by David Rawnsley
Having heard about Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein’s book for at least the past year (mostly from Eddie, ironically enough), I was definitely looking forward to seeing which exalted teams made the final cut.
When the list of fifteen arrived via e-mail, there weren’t many surprises. I guess I don’t have an appreciation for the 1986 Mets, as I spent the entire year in a stone hut at 9,000 feet in the upper Rift Valley of Kenya. My parents clipped box scores and Sunday stats, but I received them two weeks after the fact. Aside from that team, it’s easy to construct an immediate defense for the other fourteen.
Two, though, caught my eye. The 1974 A’s and 1975 Reds are obviously linked by their overlapping dynasties and World Series duel. The 1974 A’s actually won fewer regular-season games than any A’s team between 1971 and 1976. The 1975 Reds struggled to overcome a fine Red Sox team, while the 1976 Big Red Machine swept the Yankees as if they were so much dust. But both teams are representative of the great organizations that dominated the 1970’s.
They were also the first two teams that I really followed closely and watched in person, along with the hard-luck Giants teams of the ’70s. I lived in the Bay Area and spent two to four weeks each summer in Cincinnati, where my grandparents lived.
From my current scouting/player development perspective, recalling these two teams made me think, “How were these two historical teams put together and what impact did the draft have on them?”
The Amateur Draft, which was instituted in 1965, made its first real impact on a pennant race in 1969 (Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan), but the first consistent effects weren’t really seen until the early 1970s. As you can see by future Hall of Famers such as Johnny Bench and Reggie Jackson, the A’s and the Reds were two of the teams to take real advantage of the new rules.
The 1974 A’s were essentially eight players (I write this not knowing what Rob and Eddie might have written about the team). Sal Bando, Reggie Jackson, Joe Rudi and Gene Tenace combined for 56 percent of the RBIs and 75 percent of the home runs. Vida Blue, Rollie Fingers, Ken Holtzman and Catfish Hunter shared 72 percent of the A’s innings and combined for 70 of the team’s 90 wins.
Charlie Finley was one of the most brilliant men ever to involve himself in baseball, but he also was a man so full of contradictions and impulsive behavior that it is hard to keep track of his achievements. It would be nice to see John Rocker and Albert Belle dressed in Kelly Green overalls out behind the mound furiously competing in a cow-milking contest. I’d pay for that ticket.
Finley was brilliant enough to rant and rage against the draft, then pay the first ever pick, Rick Monday, only $105,000. The Angels had signed a similar outfielder, Rick Reichardt, for $205,000 only a couple of months before the draft was implemented. Crazy like a fox.
Looking at the history of the early A’s drafts quickly reveals Finley’s baseball brilliance. Just a few years from eliminating his entire scouting staff and front office (leaving a young Walt Jocketty as his only full-time employee), Finley never overpaid for information or help.
Here’s a quick rundown of the A’s drafts from 1965.
1965: After picking Monday, the A’s were able to grab Bando in the sixth round and Tenace in the 20th. How Bando, who won the College World Series MVP that year at Arizona State, lasted until the sixth round is a mystery. Tenace, believe it or not, was a high-school shortstop.
1966: Picking second, the A’s watched the Mets select catcher Steve Chilcott first. The A’s didn’t hesitate to select Reggie Jackson with their pick. Jackson, a football star, had just played one year of baseball at Arizona State.
1967: The A’s picked a long-forgotten high-school righthander, Brian Bickerton, in the first round. In the second round they selected Vida Blue, who held out all summer weighing a football scholarship against a $40,000 signing bonus. It wasn’t Blue and Finley’s last battle.
From 1968 on, the A’s continued to pick top athletes in the first round (George Hendrick, Chet Lemon, Dan Ford, Dan Stanhouse, Phil Garner) but none ended up directly impacting the franchise.
But for three magical years, Finley and his shoestring budget were able to figure out the new draft to sign four of his eight stars. Future Hall of Famers Fingers and Hunter, along with Rudi, were already in the A’s system, while Holtzman was stolen from the Cubs. In 1974, the eight players were all between 25 (Blue) and 30 (Bando) years old, just at their peaks.
To me, the Reds are a much better team than the A’s. No, they didn’t win three consecutive championships like Oakland did. But they were deeper both in the field and on the hill, and won far more games during the regular season (210 combined in 1975-76). The only thing they really lacked, due to a series of devastating arm injuries, was the Hunter/Blue level pitcher.
The Reds’ 1975 starting rotation should have led off with 26-year-old Wayne Simpson, followed by Don Gullet (24) and Gary Nolan (27). But Simpson was long gone, having torn his rotator cuff with a 14-1 record in 1970. He never recovered and ended up with a crippled arm. Both Gullett and Nolan were junk ballers (or close), and in the back half of their careers in 1975, but both could have easily matched Hunter or Blue had they been healthy.
While GM Bob Howsam’s trades, especially the famous deal for Joe Morgan, Jack Billingham and Cesar Geronimo, helped build the Reds depth, let’s look at how the draft impacted the organization.
1965: The Reds drafted Bernie Carbo in the first round (an ironic pick given Carbo’s pinch-hit home run in the 1975 World Series while with the Red Sox). Their second-round pick, signed for a mere $8,000 out of a rural Oklahoma high school, was Johnny Bench. The Reds also picked up Hal McRae later.
1966: Gary Nolan was the team’s first pick and perhaps started his own downfall when he threw 226 innings as a 19-year-old rookie in 1967 (ed. note — Nolan’s manager probably deserves a bit of the blame, too). Backup infielder Darryl Chaney was part of this draft.
1967: Wayne Simpson was the first round pick, the second straight year the Reds grabbed a potential No. 1 starter in the draft. Shortstop Frank Duffy also came from this draft, an important consideration in that he was later traded to the Giants for 1977 MVP George Foster. When Morgan and Concepcion are your middle infielders, who needs Chaney and Duffy?
1968: A complete wash.
1969: Don Gullett, Ross Grimsley, Rawley Eastwick, Ken Griffey. Obviously, a very important draft for the organization. The Reds were doing a great job identifying frontline pitchers, somewhat surprising given the extreme offensive production of their powerhouse teams of the mid-’70s.
1970: Will McEnaney, Ray Knight, Pat Zachery, Joel Youngblood. Another solid draft, if lacking in superstar power.
It’s interesting to note that in 1970 these Reds played in their first of many World Series. This is also when their drafts completely fell apart. From 1971 to 1973 they did nothing to improve their organization in the draft, and only slowly advanced during their 1975-76 heyday. It would be interesting to study whether there is a correlation between the distractions of being a great team and the effectiveness of a scouting staff.
As befits a broader and deeper team, the Reds were put together in a much more complex fashion than the A’s. Tony Perez (Cuba), Dave Concepcion (Venezuela) and Cesar Gernonimo (Dominican Republic) gave the team an international flavor. Morgan, Foster and Billingham were key components brought over in trades. Bench, Griffey and the injured pitching brigade came from the draft. And of course, Pete Rose pre-dated everyone.
David Rawnsley regularly enlightens the readers of Baseball America, both in print and on the Internet.