Who's who of draft is really: Who's he?

JOHN EISENBERG

November 19, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

The best moments of the expansion draft, easy, no question, were when ESPN cut to those bewildered fans in Denver and Miami standing around with blank expressions after their club's latest selections were announced.

The cable network was hoping for some excitement in baseball's newest hometowns. The NBA and NFL drafts can get loud, for at least a few seconds, when a team picks a hot player and some VTC fans gathered in a ballroom start hollering and putting hog snouts on each other.

But, this time, the Rockies and Marlins spent their big day perfecting the art of the obscure draft pick, and the fans gathered in Joe Robbie Stadium and a Denver convention center just became more confused and depressed as the selections drifted between unspectacular, unknown and unbelievably useless.

"Did they say Dennis Martinez? All right, man, Dennis Martinez! Awesome!"

"No, I think they said Jose Martinez. Yeah. I don't know him, do you?"

"I'm not sure. I don't think so. But maybe Dennis' real name is Jose. You know, something like that."

"Yeah, maybe so."

Poor people. They wanted Jack Morris and Danny Tartabull. They got Doug Bochtler and Pat Rapp. Or is it Patt Rap?

You had to feel for them. Any Baltimore football fan certainly could.

These people had waited forever, put their season-ticket money in escrow, gone to the exhibition games and cheered, jumped through all the hoops. Then, on the day they were finally able to assign some faces to their figment, they had to confront the first law of being a baseball fan: Your owner is always going to spend a lot less money than you think he should.

"Jack Clark? Awright, Jack Clark!"

"No, no, they said Jerald Clark."

"Jerald Clark? Who's he? Isn't he a boxer or something?"

"I don't know. I think he's a pitcher. Shouldn't we be clapping?"

Of course, they were wrong to carry any expectations. This was an expansion draft. But it had a tease. Some top players were unprotected because of their salaries. Had the Rockies or Marlins been willing to foot a $30 million payroll, they could have had a good team. Maybe a contender.

How about this lineup: 1) Steve Sax, 2B, 2) Shawon Dunston, SS, 3) George Bell, OF, 4) Danny Tartabull, OF, 5) Eddie Murray, 1B, 6) Matt Nokes, C, 7) Charlie Hayes, 3B, 8) Junior Felix, OF. With Morris, Bruce Hurst and Bob Welch in the rotation, and Lee Smith closing.

Not a bad ballclub, although, admittedly, a somewhat grumpy one.

Anyway, both teams turned down just about all of this proven talent and drafted for "the future," which means young and cheap. It made the front offices look smart. Building with prospects is the way to do it. Certainly, a team picking all those veterans would have nothing to show for it in five years, and a team picking prospects would. Or at least might.

But, sorry, it's all just a little too earnest for me this time.

"Who's Ryan Hawblitzel?"

"Just shut up."

Spending expansion picks on prospects doesn't make as much sense as doing it in a regular draft. If you take a bunch of Double-A players, no matter how talented, you're lucky if half reach the majors, with maybe one or two becoming starters. The percentage of attrition is high. And that means a lot of Tuesday's picks were wasted.

The truth is that many of these prospects will not go far. A few have talent, such as David Nied, but most have holes. You will notice their ex-teams were so excited about them that they didn't mind unloading them. It was like a sea of Richie Lewises.

So, instead of wasting picks, why not start out with a Nied or two, then take a Tartabull and Dunston and a few more names, create a little excitement and establish a foundation? It's not going to take that long to build a contender in the sad NL East. And the new teams are still going to wind up getting their best prospects from the regular draft anyway.

The Rockies and Marlins said they went young, but what they mostly went was cheap. Particularly the Rockies, whose payroll will be just $4 million. And this young business is a myth. A lot more picks were spent on former prospects than current ones. "I counted only nine players 22 or younger [among 72 picks]," one executive said. "It was disappointing."

Meanwhile, a respectable team could have been built -- for a payroll not much higher than the Orioles' next year.

To the fine fans in Denver and Miami, welcome to the bigs. And now you know: It's their money, not yours.

"Andres Berumen?"

"I'm going to get the car."

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