CHICAGO—Chipper Jones’ career didn’t end the way he hoped, with an infield hit in five at-bats and a crucial error in a wild-card loss to the Cardinals, but his next stop is Cooperstown. For a No. 1 overall draft pick, that’s a rare accomplishment indeed.
Since baseball’s draft began in 1965, no top overall choice has been enshrined in the Hall of Fame. That should change in 2016, when Ken Griffey Jr. goes in on his first ballot, and Jones will follow him two years later.
They’re two of the three greatest No. 1 overall picks in draft history, behind only Alex Rodriguez. The gulf between that trio and the other top selections is huge.
The next-best No. 1 is Darryl Strawberry. While he made eight all-star teams and scouts still recall his lefthanded power stroke like they do their first crush, he appeared on just six of 516 Hall of Fame ballots in the lone year he was eligible.
Joe Mauer is building a résumé worthy of Cooperstown, provided he can stay healthy, which isn’t a given. Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Hamilton probably have too much ground to make up. Justin Upton, David Price, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper have the talent to dream about the Hall of Fame, but they’re just getting started.
For now, the top overall picks in the first 48 drafts have produced just three certain Hall of Famers. The funny thing is, none of the three was a slam-dunk No. 1 choice.
Van Poppel Vs. Jones
In the days before the Internet—and Strasburg and Harper—no draft prospect was hyped as much as Todd Van Poppel in 1990. He was supposed to be the next in the line of Texas fireballers headlined by Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens, with some scouts calling him the best pitching prospect they’d ever seen.
Draft bonuses were just beginning to blow up. The year before, every first-round pick was offered at least $100,000 for the first time in draft history. The previous record draft bonus was exceeded by Tyler Houston ($241,500) and then Ben McDonald ($350,000) and John Olerud ($575,000).
Van Poppel insisted that he wanted to pitch at the University of Texas and in the 1992 Olympics. His reported asking price of $500,000 was more than twice as much as any high school player had received. His agent was Scott Boras, who had negotiated the Houston and McDonald deals and represented three first-round picks from the 1988 and ’89 drafts (Alex Fernandez, Charles Johnson, Calvin Murray) who didn’t sign.
The Braves had the top pick and loved Van Poppel’s arm, but they never were convinced they could get him to turn pro. The day before the 1990 draft, Atlanta general manager Bobby Cox reportedly offered him a seven-figure contract, to no avail.
Legend now has it that Cox’s gut told him to believe in Jones more than Van Poppel, and that the Braves preferred Chipper all along. That may be revisionist history, but whatever the case, the Braves took Larry Wayne Jones on June 4 and signed him that night for $275,000.
Van Poppel fell to the defending World Series champion Athletics at No. 14 and signed an unprecedented $1.2 million big league contract. He did pitch 11 years in the majors, going 40-52, 5.58. Incidentally, then-Oakland GM Sandy Alderson later would spearhead MLB’s informal slotting system in an attempt to curb draft bonuses.
Bats Over Arms
The Mariners chose Griffey and Rodriguez with No. 1 overall picks six years apart, in 1987 and 1993. Roger Jongewaard ran both of those drafts for Seattle, and each time he had to fend off others in the organization who wanted a college pitcher.
Also the area scout who signed Strawberry for the Mets, Jongewaard had to talk owner George Argyros into Griffey. Rather than take a high school outfielder, Argyros pushed for a player who could help the hapless Mariners more quickly: Cal State Fullerton righthander Mike Harkey, who drew comparisons at the time to Bob Gibson.
Jongewaard fought for Griffey and won out, with Argyros telling him his job would be on the line. Harkey made it to the majors in September 1988 with the Cubs, who drafted him at No. 4, while Seattle brought Griffey to the big leagues in April 1989. Jongewaard remained employed.
The notoriously cheap Argyros had sold the club by 1993, and not coincidentally the Mariners started their climb to respectability. With a chance to contend for the club’s first-ever playoff appearance, GM Woody Woodward and first-year manager Lou Piniella wanted an immediate contributor: Wichita State righthander Darren Dreifort.
Dreifort did begin his pro career in the major leagues, just not with the Mariners. Woodward and Piniella deferred to Jongewaard, who opted for Rodriguez. Two years later, Rodriguez was part of Seattle’s first playoff team.
That was in 1995, the same year that Jones helped the Braves win their lone World Series title in Atlanta. He, Griffey and Rodriguez may not have been obvious choices, but they never gave their teams any cause for regret.