The Yankees and Brien Taylor: Sometimes the universe is just out to screw you

The Yankees reformed their self-destructive ways and made the right first-round pick, but he went wrong anyway -- and they were doomed to fail regardless.

Make-up matters. You will recall that in the 1970s and 80s, the Yankees dove into free agency with such enthusiasm that they went whole centuries without a first-round draft pick, and sometimes gave up their second- and third-round picks as well. Because the gap between early first-round picks and the rest of the draft is so great, it was impossible for the Yankees to develop quality players. The free agents contributed to the Yankees having more wins than any other team during the decade, but between a shortage of good pitching on the market, collusion, and chronic managerial shenanigans, the team was always just a little bit short. They won a lot of regular-season games for awhile, but that's where they stopped.

I'm sure you've seen this list before, but I never get tired of looking at it, because it tells such a great story about team-building:

Year

1st-Rd Pick

Free Agent

1979

None

Tommy John

1980

None

Rudy May; also no #2 (Bob Watson), no #3 (selection voided).

1981

None

Dave Winfield

1982

None

Dave Collins

1983

None

Steve Kemp; also no #2 (Bob Shirley), no #3 (Don Baylor).

1984

Jeff Pries (#22)

None, somehow.

1985

None

Ed Whitson; received supplemental first-round pick (Tim Belcher).

1986

None

Al Holland

1987

None

Gary Ward

1988

None

Jack Clark; also no #2 for signing Jose Cruz, no #3 for signing John Candeleria.

1989

None

Steve Sax

It was because of this sad litany -- some of these signings were good, some were felt to be ill-considered even then -- it was a big deal when the Yankees started having first-round picks again. After a 74-87 season in 1989, the Yankees were in line for the 10th-overall pick in the 1990 draft and somehow didn't give it up for a 38-year-old middle reliever or designated hitter. They selected Carl Everett, who turned out to be a pretty good (if also pretty strange and occasionally downright disturbing) player for awhile, albeit not for the Yankees, because they failed to protect him in the 1992 expansion draft. Still, baby steps, baby steps.

The 1990 season was one of the worst in team history, and suddenly the Yankees were eligible for the first-overall pick. This hadn't happened since 1967 and hasn't happened again. Thus it seemed incredibly important for general manager Gene Michael spend the pick correctly. This player, who had every chance of being a star, would help revive a team that was dead in the water. He would be a kid we could root for instead of, say, Jack Clark, who was a great hitter, but just another expensive bauble that had no connection to the New York Yankees, no role on the team he was really fulfilling, and no application to the problems the team did have.

The player I just described turned out to be Derek Jeter, but he was drafted the next year, with the sixth-overall pick of the 1992 draft. The player the Yankees selected in 1991 was Brien Taylor, a left-handed high school fireballer from Beaufort, North Carolina. He was the consensus #1 prospect, and was just what the Yankees needed and hadn't had since Ron Guidry's prime -- a southpaw strikeout pitcher, and even Guidry hadn't had a 98-mph fastball. The Yankees would finally have an ace, the kind of pitcher CC Sabathia is now, no more asking 40-something pitchers like Tommy John and Phil Niekro to turn back the clock.

I needn't spool out the rest of the story; some of you remember it first-hand, some have been told, and the rest have noticed that there is no one named "Taylor" dominating the team's pitching leaderboards. In brief, Taylor's first season at High-A Fort Lauderdale in 1992 was amazing. He outclassed the league and today would probably have been moved up to Double-A at midseason. Instead, the Yankees took it slow, not moving him up until the following year. His sophomore performance was not as good. He added almost a run to his ERA, his strikeout rate dropped and walk rate climbed. Still, there was no reason to doubt his future in the Bronx.

Then, disaster. Back home in North Carolina that offseason, Taylor got into a brawl. Under circumstances that are still somewhat murky, he fell on his pitching arm, destroying it. Off he went to Dr. Jobe, who performed surgery on a torn capsule and torn labrum. Then, as now, labrum surgery was never good news. You can come back from a Tommy John operation no problem; at least, most pitchers do. Labrum surgery, though, you never know.

When Taylor returned, the toll of the injury was apparent. He fastball was down in the 89-90 mph range and his command had simply vanished. Over the brief remainder of his career he 3-15 with an ERA of 11.24. In 111.1 innings, he walked 184 batters while striking out only 88. Not only was he no longer a top prospect, he was no longer a pitcher at all.

Taylor's advisor/agent was Scott Boras, who successfully leveraged the Yankees for a then-record $1.55 million bonus. Naturally, it was all gone by the time Taylor's career ended. His post-baseball career has been spent in manual labor and run-ins with the law. The latter climaxed yesterday when Taylor was sentenced to 38 months in prison for distributing crack cocaine.

It's fair to say that the Yankees were doomed to make a bad pick that year. The top ten picks mostly failed to work out. The second- and third-overall picks, outfielder Mike Kelly and first baseman Dave McCarty were both disastrous signings for the Braves and Twins, respectively. The real gold was further down in the round -- local high school star Manny Ramirez went at #13, Cliff Floyd, who had everything to be a star except durability, went at #14, and Shawn Green was taken by the Blue Jays at #16. (If you want to gloat a bit, check out the Mets' first-round pick from that year.) Those players were considered very good prospects, but weren't at the top of the draft for a reason, and the Yankees can't be faulted for not seeing them as better than Taylor -- no one else did.

Over 20 years later, it's still difficult to accept that Taylor's downfall was just one of those things that couldn't have been predicted. His high school grades were so poor that he had no scholarship options from the major baseball programs despite his golden arm, and perhaps that should have been a warning to Stick Michael -- as much as we like to put our faith in numbers, sometimes character not only matters, it's everything. If a player has a million-dollar arm and a ten-cent head, he's not going to be a star no matter what gifts nature has bestowed on him.

Still, if they hadn't taken Taylor they would have ended up with Kelly or McCarty, or -- best-case scenario -- Dmitri Young. Sometimes you can make up your mind to do the right thing, follow through on your resolution, and still lose. Life is a bitter thing, sometimes.

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