The 25 Best Undrafted MLB Free Agents Of All Time
The 2020 draft will be slashed from 40 rounds to five, the fewest since the draft began in 1965. The move is predicated on cost containment as the coronavirus pandemic continues to halt all baseball activity and affect revenue.
With the move, an unprecedented number of nondrafted free agents will flood the market once the draft concludes. Hundreds of college juniors and seniors who would have been drafted in a normal year will be eligible to sign as NDFAs, as will junior college and high school players who want to turn professional but were left on the outside looking in by a shortened draft.
The signing bonus for any nondrafted free agent this year is capped at $20,000 because of an agreement between MLB and the MLB Players Association. As such, most nondrafted players are likely to stay in school and re-enter the draft in later years.
Still, teams will have an unparalleled opportunity to find talented players who normally would not be available to them as nondrafted free agents.
Teams have struck gold signing NDFAs in the past. In the early years of the draft, it was common for future all-stars, MVPs and Cy Young Award winners to slip through the draft unselected. Those occurrences have been much less frequent in the last 30 years, both because scouting departments have gotten more efficient and because the draft was streamlined into one phase beginning in 1987.
Only players who were eligible to be drafted, went unselected and entered pro ball after signing as nondrafted free agents are considered NDFA's. Players from Puerto Rico were not draft eligible until 1989 and players from Canada were not eligible to be drafted until 1991. As such, Hall of Famers Edgar Martinez (Puerto Rico, 1982), Larry Walker (Canada, 1984) and Ivan Rodriguez (Puerto Rico, 1988) signed as international free agents and were not NDFAs.
Players who went undrafted, signed with an independent team and later had their contracts purchased by a major league club are also not classified as NDFAs. The list of such players includes Tom Candiotti, Kevin Millar and Daniel Nava.
Here are the top 25 nondrafted free agents of all time, plus dozens of others worthy of mention. Players are listed with the team and year they signed as an NDFA.
1. Bruce Sutter, RHP, Cubs, 1971
The only NDFA in the Hall of Fame, Sutter dropped out of Old Dominion after his freshman year and signed with the Cubs for $500 after a scout watched him pitch for a semipro team. Sutter pioneered the use of the split-fingered fastball and became a six-time all-star, won the 1979 National League Cy Young Award and recorded 300 career saves. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2006.
2. Bobby Bonilla, 3B, Pirates, 1981
Bonilla went undrafted out of high school but was chosen for a high school all-star team that played across Europe after graduation. He was spotted abroad by renowned scout Syd Thrift and signed with the Pirates for $3,000. Bonilla played 16 seasons, was a six-time all-star and retired with 2,010 hits and 287 home runs. He batted cleanup for the National League East-champion Pirates in 1990 and 1991, finishing top three in MVP voting both years, and was the starting third baseman for the World Series-champion 1997 Marlins.
3. Frank White, 2B, Royals, 1970
Royals owner Ewing Kauffman started the Royals Baseball Academy in the early 1970s with the idea of taking the best raw athletes and trying to turn them into baseball players. The academy produced few major leaguers, but White was one of them. He became a five-time all-star,an eight-time Gold Glove winner—only Roberto Alomar and Ryne Sandberg won more at the keystone—and played 18 seasons in the majors, all with the Royals.
4. Dan Quisenberry, RHP, Royals, 1975
Quisenberry went undrafted out of Division III La Verne (Calif.) and didn’t even receive a signing bonus when he signed with the Royals. He adopted a submarine-style delivery after reaching the majors and blossomed into one of baseball’s best closers of the 1980s. He led the American League in saves five times, was a three-time all-star and finished top three in AL Cy Young voting four seasons in a row from 1982-85.
5. Kevin Mitchell, OF, Mets, 1980
Mitchell signed with the Mets for $2,500 after going undrafted out of his San Diego-area high school. He played 13 seasons in the majors and won the 1989 National League MVP award with the Giants after leading the league in home runs (47) and RBIs (125). Overall, Mitchell had five 20-home run seasons, was a two-time all-star and retired with 234 home runs and a career 142 OPS+.
6. Brian Downing, C/OF, White Sox, 1969
The best NDFA ever as measured by wins above replacement (51.5), Downing was cut from his junior college team and signed with the White Sox out of a tryout camp for $2,000. He played 20 years in the majors, retired with a career .370 on-base percentage and was the Angels’ all-time home run leader until Tim Salmon passed him in 2000.
7. Toby Harrah, 3B/SS, Phillies, 1966
Harrah was a top high school player who went undrafted because most teams expected him to go to college. Phillies scout Tony Lucadello discovered Harrah was instead working at a factory after graduation and signed him for $500. Harrah played 17 seasons in the majors, was a four-time all-star and had three 20-20 seasons. He ranks as the 24th-best third baseman by career wins above replacement (51.4).
8. Eric Gagne, RHP, Dodgers, 1995
The White Sox drafted Gagne in the 30th round in 1994 after his freshman year at Seminole State (Okla.) JC. He returned to school but went undrafted after his sophomore season and signed with the Dodgers for $75,000. Gagne broke into the majors as a starter before converting to relief and became one of baseball’s most dominant closers. He converted a record 84 consecutive save opportunities from 2002 to 2004, won the 2003 National League Cy Young Award and was a three-time all-star.
9. Danny Darwin, RHP, Rangers, 1976
Back when the draft had multiple phases, the January draft was largely for junior college players while the June draft was aimed at high school and four-year college players. Darwin went unpicked out of Grayson County (Texas) JC in the January draft and thus was eligible to sign with the Rangers for $37,500 just before the June draft. He posted a 3.84 ERA in a 21-year career, won the 1990 American League ERA title and twice led the AL in WHIP.
10. Larry Bowa, SS, Phillies, 1965
One of 49 undrafted players to reach the majors from the inaugural draft, Bowa signed for $2,000 and blossomed into a franchise shortstop for the Phillies. He was a five-time all-star and two-time Gold Glove winner in Philadelphia and finished his career with 2,191 hits over 16 seasons. He went on to a distinguished career as a coach and manager and won the 2001 National League Manager of the Year award with the Phillies.
11. Bob Watson, OF, Astros, 1965
Best known today as an executive, Watson also had a decorated 19-year playing career. He signed with the Astros for $3,200 after going unselected in the January phase of the inaugural draft. He hit .295 with 184 career home runs, was a two-time all-star and finished with a career .811 OPS despite playing most of his career in the cavernous Astrodome. He later became the first black general manager to win a World Series, doing so with the 1996 Yankees.
12. Kent Tekulve, RHP, Pirates, 1969
Tekulve went undrafted out of tiny Marietta (Ohio) College and signed with the Pirates after a tryout at Forbes Field. On the strength of his famous sidearm delivery, he became one of baseball’s most durable relievers during a decorated 16-year career. Tekulve led the National League in appearances four times, recorded 184 career saves and twice finished top five in NL Cy Young Award voting. His three saves in the 1979 World Series tied a record that stood until 1996.
13. Don Money, 3B, Pirates, 1965
Money joined Bowa as one of 49 undrafted players from the inaugural draft to reach the major leagues. He was traded from the Pirates to the Phillies and then to the Brewers, where he blossomed into one of the best third basemen of the 1970s. Money played 16 seasons, was a four-time all-star and still ranks among the Brewers' all-time leaders in hits, runs, doubles and total bases. He received a Hall of Fame vote in his only year on the ballot.
14. Bobby Ojeda, LHP, Red Sox, 1978
Ojeda was another junior college pitcher who went unselected in the January phase of the draft and signed prior to the June draft. He signed with the Red Sox for just $500 and reached the majors in two years. Ojeda went 115-98, 3.65 in a 15-year career as a starter, highlighted by leading the 1986 Mets in both wins (18) and ERA (2.57) and going undefeated in four postseason starts to help them win the World Series.
15. Ken Hill, RHP, Tigers, 1985
Hill signed with the Tigers for $1,500 after going undrafted out of Division III North Adams (Mass.) State. He blossomed into a front-of-the-rotation starter and won 117 games over 14 seasons as a staple of first-division teams in the 1990s. He finished second in National League Cy Young Award voting with the 1994 Expos, was a member of the Indians’ 1995 World Series rotation and was the top starter on the Rangers’ 1996 American League West division championship team.
16. Andre Thornton, 1B, Phillies, 1967
The Phillies signed Thornton for $10,000 out of local Phoenixville (Pa.) High. He was traded four times before finding his feet with the Indians. Thornton was a two-time all-star, had three 30-home run seasons and won a Silver Slugger award over 10 years with Cleveland. He retired with 253 home runs and more walks (876) than strikeouts (851) in a 14-year career.
17. Jeff Reardon, RHP, Mets, 1977
An unsigned 23rd-round pick of the Expos out of high school, Reardon spent four years in Massachusetts’ rotation and set a school record for career strikeouts but went undrafted after his senior year. He signed with the Mets and reached the majors in two years on his way to becoming one of the best closers of all-time. Reardon became the first pitcher with a 40-save season in both leagues, was a four-time all-star and twice finished top 10 in Cy Young Award voting. He briefly held the all-time career saves record and finished with 367 career saves, 10th most in history.
18. Mike Bordick, SS, Athletics, 1986
Bordick led Maine to the College World Series twice in three years but still went undrafted after his junior season. He signed with the Athletcs for $15,000 and went on to a 14-year career that included 1,500 hits and an all-star selection.
19. Tom Herr, 2B, Cardinals, 1974
The Cardinals signed Herr for $10,000 out of Delaware. He became their starting second baseman on three World Series teams (1982, 1985, 1987) and finished fifth in National League MVP voting in 1985. He amassed 1,450 hits in a 13-year career and retired with the highest all-time fielding percentage by an NL second baseman, a record that has since been broken.
20. Esteban Loaiza, RHP, Pirates, 1991
Loaiza was born in Tijuana, Mexico, but went to high school across the border at Mar Vista High in suburban San Diego. He signed with the Pirates nine months after going undrafted and went on to win 126 games in a 14-year career. Loaiza was a two-time all-star and started the 2003 All-Star Game for the American League. He finished second in AL Cy Young voting that season after going 21-9, 2.90 with a league-leading 207 strikeouts.
21. Andy Ashby, RHP, Phillies, 1986
Ashby was passed over in the January phase of the draft out of Crowder (Mo.) JC but signed with the Phillies for $18,000 a month before the June phase. He pitched 14 seasons in the majors as a starter, was a two-time all-star and helped lead the Padres to the 1998 World Series.
22. Bernard Gilkey, OF, Cardinals, 1984
The Cardinals signed the St. Louis native out of a local high school for $15,000 after he went undrafted. Gilkey played 12 seasons in the majors and hit .275 with 118 home runs and 115 stolen bases. He also had one of the best outfield arms of his era. Gilkey led the National League in outfield assists three times and retired with 107 career assists.
23. Heath Bell, RHP, Mets, 1998
The Rays drafted Bell in the 69th round in 1997 after his freshman year at Santa Ana (Calif.) JC. He returned to school but went undrafted after his sophomore season and signed with the Mets. Bell spent six seasons in the minors before reaching the majors and blossomed into one of baseball’s top closers after a trade to the Padres. He recorded three straight 40-save seasons, was a three-time all-star and twice won National League reliever of the year in San Diego. He retired with 168 saves over an 11-year career and appeared on the 2020 Hall of Fame ballot.
24. Bengie Molina, C, Angels, 1993
A Puerto Rico native, Molina wasn’t drafted out of Arizona Western JC and signed with the Angels for $2,500 in 1993. He hit .274 with 144 home runs in 13 seasons, won two Gold Glove awards and became a fan favorite in both Anaheim and San Francisco. He was the starting catcher on the Angels' 2002 World Series championship team and also won a ring with the 2010 Giants, though he was traded at midseason and actually started behind the plate for the Rangers in that World Series. Bengie began the Molina major league catching dynasty that would later include younger brothers Jose and Yadier.
25. John Montefusco, RHP, Giants, 1972
Montefusco signed with the Giants after going unselected out of Brookdale (N.J.) JC and reached the majors in two years. He won the 1975 National League Rookie of the Year award, was an all-star the following season and altogether went 90-83, 3.54 in a 13-year career.
Bruce Sutter Captains All-Undrafted Team
Bruce Sutter is the only nondrafted free agent to make the Hall of Fame.
Dozens more nondrafted free agents went on to have long, successful major league careers. Rather than present them as a list of names, we’ve grouped them into categories based on their career accomplishments and player types.
Most of the top 25 NDFAs were all-stars at some point in their careers. Here are other NDFAs who were selected to at least one All-Star Game. Multiple all-star selections are noted in parentheses.
Bryan Harvey, RHP, Angels, 1984 (2)
Claudell Washington, OF, Athletics, 1972 (2)
Jeffrey Leonard, OF, Dodgers, 1973 (2)
Gary Ward, OF, Twins, 1972 (2)
Ron LeFlore, OF, Tigers, 1972
Darren O'Day, RHP, Angels, 2006
Bob Brenly, C, Giants 1976
Ricky Bottalico, RHP, Phillies, 1991
Kirby Yates, RHP, Rays, 2009
Jim Colborn, RHP, Cubs, 1967
Heathcliff Slocumb, RHP, Mets, 1984
Joe Jimenez, RHP, Tigers, 2013
Bill Campbell, RHP, Twins, 1970
Jim Bibby, RHP Mets, 1965
Al Holland, LHP, Pirates, 1975
O’Day, Jimenez and Yates are three of the most prominent NDFAs on 40-man rosters today. Here are the others.
Matt Shoemaker, RHP, Angels, 2008
Mike Brosseau, 3B, Rays, 2016
Mike Ford, 1B, Yankees, 2013
Andrew Kittredge, RHP, Mariners, 2011
Josh Taylor, LHP, Phillies, 2014
Robby Scott, LHP, Red Sox, 2011
Jacob Waguespack, RHP, Phillies, 2015
Josh Fuentes, 3B, Rockies, 2014
The most successful NDFAs have primarily been relievers, as evidenced by Sutter, Quisenberry, Gagne, Tekulve, Reardon and Bell all being ranked among the top 25 and the seven others who became all-stars. Here are more NDFAs who went on have noteworthy careers in relief.
Paul Assenmacher, LHP, Braves, 1983
Mike Adams, RHP, Brewers, 2001
John Axford, RHP, Yankees, 2006
Tim Collins, LHP, Blue Jays, 2007
Greg A. Harris, RHP, Mets, 1976
Matt Herges, RHP, Dodgers, 1992
Steve Farr, RHP, Pirates, 1976
Dan Miceli, RHP, Royals, 1990
Tom Niedenfuer, RHP, Dodgers, 1980
Terry Leach, RHP, Braves, 1977
Eric King, RHP, Giants, 1983
Clay Rapada, RHP, Cubs, 2002
Relievers make up most of the successful NDFA pitchers, but there are plenty of righthanded starters as well. In addition to Darwin, Ashby, Montefusco and others ranked among the top 25, the following nine righthanders also had extended careers pitching in big league rotations.
Mark Portugal, RHP, Twins, 1980
Omar Olivares, RHP, Padres, 1986
Ron Reed, RHP, Braves, 1965
Cory Lidle, RHP, Twins, 1990
Rick Mahler, RHP, Braves, 1975
Bill Bonham, RHP, Cubs, 1970
Miguel Gonzalez, RHP, Angels, 2004
Bryn Smith, RHP, Orioles, 1974
Rick Langford, RHP, Pirates, 1973
Jason Johnson, RHP, Pirates, 1992
THE HOT CORNER
Aside from pitcher, third base is the most common position for successful NDFAs. In addition to the aforementioned Harrah, Money, Brosseau and Fuentes, here are other notable third basemen who signed as NDFAs.
Ken Oberkfell, 3B, Cardinals, 1975
Dan Driessen, 3B, Reds, 1969
Larry Parrish, 3B, Expos, 1972
Enos Cabell, 3B, Orioles, 1968
Art Howe, 3B, Pirates, 1971
Craig Grebeck, 3B, White Sox 1986
Jack Howell, 3B, Angels, 1983
Greg Dobbs, 3B, Mariners, 2001
Rick Schu, 3B, Phillies, 1980
Catchers approach third basemen in the number of notable NDFAs, if not in impact. Along with Downing, Molina and Brenly, here are other notable catchers who signed as NDFAs. Like Brenly, a few became managers after their playing careers ended.
Rod Barajas, C, D-backs, 1996
Kevin Cash, C, Blue Jays, 1999
Chris Coste, C Pirates, 1998
Jim Essian, C, Phillies, 1969
Ryan Hanigan, C, Reds, 2002
Jim Leyritz, C, Yankees, 1985
Mike Redmond, C, Marlins, 1992
YOU MAY REMEMBER
The following players don’t fit in any previous category, but still had careers worth mentioning after signing as NDFAs.
Bobby Kielty, OF, Twins 1999
Dan Gladden, OF, Giants, 1979
Brady Clark, OF, Reds, 1996
Julio Cruz, 2B, Angels, 1974
Armando Rios, OF, Giants, 1994
T.J. Rivera, 2B/3B, Mets, 2011
Brandon Duckworth, RHP, Phillies ,1997
Sources: background and signing bonus information comes from Baseball America’s Ultimate Draft Book by Allan Simpson.
Tyler Kepner’s "K: A History Of Baseball In Ten Pitches”, David L. Porter’s "Latino And African American Athlete’s Today: A Biographical Dictionary”, Al Goldis and John Wolff’s "How To Make Pro Baseball Scouts Notice You” and the Society For American Baseball Research were all used as sources of information as well.