Wednesday, June 3, 2009

"Evil" Agents, Untapped Potential and Revisionist History: The Ben McDonald Draft Revisited

(toh to Matt from Roar from 34 for linking to this article...)

USA Today's Ben Nightengale has a story that revisits the drafting of former Oriole Ben McDonald, the inherent risks of the draft and draws parallels to college phenom pitcher Stephen Strasburg.

I think the point of the article was to warn of the dangers of star agents and unrealistic expectations for top draft picks. You know, the typical "How can teams pay players so much money? It's crazy!" articles. I am no fan of McDonald's former agent, Scott Boras, but what got me fired up were the quotes by former members of the Oriole front office.

Says current Boston Red Sox president Larry Luchino:

Boston Red Sox president Larry Lucchino's long-standing feud with Boras started during the McDonald negotiations when Lucchino was president of the Orioles.

"I'll always remember how highly rated Ben was," Lucchino says. "And how unequivocal his representative was in telling us how unique his talent was. And the predictions of a long and storied Hall of Fame career.

"And I still believe those negotiations might have impaired his early development. His agent did not want him to be signed until the last possible moment."

After signing, McDonald made two starts in the minor leagues before being promoted to the Orioles...

Wow. Notice the quotes I emphasized. The problems with McDonald's development were Scott Boras' fault, not the fault of an organization that threw him into the middle of a division race with 9 minor league innings under his belt at the age of 21.

McDonald only had 64 innings of minor league work before he was thrust into the Oriole lineup for good in 1990. By comparison, Mike Mussina (the top pick in 1990) had 178 innings in the minors before getting called up. Did the organization's anger with Boras affect how they treated McDonald?

McDonald was rushed. Instead of viewing McDonald as an investment, the Orioles basically told him, "Are you really that good? Prove it, rook."

There's more:

Roland Hemond is currently an Arizona Diamondbacks special assistant but was the Orioles general manager in 1989 and says he thinks the lengthy negotiations cost the team a playoff berth.

"If he had signed sooner, we might have picked up a couple of wins and gotten in there," Hemond says. "But the negotiations just kept dragging. And sometimes when that happens, the player and the agent lose out in the long run."

I loved that 1989 team. It was awesome to watch. But the reason they missed the playoffs was not because Ben McDonald did not make some starts for that team. That team simply didn't have the horses. And the team was not built to contend. It was a rebuilding effort that caught lightning in a bottle.

If you were so smart Hemond, if you thought this team could win in the first place, why did you trade away Eddie Murray in '88? Or Mike Boddicker?!?! Or Mike Morgan!?!?!?! Who do you think would have been more likely to push that team over the top? A 21 year old rookie with virtually no minor league innings or a slugging first baseman who was on his way to the Hall of Fame?!?!?! Our best starter was Bob Milacki! You think we could have used Mike Boddicker in '89?!?!?!

Don't pull that crap with me, Hemond! You may be 80 years old but you can't possibly be that DELUSIONAL!!!!!

(pant, pant, pant)

Typical management tactics. Blame the player, the 21 year old kid, and his agent for the player's ultimate failure, not the team that pushed him too far, too fast. (And it's not as if Ben McDonald is the ultimate cautionary tale. Injuries prevented him from living up to the hype but he was a very good pitcher, especially toward the back end of his career. Why? He finally learned to pitch. He could have learned better in the minors and reached his potential sooner had Baltimore treated him like a normal prospect...)

Besides, there are others who think that Ben was overworked in college and that perhaps that was the reason he developed injuries in his mid-20's:

(Boras) says a more reasonable explanation is that McDonald was a product of the times, when collegiate pitchers started a game one day and closed it the next.

Granted, Boras has a vested interest in this matter. But Rob Neyer (who is certainly no Boras fan) had heard and seen similar things regarding McDonald's collegiate workload:

Speaking of Ben McDonald, I saw his last outing before he got drafted, at the College World Series in 1989. His brilliant coach left him in for far too long, as he was obviously laboring; some say McDonald was never the same afterward.

But somehow, some way, it was Scott Boras and the lost (at most) 10 weeks of potential extra playing time in 1989 that cost the Orioles the division and ultimately damaged McDonald's career.

Get out of here with that. Pull my other leg, this one's long enough.

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