A Look Back To 2001: What If The Twins Drafted Mark Prior?
Image courtesy of Jeffrey Becker, USA TodayBack in 2009, Mark Potash of the Chicago Sun-Times opined, “What looked like an incredible break - the Twins passing on Prior and taking the more ‘signable’ Mauer with the #1-overall pick - has turned into yet another example of how fate seems to taunt the Cubs and Cubs fans.”
In hindsight, it is easy to say that the Twins made the right choice, but it is also fun to consider what would have happened if things had gone differently. What if the Twins would have drafted (and signed) Prior instead of Mauer? Let’s consider.
… for the Twins
Let’s start with an assumption that the Twins were actually able to convince Prior to sign. That’s a big assumption as Prior made it clear that he did not want to sign with the Twins at that time. But let’s think more positively.
The Twins have a strong history of drafting high school hitters and college pitchers. That was even more the case at that time for years to follow. Looking at some of the pitchers that the Twins employed in the early-to-mid ‘90s, you see a lot of college guys. Starting pitchers included names like Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn, Brian Duensing, and Jeff Manship, who were all drafted out of college. The Twins moved each of them fairly aggressively in the minor leagues, and yet, in comparison to Prior, they were very patient. Of course, none of them were the #2 overall pick, or even first round picks.
The Twins likely would have had Mark Prior begin his professional career at Ft. Myers (High-A). He would have maybe spent a half-season there, and after the Florida State League All-Star Game, he may have been promoted to New Britain (Double A affiliate at that time). Honestly, because the Twins were in the playoffs, he probably would have been called up directly from Double A. If not, he would have gone to spring training 2003 with an opportunity to make the Opening Day roster. And he probably would have.
The Twins have been known for taking care of their pitchers, especially young pitchers, at least once Ron Gardenhire took over as manager. Dusty Baker was willing to let Kerry Wood and Mark Prior throw 120 to 140 (or more) pitches late into the season. I have no doubt that the Twins would have controlled pitch and inning counts much more tightly.
Does that mean that Prior would have stayed healthy? There’s no way to know that with any certainty. It is possible that Prior had underlying arm issues that may have caused inevitable injury. However, it is also possible that he could have been an All-Star, Cy Young-contending starter for the Twins from 2003 through 2008, and maybe beyond.
And think about the Twins 2006 team. That roster included the AL MVP (Justin Morneau), a top closer (Joe Nathan) and the AL Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana. They also had Michael Cuddyer, Torii Hunter, Jason Bartlett, Brad Radke and a strong bullpen. How much could a healthy Mark Prior have helped that team? The thought of Prior and Santana in the same rotation, along with Brad Radke, and ideally a healthy Francisco Liriano is sure fun to think about. (Of course, the AL Batting title winner (Mauer) would not have been on the team.)
… for the Cubs
Had the Twins taken Prior, the likelihood is that the Cubs would have drafted Georgia Tech third baseman Mark Teixeira who was said to be looking for a $15 million deal after the draft. (With the Rangers, as the fifth pick, he signed a four-year, $9.5 million big league contract with a $4.5 million bonus.) Teixeira would have moved quickly through the Cubs farm system and probably put up numbers similar to those he has put up with the Rangers, Braves, Angels, and Yankees in his career. But would the Cubs have kept Aramis Ramirez or acquired Derrek Lee? Would they have gone after Alfonso Soriano? I would venture to guess that Teixeira would have been a building block for the Cubs and would likely not have played for as many teams in his career.
… for Joe Mauer
To me, it makes a lot of sense that the Tampa Bay Devil Rays would have selected Joe Mauer with the third pick in the 2001 draft. The Rays were a team that was constantly building at that time. They had a lot of early draft picks that they used to select several talented high school players. They took Carl Crawford in 1999, Rocco Baldelli in 2000, BJ Upton in 2002, and Delmon Young with the first-overall pick in the 2003 draft. Mauer likely would have thrived with the Rays had this scenario played out.
While he batted third through most of his career with the Twins, you have to assume that Joe Maddon may not have been afraid to bat him leadoff. As earlier adopters of analytics, the Rays would have loved Mauer’s on-base percentage at the top of the lineup. Assuming health, it’s hard to believe that Mauer would not have been equally successful with the Rays.
Now, the economic reality is that the Rays would not have been able to keep him through free agency. The Twins actually extended him for two years beyond free agency before giving him the big contract. The Twins had to do the deal for a variety of reasons, including the new stadium, his performance on and off the field, and being a hometown player. If the Rays would have pushed him to the big leagues as quickly as the Twins did (likely), he probably would have been traded either before or after his 2009 season. At that time, Jorge Posada and Jason Varitek were on their last legs with the Yankees and Red Sox, respectively, so there would have been a big market and the Rays could have received a lot for Mauer. Mauer would likely have gone to a team that was in the playoffs often and would have had some great playoff and maybe World Series moments. Assuming health, he would have received, probably, an even bigger contract than the Twins gave him.
The Twins had a huge decision to make in 2001. Should they draft the All-American, can’t-miss college pitcher from a baseball-rich college? Or, should they take the tremendous high school athlete with the full ride scholarship to Florida State for football and baseball - a guy from their backyard with the perfect swing, a strong arm, and the perfect mentality?
The Twins went chose Mauer, and have never looked back or questioned it. Fortunately for the state of Minnesota, Mauer has proven the Twins right over time, regardless of what Prior has done in his career, by being one of the best players in baseball. Even if Prior somehow goes on to win three or four Cy Young Awards, the Twins’ selection is justified. It was not a case of the team being “cheap”: Mauer’s signing bonus still ranks among the highest of all time (in part because of baseball going to the slotting system in the draft). It was not a case of picking the hometown kid over a better player (as the Padres did in 2004 when they picked Matt Bush instead of Justin Verlander).
Scouting and the baseball draft can be such an inexact science. The Twins have a solid track record in drafting and player development, but no team is perfect all of the time. In 2001, the Twins had a difficult decision, and they made the right choice.
- Andrew Thares likes this