Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Minnesota Draft Revisited: Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda (Tim Belcher edition).

(You can located part one here.)

After rifling through all of the amateur drafts records the past week, I was struck by how different the Twins organization may have been had several players over the years been enticed to sign. To be sure, playing the 'What If' game is like attending a strip club: it is fun envisioning the titillating possibilities but at the end of the day you are still going home to your girlfriend or wife (for better or worse). Needless to say the ability to alter the past is reserved for the likes of Scott Bakula through his quantum leaps, but, like the strip club in the aforementioned analogy, it doesn't hurt to look.

1983. r1.1) Tim Belcher

The Twins chose Tim Belcher with their first overall pick in 1983. He refused to sign, pointing to the previous two seasons in which the Twins finished 60-102 in 1982 and 41-68 in the strike-shortened 1981 season, and was highly guarded by a bulldog of an legal advisor named Scott Boras. He didn't believe Minnesota was looking to field a winning team (which came to fruition as 1984's 81-81 record was the only season the Twins did not finish below .500) nor were they willing to pay the market rate for a 1st overall pick. The Twins felt that they could offer Belcher, a junior at the NAIA Mount Vernon Nazarene in Ohio, a low-ball bonus of $80,000 ($20,000 less than Rick Monday received in 1965). Negotiations were at a going no where and Calvin Griffith's front office went into full throttle p.r. mode, attempting to avoid the embarrassment of losing the nation's 1st overall pick.

Belcher's (ahem) legal advisor, then just a "baseball counsellor" for a law firm and not the super-agent of today, told Belcher to returned to college for one more season. Re-entering the pool in the second-phase of the draft, the New York Yankees selected him with the 1st overall pick in the 1984 supplemental draft and offered $120,000. Belcher quickly signed.

"I was close to signing with Minnesota but close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades,'' Belcher told the media in 1984 at a press conference at Yankee Stadium. ''I don't really want to get into it; I'm a Yankee now. But eventually hard feelings did develop.''

Belcher would not make it to the Bronx as the Oakland Athletics picked him six days after he signed with New York on February 8th, 1984 as their Free Agent compensation. New York, along with just about every other general manager, protested the draft, which was redacted shortly there after, but Belcher was gone and reporting to Oakland in the spring.

"It feels great to be with someone,'' Belcher told the Ny Times. ''I would have come earlier, but I wanted to clear my mind out and make sure everything was together.''

The transactions did not end there for Belcher. Oakland sent him to Los Angeles as the player to be named later in the Rick Honeycutt deal. In 1988, Belcher became one of the best rookie pitchers, after starting the season the Los Angeles's bullpen, he finished 12-6 with 152 strikeouts in 179.7 innings and an era+ of 115. At points during the season he was virtually unhittable, striking out 21.1% of the batters faced and only issuing walks to 7.0% of them. Following his August 26th start, he had rattled off seven consecutive wins, reminiscent of Fernando-mania that swept LA in 1981.

For Dodgers he won one World Series start against the Athletics and two in the League Championship Series. The Sporting News named him the best rookie pitcher of the year as he finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting.

In the American League, the Twins had just wrapped up 1987 with the first World Series (and championship title in any sport) in Minnesota history. Subsequently, in 1988 with most of the offensive cornerstone players returning. In fact the majority of the same players that had contributed so much in 1987 were having career years:

- 28-year-old centerfielder Kirby Puckett, who had perhaps the best year of his Hall of Fame career, finished with career highs in hits (234), rbis (121), batting average (.356) and slugging (.545). The one black eye on an otherwise spectacular season was his baserunning: Kirby tried to steal 13 times and was safe on 6 occasions, ultimately costing the Twins potential runs.

- 29-year-old third baseman Gary Geatti had a career year in batting average (.301), slugging (.551) and his ops of .901 was the 8th best in the American League - earning him his first of two All-Star appearances.

-28-year-old first basemen Kent Hrbek had a career high in batting average (.312) and produced his highest ops+ (149). Oddly enough, in all of the improved offensive from the prior year, Hrbek actually had his least amount of rbis (76) since coming into the league in 1982.

Even with the offensive upgrade, the Twins lost 27 total runs from 1987 (786) to 1988 (759). Some point to the loss of Tom Brunansky, who was traded early in the season to St Louis in exchange for Tommy Herr, hurt the dynamic. In Brunansky's stead, Tom Kelly used Randy Bush (the best pinch hitter ever) and John Moses who ultimately could not replicate Bruno's slugging.

Unfortunately, the Twins had only two proven pitchers in the rotation, Blyleven and Viola, who carried them through the season and the series. They were once again deficient in the starting rotation Not satisfied with starts given to the aging Joe Niekro and Steve Carlton - a combined 84 years old - in 1987, the Twins turned to 24-year-old Allan Anderson, a left-hander who had spent the previous two seasons shuttling back and forth from Minneapolis to Portland, to become a member of the starting rotation in addition to recent free agent signing Charlie Lea, returning pitcher (or liability) Les Straker, and Fred Toliver. The 1988 rotation had as many question marks as it did in 1987. The results in 1988:

- Lea, just one of two major league pitchers born in France, finished 23 starts with a 7-7 record and an era+ of 85 in what would be his final major league season.

- Straker started 14 games and managed a 2-5 record with an era+ of 103. Straker's season is another example of why not to judge a pitcher by his era. Though his 3.92 era appears good, in 82.7 innings pitcher, Straker only struck out 23 (6.7% k%) and walked 25 (7.3% bb%).

- Blyleven regressed significantly from a pitcher who in 1987 finished 15-12 with an era+ of 115 to a 37-year-old with a 10-17 record and an era+ of 75. Also led the AL in losses and earned runs allowed.

- Viola, on the other hand, improved from a 17-10 with an era+ 159 to a 24-4 pitcher in 1988 with an era+ of 153 and won the AL Cy Young award. His strikeouts decline from 18.9% k% in 1987 to 18.7% in 1988 but his command was outstanding as he improved his walk rate from 6.3% bb% to 5.2% bb%.

- Anderson, though, was the biggest surprise of them all who made 30 starts, threw 202.3 innings and finished with the lead league in era (2.45) and walks/9 inn (1.65) and compiled a 16-9 record.

With Viola and Anderson having career years and an entire pitching staff that cut the opposition's run production down by 134 from the previous season, it was little wonder that the defending champs had improved their record by six wins (from 85 to 91). The problem was that Oakland was busy rattling off 104 wins to Minnesota's 91 and handily won the AL West. The Twins finished the season 5-8 versus Oakland. Two of those losses were contributed by Les Straker and two by Fred Toliver, both of whom are excellent candidates to have been replaced by a quality starter. A quality starter such as Tim Belcher, who finished 12-6 with Los Angeles and two post-season victories, could have easily been the elusive 4th starter the Twins were searching for. Instead of discussions of the first repeat championship team in Minnesota since the Lakers left, talks turned to rebuilding in 1989 where the Twins purged Blyleven, Herr and Viola.

For the rest of his career Belcher enjoyed moderate success. Between 1989 and 1991 Belcher had several good seasons (even receiving Cy Young votes in 1989) then spent 1992 through 1995 shifting teams (Cincinnati, Chicago White Sox, Seattle and Detroit). After signing with the Kansas City Royals, Belcher had two more good seasons left in him in 1996 and 1998 where he finished with an era+ of 127 and 111 respectively.

Oh, and he might be the only pitcher to have been the recipient of a roundhouse kick thanks to Chan Ho Park.

(For more information on the Twins' 1988 season visit Coffeyville Whirlwind).