Detroit Tigers: The 1981 MLB Draft Was A Bust

MILWAUKEE, WI - SEPTEMBER 1981: Manager Sparky Anderson of the Detroit Tigers arguing with an umpire during a MLB game against the Milwaukee Brewers in September 1982 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images)
MILWAUKEE, WI - SEPTEMBER 1981: Manager Sparky Anderson of the Detroit Tigers arguing with an umpire during a MLB game against the Milwaukee Brewers in September 1982 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images) /

As we head towards the June 10th draft, we look back at past Detroit Tigers’ drafts. 1981 was a big draft year for Detroit as it would lead to a championship and changing the identity for a franchise forever. The Pistons drafted Isiah Thomas. Oh, wait, this is a Tigers site. Let’s press forward.

Until 1986, the Detroit Tigers, like other major league clubs, had four drafts in which they could pick up talent. There was a January draft and June draft. Both had secondary phases which meant that it was held for players who had been previously drafted by a team but were not signed. The January draft was essentially held players who graduated in the winter. Now that we have that cleared up, let’s move on to the picks from the notable selections of the 1981 MLB Draft.

(Check out the 1997 MLB draft on Matt Anderson)

Detroit Tigers 1981 MLB Draft January Secondary Phase

  • 1st round: C Bob Melvin

Bob Melvin is now the longest tenure manager in the majors and also had the longest career of any Tigers pick from 1981. In Detroit, he would spend five seasons in the minors before making his major league debut on May 25th, 1985. He would go on and play just 41 games with the Tigers before being traded with Juan Berenguer to the Giants for Eric King, Dave LaPoint, and Matt Nokes. King and Nokes would play key roles in the 1987 AL East Division title team.

Detroit Tigers 1981 MLB Draft June Secondary Phase

  • 1st round: RHP Randy O’Neil 

Randy O’Neil out of the University of Florida, served as a spot starter and bullpen arm from his short time with the 1984 ballclub until 1986. In January of 1987, he was traded along with another later round 1981 draft pick Chuck Cary to Atlanta for a minor leaguer named Freddy Tiburcio and Terry Harper. Lifetime stats in Detroit: 10-13 ERA of 3.82.

Detroit Tigers 1981 MLB Draft June Amauter Draft

  • 1st round RHP Ricky Barlow
  • 2nd round OF/DH Nelson Simmons
  • 7th round LHP Chuck Cary

The 1st round of the 1981 draft had some names that would become stars later in the ’80s went before Ricky Barlow. Right-handed pitcher Mike Moore, outfielder Joe Carter, and shortstop Dick Schofield were the first three picks. Another notable pick before Barlow was Ron Darling, who was taken 9th overall by Texas.  An item to note. Moore and lefty John Cerutti, who went number 21 to Toronto, both became Tigers later in their careers.

Hoot Evers, the Tigers field director and worked with player development since 1971, had this to say to the Detroit Free Press on June 9, 1981, on Barlow:

“He’s got a consistently good fastball and good, quick curve. He struck out 220 in about 112 innings. He had a 10-2 record… I don’t know how he lost.” 

The only time Barlow ever hit the field wearing the Tigers uniform was the 1984 exhibition Hall of Fame Game against the Atlanta Braves.

Barlow had control issues that he could never solve. He would make it to Toledo before calling it a career in 1987.

Nelson Simmons on the recommendation of then assistant general manager Bill Lajoie was selected in the second round out of high school. Simmons signed quickly and he got off to a good start in rookie league Bristol, hitting .296 with 10 home runs. In his SABR bio written by Malcolm Allen, he has two Sparky Anderson quotes that really stand out about Simmons. The first one sung his praises of the rookie. 

 “I guarantee you that kid is a big leaguer if I’ve ever seen one.”

Simmons would then earn his way onto the Florida State League All-Star squad, hitting .293. When he moved up to Double-A Birmingham, he rated according to Baseball America, the best throwing arm in the Southern League. His offensive numbers took a step back and this brought out this rather I think, harsh quote from Sparky. 

 “He went backward,” Anderson said later. “Plus, he had a sour way about him.” Sparky speculated that his own high praise for the teenage Simmons might have done more harm than good. “I think he got confused. No sooner did he have a good spring than some agent got his head turned around.” (per Nelson Simmons’s SABR bio) 

Like in the past comments about Jason Thompson, Sparky didn’t like Simmons’s commitment to weights. After he won the Detroit Tigers Rookie of the Year voted by the Detroit Sports Media in 1985, his slow start for Double-A Nashville caused the Tigers to release him.

Left-handed Chuck Cary only spent 38 games in a Tigers uniform but after the Atlanta trade, he went to the Yankees and served as a swingman between the bullpen and the rotation.