A Look Back to 2001: Mauer or Prior? (Part 1)
Image courtesy of Brad Rempel, USA TodayThe 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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