MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

First-Year Player Draft as uncertain as it is vital

Justice: Draft as uncertain as it is vital

As the Orioles prepared to make the first pick in the 1989 First-Year Player Draft, Roland Hemond, their general manager at the time, invited me to accompany him to the Southeastern Conference Baseball Tournament.

Hemond was going to see LSU ace Ben McDonald, who was widely believed to be the consensus No. 1 pick. Hemond warned me in advance that he wasn't going to tell me if he planned to draft McDonald. In fact, he said the club intended to keep its options open right until the beginning of the Draft.

So there we sat as McDonald warmed up with maybe a dozen radar guns pointed in his direction. Hemond and I watched the numbers -- 96 mph. 97 mph. 95 mph. It wasn't just that McDonald had a blazing fastball. His fastball had some movement, too, and projected to be a dominant pitch in the Major Leagues.

2012 Draft Central

Hemond didn't change expressions as McDonald delivered fastball after fastball. But then McDonald signaled that he was going to throw a curveball, and when he proceeded to spin a beauty, a pitch with both velocity and a 12-to-6 break, Hemond couldn't contain himself.

One of the things baseball people love about Roland Hemond is that he's about the most decent, most likable man on earth. He's one of those people who has never had a bad day, just as enthusiastic on the first day of Spring Training as the last day of the regular season.

And when McDonald threw that curveball, Hemond burst into a broad smile, punched me in the ribs and nodded.

McDonald was pitching in the Major Leagues a few months later, and then-Orioles manager Frank Robinson tabbed him to pitch Opening Day the very next season. McDonald was injured and didn't make that start, but the gesture tells you how special the Orioles believed him to be.

Twenty-three years later, McDonald is a cautionary tale about the risks and rewards of the First-Year Player Draft. Over nine seasons, McDonald won 78 games. He never won more than 14 in a single campaign, and a shoulder injury ended his career when he was 29.

But the Orioles didn't make a mistake with McDonald, because there are only so many things a scout can know. A scout simply can't look at a 21-year-old kid and project what he'll be like physically and emotionally at 24, 25 or 27. He can't really know what kind of impact money will have on the kid.

A scout can gather as much information as possible about a young player's work ethic, character, intelligence and the like, but he can't know everything he needs to know.

Three organizations gave up on Curt Schilling before he became one of the greatest pitchers of his generation.

Once, when the Orioles sent Schilling back to the Minors, I said to Robinson, "Well, maybe he'll get it this time. Maybe something will click."

"That kid," Robinson said, "ain't ever going to get it."

Dozens of others agreed, but somewhere along the way, Schilling morphed into a relentless worker and a guy who relished the big stage.

So it was with the 1989 Draft. Five probable Hall of Famers were selected that year, but four of them were taken long after McDonald's name had been called. Frank Thomas was the only close call, going seventh overall. He was a big-name star at Auburn, and the projections about him being an impact player were on the money.

But later in the Draft, the Red Sox took a chance on an undersize third baseman named Jeff Bagwell in the fourth round. Bagwell went on to hit 449 home runs and helped the Astros make the playoffs nine times during a 15-year career.

Trevor Hoffman, a guy who combined average physical skills with a fanatical work ethic and will to succeed, went in the 11th round that year. Jim Thome went two rounds after Hoffman; his career seems to be drawing to a close after 22 seasons and 604 home runs.

Another probable Hall of Famer, Jeff Kent, went in the 20th round that year. He was in the big leagues by 1992 and on his way to becoming one of the great second basemen of all-time.

Drafts get really interesting after the first few rounds. That's when teams are rewarded for hiring competent scouts and allowing them to have a voice.

Former Phillies general manager Ed Wade loved to tell the story of how his team drafted Ryan Howard in the fifth round of the 2001 Draft.

Howard's stock had fallen during his final year at Missouri State, but on Draft day, Phillies scout Jerry Lafferty made a passionate pitch to take him. It ended up being one of the smartest picks the Phillies ever made, a franchise-changer in every sense of the word.

There will be more of the those guys drafted this week, and plenty who won't make it. It's the most important week a baseball team has. And the most uncertain.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.