MIAMI -- It's easy to fill an expansion baseball team's roster if you understand a couple of things. Here then, courtesy of a man who built two teams from scratch, is a preview of the November 1992 expansion draft -- the primary tool for stocking the two new National League teams.
"If you understand the other owners just want to take your money and make you lousy, you'll have a better time," said Peter Bavasi, who chose players in similar expansion drafts for Toronto in 1976 and San Diego in 1968. "You're going to get has-beens, never-weres and used-to-bes. After all, you're only paying $95 million. You expect to be good, too?"
The NL expansion draft has a number of quirks, but basically, each expansion team gets 36 players, and each NL team loses six, none of whom is among its best 15.
Bavasi's prognosis of the quality of those players is evidently accurate. Listen to Boston Red Sox general manager Lou Gorman, one of a handful of other men who can boast of picking players for two different expansion draft teams.
"You're taking 36 players that no one else wants," said Gorman, who chose for Seattle in 1976 and Kansas City in 1968. "And how are you supposed to win with that? The hardest thing to sell about expansion is the fact that you must have patience. Fans tolerate one year of losing and after that they want you to win. But you're still going to lose for four or five years."
Starting an expansion team is like trying to begin an NFL team with players acquired solely from Plan B free agency.
"Except this isn't Plan B," Bavasi opined. "This is more like Plan F."
Bavasi, who now runs the Dow Jones sports ticker, is down on expansion drafts partly because of a rule that allows the 12 established NL clubs to protect more and more players after each round. And the major leagues certainly won't give the two expansion teams much of a break at the 1992 winter draft of minor-leaguers, either, slotting them in the 27th and 28th positions. (It hasn't been decided when the expansion teams will begin picking in the college and high school draft, or in what year, according to the NL office.)
The four previous expansion drafts should have prepared the new clubs for this. In 1960, the Los Angeles Angels and Washington Senators had to choose from some of the absolutely worst players available. The eight American League clubs, which each had perhaps 100 or so players under contract, simply placed their 15 worst into a pool.
It got a bit better in 1962, when the Houston Colt .45s and New York Mets were added to the NL. Each existing team again
named 15 players to the draft pool, but this time seven had to come from their 25-man active roster.
Tal Smith, a former Houston general manager who now consults for 18 of baseball's 26 teams, was an assistant general manager for that expansion draft.
"There were not a lot of success stories," Smith said. "There never will be, with the way the rules are. I think the way to build is to rely on your own internal development, beating the bushes and starting your minor-league system."
Montreal, San Diego, Kansas City and the Seattle Pilots picked as expansion teams in October 1968, before being added to the major leagues in 1969. In the biggest single change in expansion drafting, the leagues agreed to allow their 10 members to each protect 15 players before the first round and then draw back three more players after each round.
That system was continued in 1976 with a new Seattle team and Toronto, which began play in 1977, and will be used again next year. The only real change -- Toronto and Seattle drafted through five rounds, picking 30 players apiece. The two new expansion teams will get 36 in six rounds.
Expansion teams have traditionally selected a mix of old and young players. Most of the men who have participated would take more younger players if they had it to do over again.
"The best example I can give is with Toronto in 1976," said Smith, the former Houston GM. "They picked a 21-year-old guy named Jim Clancy who few people had ever heard of, no previous experience, and he's had a very solid career, obviously.