Picked before Olson, Avery could have become Oriole

Ken Rosenthal

October 18, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

Strange as this might sound, the last thing the Orioles wanted in the 1988 draft was a chance to take a high school lefthander named Steve Avery in the first round.

In fact, they gasped with relief when the Atlanta Braves selected Avery with the third overall choice, enabling them to pick Auburn's Gregg Olson at No. 4.

Olson played a pivotal role in their near-miracle 1989 season, and next year should become the first reliever in major-league history to earn 100 saves by the age of 25.

Avery, meanwhile, might be headed for even greater stardom. Yet the Orioles were reluctant to draft him in '88, fearing he would attend Stanford rather than sign a pro contract.

Fortunately, the Braves made their decision easy, sparing club officials the opportunity to commit what could have been one of the greatest blunders in franchise history.

Avery, 21, was named MVP of the National League Championship Series last night. He won two 1-0 games, and set a NLCS record with 16 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings.

The Braves couldn't have asked for more when they drafted him out of John F. Kennedy High School in Taylor, Mich. But they would have faced a difficult choice of their own if Cleveland had chosen Olson instead of Mark Lewis with the second pick.

It's all academic now, but such are the questions that make draft analysis fascinating. The top four '88 picks are especially worthy of a second look. They might turn out the most successful in the 27-year history of the draft:

* San Diego took Andy Benes, a 6-foot-6 righthander from the University of Evansville. At one point this season his career record was 20-24. Then he won 10 straight from July to September to emerge as the Padres' No. 1 starter.

* Cleveland took Lewis, a high school shortstop from Hamilton, Ohio. It's not surprising he's developing slowly, for he's the only position player of the group. Lewis batted .264 with no homers and 30 RBIs in 314 at-bats this season. Scouts still rate him highly.

* Atlanta took Avery, whom Orioles scouts compared to Steve Carlton in early reports. Avery was 3-11 with a 5.64 ERA as a rookie last season. He rebounded to finish 18-8 with a 3.38 ERA this year.

* Finally, the Orioles took Olson, the only one of the four to make a major impact starting in 1989. Benes spent the first four months of that season in the minors, Lewis and Avery the entire year.

"That's as good a group as has come along for a long time," said Braves assistant vice president Paul Snyder, who was the club's scouting director in charge of the '88 draft.

For comparisons' sake, B.J. Surhoff, Will Clark, Bobby Witt and Barry Larkin were the first four selections in '85, and all became quality major leaguers. Ditto for Bob Horner, Lloyd Moseby, Hubie Brooks and Mike Morgan, the class of '78.

The first three picks in '77 (Harold Baines, Bill Gullickson, Paul Molitor) are still active. The fourth (Tim Cole) was a bust. The third and fourth picks in '73 (Robin Yount and Dave Winfield) are likely Hall of Famers. The first two (David Clyde and John Stearns) are not.

Now back to '88.

The Orioles' primary concern entering the draft was that San Diego would take Olson, creating a domino effect that would force them to decide on Avery. Cleveland was set on Lewis, and Atlanta was a mystery, according to Doug Melvin, the Orioles' assistant general manager.

The Braves generally prefer the long-range potential of high school players, and Snyder said yesterday they wanted Lewis or Avery. Still, no one knew their exact thinking at the time. The Orioles weren't certain Atlanta would pass on Benes if he became available.

Thus, their worst-case scenario:

Getting stuck with Avery.

"We had a tough call there," Melvin said. "Ability-wise, he was the guy, no doubt about it. But there was a lot of concern whether he'd sign. Atlanta was the one club everyone thought could afford him."

Looking back, it all worked out. San Diego settled on Benes over Olson, who had been suffering from mononucleosis. Cleveland got Lewis, and the Braves signed Avery for $150,000, plus another $60,000 to cover the estimated cost of a Stanford education.

Given the chance, the Orioles might have gambled on Avery, but Melvin said they actually prepared an alternate selection -- high school shortstop Royce Clayton, who later was taken by San Francisco at No. 15 and played this season in Double A.

Money wasn't necessarily the Orioles' problem under late owner Edward Bennett Williams. But after 11th-round pick Mike Mussina rejected them for Stanford in the '87 draft, club officials cringed at the prospect of Avery doing the same.

It was the first time they drafted as high as No. 4 -- they took Ben McDonald at No. 1 the next year, and got Mussina back at No. 20 the year after that. In addition, they had gone 10 years without a first-round pick reaching the majors.

In other words, they couldn't blow it.

Fortunately, they never got the chance.

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