As noted by the previous post recounting the Yankees' best draft picks, the Yankees have made their share of wise first round selections, in particular Derek Jeter and Thurman Munson. Unfortunately, as with most teams, there are in fact few bright spots in the enormous patch of draft picks over the years. That's why it's usually quite silly to hope your team bottoms out and ends up with a top-10 draft pick--they're not much more of a secure pick than anyone else.
Some draft picks linger in fans' minds more than others for their high potential that ultimately led to nothing. So in contrast to the all-time best draft picks team, who would be on the Yankees all-time worst draft picks team? My evaluation of busts on this article most often observes top draft picks failing, not so much later draft picks who became more relevant prospects failing (case-in point: Drew Henson was a third round pick, and though he was ranked on more Top 100 Prospects list than the person I chose, he was a third round pick in the first place, not as highly regarded initially as a first round pick). Also keep in mind that everyone's definition of "worst draft pick" varies--for instance, I don't consider Phil Hughes or Nick Johnson big busts since they actually made it to the majors and did briefly have a modicum of success. Most of the players in this post either never saw the majors or if they did, flopped there.
I apologize in advance for the frustrating look down memory lane, but if anything, perhaps it will weave a cautionary tale about pinning too many hopes on prospects. Only the elite should be remotely considered truly untouchable in trade talks, and often, even they don't work out.
Catcher: David Parrish
Drafted: 2000, 1st round, #28 overall (University of Michigan)
In their franchise history, the Yankees have selected precisely two catchers in the first round. The first was one of the top picks of the draft and someone who became a franchise legend: Thurman Munson. The second was Dave Parrish, and although he was the son of eight-time All-Star catcher Lance Parrish, few other executives and scouts felt that the younger Parrish should be considered anywhere remotely close to the first round. Unfortunately, George Steinbrenner declared that with Jorge Posada nearing free agency (a trial that was of course avoided when Posada agreed to a five-year, $51 million extension prior to the 2002 season), the Yankees needed a catcher. So the Yankees drafted Parrish. With the next pick, the Atlanta Braves selected Adam Wainwright.
Parrish proved to be an awful hitter. After two years of A-ball where he couldn't top a .750 OPS, he was consistently batting below a .700 OPS in higher levels, including an awful '04 campaign, when he only managed a .248/.297/.313 triple slash in 70 games split between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Columbus. Parrish did spend a couple days on the big league roster in May of that year as a phantom player when Posada broke his nose, but that was only out of necessity. He never played and returned to the minors less than a week later. Parrish never did make the majors and he was released from the organization in early 2006. The Yankees are still searching for the first good draft pick catcher since Munson. (Maybe John Ryan Murphy can change that.) Parrish retired from professional baseball in 2008, before he turned 30. He now serves as reason number one why an organization cannot marry itself to drafting a specific position--go for the best talent available.
First base: James McDonald
Drafted: 1975, 1st round, #19 overall (Verbum Dei High School, Los Angeles, CA)
Aside from 19th round jackpot Don Mattingly, the Yankees have most frequently gone to outside sources to acquire quality first basemen over the years. Chris Chambliss, Tino Martinez, Jason Giambi, and Mark Teixeira were all brought in to provide a presence in the lineup. It's not as though the Yankees haven't tried to draft first basemen though. In '75, they decided to take 17-year-old lefty Jim McDonald with their top pick in the draft. They dreamed of his swing maturing with power and eventually sending bombs to the short porch in right field. After a few so-so teenage years in A-ball, it looked like the Yankees might get it when McDonald launched 18 homers (three off the Eastern League lead) in a superb .281/.333/.458 season at Double-A West Haven in '78.
It was not meant to be though. McDonald followed up his promising campaign with a disastrous 19-game, .479 OPS stint in '79 as he battled injuries. He lost his job to some kid from Mississippi State named Buck Showalter. McDonald only managed a .679 OPS in 91 games with Triple-A Columbus in '80, and he left the organization for the Mexican League afterward. His professional career was over before he turned 26; at least the Yankees had Mattingly come in to save the day for their organizational first base depth.
Second base: Alfonzo Neal
Drafted: 1967, 2nd round, #21 overall (Womack High School, Longview, TX)
The Yankees have rarely taken second basemen high in the draft--in fact, last year, Gosuke Katoh became the highest-drafted second baseman in franchise history. Teams don't usually draft pure second basemen since it's easier to shoot for shortstops and third basemen and convert them to second if needed. One of these such examples was Alfonzo Neal, selected with the 21st overall pick of the draft as a third baseman in '67, who played all but four of his games with the organization at second base. The Yankees thought highly enough of the kid that they took him ahead of future All-Stars like Don Baylor, Dave Kingman, Vida Blue, and Jerry Reuss.
Neal was regrettably a disaster. He only hit .238 with a .291 slugging percentage in 46 Rookie League games with the Johnson City Yankees of the Appalachian League, and it somehow got worse. Promoted to A-ball and the Florida State League, he hit a shockingly bad .134 with a .173 slugging percentage in 66 games. He demonstrated patience at the plate with a .355 OBP to counteract his .217 batting average split between the Instructional League and the FSL in '69, but it was definitely not enough. He still wasn't hitting for any power as indicated by his .285 slugging percentage. Neal never played professional baseball again, ending his career prior to his 21st birthday.
Third base: Eric Duncan
Drafted: 2003, 1st round, #27 overall (Seton Hall Prep, West Orange, NJ)
Fun fact: Growing up, I remember hearing about Eric Duncan. He was originally from Florham Park, just a town over from my hometown of Madison. I never saw him play, but the local papers frequently seemed to report of his power at Seton Hall Prep. Thus, it was pretty exciting when the Yankees decided to take Duncan with their top pick in the '03 draft, giving him $1.25 million. The future at third base was quite unclear at the moment, and it seemed like a kid from around my neck of the woods would become the next big star. Even though the trade for Alex Rodriguez during the 2003-04 off-season put his future at third into question, he was certainly hitting enough to be relevant. Duncan hit .258/.357/.473 with 43 doubles and 16 homers between Low-A Battle Creek and High-A Tampa in '04, earning him the #36 spot on Baseball America's Top 100 prospects list prior to the '05 season.
Given a promotion to Double-A Trenton in '05, Duncan hit .234/.330/.405, but he did slug 19 homers, good enough to keep him on the same Top 100 Prospects list in '06, though he did tumble 50 spots to #86. It was all downhill from there. In four seasons at Triple-A, Duncan only hit .226/.290/.343, never enough to impress the Yankees for a call-up to the pros. After a dismal .527 OPS season at age 24 in '09, the Yankees let him go. Duncan bounced around a few organizations before retiring midseason in 2012. He also never made the majors and now serves as a coach at Seton Hall prep.
Shortstop: Dennis Sherrill
Drafted: 1974, 1st round, #12 overall (South High School, Miami, FL)
The first round of the '74 draft was filled with talent the Yankees could have chosen, even after Dale Murphy was picked before they had a chance. Garry Templeton, Lance Parrish, Willie Wilson, and Rick Sutcliffe were all on the board when the Yankees made their 12th pick: shortstop Dennis Sherrill. Cito Culver or C.J. Henry might have been picks for the all-bust shortstop team, but Sherrill was taken much higher in the draft than Henry or Cito (drafted one round before Andrelton Simmons /rage mode/).
Much like Cito, Sherrill couldn't hit a lick. He failed to top a .575 OPS in his first three seasons and only managed one good one--a .292./330/.426 year at Double-A West Haven with McDonald in '78. He even appeared in two MLB games of little consequence that year. He never approached those totals again and left baseball after 1980 with just five MLB games to his name.
Left field: Shea Morenz
Drafted: 1995, 1st round, #27 overall (University of Texas)
Center field: Bronson Sardinha
Drafted: 2001, 1st round, #34 overall (Kamehameha High School, Honolulu, HI)
Right field: Andy Brown
Drafted: 1998, 1st round, #24 overall (Richmond High School, Richmond, IN)
Designated hitter: Matt Winters
Drafted: 1978, 1st round, #24 overall (Williamsville High School, Williamsville, NY)
None of the outfielders (including Winters) on this list have much information on them other than their minor league records, which were unimpressive. The tale was the same with pretty much all of them--the Yankees were captivated with their skills at the plate and in the field, and they were taken late in the first round (where the Yankees have most often picked due to their regular season success) before several future All-Stars. Unfortunately, they were all disasters. Some highlights:
- Morenz was out-OPS'd as a 23-year-old in High-A Tampa by the likes of Les Dennis, Carlos Yedo, and D'Angelo Jimenez.
- Sardinha was selected five picks before David Wright. His minor league career best in OPS with the Yankees was the .872 he posted as a rookie in the Gulf Coast League. He never sniffed it again.
- Brown spent four and a half years in A-ball. He had a decent .772 OPS in 2000 with Low-A Greensboro that was about 100 points higher than any other season he ever had in the Yankees organization. He was released after an atrocious .157/.213/.314 triple slash in 26 games with Trenton to start to the '05 season.
- Winters had a couple gaudy home run seasons, including 29 with Triple-A Columbus in '83 at age 23. He never played that well for the organization again, and he was let go after a .169/.296/.314 stint in Double-A in '86. He did go on to top 30 homers four seasons in a row... in Japan.
This quartet combined for a grand total of 10 combined MLB games with the Yankees, all of which were by Sardinha as a September call-up in 2007. (Winters also had a forgettable 42-game stint with the Royals in '89).
We can only hope that Slade Heathcott does not one day find his name among these players too because his minor league career to date has been equally disappointing.
Starting pitcher: Brien Taylor
Drafted: 1991, 1st round, #1 overall (East Carteret High School, Beaufort, NC)
Only twice have the Yankees held the top overall pick of the draft. The first time, in 1967, they chose Ron Blomberg, a first base/future pioneer DH who made it to the majors and had some success before injuries slowed him down. He wasn't what the Yankees had hoped, but "Boomer" was still a popular player who had an excellent .302/.370/.486 triple slash and a 148 OPS+ in parts of 400 games from 1969-76. Brien Taylor was the other top overall pick, and his story is something else altogether. That link above is a must-read from FanGraphs about Taylor's story.
Agent Scott Boras called the tall lefty the best high school prospect he'd ever seen. In the first possible major prospect list he could appear on after being drafted, Baseball America ranked him #1 overall prior to '92. After a 2.57 ERA, 10.4 K/9 campaign in 27 starts with High-A Fort Lauderdale, he was ranked the #2 overall prospect before the '93 season, trailing only Chipper Jones. He had a fine season at age 21 in Double-A Albany. Then... it was suddenly all over after a fight in the 1992-93 off-season:
A few weeks after the end of the season and a few days before his 22nd birthday, an argument between Taylor’s older brother Brenden and his girlfriend’s family turned into a fight, and the best pitching prospect in baseball threw a punch that didn’t connect. Boras initially called the injury a bruise, but the reality of the situation was much more dire. Brien basically ripped his left arm right out of the socket, dislocating his shoulder and tearing both his labrum and capsule.
"I can remember [Dr. Frank Jobe] sitting me down," recounted Boras back in 2006. "He said, This is one of the worst shoulder injuries I’ve ever seen,’ and I believed it. The way he tore it was unnatural."
Indeed, Taylor was never the same. The high-90s fastball and power curve were essentially gone. He missed the entire '94 season recovering from shoulder surgery, and he never got out of A-ball or lowered his ERA below 6.00 over the next four seasons. To this day, Taylor remains one of only a handful of top overall picks to never make it to the majors. Say what you want about Matt Drews, Andrew Brackman, and other Yankee starting pitcher prospect flameouts. Taylor was the biggest blow. The Yankees of the late '90s were dominant but just imagine how they could have been if Taylor reached his potential.
Relief pitcher: J.B. Cox
Drafted: 2005, 2nd round, #63 overall (University of Texas)
Cox was one of the highest-drafted relievers ever selected by the Yankees, taken after a successful career as the closer for the University of Texas. The former Longhorn was even projected by prospect books at one point as being the successor to Mariano Rivera. He seemed decent at first when he pitched to a 2.60 ERA and 0.904 WHIP in 16 games with High-A Tampa in '05, then a 1.75 ERA and 1.013 WHIP in 41 games with Double-A Trenton in '06. Then... it all went wrong due to bad right elbow. Cox's 2006 season ended in August, and he underwent elbow surgery. How was he when he came back? Well...
Yeah, Cox did not turn out to be Mo's successor. Pray for pitcher elbows, always and forever.
Let these draft picks gone wrong be a warning sign before setting expectations too high. For as many successful prospects as there are out there, there are probably at least 10 more who were equally acclaimed that failed. I love tracking prospects too, but so often, they'll break your heart. To Greg Bird, Eric Jagielo, and company: Don't be like these guys. Please.