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A Look Back to 2001: Mauer or Prior? (Part 1)

On Thursday night, Joe Mauer reached the 2,000 hit milestone. The milestone has brought some well-deserved attention back to the Mauer. One topic that came back to my mind was the 2001 draft. Should the Twins take Mauer, or should they take Mark Prior? Mark Teixeira was also in that draft, but it really came down to Mauer versus Prior.

We know what Joe Mauer's career has looked like. Mark Prior was tremendous the first two seasons of his career, 2002 and 2003, then injuries marred what could have been an incredible career. He didn’t pitch in another big league game after the 2006 season. He has spent the last few seasons as a pitching coordinator in the Padres system. Before this season, he was named the bullpen coach of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

In 2010, I wrote an article about this topic and talked to Twins Director of Player Personnel Mike Radcliff. In 2001, he was the organization's scouting director. Since 2010, Mauer has continued to accumulate numbers. As you know, he was an All Star caliber player right up until that day in 2013 when he took a foul tip off of his face mask. In 2017, we saw some return to form for Mauer with a batting average over .300. He's off to a tremendous start in 2018.
Image courtesy of Brad Rempel, USA Today
The Minnesota Twins went 69-93 during the 2000 season which "earned" them the Number One overall pick in 2001. There were several good prospects available in that draft including Georgia Tech third baseman Mark Teixeira, East Tennessee State University pitcher Dewon Brazelton, and Baltimore high school pitcher Gavin Floyd. Two players were generally viewed at the top of the charts; University of Southern California pitcher Mark Prior and Minnesota high school catcher Joe Mauer.
Current Twins director of player personnel Mike Radcliff was the Twins scouting director in 2001. In that role, he was ultimately in charge of the Twins draft. In 2010, I talked to Radcliff and he said, "We scouted and considered all of [those] players, but it ultimately came down to Mauer and Prior for our selection.”

CASE FOR MARK PRIOR

The Californian native was well known in scouting circles. He had been the New York Yankees first-round draft pick in 1998 but decided to go to USC. As the 2001 draft approached, many were calling him the best pitching prospect ever (something that comes around about once every six to seven years).

Prior was what every scout loves to see in a pitcher. At 6’5” and 230 pounds, he had a very projectable and durable body type. His fastball reached into the mid-90s. He had a very good curveball. He had impeccable control. His mechanics were said to be fluid, a perfect example of how a pitcher needed to throw to stay healthy. In his junior season with the Trojans, Prior went 15-1 with a 1.70 ERA and a 0.86 WHIP. In 138 innings, he walked just 18 batters (and two of those were intentional) and struck out 202.

Most believed Prior would likely be able to contribute at the major league level almost immediately. However, that was a notion that Prior himself shot down at the time by telling USA Today, “I still have a lot to learn. Once you get into the majors - or even the minors - the learning curve is so great. For me to make that jump straight from the college level to the major leagues is kind of far-fetched for me to believe.”

THE CASE FOR JOE MAUER

Joe Mauer was a prep star from St. Paul's Cretin-Derham Hall High School, a catcher known for a flawless left-handed swing and strong arm. He was a terrific all-around athlete. At 6’5”, he was the National Player of the Year in football and baseball, and a two-time all-state performer on the basketball court. But everyone knew that baseball was Mauer’s sport of preference. When he was 16 years old, Mauer played for Team USA in an 18-and-under tournament in Taiwan and won the gold medal. He was the catcher for the Team USA Junior National Team for three years and hit .595 his final season. During his senior season of baseball, he hit .600 with 15 homers and 53 RBI.

Radcliff noted that the Twins were well aware of Mauer early and followed him very closely. “Joe was on our follow list as a sophomore in [high school]. Our scouts watched him compete in all sports throughout his [high school] career. As a senior, Joe was being heavily scouted by most teams. We had someone from the Twins at all of his games that year.”


THE CONCERNS WITH MARK PRIOR

In baseball circles, the belief was that Mark Prior was looking for $20 million to sign. There were rumors that he would not sign with the Twins if they selected him. After having failed to sign other first-round picks in the past like Tim Belcher, Jason Varitek, and Travis Lee, it would have been discouraging if the Twins were not able to sign another top pick, especially the first overall pick. At that time, there was no compensation for not signing a first-round draft pick as there is today.

According to Radcliff, Prior’s contract demands were not a concern for the Twins. He said, “We had complete support from the GM and ownership to select anybody we deemed worthy of the number-one pick. There were going to be significant dollars to whomever was selected.”

There is the inherent risk with any pitcher for arm injuries. College pitchers are especially risky as many rack up a crazy number of innings. What do Ben McDonald, Matt Anderson, Kris Benson, Paul Wilson, and Brian Bullington have in common? Each of those pitchers was the number-one overall pick in their draft. Each of them had major arm injuries that kept them from reaching their potential. Add in top college pitchers (like Darren Dreifort, Kyle Sleeth, Philip Humber) who were also highly drafted, and you can see the reality is that there is no such thing as a sure thing pitching prospect. Even in recent years, Stephen Strasburg had to have Tommy John surgery.

Regarding Prior, Radcliff said, “There is always risk for any pitcher to get hurt - most pitchers have had some sort of surgery or extended injury by the time they reach the major leagues. There was no more or less concern with Mark Prior before the draft.”


THE CONCERNS WITH JOE MAUER

Using a high draft pick on any high school player carries a substantial amount of risk. Teams spend a lot of money on a signing bonus for someone they are projecting may develop into a big leaguer in three years, or six years, or not at all. Drafting high school catchers can be especially difficult since they not only have to learn to hit at the pro level, but also to catch, call a game, work with pitchers, and more.

One other concern with Joe Mauer was geographic. High school baseball in Minnesota (and other northern states) can involve a very short season. While games are usually scheduled to start in early April, most years snow still covers the ground until the middle of the month (see 2018). The short season leads to few opportunities for scouts to see players.

Finally, Joe Mauer had a full scholarship offer and had already committed to play for Bobby Bowden and Florida State to play football (where he also would have played baseball). With his athletic prowess, Mauer certainly had options on which to fall back.


THE TWINS DECISION

After years of scouting both players, the Twins made Joe Mauer the first pick in the 2001 MLB Draft. He became the third player to be taken with the top pick by his hometown team. The Twins made their decision three days before the draft.

Radcliff was very certain and confident in the selection. “The conviction level was the highest it could possibly be for a [high school] selection. The combination of athletic ability, skill level on offense and defense, and makeup was unanimous amongst all of us who were involved with the decision. He had the best swing mechanics and hit approach that many of us had ever seen and he profiled defensively as a Gold Glove receiver.”

Signability may have been a greater concern with Prior, but the Twins knew Mauer would not be cheap either. Mark Wilson was the scout who signed Mauer. The $5.15 million bonus that the Twins handed him is still one of the largest signing bonuses given to a drafted player. Because Mauer was a two-sport athlete, the Twins were able to spread out payment of the bonus over five years.

The Chicago Cubs selected Prior with the second pick in the draft that year. He signed late in the summer for a signing bonus was $4 million as part of a five-year, $10.5 million major league contract.


In Part 2, I'll take a stab at how things may have been different if the Twins had selected Prior instead of Mauer.

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20 Comments

Nice review!!!

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Tom Froemming
Apr 17 2018 08:01 AM

Here are the top 10 pitchers drafted that year:

 

Mark Prior (16.6 bWAR)

Dewon Brazelton (-3.1 bWAR)

Gavin Floyd (15.6 bWAR)

Josh Karp (0 MLB innings)

Chris Smith (0 MLB innings)

John Van Benschoten (-3.6 bWAR)

Colt Griffin (0 MLB innings)

Kenny Baugh (0 MLB innings)

Mike Jones (0 MLB innings)

Kris Honel (0 MLB innings)

 

Ouch.

    • USAFChief, Jerr, twinssouth and 1 other like this
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Andrew Thares
Apr 17 2018 08:29 AM

As someone who grew up both a Twins and Cubs fan, I think about this draft often. In all I am glad things worked out the way they did, but sometimes it is so hard not to look back and think what could have been for that Cubs pitching staff.

 

In 2003 they had three legit ACEs in Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and Carlos Zombrano who pitched a combined 636 1/3 innings, with a combined ERA of 2.91 (during the steroid era) and an average age of 23.

 

Then to have my heart broken again in 2006 with what could have been between Santana and Liriano.

I have a great friend who is a diehard Cubs fan.He spent two years laughing at how cheap the Twins were for taking the second-best player to save money.Then he spent two years being worried that maybe it was the better choice.Then he told me how smart the Twins had been.

 

Smart or lucky to dodge a bullet, either way it worked out.

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Siehbiscuit
Apr 17 2018 09:04 AM
What does being a two-sport athlete have to do with spreading the signing bonus out over 5 years?
    • Respy likes this

If you never take a pitcher because they might get hurt....good luck having pitchers. Or is that not the argument being made? Like, how did Strasburg work out so far? 

 

The Twins didn't get lucky, imo. Both players deserved to be a top pick. The Cubs did get unlucky theirs got hurt, though.

    • adorduan likes this

I'm not arguing to never take a pitcher, and perhaps you didn't mean that I suggested it.I would love to have drafted Appel, for example, and we see how that appears to have worked out.

 

I would certainly suggest that in this particular case, it worked out better not to have done so.Tough luck for Prior and the Cubs, no question.Whether that is good luck for the Twins, or good luck in avoiding bad luck...above my philosophy pay grade.

 

Perhaps the second installment of the series will argue that the Twins would still have been better off to pick Prior.I am looking forward to reading it.

    • Mike Sixel likes this

 

What does being a two-sport athlete have to do with spreading the signing bonus out over 5 years?

 

I don't really know the Why, but that was (maybe still is) something that teams are able to do. I'll see if I can find out more. I assume there has to be a scholarship involved or something. 

 

Here are the top 10 pitchers drafted that year:

 

Mark Prior (16.6 bWAR)

Dewon Brazelton (-3.1 bWAR)

Gavin Floyd (15.6 bWAR)

Josh Karp (0 MLB innings)

Chris Smith (0 MLB innings)

John Van Benschoten (-3.6 bWAR)

Colt Griffin (0 MLB innings)

Kenny Baugh (0 MLB innings)

Mike Jones (0 MLB innings)

Kris Honel (0 MLB innings)

 

Ouch.

 

Without looking, I'm going to guess that this isn't unusual. A guy like Colt Griffin was fascinating... Few had heard of him a year before the draft, then someone saw him hit 102 on the radar gun... didn't pan out. 

Don't let anyone fool you, the financial reasons were why teh Twins would not draft Prior.There is strong argument for selecting Mauer, including the fact he was a Minnesotan but I doubt the Twins really considered Prior.

What does being a two-sport athlete have to do with spreading the signing bonus out over 5 years?


I'd assume it's to discourage the unlikely, but theoretically possible scenario of a guy who doesn't really want to play baseball, taking the signing bonus, then "retiring" from baseball as soon as the check clears, and going to Florida State to play football.

Spreading the bonus out over five years would ensure a commitment to baseball if the player wants to get the full bonus.
    • Mike Sixel, Siehbiscuit, big dog and 1 other like this
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Brock Beauchamp
Apr 17 2018 12:13 PM

 

The Cubs did get unlucky theirs got hurt, though.

Half luck, half Dusty Baker. I still put quite a bit of blame on him for blowing up that young rotation.

 

Maybe Prior gets hurt either way but Baker did him no favors.

    • darin617, Siehbiscuit, big dog and 1 other like this
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Brock Beauchamp
Apr 17 2018 12:18 PM

I see a lot of people claiming the Twins were cheap (some comments of that nature circulating on Facebook as well) but I think that really does a disservice to the uniqueness of Mauer and just how bloody talented he was out of high school.

 

This was a guy whose approach played at the MLB level at age 20, almost unheard of from the catcher position. Coming out of high school, people wondered if he could call a capable game at the MLB level at age 18. He was that advanced. Due to his extreme level of polish and smarts, it was almost a given that his floor was "capable MLB starter" provided he didn't get hurt.

 

And the cherry on top is that he's a hometown boy who grew up a Twins fan.

 

And it worked out as well as the Twins could have possibly hoped up until the concussion. And even given that horrible concussion derailment, the guy has a legit shot at ending his career with 60 WAR.

Chatted with a couple of people... There is no longer the rule that two-sport athletes can get their bonus over 5 years. 

Discuss all you want about what "could have been" if they would have selected Prior, I for one, am really glad they went with Joe.

I understand that this is a retrospective on the Twins' process of deciding who to take with that particular draft pick, but I don't understand how the piece is framed. Hasn't the question of Mauer or Prior been settled for about 15 years?

 Below is the Mean and Median WAR for the First Overall pick from 1965-2000.Andrian Gonzalesdrafted in 2000 is still playing.Data is WAR from Fangraphs and are presented as Mean, Median, Min and Max.Sorry it is some what difficult to read.It shows that the average WAR is 10 units higher for an outfielder or infielder vs a pitcher.Generally the position players had much higher upside.Where the median is substantially less than the mean like at infielder, it indicates a disproportionate number of busts and that the average is pulled up by the contributions of Alex Rodriguez and Chipper Jones.Note, I considered only the position drafted and did not compensate of a later position change.  

 

Interesting, that drafting a catcher first overall is the riskiest choice of all (although with a smaller number of picks).Of the 5 catchers taken first overall prior to Mauer, only Mike Ivie drafted in 1970 andBJ Surhoff had positive WAR, 7.5 and 31.4 respectively.

 

Number of players drafted, Mean, Median, Min, Max

Outfielder

10, 28.2, 28.2, -1.2, 77.7

 

Infielder

11, 28.3, 15.2, 0.6, 113.5

 

Catcher

5, 7.3, 0.0, -1.2, 31.4

 

Pitcher
10, 18.1, 17.7, 0, 36.2

 

The first overall pitcher with the highest WAR is David Price (who of course is still pitching).My conclusion from this is that if a team has a pitcher and a position player ranked similarly, taking the position player would typically be the better move.This discussion could be equally relevant to Royce Lewis vs picking 1 of severalpitchers.We just don't know the outcome of that selection.

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Brock Beauchamp
Apr 17 2018 10:22 PM

 

 Below is the Mean and Median WAR for the First Overall pick from 1965-2000.Andrian Gonzalesdrafted in 2000 is still playing.Data is WAR from Fangraphs and are presented as Mean, Median, Min and Max.Sorry it is some what difficult to read.It shows that the average WAR is 10 units higher for an outfielder or infielder vs a pitcher.Generally the position players had much higher upside.Where the median is substantially less than the mean like at infielder, it indicates a disproportionate number of busts and that the average is pulled up by the contributions of Alex Rodriguez and Chipper Jones.Note, I considered only the position drafted and did not compensate of a later position change.  

 

Interesting, that drafting a catcher first overall is the riskiest choice of all (although with a smaller number of picks).Of the 5 catchers taken first overall prior to Mauer, only Mike Ivie drafted in 1970 andBJ Surhoff had positive WAR, 7.5 and 31.4 respectively.

 

Number of players drafted, Mean, Median, Min, Max

Outfielder

10, 28.2, 28.2, -1.2, 77.7

 

Infielder

11, 28.3, 15.2, 0.6, 113.5

 

Catcher

5, 7.3, 0.0, -1.2, 31.4

 

Pitcher
10, 18.1, 17.7, 0, 36.2

 

The first overall pitcher with the highest WAR is David Price (who of course is still pitching).My conclusion from this is that if a team has a pitcher and a position player ranked similarly, taking the position player would typically be the better move.This discussion could be equally relevant to Royce Lewis vs picking 1 of severalpitchers.We just don't know the outcome of that selection.

Interesting way to analyze it and that's where many MLB teams have landed: a position player is a better bet than a pitcher.

 

But I think Mauer should be viewed a bit differently: imagine Hunter Greene with a curveball. 

 

Mauer wasn't just a prep catcher: he was a prep catcher with such a refined approach that he was more Bryce Harper than Luke Hochevar.

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Brock Beauchamp
Apr 17 2018 10:34 PM

This is a fun read. John Sickels is a smart guy.

 

http://www.espn.com/...tory?id=1764708

I understand that this is a retrospective on the Twins' process of deciding who to take with that particular draft pick, but I don't understand how the piece is framed. Hasn't the question of Mauer or Prior been settled for about 15 years?


More or less, for 12 years or so. But actually, Prior was pretty incredible his first few years in the league, and they predated Mauer's arrival. It's an interesting thought experiment to wonder if Prior would have improved our playoff fortunes in 2002-2004. I assume Seth will address that in part 2.

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