We know the MLB Draft now to be ordered in inverse order of record from the year before, which is the most natural way to do things. But for the first 40 years of the draft’s existence (1965-2004), the order was slightly different.
Picks would alternate by league, with the National League having the first pick one year, followed by the American League selecting first the next year, and so on. The Dodgers finished last place for the second time in franchise history — and their first since 1905 — when the “triple threat” outfield couldn’t salvage a lost season in 1992, finishing with a dismal 63-99 record.
It was the worst record in baseball that year, but in 1993 it was the American League’s turn to pick first in the draft. The Mariners owned the worst AL record in 1992 at 64-98, one game better than the Dodgers. But Seattle got the first pick in the draft.
There were two players highly coveted before this draft, so it seemed like the Dodgers were in a good position no matter who the Mariners picked. In multiple outlets, LA general manager Fred Claire was quoted as saying, “We were in a no-lose situation.”
From Peter Pascarelli in The Sporting News (May 17, 1993):
“Many scouts believe the top player is Wichita State reliever Darren Dreifort. However, the Seattle Mariners, who have the first pick, worry about being able to sign him, so there is some uncertainty whether they will take Dreifort.
“The other consensus top pick is Miami high school shortstop Alex Rodriguez. If he is still available, there appears little doubt the Los Angeles Dodgers would use their No. 2 pick on him.”
Dreifort was in the College World Series for a second straight year with Wichita State, reaching the championship game in both 1992 and 1993. He was a consensus first-team All-American pitcher and also started at designated hitter or in the outfield sometimes, and even slugged .709 as a junior. But on the mound he had a 2.24 ERA in three seasons with the Shockers, with 275 strikeouts in 261 innings, including 120 strikeouts as a junior.
The day of the draft, Ken Daley of the Los Angeles Daily News wrote that Dreifort was expected to be picked first overall:
The Dodgers today are expected to take standout shortstop Alex Rodriguez of Westminster Christian High School in Miami as the second overall pick of today’s 29th amateur free-agent draft.
The Seattle Mariners, who pick first, are believed to have settled on right-handed pitcher Darren Dreifort of Wichita State, an overpowering relief pitcher who scouts say could be pitching in the major leagues by September.
Of Rodriguez, Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda told Daley, “We became very friendly when we brought him into Vero Beach and I know he and his family are really, really hoping the Dodgers get him.”
Before Game 3 of the 2018 World Series at Dodger Stadium, 25 years after that draft, Rodriguez told David Vassegh on the Dodgers pregame show he expected to be picked by the Dodgers, second overall.
“[Mariners manager] Lou Piniella wanted pitching for the playoff run, Darren Dreifort was major league-ready and I wasn’t, therefore I thought I was going to be a fallback pick for the Dodgers,” Rodriguez said. “We basically had our deal done with the Dodgers.”
Is your eye twitching yet?
Alex Rodriguez at a World Series at Dodger Stadium, just like I envisioned when the Dodgers had worst record in 1992 (but No. 2 pick in '93)— Eric Stephen (@ericstephen) October 24, 2017
Rodriguez didn’t fall to the Dodgers. The Mariners picked him first, and Dreifort went to the Dodgers. Dreifort pitched in parts of nine major league seasons, but was racked by injuries. He posted an above average ERA+ four times, two of those years in relief.
Rodriguez, meanwhile, was transcendent, and finished his career with 696 home runs. He also owns the longest PED suspension in major league history, a full 162 games.
But what if Rodriguez fell to the Dodgers at No. 2 in 1993?
Let’s keep this relatively simple, and assume Rodriguez still makes his major league debut in 1994, and sees limited time that year and in 1995, before becoming a regular shortstop in 1996. A-Rod was a free agent after the 2000 season, so for now let’s limit this to those first five full seasons.
The annual leaders in defensive innings at shortstop from 1996-2000 were Greg Gagne (twice), Jose Vizcaino, Mark Grudzielanek, and Alex Cora.
Dodgers shortstops vs. Alex Rodriguez, 1996-2000
|Year||Dodgers SS||LA SS HR||LA SS fWAR||A-Rod||A-Rod HR||A-Rod fWAR|
|Year||Dodgers SS||LA SS HR||LA SS fWAR||A-Rod||A-Rod HR||A-Rod fWAR|
Safe to say Rodriguez was miles better than what the Dodgers had. His worst year by FanGraphs WAR was 1997 (4.3), and still better than all Dodgers shortstops for those five years combined (3.2).
In 1996, the Dodgers made the playoffs, but as the wild card, losing the division to the Padres by a game. Adding Rodriguez almost certainly puts them over the top, but all that means is playing the Cardinals in the NLDS instead of the Braves. Might it have made a difference in the playoffs? Maybe. The Dodgers got swept by the Braves but lost the first two games by only a run. At the very least, A-Rod improves their chances a great deal, especially in a year he hit .358/.414/.631 with 91 extra-base hits.
The biggest boost from A-Rod would have come in 1997, when the Dodgers lost the division to the Giants by two games. Those two played late in September in San Francisco, with the Giants winning both games. Maybe with A-Rod, the Barry Bonds’ spin move doesn’t end up mattering, and maybe the second game doesn’t last long enough for Brian Johnson to hit a walk-off home run.
Maybe the Dodgers with A-Rod do better than the Giants did against the Marlins in the playoffs, and maybe it’s Ramon Martinez getting the generous strike zone from Eric Gregg to finish off the Braves in the NLCS. A-Rod at least gives them the chance to try in October.
1997 might have been the Dodgers’ best chance at a championship with A-Rod.
In 1998, the Dodgers only won 83 games — 15 games behind the Padres in the division and seven games out of the wild card. It might be a stretch to suggest A-Rod puts them into the playoffs. They likely would have needed to keep Mike Piazza to still contend, which would have necessitated his relationship with Fox ownership to be better than it actually was.
Maybe an environment with A-Rod for two stronger years and 1996-97 helps the overall situation in Los Angeles, and maybe it means Piazza is more amenable to signing a contract extension to stay with the Dodgers? That’s a lot of assumptions, but at least having A-Rod improves the chances.
Lost naming rights
The San Francisco Giants moved into a shiny new beautiful ballpark in 2000. It’s on its fourth name now, from Pac Bell Park to SBC Park to AT&T Park now to Oracle Park. But to many Dodgers fans, it’s simply Kevin Elster Field.
To give you an idea of how lacking the Dodgers were at shortstop in the late 1990s, they signed a 35-year-old Elster in 2000 after he was out of baseball in 1999. The Dodgers’ third series of 2000 was in San Francisco, and on April 11 they played in the Giants’ very first game at their new park.
Elster, who reached double digits in home runs twice in his first 12 major league seasons, homered three times in that opening game in San Francisco, helping the Dodgers to a 6-5 win.
If A-Rod were a Dodger, 2000 would have been his last year before hitting free agency, and he would have been the shortstop for LA. That undoubtedly would have made the Dodgers a better team, but file this tiny little edge of rivalry fandom in the loss column for LA.
The Big Unit
At various points in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Dodgers were linked to Randy Johnson in one way or another. In our A-Rod timeline, their 1998 pursuit is the most apt example here. As it stood, the Dodgers wanted Johnson, and even though the trade deadline was nearly two months away, they set a deadline of June 2 because all the rumors became a distraction. From the LA Daily News:
Claire called Mariners general manager Woody Woodward Tuesday morning and issued a noon deadline to accept or reject an offer of three players that included Valdes, minor league utility player Wilton Guerrero and pitcher Eric Weaver for Johnson, who is eligible for free agency at the end of the season.
Unsurprisingly, the Mariners turned that deal down. They were rumored to want Dreifort, who in our A-Rod scenario would already be in Seattle. Maybe that makes the Mariners more likely to part with Johnson, or maybe with a star on the left side of the infield maybe the Dodgers could have parted with their 19-year-old third base prospect just three weeks away from his major league debut.
Adrian Beltre ended up signing with Seattle as a free agent in 2005, so maybe this accelerates things a little bit. Sure, it would have hurt the Dodgers to lose Beltre, but they would console themselves by having a budding star in A-Rod, plus they would have Johnson for the final three or four months heading into free agency. Maybe that gives LA an edge in retaining Johnson instead of signing Kevin Brown. Johnson, who signed a contract for half the total value of Brown, won the National League Cy Young Award every year from 1999-2002.
Here’s how the Dodgers finished in those four seasons in the real world:
- 1999: 77-85, 23 GB in division (AZ)
- 2000: 86-76, 11 GB in division (SF); 8 GB in wild card (NY)
- 2001: 86-76, 6 GB in division (AZ)
- 2002: 92-70, 6 GB in division (AZ); 3 GB in wild card (SF)
If the Dodgers signed Randy Johnson after 1998 they not only improve but also hurt Arizona, who won three of the next four divisions. If LA landed Johnson, and if they kept Piazza to go with A-Rod, maybe that’s enough to reach the playoffs in 2000, and to go with that extra 1997 playoff berth maybe that’s enough to retain Rodriguez as a free agent after the 2000 season.
But that sure seems like a lot of assumptions, which is the downside of these what if scenarios. I’m guessing the Fox ownership group would have been even less likely to cough up the record money for A-Rod than they were to pay Piazza, so it’s fair to limit Rodriguez’s hypothetical time in Los Angeles to five full seasons.
At most he would have helped add two more playoff berths, giving the Dodgers three Octobers in those five years. And they probably would have won more than the zero playoff games they actually won during that time. Maybe it even would have been enough for us to talk about the Dodgers championship drought today as 23 years instead of 32.