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Stars shining elsewhere: Draft picks that got away

Several of today's big names were picked by other teams but didn't sign
May 1, 2020

The Giants stunned the industry when they signed Barry Bonds to a six-year, $43.75 million contract at the 1992 Winter Meetings in Louisville, Ky. The deal shattered Cal Ripken Jr.'s record for the largest guarantee in baseball history by $13.25 million. Though Bonds proved to be a bargain at that

The Giants stunned the industry when they signed Barry Bonds to a six-year, $43.75 million contract at the 1992 Winter Meetings in Louisville, Ky. The deal shattered Cal Ripken Jr.'s record for the largest guarantee in baseball history by $13.25 million.

Though Bonds proved to be a bargain at that price, San Francisco could have landed him much earlier and at a fraction of that cost.

The early 1980s were part of a much different Draft era than today. If a player dared negotiate, teams often took it as a sign that he wasn't committed to playing pro ball. Hiring an agent was considered heresy; Ron Darling dropped from the presumed No. 1 overall pick in '81 all the way down to No. 9 after doing so.

In 1982, the Giants took Bonds in the middle of the second round with the 39th overall pick. It had all the makings of a feel-good story, as his father Bobby had played in two All-Star Games and won three Gold Gloves for San Francisco in the early '70s, except Barry wouldn't agree to terms.

Depending on who's telling the story, the club offered $60,000 and Bonds wanted $66,000, or it was $70,000 vs. $75,000. Either way, the two sides couldn't close that narrow gap, so he attended Arizona State rather than turning pro. The Pirates selected him sixth overall in the 1985 Draft, brought him to Pittsburgh less than a year later and enjoyed his stellar play for seven seasons before he left for the Bay Area.

The Draft is full of all kinds of what-if stories, in part because players can get selected at multiple stages of their amateur careers -- and even against their own wishes -- and don't always sign the first time they get selected.

In 2005, Luke Hochevar led NCAA Division I with 15 wins and ranked second with 145 strikeouts at Tennessee, a performance that was expected to put him near the top of the Draft. But signability questions slid him all the way out of the first round before the Dodgers decided to gamble their top choice (No. 40 overall, a supplemental first-rounder) on him.

On Labor Day weekend, Hochevar changed agents and agreed to a $2.98 million bonus (slightly more than No. 4 overall pick Ryan Zimmerman received), only to switch back and renege on the deal. Further negotiations proved fruitless and Hochevar re-entered the 2006 Draft, where the Royals surprised many teams by selecting him No. 1 overall over Andrew Miller, the consensus top prospect.

The Tigers pounced when Miller unexpectedly fell into their laps at No. 6. Right behind them, Los Angeles took the Texas high school left-hander Detroit had planned on taking: Clayton Kershaw.

With the addition of Kershaw, the Tigers probably don't miss the playoffs by one game in 2009 and could have a World Series championship or two to show for four straight postseason appearances from '11-14. It's difficult to imagine the Dodgers without him.

Several of today's biggest stars didn't turn pro the first time they were drafted. Here's a quick synopsis of those situations, presented in chronological order:

Max Scherzer, Cardinals 2003 (43rd round)
St. Louis took a flier on a local high school product who was considered unpolished and unsignable but still flashed a 94-mph fastball on occasion. Scherzer went to Missouri, where he blossomed into the 11th overall pick by the D-backs in 2006.

Charlie Blackmon, Marlins 2004 (28th round) and Red Sox '05 (20th round)
In consecutive years, the defending World Series champions drafted Blackmon as a beardless left-handed pitcher, first out of a Georgia high school and then from Young Harris (Ga.) JC. He redshirted in his first season after transferring to Georgia Tech, famously bluffed his way into outfield playing time during summer ball in 2007, and proved so talented at his new position that the Rockies took him in the second round the following June.

Buster Posey, Angels 2005 (50th round)
Posey starred as a pitcher on U.S. national teams and even drew a comparison to a Georgia prep version of Greg Maddux, showing top-three-rounds talent. He was determined to attend Florida State, however, so he lasted until the sixth-to-last pick (1,496th overall, in a round that no longer exists). Posey began catching as a sophomore with the Seminoles and went No. 5 overall to the Giants in 2008.

Paul Goldschmidt, Dodgers 2006 (49th round)
Phillies first-rounder Kyle Drabek (Doug's son) was the star attraction at national champion The Woodlands (Texas) High in 2006. Scouts loved the makeup of third baseman Goldschmidt, but he hit just .315 (albeit with eight homers) and his tools didn't pop. He became a record-setting slugger at Texas State and led NCAA Division I with 87 RBIs in 2009, when the D-backs made him an eighth-rounder -- which still sold him way short.

Chris Sale, Rockies 2007 (21st round)
Sale was a 6-foot-5, 145-pounder with a conventional arm slot and more projection than present stuff when Colorado tried to sign him for $100,000 out of a Florida high school. He took off once Florida Gulf Coast shifted him to a low-three-quarters delivery as a freshman, and he arrived in the big leagues for good two months after the White Sox selected him No. 13 overall in 2010.

Gerrit Cole, Yankees 2008 (1st round)
Cole's arm was as electric as any in the 2008 Draft, but his strong commitment to UCLA dropped him all the way to New York at No. 28. Though he initially indicated he might be open to signing, negotiations never really got going and he became a Bruin. Three years later, the Pirates made Cole the No. 1 overall choice and gave him an $8 million bonus, still a Draft record. Of course, the Yankees did get their man eventually.

Anthony Rendon, Braves 2008 (27th round)
Rendon also was a contender to go No. 1 overall in 2011 after an outstanding career at Rice, ultimately joining the Nationals at No. 6. He was one of the best high school hitters in Texas three years earlier and turned down Atlanta's offer of upper-second-round money to go to college.

George Springer, Twins 2008 (48th round)
Minnesota took a late-round gamble on Springer, a Connecticut high schooler who had raw five-tool potential but came with swing-and-miss concerns. Those worries continued to dog him despite three years of production at Connecticut, allowing the Astros to snatch him with the 11th overall choice in 2011.

Kristopher Bryant, Blue Jays 2010 (18th round)
Nevada's best prospects in 2010 were sluggers and childhood friends Bryce Harper, the No. 1 overall pick to the Nationals, and Bryant, a prepster who belonged in the second round but fell to the 18th. He wanted first-round money and a rough performance on the summer showcase circuit had left scouts wondering how much damage he would do with wood bats. Bryant has proved he can do plenty since the Cubs snared him with the second choice in the 2013 Draft out of San Diego.

Aaron Judge, Athletics 2010 (31st round)
Scouts were split on whether Judge, a Northern California high schooler, had a brighter future as a right-handed pitcher or a slugger. Oakland took him as a first baseman, but he was too raw to invest much money in and wound up at Fresno State, where he developed into the second of three Yankees first-rounders (32nd overall) three years later.

Jim Callis is a reporter for Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter. Listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.