1986 MLB draft: How the Indians acquired a third of the first round

MLB draft writer Jeff Ellis takes a look at the weird case of the Cleveland Indians and the 1986 MLB draft. A draft where the Indians over the course of a decade managed to acquire one-third of the players taken in the first round. Here is a chance to take a look at not just the Indians picks, but to see how a third of the first round turned out from a draft that is now 30 years in the past.

One could write a whole series of articles on the Indians and the second overall pick. There are a lot of interesting stories to go with the Indians and the bad timing of being the worst team in the American League. For those who don’t know, until 2005 the top pick alternated between the American and National League. So an American League team who had the worst record in an even numbered year would pick first. The Indians never managed to do this, only finishing with the worst record in odd numbered years a total of five times.

In 1985 the Cleveland Indians went 60-102. It was a team which had Brett Butler and Tony Bernazard and not much else in terms of production. Those were the only two players who finished with a WAR over two. Cleveland had the worst record in the American League and the second worst overall, behind the Pittsburgh Pirates. So in this case, the draft order matched up with the worst records.

The first round had two supplemental picks in it, which is why it had 28 picks in the first round. The reason for these extra picks was compensation for the Angels losing both Al Holland and Juan Beniquez, neither of whom had posted a WAR over two the previous year. Needless to say, things have changed a lot over the years.

Now what makes this draft so interesting is that of the 28 picks in the first round, 10 of those players ended up a part of the Indians organization. Of those ten players, nine made it to the majors and seven of them ended up with the Indians through trades.

The Pirates took Jeff King with the top pick. King was a shortstop, at the time, from the University of Arkansas. The Indians next took Greg Swindell, a left-handed pitcher from the University of Texas, and the greatest number two overall pick the Indians ever made.

Swindell would go on to make an All-Star team and pitch parts of six seasons for the Indians. Right after the end of the 1991 season, Swindell was traded to the Cincinnati Reds. He was in the final year of his entry contract and the Indians were looking to get some players for their ace.

One of the players in this package was Scott Scudder, a right-hander, who the Reds had taken out of Prairieland High School in Texas (the only player ever to be drafted from there) with the 17th pick of the 1986 draft. He had already appeared in 71 games and showed himself to be the perfect mix of bad pitching. He boasted a high walk rate, high hit rate, a low strikeout rate, and a high home run rate. I have no clue why the Indians wanted Scudder or how he lasted so long in the majors when he seemed to do nothing particularly well. In his first year in Cleveland, he started 22 games but only pitched 109 innings. There is no other way to put it, Scudder was a bad pitcher. In 1993 he would pitch only four innings with the Indians, which would mark the end of his MLB career.

After the Swindell pick, the Giants would take the only player ever taken in the top ten out of UNLV, Matt Williams. Williams had the third highest WAR of any first rounder in this draft. Not only he was he one of the top power hitters in MLB for a decade, but he was also a multiple time Gold Glove winner at third.

The Indians acquired Matt Williams on November 23rd of 1996. They knew that Albert Belle would be leaving and needed to find a way to replace Belle’s power. So the Indians put together a trade where they shipped off Julian Tavarez, Jeff Kent, and Jose Vizcaino for Williams. This deal was a pretty big money saver for the Giants, saving them close to five million dollars in 1996 which, I recall, was one of the reasons they wanted to trade Williams. The other reason was that gaping hole they had at second base. Needless to say, this deal worked out much better for the Giants than the Indians long term.

Williams was maligned, as I remember it, during his one year in Cleveland. His strikeout totals aren’t all that high in retrospect. While his on-base skills were below average, he did hit 32 home runs that year and won a Gold Glove. His WAR for the year was 4.2, which was the 6th highest of his career.

Williams had some changes in his personal life and wanted to move closer to his family. So after just one season in Cleveland, the Indians shipped him to the expansion Diamondbacks in exchange for Travis Fryman.

The next highest draft pick to later join the Indians was the first prep player selected in this draft, Kent Mercker out of Dublin High School in Columbus, Ohio. He was the 6th overall selection in the draft by the Braves. He had some success as a lefty reliever for the Braves before being traded to the Orioles. The Indians would acquire him in a trade with the Orioles for Eddie Murray. This was a classic example of two teams getting rid of players they did not want.

Murray did not have a bad year in 1996 by any means. At age 40 he hit 22 home runs and posted an OPS with the Indians of .728, but when you adjust for the era, he was a below average bat at DH. His OPS was third worst on the team, behind Carlos Baerga, who was traded after a severe decline, and Sandy Alomar, who was always hurt. So the Indians took a gamble on the left-handed Mercker, who would appear in just ten games and would leave as a free agent at the end of the year.

Next up is Pat Lennon, the 8th pick in the draft by the Mariners. He was drafted as a shortstop but moved to the outfield by the time he reached the majors. In 1991, at age 23, he destroyed the PCL, which was a great sign for the Mariners. Here was Lennon, a high pick, who could be dropped in leftfield, which would complete what was already a dynamic outfield with Ken Griffey Jr. and Jay Buhner. Lennon appeared in nine games with the Mariners that year.

In 1992 he would suffer a wrist injury, which caused him to appear in just 14 games between AAA and the majors. The Mariners would release him following the ‘92 season. The reason the Mariners let the talented Lennon go was because he had already had a few run-ins with the law, along with a serious problem with alcohol.

The Indians took a risk on the talented Lennon in 1993 and gave him a spot in the then Canton-Akron Indians outfield at the AA level. He would appear in 45 games before he moved on to the Mexican League.

His story has a happy ending, though. Lennon was able to get his life on track and got a few more cups of coffee in the majors. While he never became a regular, he managed to play parts of six years in the majors and, more importantly, get his life in order.

With the 11th pick in the draft, the Padres took the greatest player, in terms of WAR, in Ball State history, one Thomas Howard. He is tied with Larry Bigbie, with a WAR of 2.5. Howard, though, played in nearly 700 more games than Bigbie over five more seasons, so I think he would go down as the most successful player from Ball State.

In 1992 the Indians would trade Jason Hardtke, an infielder, and Chris Maffett, a pitcher, for Howard. This is one of the few trades that I mention in this piece that is a win for the Indians. Howard would only play parts of two years in Cleveland, but in his first year alone, appeared in nearly twice as many games that year as the players he was traded for would appear in for their entire careers combined.

Howard was not a great player, and the Indians had a lot of outfielders in 1993, which lead to Howard being traded. Even though Howard was traded at the midpoint of the year, he still saw the fourth most at bats of any outfielder with the Indians that year.

Howard was shipped off to the Reds for Randy Milligan, a player who played in the wrong era, where his on-base skills were overlooked. Howard would go on to play until the age of 35, bouncing around the National League mostly. He was a switch-hitting outfielder who could play all three outfield spots. He could also run a little, which all combined to make him an ideal fourth outfielder.

With the 16th selection in the draft, the California Angels selected Roberto Hernandez. Hernandez would be traded to the White Sox, and fail as a starter before getting a cup of coffee at age 26, and finally getting his first extended chance in the majors at age 27. He did alright that year, posting an era of 1.65 and a sub-one WHIP. After that, he was a pretty consistent reliever for over a decade.

He would join the Indians in 2007 for his 16th and final year in the majors at age 42. If one was honest, he was two years removed from a productive season, and the Indians took a silly risk with a player over the age of 40. They paid him 3.3 million dollars and he was cut by the end of June.

Since I already mentioned Scott Scudder, the next selection that ended up with the Indians was Grady Hall, who the White Sox had taken with the 20th pick.

In June of 1991, the Indians traded for Grady Hall, who was already 27 and had never reached the majors. As a matter of fact, in the minors one could call him a left-handed Scott Scudder, as he was very hittable, walked too many guys, and didn’t strike out many. It was extremely foolish to get a guy who was older and clearly had no future. The player they gave up, Robert Person, would go on to pitch in over 200 major league games.

The Angels had the 22nd pick in the draft and took Lee Stevens out of the Kansas high school ranks. The Angels had four first round selections and three of those players ended up with the Indians. All in all, it was a solid first round for the Angels, who nabbed three future big leaguers, all players who played a decade or more in the majors.

It’s ok if you forgot about Lee Stevens’s time with the Indians. He is the forgotten piece in arguably the greatest trade in Indians history. Stevens was traded in the Bartolo Colon deal as a way to balance out salary for the Expos. After half a year in Cleveland, Stevens called it a career.

The last player who the Indians had on their roster is more of a technicality than a former player. Mike Fetters was one of the many Angels picks mentioned in this article. The Angels nabbed him with a supplemental, with pick 29. He found the most success with the Brewers, even serving as their closer for three years.

He had lost his closer spot in 1997 to Doug Jones, which led to Fetters being included in a large deal with the Indians. The Brewers traded Fetters, Ben McDonald, and Ron Villone for Marquis Grissom and Jeff Juden. On that same day, the Indians then turned around and shipped Fetters to the Oakland A’s for Steve Karsay.

Draft history and oddities always intrigue me. This draft, in general, was such an oddity compared to what we have seen over the last decade or so. The prep players came from states which rarely see first round prep players anymore. A high percentage of the players taken made the majors. Of course, somehow over a third of the first round ended up with the Cleveland Indians, and when I saw this I had to track this draft to see how and why something so unprecedented could happen. 

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