Thursday, November 9, 2023

Baseball's Best Fifth Round Draft Picks 1975 - 80

Here's my third post on the best players from fifth rounds of MLB's "Rule 4" amateur draft. Previous iterations covered 1965-69 and 1970-74.

Evaluating talent must feel like fishing. You cast into the sea hundreds of times, hoping for one good hit that'll make all that time on a water's edge worthwhile. Fifth rounds of the late 1970s continued to impress me as 1-in-20 long shot picks, as history shows just one team took home a big fish.

1975: Lou Whitaker (75.1 WAR, 5x All-Star, 3x Gold Glove, 4x Silver Slugger, 1984 World Series ring, 1978 ROY)

I consider Whitaker baseball's best fifth-round pick for the 1965-75 decade, as many think Lou should be in Cooperstown. Keystone infielders with such consistency prove hard to find in any age, let alone paired with a teammate like Alan Trammell.

Love that "Sweet Lou" autograph on his 1982 Topps and cards like this convinced me every good hitter wore fielding caps under their batting helmet.

1976: Jack Morris (43.5 WAR, 5x All-Star, 1984/1991/1992 World Series rings, HOF)

An easy pick for his year and yet tough to write about, since Jack's relative career value (in WAR, anyway) falls well short of Sweet Lou. The 1991-92 rings with Toronto made a big difference for Hall of Fame voters.

As a young Seattle fan, I remember Detroit's 1984 maulers came into the Kingdome at 35-5 and left 35-8, swept by an otherwise nondescript Mariners squad. I trimmed shortstop Spike Owen's newspaper highlight photos from that series for my baseball scrapbook and assume it inspired my own player collection that continues today. Stuff it, Jack!

1977: Tim Raines (69.4 WAR, 7x All-Star, Silver Slugger, 1996/1998 World Series rings, HOF)

Tim Raines fed the enthusiasm for rookie cards with his own powder blue Donruss card, jockeying with Fernandomania for 1981 collecting supremacy. As an eight year-old, I knew a dedicated card, even for far away teams like les Expos, felt three times better than sharing space with two other "future stars."

A late-career (and still productive) Raines won two rings with the dominant late-1990s Yankees. Did those titles cement his case for Cooperstown voters? I think they did. Bobby (Roberto) Ramos, 0.1 WAR, and Bob (Bobby) Pate, -0.1 WAR, made the rest of their card a wash.

1978: Dave Stieb (56.4 WAR, 7x All-Star)

This longtime Toronto ace must be wondering if a better early-career personality would've also meant a spot in Cooperstown, given favorable comparisons to guys like Jack Morris. His excellence came with irritability, something the writers who vote for your HOF plaque tend to notice.

Dave's autograph evolved a bit over the years, even though it remains tough to remember I before E when spelling his name. Do you like long-form video journalism? S-T-I-E-B garnered his own series on Secret Base, the pinnacle of modern analytical baseball success.

1979: Greg Gagne (26.3 WAR, 1987/1991 World Series rings)

Gagne spent ten seasons in Minnesota as their everyday shortstop and backed up Jack Morris for 1991's series win over Atlanta. Several of those World Series moments pop up in his highlight reel.

Gagne delivered consistency at a position known for its variance and finished his career in the top 100 players all-time for defensive WAR. Hard to ask for more than that.

For all Greg's fielding prowess and the many cards that show him turning a double play, I prefer these two bat-in-hand shots.

1980: (tie) Mike Fuentes (0.1 WAR), Roy Johnson (-0.5 WAR)

1980's fifth round offered our slimmest pickings since the Rule 4 draft started in 1965. Mike and Roy rank highest in WAR for players with MLB time, which damns with faint praise. The former earned his tenth of a WAR in just nine career games (six in 1983, three in 1984), while the latter suited up in 36 (17 in 1982, 16 in 1948, three in 1985).

With so few games to choose from, did these fifth-round teammates ever play together in Montreal? Let's focus on those three 1984 appearances for Fuentes and see if he crossed paths with Johnson.

  • Sept 14: Mike pinch hits a single (off Steve Carlton!) in the 5th inning. Roy Johnson pinch hits a single in the 8th inning.
  • Sept 20: Mike starts in LF and is lifted for pinch-hitter Wallace Johnson in the 9th. Two batters later, Roy Johnson pinch hits and flies out to end the game.
  • Sept 21: Roy Johnson pinch hits in the 7th, but Mike Ramsey takes over on defense. Mike Fuentes pinch hits in the 9th.
In other words, yes, Roy's in the box score for all three of Mike's 1984 appearances. Like ships in the night, they never quite fit in the active lineup together, given their pinch hitting usage.

Mike's story went quiet until 1995, reemerging for the Marlins when they prepared replacement lineups for striking players. Florida paper The Galveston Daily News highlighted his college power in its look at each National League team's "Imposter Roster," a preseason profile that anticipated scabs taking the field for opening day.

The Strike meant even more to The Streak. Baltimore felt so connected to Ripken's feat that replacement Orioles never materialized, even with forfeits on the horizon.

The strike's human story grew fraught as several union players, who'd endured seven months of lost pay, broke with their union to play alongside replacement players.

As days ticked by, pressure from all sides pushed baseball players and owners to resolve things in front of a name who later joined the US Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor.

Justice meets Judge

"By 'caliber,' I refer to both the size of their guns and the high quality of their characters... Two meanings... 'caliber'... it's a homonym..."

I'll pick up the post-1980 fifth round in future posts. For now, enjoy how even guys with three career appearances can connect to something meaningful for the whole pastime.