1989: The greatest draft in Indians history
The greatest draft in Indians history happened in 1989. Hank Peters was in his second year as general manager and he ended up with a draft for the ages.
In my recent Ultimate Draft series, the 1989 draft took six spots in the top 50 and it could have easily been seven. The Indians selected 55 players that year and 14 made it to the majors for a success rate of about 25%. This success is even more interesting when you take a step back and look at the big picture of this draft.
The Indians 1989 draft started out as nothing less than a total failure. They had the 11th overall pick in the first round of the draft and took an athletic high school player from Texas named Calvin Murray. He had elite speed and looked like a prototypical centerfielder who might be a five-tool player. The issue was everyone knew Murray had zero interest in signing a pro contract.
Murray had a strong commitment to Texas and told teams he was going to be a Longhorn. He did just that and went on to have a great career for the Longhorns. He was just inducted in the Univeristy of Texas Baseball Hall of Fame and left the program the all-time leader in every stolen base category. He would be redrafted in 1992 and went even higher as the San Francisco Giants took him seventh overall. He would hire Scott Boras as his agent and had some contentious negotiations with the Giants before signing. He did eventually make the majors, but was a bitter disappointment never being more than a defensive replacement or bench speed player.
Murray was not the only future major leaguer the Indians drafted and did not sign as Andy Sheets was their 33rd round pick who went on to a seven year career. Billy Brewer was 26th rounder who went on to have a seven year career as well. In addition, the Indians also drafted Mike Potts in the 16th round who would have a cup of coffee in the majors.
The Indians would get a pick in 1990 to make up for the fact they failed to sign Calvin Murray, which they used to draft Samuel Hence who was a high school outfielder out of Mississippi. Hence was an athlete but a miserable failure of a pick. He had one decent year and a lot of awful years. He would never see Double-A before he was out of the Indians organization just six years later.
The Indians didn’t have a second round pick in 1989 because they decided it was better to sign Jesse Orosco. Orosco pitched three years with the Tribe before they gave him away to the Brewers. Orosco had a 2.31 ERA in his first year, but one has to wonder is one great year and two okay years worth giving up a second rounder? Few teams would give up a pick anymore to sign a rubber armed reliever.
The first pick the Indians signed was Jerry Dipoto in the 3rd round. He has had a longer career working in major league front offices than he had as a pitcher. He appeared in almost 400 games over eight years, but was never a backend or even a setup arm during his time.
So for the greatest draft in Indians history it started with a player who they never had a chance to sign who turned into bust, a second rounder they forfeited to sign a middle reliever, and another mediocre reliever. That is not an auspicious start to the draft, but of course it soon gets much better.
The rest of the Top 10
The Indians did a pretty good job with the rest of their Top 10 picks. They only actually made nine selections and failed to sign one of them, but four of the eight players they did sign made it to the majors.
I have already talked about Dipoto, so it just leaves three players to talk about. The least productive was Jesse Levis who selected in the 4th round and was a solid backup catcher for most of the 90’s. The Indians had a skill at finding backup catchers in the 90’s as at one point there was close to 10 catchers in the majors who had come up through the Indians minor league system at one point or another. They might not have found stars, but guys like Levis who could be a solid backup seemed to be drafted every year. Levis wasn’t even the best of the future backup catchers the Indians drafted. In the 11th round they took Kelly Stinnett who would also have a long successful career as a backup.
Alan Embree was taken in the 5th round and had a solid career, but to most fans who remember him, he is a bit of a disappointment. I remember watching a game he was in when he came up, and the announcer saying that one team had told him they would trade any player except one off their active roster to get Embree. He had ace upside from the left side, but it never came together quite right. He turned into a solid reliever with a nice peak, but 10 of his 16 years he posted a negative WAR.
The best pick and one of the best top 10 picks the Indians have made was Curt Leskanic. If you read the Ultimate Draft series he was the greatest 8th round pick in team history and turned in a long successful career as a pen arm. His career WAR was four times higher than Embree’s over a career that was five years shorter, basically four times the value at two-thirds the playing time. Plus, Leskanic was also the centerpiece of the Paul Sorrento deal who became a steady and under-rated bat for the Indians in the 90s. So not only was he a very good player, but he brought the Indians an even better one.
The 1989 draft was made famous in particular because of two players as both of them went on to All Star careers and one became an all-time great, while the other had to struggle in obscurity for his career.
Brian Giles was a 17th round selection who was never a top prospect. He managed to improve every year in the minors, but no one could have guessed what he would become...that is until age 25. His final partial season in the minors his power went up and his strikeouts dropped off. His OPS was nearly 100 points higher than he had for his career. In only 83 games he would hit 20 home runs and only strike out 29 times, and he had officially taken the leap to very good player. The next two years he was a near regular appearing in 112 and 130 games and his OPS was well over .800 each year. He would hit 16 and 17 home runs and really should have earned a regular chance to play every day with the Indians.
The problem was Giles was still viewed as an overachiever with limited upside. In 1997 he along with the addition of David Justice were tasked with replacing Albert Belle in left field. The two combined to play left field and designated hitter for most of the year and the Indians had so little trust in Giles they traded for Kevin Seitzer late in the year giving up Jeremy Burnitz in the process. This was an awful trade and giving Seitzer at bats made them worse as a team. It takes a special trade to make you worse and hurt your long term future. Burnitz needed more at bats, and the Indians missed an opportunity to mix him into the outfield and designated hitter rotation.
In 1998 Giles had another good year but spilt at bats with Mark Whitten and Richie Sexson, yet Giles was having a better year than Justice or even Kenny Lofton and he should have been an everyday player. In spite of this production the Indians gave Giles away after the season to get Ricardo Rincon who had been a very good closer for the Pirates. It is hard to believe a team would give up a proven everyday outfield bat with some pop for a left-handed reliever. His at bats were given to Sexson and later that season to Harold Baines and the Indians moved along. The next year Giles was an All Star and became one of the top outfielders in all of baseball.
Jim Thome was the 13th round selection by the Indians in 1989. His first season in the minors was terrible, but after that he exploded onto the scene offensively. The Indians rushed him up the ladder as he saw a two level jump each year hitting the majors in 1991 at age 20 which didn’t go so well. He spent most of his age 21 season in the minors but got another shot in Cleveland and struggled even worse. He was still dominating the minors though so, it was more a case of youth and needing time to develop. He had another spilt season in 1993 and finally excelled at both levels with a big season at Triple-A Charlotte and finished strong in Cleveland.
Thome was given a starting job in 1994 when he platooned with Mark Lewis at third base and already had 114 games under his belt in the majors. The success he had at both the minor league and major league level in 1993 carried over to 1994 when he hit 20 home runs and posted an .882 OPS in 98 games with the Indians. In 1995 he hit in the lower part of the order and hit 25 home runs with a .996 OPS and never looked back for the next seven years as he was a star.
Thome did it all with the bat as he had massive power, a great eye, and a solid average. His OPS was routinely over 1.000, his on-base percentage was usually over .410, and he was right around 40 home runs every year. From the ages of 20-31 he played with the Indians for 11 years and for a good portion of his peak years as a player.
After a huge 2002 season when he hit 52 homers and had a 1.122 OPS he signed with the Phillies in the offseason. The Phillies got a good payoff in year one as he led the league in home runs with 47 but his on-base percentage dropped quite a bit. He had a few more good seasons with the Phillies and White Sox through the 2007 season before age started to catch up with him. He was still a good player, but he quickly slipped away from great after the 2007 season.
Thome hit 30-plus home runs for the last time in 2008 and was good for about 20-25 homers a year the next four years and his OPS always stayed above .800. His final season in the majors was in 2012 when he played in only 58 games but still managed to have a .786 OPS. He was not given a contract by anyone for the 2013 season in spite of the decent year and his career ended. He finished his career 7th all-time in walks and 7th in home runs. He is one of the greatest players who never won an MVP or a World Series, and in his 22-year career of greatness he somehow only made five all-star teams.
Thome was never viewed as the premier first baseman of his generation, something that tends to go to Frank Thomas who played in the AL Central against Thome for many years. In the end the WAR for Thomas was 79.8 while Thome’s was a 77.0. These two great player’s with similar sounding names and with ties to Chicago should be remembered hand in hand as the greatest first basemen during their time in the American League.
The other Major Leaguers
There were a few more players the Indians drafted who went on to play in the majors from this great draft in 1989.
Robert Person was the Indians 25th round pick and he was a solid backend starter for most of the 90’s. He was exactly the type of pitcher the Indians could have used during this time, yet in 1991 he was traded to the White Sox for Grady Hall. Hall had been a first round pick out of Northwestern in 1986. He had never excelled in the minors but was seen as a depth arm who was closer to the majors than Person who had yet to reach Double-A. Hall would never make it to the majors.
Person started in 135 games from 1995-2003 and also appeared in another 70 games out of the pen during this same time. He was a little above a replacement level player, but for a player taken over pick 20 the fact he was able to even be a replacement level player was an accomplishment.
Bill Wertz was selected in the 31st round and was one of the arms you heard about coming up in the 90’s who was supposed to help the Indians. He hit the majors in 1993 and pitched pretty well, and had done well in the minors leading up to that year. Then it all came unraveled for him and he was never again the same pitcher he had been before. James Hurst was a lefty that the Indians took in the 32nd round who managed to get a cup of coffee in the majors with the Rangers.
In conclusion, while it might not seem like a major return that the Indians netted only three above average players, when when it comes to the Major League draft you are doing a good job if five players make it to the majors. This draft had eleven players selected who made the majors, all without a pick in the second round.
The 1989 draft has a higher WAR value than Mark Shapiro’s entire run as a general manager. It is only less than 50 points away from John Hart’s entire run and each of those guys were in charge for nearly 10 years. The Indian have never been a premier drafting team, but this is one draft that ended up as the best of all time for the franchise and one of the best all-time in the sport.
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What be great to have a draft like 1989 sometime in the near future....