It’s one of those sayings managers have when they address their players every spring: “Play for the name on the front of the jersey, not the back. And play for the other organizations out there. You never know who’s going to be watching you.”
While players might hear that speech but not really listen to it, that axiom tangibly meant something 25 seasons ago.
Two organizations – the Colorado Rockies and the Florida Marlins – were out there in force. Their scouts were doing their player evaluations at the major league and minor league levels. They were doing their homework. They were doing their prep work. They were looking for any reason to have interest in a player – or not have interest at all.
This is the 25th anniversary of the one full year that the Rockies and Marlins spent scouting and preparing for the November 17, 1992, Major League Baseball expansion draft – when the two organizations would be selecting players from the existing 26 major league clubs. A total of 72 players would be chosen – since 50 more major league jobs were becoming available for the 1993 season.
Hundreds of players were auditioning for major league jobs. The truth is … most did not realize it. And when their names were called on expansion draft day, they were stunned.
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On paper, the Marlins and the Rockies had just under 14 months to get ready for the expansion draft – from the time their general managers were hired to the day they arrived in New York City for the initial building of their first big league rosters.
“I found the whole process to be exhilarating … that all the work we had accomplished was ready to move forward,” said Dave Dombrowski, the first general manager in Florida Marlins history. “Our goal was … you want to start an expansion team. You want to get players on board. But ultimately, you’re trying to build a world championship. We knew it would be a while down the road.
“But we were now in the position where finally you were going to have a chance to start adding some players – and all that work that had taken place would come to fruition. So I found it a very exciting time.”
While the Marlins went into the expansion draft knowing they had some money to spend, Colorado Rockies general manager Bob Gebhard and his organization were operating under a tight budget.
“We went into New York with our small group of people who we felt were going to help us make the right selections,” Gebhard said. “But the unknowns were who was going to be available – and could we afford them?
“We felt that we were going to draw some people in Denver. But one of the things the owners brought to my attention is they really thought we needed to win some ball games right away. We were competing in a football city, we were the new team in town, and we really needed to be competitive. We certainly didn’t want to lose 100 games that first year. So we were trying to pick carefully so that, No. 1, we had a team that was affordable, and No. 2, that we had a team that could compete in the 1993 season. We were trying to do both. It was difficult knowing that we didn’t have a lot of money to spend.”
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How would the two teams be put together?
The rules were pretty simple – and pretty complex. All players in the 26 existing organizations were eligible to be drafted, except those with no prior major league experience who had less than three years of service if signed at age 19 or older – or less than four years of service if signed at age 18 or younger.
Cutting to the chase, any “under contract” player who had big league service time was in play if he wasn’t protected. From the minor league side, in layman’s terms, it all depended on when you were drafted – but the drafts of 1990, 1991 and 1992 were off limits. If you were a college kid selected in the 1989 draft with no big league time – you were eligible if an organization didn’t protect you. As an example, Trevor Hoffman, Cincinnati’s 11th-round pick that year, was not on the Reds’ protected list – leaving him available to be selected. If you were a high school kid chosen in the 1988 draft without major league experience (for instance, Yankees minor leaguer Carl Everett), or an undrafted young international player signed that year (the Cubs’ Pedro Castellano), you too were eligible if left unprotected.
What constituted a protected player? Major league teams were able to protect 15 players prior to the draft. Players with 10/5 rights (10 years of major league service, the last five with the same team) and players with no-trade clauses in their contracts had to be protected unless they waived those rights.
The procedure for the three-round expansion draft:
- Before the draft, a coin flip determined which team selected first in the first round and second in rounds two and three – or second in the first round and first in rounds two and three. The Rockies won the coin flip and opted to choose first.
- In the first round, the Rockies and the Marlins alternated turns, with each of the existing 26 teams losing one player. In theory, both teams were alternately selecting who they considered to be the 16th-best player on every other team’s roster. At the conclusion of the round, both Colorado and Florida would have selected 13 players each.
- Prior to the second round, the existing National League teams were able to pull back an additional three players, while American League teams were able to protect four more. The second round proceeded in the same manner as the first, with each existing major league organization losing a second player. At this point, both expansion teams would have selected 26 players each.
- Prior to the third round, the N.L. teams once again were able to protect three more players, while the A.L. teams were able to protect four. During the third round, 20 total players were selected – with each N.L. team losing one player and eight A.L. clubs losing a player. At the conclusion of the round, both the Marlins and the Rockies would have made 36 selections.
Not only were the Rockies and Marlins drafting players, they literally were playing a dice game. If you wanted a player from a specific team, and the other expansion club drafted a player from that club, then you likely lost out on an opportunity. You had to roll the dice when making your selections.
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The Rockies’ trip to New York became eventful before the big event.
After his arrival in the Big Apple, Gebhard was able to engineer a franchise-shaking move before the team had any players on its roster.
“Jim Bronner, the agent for Andres Galarraga, called me and said, ‘I’ve got a first baseman for you.’ And he told me it was Andres,” Gebhard said. Galarraga, a veteran of seven seasons in Montreal and one in St. Louis, had an All-Star appearance, one Silver Slugger Award and two Gold Gloves on his resume. “I told him, ‘You know, I have a very limited budget. I’ve been told I have $8 million to spend on a 40-man roster, so I have to be careful who I make commitments to – because this would be a salary hit.’ So we negotiated a contract for $500,000.
“The day before the draft, we signed Andres Galarraga.”
The 32-year-old Galarraga would go on to hit a National League-best .370 in 1993 and become an early builder of the Rockies’ “Blake Street Bombers” identity that Don Baylor wanted to establish. Galarraga spent five years in a Rockies uniform – finishing in the N.L. Top 10 in Most Valuable Player voting four times.
A second aggressive right-handed offensive presence that Gebhard coveted was Dante Bichette – who had fallen out of favor in Milwaukee.
Gebhard also had an affinity for Milwaukee’s Darren Holmes, a right-handed reliever who had experienced some success in 1992 (2.55 ERA and 6 saves in 41 games) – but was not protected by the Brewers.
The question for Gebhard was … could he get both players? The Rockies believed that if they took one, the other would either be protected after the first round – or selected by the Marlins early in the second round.
“We decided we needed pitchers who could pitch in Denver, so we were going to take Darren Holmes early in the draft,” Gebhard said. “But we had also zeroed in on Dante Bichette. It was a little bit of a mystery how we could get him.”
As fate would have it, “the morning of the draft, I went downstairs for coffee and ran into (Milwaukee GM) Sal Bando,” Gebhard said. “We had some discussions, and then I asked him, ‘What are you looking for?’ He said he needed a left-handed DH, and I asked him if he had any interest in (Texas’ Kevin) Reimer. He said, ‘Absolutely.’ So I asked him, ‘What if we draft him, and after the first round, you pull Dante Bichette back so we didn’t lose him to Florida? We can announce the trade after the draft.’ And he said, ‘That’s a deal.’ That’s how we got Dante Bichette.
“All of a sudden we had the big first baseman in Galarraga and now we had Bichette. We had the makings of a middle of the lineup with two power hitters. The rest of it just sort of fell into place.”
Bichette went on to play seven years for the Rockies, going to the All-Star Game four times. Holmes showed he could keep the ball in the park, surrendering only 34 homers in 263 games during his five years in a Colorado uniform.
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It was the afternoon of November 17, and the baseball industry had flocked to the New York Marriott Marquis – with all the lights shining from nearby Times Square – for the expansion draft.
The draft was televised by ESPN and took nearly seven hours to complete – as the teams were given four and a half minutes to make each selection. There was a 30-minute break between rounds.
“It was an unbelievable experience,” said Gary Hughes, Florida’s first scouting director. “Anybody who was anybody – from the media to the front office – was there. We flew up for it in (owner) Wayne Huizenga’s plane. The next morning, we were out of there. We had an early morning wakeup, which I don’t think was a wakeup; I don’t think we went to bed. It was wonderful; some of our guys and some of their guys together.”
The draft-day experience was “overwhelming” in the words of Hughes’ Colorado counterpart, Pat Daugherty. “No. 1, I’d never been to New York City,” said Daugherty. “Just the whole preparation of getting all of our stuff moved there. Seeing the draft room – how everything was set up. Getting to spend some time with Don Baylor, who was just hired as manager. It was very, very exciting.”
The game plans had seemingly been set. The Rockies were looking to acquire as much pitching as possible and were going to take a long look at the players they selected. The Marlins were open to drafting players to flip to other organizations.
“Leading up to the start of the draft, there were a lot of phone calls back-and-forth with general managers who wanted to make trades or make suggestions about who we should draft. Lots of phone calls,” Gebhard said. “And as David and I both talked about later, clubs that couldn’t make trades for certain players wanted to use us as a middle man to try to help them get the players they wanted. David did a little more of that than I did. It was an interesting time trying to piece it all together.
“Having been a pitcher myself and a pitching coach, I certainly knew how hard it was going to be to pitch in Denver – a mile above sea level. So we really tried to focus on drafting as many pitchers as we could – with the hopes that we’d get 11 or 12 out of that group.”
Dombrowski said that by the time the Marlins’ contingent landed in New York, most of their work was basically done.
“We had run some mock expansion drafts, where you could take a player … then withdraw and protect three or four more players,” he said. “We were in a situation where we knew we had to get the best available prospects, but we also had to get some big league players.”
As for how the trade aspect would work, “You couldn’t technically talk to somebody about names that were available on the list of another club,” Dombrowski said. “While we couldn’t mention a player’s name, it would be easy for somebody to say, for example, ‘If a left-handed pitcher from this organization was available, would you have interest in that guy?’ So it was easy to put that type of information out there. And teams would approach us … ‘Hey, we have a need for this. Is anybody on the list somebody we would have interest in?’”
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With the two teams situated in their respective draft rooms at the Marriott Marquis, the first pieces of the puzzle for both organizations were about to be obtained.
Dombrowski remembers sitting in the Marlins’ war room with their draft boards – hidden from the outside world. “We had somebody on stage working directly with the commissioner’s office; we would let that person know who our next choice was. He would tell the commissioner’s office, and they would announce the selection.”
And the person notifying the commissioner’s office was Jim Hendry — the future Cubs general manager and former Creighton University baseball coach.
“I remember Hendry being down on the floor and bringing the names up to (N.L. president) Bill White,” Hughes said. “We were off in a different room, and Hendry was getting all the TV time. (Marlins scout) Orrin Freeman was kidding, but he said that all the people back in Omaha had to be thinking that Hendry was making all the choices himself.”
Having won the coin flip, Colorado went first, selecting David Nied from the Atlanta Braves. Nied had gone 3-0 as a September call-up, but the right-hander was tough for the Braves to protect; he was behind Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery on the team’s starting pitcher depth chart. Atlanta also had Pete Smith and Kent Mercker in the wings – and was just weeks away from adding Greg Maddux to its pitching arsenal.
“I’ll tell you, the other clubs did a great job in protecting their pitching staffs for the expansion draft, and we were fortunate enough to get David Nied as our No. 1 draft,” Gebhard said. “David (Dombrowski) told me later on that if we hadn’t taken him with our first pick, he would have.”
Nied, who threw the first pitch in Rockies history on Opening Day 1993, was sabotaged by injuries. He was limited to 16 starts in ’93, going 5-9 with a 5.17 ERA – while missing half the season with elbow inflammation. The following year, he was 9-7 with a 4.80 ERA in 22 starts during the strike-shortened campaign. He then missed the first three months of the 1995 season with a strained right elbow. Nied threw just 9 2/3 more big league innings – and was out of the game for good by the end of 1996.
“We thought we had one in David Nied,” said Baylor, the first manager in Rockies history. “I had gone on what Bob Gebhard had talked about pitching. We needed to find pitching. In Denver, the ball carries like crazy. I didn’t care if you grew the grass up to the grandstand; you needed to find pitchers who could keep the ball in the park.”
The Marlins – with their first-ever selection – then drafted outfielder Nigel Wilson from the Toronto Blue Jays. Wilson, a 23-year-old left-handed batter, was left unprotected by a Blue Jays club that won the 1992 World Series.
Coming off a strong Double-A campaign in which he batted .274 with 26 homers, Wilson was expected to become an early Marlins mainstay. But it didn’t happen.
Wilson had a so-so 1993 Triple-A campaign with Florida’s Edmonton affiliate before going 0-for-16 as a September recall. He spent a second year in Edmonton before being claimed off waivers by Cincinnati after the labor stoppage ended in April 1995. He saw brief additional big league action for the Reds (1995) and Cleveland (1996) before heading to Japan – where he finally displayed the predicted power (three 30-plus homer campaigns).
“I remember being in the room and we started looking at each draft selection … what are you going to be able to get … what you might want to go ahead and do … if you pick this one guy up, you can go ahead and trade him to another club to get somebody else,” recalled Rene Lachemann, Florida’s first manager. “I wasn’t involved in doing the final things, but there were talks on that. Dave was constantly talking to other general managers. So those things were going on.
“The thing that amazed me out of all it: The two No. 1 draft choices didn’t last very long. That was just amazing.”
The ebb-and-flow of the draft continued. Colorado selected third baseman Charlie Hayes from the Yankees. Florida selected right-handed pitcher Jose Martinez from the Mets. At No. 5, the Rockies selected Holmes – the first step necessary in officially acquiring Bichette from the Brewers. Then at No. 9, the Rockies picked Texas’ Kevin Reimer – and the handshake over coffee was all but done; the official announcement would come later that night.
In between those selections, Florida chose Trevor Hoffman, a right-hander pitching in the Cincinnati Reds’ minor league system. Hoffman spent the first three months of the 1993 season with the Marlins before being sent to San Diego in a deal that brought Gary Sheffield to South Florida.
“I give tremendous credit to Scott Reid because he scouted the Cincinnati organization,” Dombrowski said. “I remember one guy that they had who was available in the first round that everybody talked about was Chris Hammond – who ended up having a nice big league career; we traded for him the next spring. Hammond had already showed that he could pitch at the major league level, but Scott Reid said the guy we needed to take there was Trevor Hoffman. So in an expansion draft, you ended up drafting a Hall of Famer. Now I realize we traded him quickly, but we got Gary Sheffield in return. So it just tells you about the type of work that was done by our scouts.”
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“Play for the other organizations out there. You never know who’s going to be watching you.”
With the No. 11 overall selection in the first round, the Rockies plucked 5-foot-9 second baseman Eric Young from the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Young had been a 43rd-round pick out of Rutgers in 1989 – as a 22-year-old late-round senior sign. He went to Rutgers on a football scholarship, and played both football and baseball there for four years. With that background, the fact that he managed to get to the majors in his fourth year is a story of its own. And then, just like that, he was taken in the expansion draft.
“We were coming off a 99-loss season, and I knew there were going to be changes – because the Dodgers were not used to losing 99 games,” Young said. Los Angeles had other young players it chose to protect in first baseman Eric Karros, shortstop Jose Offerman and catcher Carlos Hernandez. “I didn’t want to hear my name called, so I didn’t watch the draft on TV. If I got a phone call, then I knew something was going down. And then it happened.
“I have to tell you … the man that I had the best conversation with was (Los Angeles GM) Fred Claire – when he made the phone call to tell me that I had been picked in the expansion draft. I remember one thing he said to me, ‘Just always remember you’re not leaving on bad terms, and you never know about the possibility to come back. You’ll always have a chance to return to L.A.’ So basically when he said that, he was telling me, ‘Look, my hands were tied.’ He couldn’t protect me, but he knew my history and he knew how hard I worked to get there. The conversation was very positive. Right there, that gave me the inspiration to go and make a name for myself.
“I thought about this as, ‘This is a chance for me.’ We all realized that once we got there together, we were castaways, throwaways, or whatever you wanted to call us. But we had a lot to prove.
“The expansion draft was the best move of my career – not only as a player, but as a person. I grew up fast.”
After the Young selection, the Marlins followed by picking left-hander Greg Hibbard off the White Sox’s roster. Hibbard’s stay in Florida was extremely short-lived; in fact, he never left the Windy City. He was traded after the draft to the Cubs for infielders Alex Arias – who went on to spend five years with the Marlins – and Gary Scott.
Colorado followed by drafting second baseman Jody Reed from Boston; he was subsequently traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers for reliever Rudy Seanez.
With the 18th selection, Florida chose catcher Eric Helfand from Oakland. As soon as the expansion draft was completed, Helfand was traded back to the Athletics – along with pitcher Scott Baker (selected from St. Louis in the third round) – for shortstop Walt Weiss. The 1988 A.L. Rookie of the Year was on Oakland’s original protection list.
“I had a rough ending to my time in Oakland,” Weiss said. “I had a career-threatening injury in 1991, and then I didn’t play again until the middle of ’92. I had dealt with a lot of injury problems, and to be honest with you, I was kind of looking for a fresh start.
“I knew the managers in both places. I had played with Don Baylor in Oakland, and Rene Lachemann was on our coaching staff in Oakland. So I was looking forward to moving on that expansion draft day. Obviously, I wasn’t in the draft, but I got traded in what was a pre-arranged deal.
“Believe it or not, even though I went from one of the better teams in the game to an expansion team, it was kind of what I needed at the time. I felt like I needed to re-establish myself.”
While Weiss eventually went from Florida to Colorado – and later was a Rockies manager – Joe Girardi went from Colorado to a future Marlins managerial position. Girardi was selected by the Rockies from the Chicago Cubs.
Growing up in Peoria, Ill., a town around 165 miles southwest of Chicago, Girardi always envisioned himself playing at Wrigley Field for the Cubs. The vision became reality in 1989 when he was the club’s Opening Day catcher.
After spending the 1990 season as the Cubs’ starting backstop, he was limited to just 21 games in 1991 with a lower back injury. He came back in 1992 to split catching duties with Rick Wilkins – who had a lot of left-handed power. Girardi wasn’t looking over his shoulder at the possibility of being selected in the expansion draft, but he realized he might not be protected.
“I always dreamed that I would play for the Cubs, and I don’t think there was a dream of me really playing anywhere else,” said Girardi, who is now in his 10th year at the helm of the New York Yankees. “The thought is, when you sign with a team, you’re going to be there forever. But I quickly learned that’s not necessarily the business, and what you imagine as a kid is not always true as an adult.”
Girardi sat in front of the TV that day, watching ESPN and waiting to hear if his name was called. And with the 19th overall selection, the Rockies chose Girardi to be their first starting catcher. He found that out via phone call just seconds before everyone else.
“Honestly, I thought I was going to end up in Miami,” he said. “I should have thought about it. I lived on Aspen Drive (in the northern suburbs of Chicago). It was like the writing was on the wall where I was going. So that was kind of interesting.
“It turned out to be a great experience for me. I had a wonderful time in Colorado.”
Florida then followed with the expected/unexpected selection of California Angels closer Bryan Harvey at No. 20.
It was a known that the Marlins had interest in him. The big question was: would the expansion team take a chance on a highly compensated reliever with a checkered medical history?
“Once we had the (protected) lists, we knew at that point that Bryan Harvey was going to be available,” Dombrowski said. “It gave us a chance to start digging up medical information on him and start making some phone calls to people we knew and respected that might give us the type of background that we needed to make sure that if we took him, that he would be healthy.”
“I remember the questions, ‘Why did you take Bryan Harvey?’ He was coming off an injury,” Lachemann said. “The Angels didn’t protect him; they probably figured, ‘Why would anybody take a closer?’ We took a closer thinking that anytime we’d have a really good chance to win a game, we didn’t want to blow it. We knew we might only have a chance to win 60 games – so we better have somebody at the end who could save them. He ended up saving 45 games that year.”
With their next selection (No. 22 overall), Florida selected the player who would later be known as “Mr. Marlin.”
Jeff Conine was Kansas City’s 58th-round pick out of UCLA in 1987 – where he was a pitcher. He managed to get a cup of coffee as a position player in his third pro year, then got another cup two years later. Being selected in the expansion draft completely caught him off guard.
“Frankly, at the time, it was a little disheartening,” Conine recalled. “I was drafted by the Royals and made it all the way through their system, and I kind of had planned on making a career in Kansas City. The night before the draft, a friend called me and said, ‘I heard you were unprotected for the draft tomorrow.’ And I’m like, ‘Really?’ So I went to my agent’s office to watch the draft, and sure enough, Florida took me.
“I was having a real good year in Triple-A for the Royals when I got called up at the end of ’92, and I thought I was in their plans. It really didn’t occur to me that I might not even be there a couple months later.
“After it sunk in, I immediately thought … now, I’m going to get a chance to play and probably start. And it’s going to be my job to lose, basically. It was exciting to be part of a brand new franchise from the ground floor in a new market with new fans. That disappointment really turned to excitement pretty quickly.
“Looking back, I don’t know what would have happened if I stayed with the Royals. They had Wally Joyner over at first base for a couple more years. I don’t know if I would have made the starting lineup in the outfield; it’s hard to say. Given this opportunity, I worked hard and took advantage of it – and made myself stay in that lineup. As they say, ‘It’s hard to get to the big leagues, but it’s tougher to stay.’ And I worked hard to stay there.”
As the day went on, players who later became household names continued to get selected. Colorado picked future longtime Rockies pitchers Armando Reynoso (from Atlanta), Steve Reed (from San Francisco), Curtis Leskanic (from Minnesota) and a little-known third baseman from Atlanta. “We kind of just stumbled onto Vinny Castilla,” Baylor said.
Meanwhile, Florida’s selections included outfielder Carl Everett (from the Yankees), starters Jack Armstrong (from Cleveland) and David Weathers (from Toronto), and reliever Cris Carpenter (from St. Louis).
Florida also selected reliever Tom Edens midway through the second round (from Minnesota), then sent him to Houston for pitchers Hector Carrasco and Brian Griffiths. After opening the third round with the selection of starter Danny Jackson (from Pittsburgh), the Marlins then peddled the southpaw to Philadelphia for pitchers Joel Adamson and Matt Whisenant.
On the day/night of the expansion draft, Dombrowski traded away five of his selections. By the end of 1993, an additional six members of his expansion draft class had been traded away.
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Chuck Wasserstrom spent 25 years in the Chicago Cubs’ front office – 16 in Media Relations and nine in Baseball Operations. Now a freelance writer, his behind-the-scenes stories of his time in a big league front office can be found on www.chuckblogerstrom.com.