Drafting Phil Nevin: The Astros and the 1992 Draft

Everybody wants to speculate what would have happened if the Astros had taken Derek Jeter. Was it because of Derek the Yankees won? It was a huge part of it. They had different resources (than the Astros). The leaders in Houston were Jeff (Bagwell) and Craig (Biggio). Derek would have helped, but I can't say if they could have won as many World Series in Houston that Derek won in New York.
-Phil Nevin

The Hall of Fame pitcher-turned-scout liked the kid from Kalamazoo, Michigan. The Yankees' then-scouting director (now Giants GM) Brian Sabean didn't think Derek Jeter would fall to them when they selected sixth overall in the 1992 amateur draft.

In 1992 the Astros were in the process of being sold to Drayton McLane by Dr. John McMullen and had a recent history of unwillingness to spend on the draft. Just the year before, in 1991, the Astros - who had the lowest payroll in all of baseball - offered #6 overall pick John Burke somewhere between $250,000 and $300,000, eventually pushing their offer to $360,000. Burke held out for $500,000, the two teams never agreed to terms and Burke returned to the University of Florida.

Everyone was worried about the price tag of incoming players. The prior year, the Yankees nearly tripled the highest signing bonus ever given to an amateur player by inking 1991 1-1 pick Brien Taylor to a $1.55m bonus. Taylor's payday began the trend of teams focusing on a new term: "Signability." Taylor was represented by Scott Boras, thus beginning another trend: avoiding players represented by Scott Boras. John Burke's representative? Scott Boras.

The 1992 draft would also present some confusing challenges. Teams that drafted players who had already been drafted but did not sign would retain the rights to those players until next year's draft. New for 1992 was the rule that teams that drafted players who had not yet been drafted retained the rights to those players until a year after they leave college. This meant a team would have rights to high school seniors for a time period from two to five years. Many felt that the new rule change was a push back from the owners in response to the Brien Taylor signing bonus, and the players association would challenge the latter rule and go to an arbitration hearing.

Outgoing Astros owner Dr. John McMullen had set a $700,000 limit on the signing bonus to whomever the Astros selected. Incoming owner Drayton McLane wanted to have a say in whom the Astros selected.

Astros general manager Bill Wood was in the tough position of trying to get the best players with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball. "High price has a bearing on the thing," Wood told the AP before the draft, remembering the John Burke fiasco of 1991, "We want to have some degree of certainty that we'll be able to get an agreement."

Earlier in 1992 Houston's area scout covering Michigan, Hal Newhouser, was selected to the Hall of Fame by the Veteran's Committee. The Hall of Famer wanted to cap off a summer in which he would be enshrined in Cooperstown with a great draft. Newhouser raved about Jeter's ability on and off the field.  Newhouser wrote in his scouting reports that Jeter was a "special player and a special kid." Jeter would be "the anchor and the foundation of a winning club." Newhouser told his wife, "That kid is something special. He's got the softest hands I've ever seen."

His senior year in high school saw Jeter hit .508 with a .637 OBP, four home runs, and only strike out once all season long. The American Baseball Coaches Association named Jeter the top high school player in the country. So did USA Today. So did Gatorade.

There were other options besides Jeter, though. Speedy outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds, for one, hit .380 with 33 stolen bases in 47 games for Stanford in 1992 and was in the conversation for the best overall player in the draft. Scouts compared him to Rickey Henderson. However, the word around baseball was that Hammonds was asking for a $1.8m signing bonus - which would have broken Brien Taylor's 12-month old record for a signing bonus by $250,000.

The Astros were interested in Hammonds, but didn't want to foot the bill. GM Bill Wood told the AP, "We've had an unsignable stack for years here. It's been frustrating to know that you couldn't entice someone to professional baseball because you knew their price was beyond reason."

Phil Nevin seemed destined for a big-league career, and quickly. Nevin had been drafted in the 3rd Round of the 1989 draft by the Dodgers, who offered him a $100,000 signing bonus, but he instead went to Cal State-Fullerton. He hit .402 with 22 home runs and 86 RBI in his senior season, winning the Big West Triple Crown. Nevin led Cal State-Fullerton to the College World Series and won the College World Series MVP despite losing to Pepperdine. Nevin was Baseball America's Player of the Year for 1992 and an All-American at third base. He was also an NFL draft prospect as a kicker and punter.

Scouts noted three above-average tools: hitting ability, power, and aggressiveness. In May 1992 he was given a 50 (20-80 scale) in fielding and base-running. His hand strength and "easy wrists" gave him a strong offensive ceiling. Another report said he "looked like Tim Wallach," another third baseman who had, at that point, been in the Majors for 13 seasons. Nevin was "an aggressive player who makes the game look easy." Scouts noted that he "hit rockets" with a wooden bat during batting practice. He was projected as a .250 hitter with 20+ homers and smooth defense at third.

There were also some concerns about Nevin's attitude. He had been dismissed from the Pan-American Games baseball roster because of a run-in with his coaches, and scouts apparently had questions about his attitude.

Jeter had a solid commitment to the University of Michigan to play baseball and study medicine, indicating that it would take seven figures to break that commitment. "No one is worth $1 million," Newhouser said, "but if one kid is worth that, it's this kid."

The other teams in the top five knew Jeter, but approached the draft in different ways. Picking second overall, Cleveland's former scouting director Mickey White only saw Jeter after he had injured his ankle. The Orioles had the 4th overall pick, but had Cal Ripken at shortstop, and were more geared toward college players. Cincinnati had the fifth overall pick. Reds scout Gene Bennett, responsible for discovering Barry Larkin, Paul O'Neill, Chris Sabo, and Eric Davis, said Jeter could have played all over the field. "I'm telling you he looked like Willie Mays going after the ball. Derek could have been a Hall of Famer in centerfield." In 1992 Larkin was 28 and a five-time reigning Silver Slugger.

Then-Expos GM Dan Duquette - who had the 3rd overall pick - said years later, "Whenever they ask me, they say, 'How much consideration did you give Derek Jeter?' And the answer to that is: evidently not enough."

Yankees scout Dick Groch, who would go on to be Milwaukee's Scouting Director under Doug Melvin, said in a pre-draft meeting of Jeter, "He's not going to Michigan, he's going to Cooperstown."

Groch had seen Jeter play in a "talent identification" showcase in Michigan in the spring of 1992. Within 45 minutes he had seen five tools, with a 6th tool mentioned: He was "A Yankee."  New York's Scouting Director Bill Livesey remembered thinking, "We were like, 'Oh, God, if we feel this way about him, I'm sure other people do, too.'"

Not everyone felt that way. The Braves said his hitting mechanics were just "fair." The Royals compared Jeter to a young Shawon Dunston (this was, I guess, a compliment).

Towards the end of May the Astros started to consider drafting Jeter. Still, McMullen wouldn't approve a seven-figure bonus. Newhouser countered that he could sign Jeter for $750,000 - just $50,000 over McMullen's self-imposed ceiling. Drayton liked the idea that Nevin could be playing in the Astrodome so quickly - one scouting report said he would be a starting third baseman in 2-3 years.

Houston's scouting director, Dan O'Brien, called Newhouser and told him that it was an "organizational decision" to draft Phil Nevin. Newhouser begged his bosses to reconsider and was "extremely disappointed" in the decision to ignore him and take Nevin over Jeter.

"We had a preliminary exchange of ideas and explained where we were coming from," said Astros GM Bill Wood, "Signability was a factor, but we got the man we wanted." Wood continued, "Phil is very talented both offensively and defensively, and we believe he will be on a fast track to playing in Houston. His batting credentials are excellent, both as a pure hitter and one with power, and in the field he is very capable of becoming outstanding major league third baseman."

Later Wood would say, "We were looking for, at that particular point, a guy that could come quick and could make our major league roster in a short amount of time and fill a need."

Picking ahead of the Yankees at #6 were, respectively: Cleveland, Montreal, Baltimore, and Cincinnati. Baltimore was willing to pay for top talent and proved that by offering Jeffrey Hammonds $975,000 to sign. It was the largest signing bonus of the draft.

When it was clear the Astros were going to draft Nevin, New York called Jeter's family and said they wanted him at #6. Jeter, who was born in New Jersey and had Yankees-fan grandparents, and his family loved the idea. The family stressed to the Indians, Expos, Orioles, and Reds that Jeter was intent on his Michigan scholarship in order to allow him to fall to New York. This led to the selections of Paul Shuey, B.J. Wallace, Jeffrey Hammonds, and Chad Mottola, respectively. The entire 1st Round took less than 20 minutes to complete by conference call.

"We were an awfully happy room," remembered former Yankees' scouting director Bill Livesey. But they still had to convince Steinbrenner, who didn't like drafting players out of high school. "We assured him he would be in the big leagues in four years. George reminded, 'If not, it's your you-know-what.'"

Nevin left workouts with the 1992 U.S. Olympic Baseball Team - where he was teammates with fellow 1992 1st Round picks Jeffrey Hammonds, Michael Tucker, and Charles Johnson, as well as 18-year old Nomar Garciaparra - to sign a contract for right at the Astros' ceiling of $700,000.

New York never had to pony up the seven-figure bonus everyone thought it would take to land Jeter. He signed for $800,000, $100,000 more than the Astros gave Nevin, and just over half the amount for which Brien Taylor signed in 1991. "It's all I've ever wanted, so I couldn't picture anything else," Jeter would later say, "It was perfect for how it worked out."

Newhouser was 71 years old during the 1992 draft, and had been in baseball since 1939. That the Astros ignored his - a Hall of Famer's - advice pushed him in the direction to which he was leaning anyway: retirement. The decision to draft Nevin over Jeter ended Prince Hal's 53-year career in baseball.

Early on it looked as though the Astros had been proved right going with Nevin over Jeter. Jeter hit .202 in the GCL in 1992 and made 56 errors in 1993 at Single-A. Nevin won the 1992 Golden Spikes award as the game's best amateur player. At Astros Spring Training in 1993 he hit .364 in 24 at-bats. But Ken Caminiti was firmly entrenched at third base, and the Astros wanted him to play every day. Nevin wasn't a fan, "I think if you ask anybody, they'd rather stay in the major leagues, even if it means not playing much."

Baseball America ranked Nevin #30 before he even played a minor-league game, and he hit .286/.359/.413 at Triple-A Tucson in 1993. Back at Tucson in 1994, Nevin hit .263/.343/.393 and had arthroscopic knee surgery as well as an ankle injury. "I was about fifteen pounds heavier at the end of the season and I could feel the weight on my body," Nevin would say in early 1995, "That was the reason I had the knee and ankle problems. Now I'm in the best shape I've been."

In December 1994 - during the work stoppage - the Astros traded Ken Caminiti, Andujar Cedeno, and Steve Finley (and others) to the Padres for Derek Bell, Doug Brocail, and Ricky Gutierrez (and others). Nevin would open the season, whenever it started, as the Astros' third baseman. Manager Terry Collins said, "The key to this trade is Phil Nevin."

Nevin's tenure with the Astros can only be described as "fractious." Nevin had a legendary temper. The Tucson Toros called a written order sent from the president of the Pacific Coast League to each team not to throw equipment after an umpire's decision, "The Phil Nevin Rule."

He refused to play in exhibition games with replacement players (as did Scott Elarton and Billy Wagner) before the work stoppage of 1994-95 ended. He opened 1995 again with Tucson and hit .291/.371/.457. Called up in June, Nevin played in 18 games with the Astros. They did not go well.  Despite getting a single in his first Major-League plate appearance (off C.J. Nitkowski), he got three more hits in his next 59 plate appearances. On July 4 at Colorado, Nevin got three hits in a 16-8 Astros win.

After the game, GM Bob Watson and manager Terry Collins told him he was being sent back to Triple-A. Nevin got into a yelling match with Astros GM Bob Watson and Collins, cursing out both of them. "I would say that (Nevin) was a disappointment," Watson told USA Today, "His attitude left something to be desired, but we don't question whether he has the ability to play in the big leagues. He does."

Nevin's profanity-laced tirade hit the media. Two weeks later Nevin told the AP that he was emotional after the game. "It (the outburst) was right after a game, and I was still in that frame of mind, I think, and I kind of just snapped...Yeah, I was angry, but it was something that was behind closed doors that I said to Bob and Terry. We're talking about my life and job here. I did say some things that probably weren't good, but I called Bob and apologized about it..."

With the benefit of distance and time, Nevin was hopeful that being sent back to Tucson was a good thing for him. "Maybe I needed something like this. Maybe sometime when I'm healthy and playing well again down here, I'll go back and things will be fine."

He never got that chance. On August 10 the Astros acquired 33-year old reliever Mike Henneman from the Tigers. Five days later Nevin was sent to Detroit to complete the trade.

"Sure, you wonder what happened," Nevin told the Orange County Register in September 1996, a few weeks before Derek Jeter won the AL Rookie of the Year award, "It crosses your mind every day...I could say it was Houston's fault, but it wasn't. It was mine. They gave me a chance, and I didn't take advantage. The Astros and I were just on different timetables."

Nevin would eventually play in 1217 games - 1199 of them with an organization other than the Astros. He played for the Tigers, Angels, Padres, Rangers, Cubs, and Twins and posted a .270/.343/.472 average with 1131 hits, 209 doubles, and 208 home runs. He played in a career-high 149 games in 2001 for the Padres and hit .306/.388/.588 for his first and only All-Star nomination.

Jeter, of course, is making good on Groch's prediction of heading to Cooperstown. In a 20-year career he collected 3465 hits and a lifetime .310/.377/.440 slash line to go along with 14 All-Star bids, five Silver Slugger awards, 71.8 career WAR (58th all-time among position players), and five World Series rings.

Dan O'Brien said of Newhouser in April 2014, "Clearly, any scout that has followed a player and had the feelings that he did towards Derek, was going to be greatly disappointed. I still remember Hal telling me he wanted to go out with a bang. We started with five candidates for that top pick, and narrowed it down to Nevin or Jeter. We went with Nevin."

O'Brien would later say, "Every now and then, there's a fleeting thought of what it would have been like to have Jeter at shortstop, who's a Hall of Famer, and a likely Hall of Famer at second base in Craig Biggio."

Nevin told Tyler Kepner, "Every time I'm approached about the draft, they talk to me like I was a flop because I wasn't as successful as Derek Jeter. But I'd hardly call my career a flop. I'm very proud of what I was able to do. I had a heck of a lot of fun and did a lot of good things in my life because of baseball. The draft just meant I got to go play."


Sources (In chronological order):
Buster Olney: Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty
Associated Press: 7/5/1991
February 4, 1992 Scouting Report on Phil Nevin
May 2, 1992 Scouting Report on Phil Nevin
May 6, 1992 Scouting Report on Phil Nevin
May 27, 1992 Scouting Report on Phil Nevin
Dick Groch's April 8, 1992 Scouting Report on Derek Jeter
Associated Press: 5/30/1992
New York Times: 5/31/1992
Associated Press: 5/31/1992
Associated Press: 6/1/1992
UPI: 6/1/1992
Associated Press: 6/2/1992
Associated Press: 6/19/1992
Baltimore Sun: 6/2/1992
Associated Press: 11/19/1992
Victoria Advocate: 3/18/1993
Associated Press: 2/5/1995
Associated Press: 7/18/1995
Associated Press: 8/16/1995
Toledo Blade: 8/18/1995
Marc Topkin: 4/5/1996
Orange County Register: 9/17/1996
New York Times: 4/4/1999
Sports Illustrated: 5/8/2000
Tracy Ringolsby: 9/22/2009
New York Times: 6/5/2010
Baseball America: 11/29/2010
MLB.com: 6/9/2011
Chicago Tribune: 2/24/2012
The Futurists: 4/17/2012
Yahoo Sports: 6/1/2012
Rob Neyer: 6/6/2013
Houston Chronicle: 4/1/2014
NJ.com: 4/1/2014
AMNY: 7/6/2014
New York Times: 9/19/2014
Yahoo Sports; 9/20/2014

1 comment:

Wes McMahan said...

Great work as always!