gotten better value out of Young and the process for the trade is horrendous, but Young didn’t end up turning into somebody you’d regret trading.

If you’re wondering, I only counted Vina for one season since he signed an extension and only the first three years of Kline, since he literally hit free agency and then re-signed. If you want to really break it down, the 1991 draft gets full credit for Clayton, Acevedo, and Vina’s first season plus half credit for Tatis, Oliver, Hermanson, and Kline, and basically nothing from Stottlemyre since the one guy was a 26-year-old bench player. It also only gets a third of the blame for Hill. So that comes out to 16.7 WAR. You of course have to remove the -1.2 WAR of value the 1991 draftees actually produced, so in total Jocketty was able to squeeze 15.5 WAR of value out of the 1991 draft, even with the actual draftees providing negative value.

Now granted, Clayton and Vina got paid better than a league minimum guy would have so in reality, the value would actually be significantly less than 15.5 WAR. If I had remotely any clue how to do WAR per dollar in the 90s, I’d try, but it may as well be a different language to me as is. Regardless, the value they received was vastly better than if they had done nothing. So really, this basically seems to be a microcosm of how Jocketty was successful in St. Louis. It’s not a strategy that would have lasted, but man was it perfect for the time.