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Baseball's draft system is far from perfect: Quality players often ignored

By Jon Scher
July 10, 1987

The Atlanta Braves were lacking lefthanders to fill out their short-season farm clubs in June of 1983, so scouting director Paul Snyder ordered his men to round up the usual suspects.

"At our scouts' meeting the weekend after the draft, I told them if they knew of any lefthanded pitcher with any kind of a chance, I wanted him signed," remembers Snyder. "We signed eight or nine, and one of 'em is still around."

The survivor is Paul Assenmacher, who began the 1986 season in the Atlanta bullpen. Assenmacher's big, slow curve and effective slider have offset his below-average fastball and enabled him to become a successful major-league relief pitcher.

"He doesn't put the big numbers on the radar gun, so a scout immediately thinks he doesn't have enough," said Snyder, explaining why the Braves were able to sign Assenmacher out of a Michigan semi-pro league after an All-America career at Aquinas College. "Nobody was going to hang their neck out for him."

Assenmacher's fastball has improved with age, sometimes registering in the 80-to 85-mph range--still below the 87 mph that's considered average by scouts. "I don't have the overpowering fastball," he said. "That was going against me out of high school, too. The schools that scouted me felt I didn't throw hard enough.

"But speed can be overrated . . . You have to mix up your pitches, hit the corners and throw strikes. Some of the better pitchers in the big leagues don't throw that hard."

Pitchers like Rick Mahler, who won 17 games last year for a bad Braves team. Like Assenmacher, Mahler was not drafted after a four-year career at a small college. Like Assenmacher, Mahler had a good breaking-ball but a sub-par fastball when he left San Antonio's Trinity University in 1975.

"We needed a pitcher at Kingsport, and one of our scouts, Al La Macchia, told (then-farm director) Bill Lucas that he could get Mickey Mahler's kid brother," said Snyder. "We signed him, and the rest is history."

This may come as no surprise to the millions of cable viewers who saw the Braves play last year, but America's Team might better be labeled The Team Nobody Wanted. Six Braves were ignored in the draft and signed as free agents, although Assenmacher and Mahler are the only two that originally signed with Atlanta. Ken Oberkfell was signed by the Cardinals, Claudell Washington by Oakland, Bruce Sutter by the Cubs (he was previously drafted, but chose not to sign), and Ed Olwine by the Yankees.

Only the California Angels have as many as six misfits, but most major league clubs have several. Excluding foreign players--and a handful of graybeards who signed before the draft was instituted in 1965--some 76 current major-league baseball players originally signed as undrafted free agents.

A numbers game

Nearly 1,000 high school seniors, and college juniors and seniors, are selected in the regular phase of the draft each June. Dozens of junior-college players and college dropouts are claimed in the secondary phase. Each of the 26 major league clubs operates a national network of scouts, and their reports are supplemented by those of the cooperative Major League Scouting Bureau.

So how could 76 players have slipped through the net, and advanced to the majors? Scouting directors are quick to point out that it's impossible to search under every rock.

"Our system isn't foolproof," said Jack Pastore, scouting director of the Philadelphia Phillies. "We've known that for a long, long time."

Jim Fanning, vice president of the Montreal Expos, is a veteran scout. "None of us have full coverage," he said. "Although we'd like to, there's not enough money or people to cover every nook and cranny."

The Los Angeles Dodgers' scouting director, Ben Wade, put it simply: "The scouts can't see everybody, and even if they do, they may see them on a bad day."

Although scouting is an extremely inexact science, most scouts rely on stopwatches and radar guns to measure a prospect's speed and arm strength. "What if he's a late developer?" asks the Braves' Snyder, whose national cross-checker does not use a radar gun. "What if he may be good enough as is, and the stopwatch doesn't register properly? What if he's having a bad day?"

Pitchers, like unsuspecting motorists, are particularly victimized by the radar gun. If you throw 83 mph or less, you usually are not considered to be worth a draft choice.

"For one reason or another, we tend to stereotype players," Fanning said. "We regard as non-prospects anyone who throws 82 to 83 mph or below, even thought that player, in another year, might throw harder.

"The radar gun is a great tool in the field, but it isn't the total answer. Sometimes too much emphasis is placed on that. We all know players in the major leagues who don't throw that hard, but are able to make the ball do things--they have the ability to get people out."

But it's difficult to scout the determination that enables a Rick Mahler to develop great control and a baffling breaking-ball. By contrast, it's easy to take a kid that throws 80 mph and stamp him "no prospect."

"We're all victims of the hard throwers in the major leagues," Snyder said. "They catch our eyes, and we'd all like to have one. But there are a lot of guys in the big leagues that throw less than 85-mph fastballs--especially lefthanders."

Art Stewart, a longtime scout and now the scouting director of the Kansas City Royals, feels the radar gun's pure numbers can be over-emphasized. "The younger scouts go by the gun too much," he said. "The good scout will see the life in a fastball.

"If a young man has an average major-league fastball, but it has good life, if it sinks, if he has good location, we'll take a guy like that any day."

Filling out the rosters

Immediately after the June draft, farm directors begin filling the rosters of their short-season minor league clubs. Within three weeks, 44 teams will be playing games in far-flung places like Great Falls, Mont., Utica, N.Y., and Wytheville, Va.

The Braves, for example, drafted 43 players this year, but must stock their three short-season farm clubs with about 70 bodies. Some holdovers--mostly Latin players--are already set, but Snyder has again sent word for the scouts to round up any potential Assenmachers.

According to Fanning, very few of the free agents signed after the draft are completely unknown.

"We all have a list of guys who we don't want to draft, but if they go undrafted, might be good signs for a rookie club," Fanning said. "A lot of guys are signed within a month after the draft. They're not unknown; they're just not drafted."

Some borderline prospects aren't drafted because they might command more money as a drafted player than as a free agent. For example, the California Angel's Jack Howell--a marginal player at the University of Arizona, who racked up some sensational numbers in the minor leagues and forced his way to the big leagues. "He had a signability figure of $45,000," said Larry Himes, the Angels' scouting director. "If we were going to give him that figure, we'd draft him in the second round. We didn't think he had the tools to draft in the second round. We passed on him, and for some reason, all the other organizations did, too.

"Every year I send one of our scouts to Alaska (summer semi-pro league). Rick Ingalls saw him play and said, 'Hey, we've got to sign this guy.' We gave him good A-type money (far less than a $45,000 bonus). It's amazing to me that it happened that way."

Finders keepers

After the rookie clubs are assembled, the scouting process continues. Scouts scout the summer semi-pro leagues, and hold tryout camps across the country.

"We have 120 camps about to start this weekend," the Royals' Stewart said in a telephone interview the day after this June's draft ended. "If we sign five out of the camps, that would be excellent. But we'll identify 50 to 75 boys that will be legitimate boys for us to follow, players going into their junior or senior year of high school."

The Philadelphia Phillies tend to sign several free agents each summer. In fact, the Phillies have signed nine of the 76 current major leaguers who were undrafted, more than any other club. The Cubs' Bob Dernier was a Philadelphia discovery, as was Cleveland's Andre Thornton and current Phillies Jeff Stone, Chris James, Rick Schu and Don Carman.

"Our philosophy is aggressive," said Jack Pastore, who has continued an attitude fostered before Dallas Green defected from the Phillies to the Cubs in 1981. "If a scout sees a guy he says can play, hell, we're spending the money for the scouts to be on the road anyway, we'll let 'em sign him."

Many of the Phillies' free agents have been signed by Doug Gassaway, the area scout for Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana.

The Dodgers beat the bushes, coming up with players like Dennis Powell, who was playing in rural Georgia. "He was from a very depressed area," said Ben Wade. "It's a hard place to get in and out of to see ballplayers."

The Dodgers found Tom Niedenfuer in a more conventional manner, signing him after the talent-rich National Baseball Congress summer semi-pro tournament in Wichita, Kan.

The snowbird theory

Many of the prospects who elude the draft are from high schools and colleges in cold-weather regions, postulates Art Stewart.

"Their season are very, very short," he said. "They're lucky if they get good weather by April 15, and by May the season's over . . . Scouts see them in snow flurries, or in 37-degree temperatures. They do not see a player at his best.

"They'll come and look at 'em at a tryout camp in June, and suddenly they'll look like different players."

Stewart cited a couple of recent examples--Seattle reliever Mark Huismann, signed by the Royals out of a semi-pro league after growing up in Colorado and playing at Colorado State, and outfielder Mike Kingrey, currently batting over .300 for the Triple-A Omaha Royals. "We found Kingrey in an American Legion tournament in August," Stewart said. "There's no way we could have drafted him. His high school team in Atwater, Minn., played about eight games.

Then there are the amateur players who have been playing out of position. Philadelphia pitcher Don Carman was primarily a first baseman before he signed with the Phillies. And San Diego outfielder Marvell Wynne originally tried out with the Royals as a pitcher.

"He ran a 60-yard dash and flew like blazes," Stewart said. "He said he'd played a little outfield, so we put him out there and he handled himself well."

The odds are stacked

Atlanta's Paul Snyder wonders whether Pete Rose would have been drafted, had the system been in effect when he convinced the Reds to give him a shot in 1960.

"If you graded Pete Rose out," Snyder mused, "all his tool would have been below average, except for contact."

And determination.

"Our system is not infallible," Snyder said. "You can't cut someone open and see what's inside." You can't measure their intestinal fortitude.

"It's a tribute to those (undrafted players) who do make it. The odds are stacked against them."

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