The Royals face the Tampa Bay Rays this week, a team that has been around for 20 years now. The Rays have a slight edge in the 148 games they have played against each other so ar, the two teams were tied going into this series, and the Rays have won 13 of the last 16 head-to-head.
Over two decades ago, MLB decided to expand to the Tampa-St. Petersburg area and in Phoenix, just a few years after expanding to Miami in Colorado in 1993. The move was done to settle a lawsuit brought by Vince Namoli, who was blocked from relocating the San Francisco Giants to the Tampa area, one of a number of times MLB thwarted relocation efforts to the area.
To field teams for the 1998 season, MLB conducted an expansion draft. Each existing team could protect 15 players. All players in an organization were eligible to be drafted, except those with no prior major league experience who had less than three years service if signed at age 19 or older, or had less than four years of service if signed at age 18 or younger. A team could lose no more than one player per round, with 28 selections in rounds one and two, with 14 in round three. After each of the first two rounds, a club could add three more players to be protected.
You can see the results here. There were a few useful players discovered by the clubs, although the Royals only lost outfielder Yamil Benitez and reliever Hector Carrasco, neither of which amounted to much.
But who were the gems that went unselected? I recently stumbled upon an article in the St. Petersburg Times compiled by reporter Mark Topkin from the week of the draft that reported on unprotected players. To be fair, MLB never publicly revealed who was protected and who wasn’t, and the list was compiled by reporters with at least a few inaccuracies, listing at least one player as protected when they were actually drafted. I also found this Peter Gammons column from 2001 that gave a few more names.
But supposing these are reasonably accurate, how would the Rays and Diamonbacks draft with the benefit of hindsight? For a second, let’s forget about the players that were used to acquire major pieces (Karim Garcia, for example, was drafted to be used by the Diamondbacks to acquire Luis Gonzalez). Here are some of the players they could have taken.
- Devil Rays: OF Bobby Abreu, Astros. The Venezuelan was actually taken in the expansion draft, sixth overall by the Rays. Maybe this time the Devil Rays actually hang onto him and get all seven 5+ WAR seasons he put up from 1998 to 2004. If you prefer pitching, Houston also left pitcher Freddy Garcia unprotected, but pulled him back after Abreu was selected in round one. Who was protected? Catcher Mitch Meluskey.
- Diamondbacks: OF Torii Hunter, Twins. Hunter was just a 22-year old with one MLB game under his belt by the expansion draft, and in fairness, he was coming off a very underwhelming season in AA ball. Four years later he would slam 27 home runs and win a Gold Glove and would turn in years of stellar defensive seasons for the Twins. The Twins also left third baseman Corey Koskie and catcher A.J. Pierzynski unprotected in round one but somehow escaped the round losing only outfielder Brent Brede.
- Diamondbacks: 2B Jose Vidro, Expos. The Expos were loaded with talent in the 90s, so perhaps there wasn’t room for a 23-year old infielder who hadn’t hit much in his first 67 big league games. But Vidro would soon become a batting title contender and a three-time All-Star.
- Devil Rays: P Derek Lowe, Red Sox. Lowe was a former prospect who had disappointed at higher levels with the Mariners and was shipped to Boston with catcher Jason Varitek in what now looks like an incredibly lopsided deal for reliever Heathcliff Slocumb. Boston moved Lowe to the bullpen where he became one of the best closers in baseball, then put him back in the rotation where he became a dependable starter.
- Devil Rays: 1B Richie Sexson, Indians. The 90s Indians had a loaded farm system, and so they left both Sexson and pitcher Brian Anderson unprotected. They could only lose one player in the first round, and with pitching such a premium, you can understand why the Diamondbacks took Anderson instead. Sexson only slightly outperformed Anderson by WAR over the next six years, and would end up in Arizona anyway in 2004 through a trade.
- Diamondbacks: P Jon Lieber, Pirates. A one-time Royals farmhand, Lieber was 27 and a marginal starter with the Pirates. A year after the expansion draft, he was traded to the Cubs and became a 20-game winner, putting up 13 WAR in four seasons in Wrigley.
- Diamondbacks: P Woody Williams, Blue Jays. Williams was 31 by the time of the draft, and had just come off his first full season as a starter, an unimpressive one with the Jays. But he was a late bloomer and would be worth 13.3 WAR over the next four seasons before hitting free agency.
- Devil Rays: P Sidney Ponson, Orioles. By the time he arrived to Kansas City, “Sir Sidney” was a bit of a joke, but he was a solid “innings-eater” in Baltimore, winning 55 games for them before they traded him to the Giants.
- Devil Rays: 1B Dmitri Young, Cardinals. Tampa Bay did actually choose Young with the 16th pick, trading him to Cincinnati for outfielder Mike Kelly.
- Diamondbacks: P Cory Lidle, Mets. The Diamondbacks actually selected Lidle 13th overall in the draft, but the Devil Rays would claim him off waivers from Arizona. Lidle bounced around a bit, but enjoyed some success in Oakland before his untimely death in 2006 from a plane crash.
- Diamondbacks: SS Tony Batista, Athletics. Batista was the 27th overall selection by the Diamondbacks and spent a year and a half, before they traded him to Toronto, where he slammed 41 home runs in 2000 with one of the weirdest batting stances ever.
- Devil Rays: P Mike Sirotka, White Sox. The lefty was 26 with just a handful of MLB starts under his belt by the draft. He would win 40 games over the next three seasons with back-to-back 4+ WAR seasons before blowing out his shoulder.
Other potential first rounders: P Antonio Alfonseca, Marlins, OF Roger Cedeno, Dodgers; P Brian Moehler, Tigers; IF Randy Velarde, Angels; P Steve Woodard, Brewers; P Tim Worrell, Padres
- Diamondbacks: 3B Carlos Lee, White Sox. Lee was just a 21-year old in High-A ball, barely eligible for the draft, but was starting to put up pretty good numbers. He wouldn’t reach the big leagues until 1999, but would eventually become a big-time slugger.
- Devil Rays: OF Trot Nixon, Red Sox. Yes, the Devil Rays could have pretty much assembled the 2003-2004 Red Sox - three starters and the best pitcher off that 2003 squad were available in this draft.
- Devil Rays: 2B Ron Belliard, Brewers. A solid starter for 13 seasons, one-time All-Star.
- Diamondbacks: 1B Kevin Millar, Marlins. Millar slammed 32 home runs in AA the previous year, but was 25 and the Marlins had a number of options at first base despite conducting a firesale. Millar would spend a few more years in Miami before becoming a key part of “the idiots” in Boston that won a championship.
- Diamondbacks: 2B Frank Catalanatto, Tigers. He could never really find a position - the Tigers, Rangers, and Blue Jays moved him all over the field, but he could hit for a really good average.
- Devil Rays: 3B David Bell, Cardinals. Bell would go on waivers the next spring and would bounce around for a year before finding success in Seattle.
- Devil Rays: C Einar Diaz, Indians. Diaz would spend a few years as a solid starter, although not much with the stick.
- Diamondbacks: P Omar Daal, Blue Jays. The Diamondbacks actually did take him and he won 16 games for them in 1999.
- Diamondbacks: P Damaso Marte, Mariners. Didn’t really figure things out until 2002 when he was with his fourth organization, but he was a useful reliever for a few years.
- Devil Rays: P Dan Kolb, Tigers. Had a fluky All-Star season in 2004 as a closer.
- Devil Rays: P Damian Moss, Braves. Was fifth in Rookie of the Year voting in 2002, but quickly burned out.
- Diamondbacks: OF David Dellucci, Orioles. The Diamondbacks took him 45th overall, and he was a useful bench outfielder, hitting 29 home runs in 2005.
- Diamondbacks: C Paul LoDuca, Dodgers. By the time of the draft, LoDuca was a 25-year old catcher in AA. He would become a late-bloomer, putting up a .917 OPS a few years later and earning four All-Star appearances.
- Devil Rays: C Jason Varitek, Red Sox. The former Georgia Tech star had just come over from Seattle, but he was nearly 26 and coming off a poor season in AAA. Few thought he was about to become a three-time All-Star.
- Devil Rays: 2B Bret Boone, Reds. Boone had been an inconsistent player with the Reds, but was an All-Star in 1998, and would go on to become one of the biggest power-hitting second basemen in baseball.
- Diamondbacks: 3B Joe Randa, Pirates. Arizona selected Randa in the third round and shipped him to Detroit for Travis Fryman, who they immediately shipped to Cleveland for Matt Williams. Trading up!
- Diamondbacks: P Matt Mantei, Marlins. Mantei would have some injury problems, but became a solid closer, eventually pitching for the Diamondbacks in real life, although they had to give up promising pitching prospect Brad Penny to get him then. You could also select Randy Winn from the Marlins here, as he was actually selected in the third round of the draft by the Rays.
- Devil Rays: P Joe Mays, Mariners. The Mariners didn’t know what they had, shipping Mays to Seattle, where he had an All-Star season in 2001, winning 17 games.
- Devil Rays: P John Rocker, Braves. Eh...so yea, this was before everyone knew he was a terrible human being. Rocker was coming off a poor season as a AA starter, but would eventually be a pretty solid closer for the Braves for a few seasons before his big mouth and erratic arm got him run out of the league.
- Diamondbacks: OF Jay Payton, Mets. Payton was considered a good prospect, that had an injury history. He finished third in Rookie of the Year voting in 2000 and enjoyed a 12-year career.
Alternate universe Devil Rays roster: C Jason Varitek, Einar Diaz, 1B Richie Sexson, 2B Bret Boone, Ron Belliard, SS Tony Batista, 3B David Bell, IF Randy Velarde, OF Bobby Abreu, Dmitri Young, Roger Cedeno, Trot Nixon, SP Derek Lowe, Sidney Ponson, Mike Sirotka, Joe Mays, Damian Moss, RP Antonio Alfonseca, Dan Kolb, John Rocker, Steve Woodard
Alternate universe Diamondbacks roster: C Paul LoDuca, 1B Kevin Millar, 2B Jose Vidro, SS Frank Catalanatto, 3B Joe Randa, Carlos Lee, OF David Dellucci, Torii Hunter, Jay Payton, SP Omar Daal, Cory Lidle, Jon Lieber, Woody Williams, RP Matt Mantei, Damaso Marte, Brian Moehler, Tim Worrell