Former Detroit Tigers GM Randy Smith made the only choice that he could of in the 1997 MLB draft.
“Hindsight is a wonderful thing but foresight is better, especially when it comes to saving life, or some pain! William Blake. (Blake was an English poet in the 1700s, not a Detroit Tigers fan)
When a majority of Detroit Tigers fans think of Matt Anderson, they may think of the pain of a first pick overall wasted. Yes, we can all agree in hindsight that the number one pick in the 1997 MLB Draft was a mistake but the foresight by Randy Smith was perhaps understandable at the time.
A flashback to May 1997 when the Detroit Tigers were deciding.
The Tigers were coming off one of the worst statical years when it came to their pitching staff. As former MCB colleague Andy Patton once wrote about the 1996 Tigers, he pointed out the team ERA of 6.38 and one of the worst bullpens in team history. So GM Randy Smith was looking to upgrade the staff with the number one pick.
Who were the Tigers considering for the top pick at the time? According to John Lowe of the Detroit Free Press, it came down to four names. Matt Anderson, the RHP reliever out of Rice University, Ryan Anderson, the tall 6’10 lefty out of Dearborn (MI) Divine Child, J.D Drew, the outfielder out of Florida State and Darnell McDonald, a high school outfielder out of Colorado.
The hype around Ryan Anderson was real. He was mowing down hitters in the CHSL, hitting the gun at 95 mph and the comparisons to Randy Johnson earned him the nickname “the Little Unit”. The reasons why the Tigers did not pick Ryan Anderson varied by the source. According to Randy Smith, the Tigers had plenty of starting pitching in their system. Mike Drumright was number 62 overall in Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects in 1996 and the rest of their top 10 prospects had the likes of Trever Miller, Greg Whiteman, Justin Thompson, Cade Gaspar, and Cam Smith. Only Thompson and Miller would ever reach the majors.
The other reason why that was speculated at the time was his off the field behavior. According to the Freep article from June 4th, 1997, he was accused of stealing wrist bands from a sporting goods store. The charges were dropped. There were rumors also of his disrespect for authority.
Since Ryan Anderson said he would not play but for anyone else but Detroit or Seattle, he dropped to the Mariners at number 19. He was one of the last players to come to terms on a contract. His career split, including resurfacing in the Brewers system in 2005 was 20-27 363 innings pitched, 483 strikeouts, and 212 walks.
For J.D Drew and the reason why the Tigers did not draft him, one name comes to mind. Scott Boras. Boras was his agent and was seeking a $10 million dollar signing bonus for the first college player ever to hit 30 home runs and have 30 steals. But the Tigers were no financial position to even go there and were sticking to the $2 million that Kris Benson received the year before.
As far as Darnell McDonald was concerned, he was drafted 26th overall by Baltimore, reaching the majors in 2004 and playing sparingly until 2013, producing a career bWAR of 0.9.
Matt Anderson’s agents were known to be friendlier to deal with. Or so everyone thought. The top-rated prospect by Baseball America, Anderson would not be signed until December of 1997 at just over $2.5 million as described as “take it or leave it” offer by Detroit.
In a limited series run, I will look back at when the Tigers had a top 3 draft pick in their history as we head towards the June 10th MLB Draft. The moral of the story was simple. Don’t ever take a hard-throwing reliever first overall.