Paging through some old posts this morning, I spotted a pretty significant anniversary: 29 years ago today, Major League Baseball held the 1985 amateur draft. With the first overall pick, your Milwaukee Brewers selected University of North Carolina shortstop (!) B.J. Surhoff.
Surhoff didn’t play much shortstop in the majors but, as No. 1 overall picks go, he wasn’t a bad choice. He played his first nine MLB seasons in Milwaukee, primarily as a catcher, and hit .274/.323/.380 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging) in 1,102 games. His 704 career games behind the plate are the second-most in franchise history, and he’s among the top 10 Brewers of all time in hits (1,064, ninth) and games played (1,102, 10th). The Brewers certainly could have done worse with the pick: 13 of the 28 players selected in the first round that season played 51 or fewer MLB games in their careers.
However, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard not to wonder what could have been. I posted about this on Twitter this morning:
On this day in 1985 the Brewers drafted B.J. Surhoff #1 overall. Others on the board: Barry Larkin, Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, Will Clark
— Kyle Lobner (@BrewFrostyMug) June 3, 2014
That got me thinking: If you could go back in time and redo the 1985 draft with the benefit of everything we know now, who would you choose? For me, it comes down to three options:
Bonds was selected sixth overall by the Pittsburgh Pirates out of Arizona State University, and the reasoning for selecting him is obvious: He’s arguably the greatest hitter of all time. He’s baseball’s all-time leader with 762 home runs and 2,558 walks, including 688 intentional walks. He won seven MVP awards, 12 Silver Sluggers and set the MLB single-season home run record with 73 in 2001.
If we’re going to operate with the benefit of hindsight, though, it’s only fair to point out the other things we know (and/or suspect) about Bonds. First and foremost is this: Bonds was selected by the Pirates, but nearly all of his best seasons came after he’d followed the money to San Francisco in 1992. He was a good-but-not-great outfielder for most of his first four years in the big leagues before breaking out for his first MVP campaign in 1990, launching a three-year run where he may lead any conversation discussing the best player in baseball.
Even if you ignore Bonds’ suspected performance-enhancing drug issues in his later years, redrafting him No. 1 overall creates a strong risk that you’re getting three excellent seasons, then waving goodbye.
The Reds also passed on Barry Bonds to draft another Barry fourth overall, and the choice worked out pretty well for them. Larkin played college ball at the University of Michigan, started his pro career in Double-A in 1985 and was a big-leaguer for good by the end of the 1986 season, launching a 19-year MLB career.
Larkin was a very good player and a Hall of Famer in his own right, winning the 1995 NL MVP for the Reds, making 11 All Star appearances in 13 seasons between 1988-2000, winning three Gold Gloves and nine Silver Slugger awards. He finished his career with 2,340 hits, 379 stolen bases and 1329 runs scored.
Larkin was a very good major league player and could have established himself as a Brewer just as Robin Yount was making the transition from shortstop to the outfield. With 19 seasons in Milwaukee, he probably could have joined Robin Yount and Paul Molitor as the greatest Brewers of all time. The biggest argument against him is, of course, that he’s not Barry Bonds. That could also be the best argument in his favor.
Missing on Randy Johnson might actually hurt the most: The Expos selected the tall lefty out of USC with the eighth pick in the second round (No. 36 overall), seven picks after the Brewers selected Bowling Green pitcher Carl Moraw. Moraw never reached the majors.
Johnson, meanwhile, made his debut in the big leagues with the Expos in 1988 and was primarily known for his wildness early in his career. Montreal traded him to Seattle in 1989, where the “Big Unit” became something of a legend. After calming his control issues, Johnson led the American League in strikeouts for four consecutive seasons from 1992-95, including 308 in 1993. He won the AL Cy Young in 1995.
The best was yet to come for Johnson, however, when the Mariners traded him to the Astros as a 34-year-old in 1998. After a stretch run with Houston, Johnson moved on to Arizona, where he won four consecutive Cy Young Awards from 1999-2002 as the Diamondbacks reached the postseason three times in four years. All told, Johnson pitched 22 seasons in the majors and recorded 303 wins and 4,875 strikeouts. His 10.6 career strikeouts per nine innings is the best mark in MLB history.
The biggest challenge with redrafting and developing Johnson would almost certainly be patience: He walked 5.7 batters per nine innings and had a 3.95 ERA over his first five MLB seasons, so his future stardom wasn’t always apparent. It’s also worth noting that Johnson was already on his fourth MLB team when he had his best run in his 12th through 15th MLB seasons. He could’ve been easily the greatest pitcher in Brewers franchise history, but only if they’d been able to keep him around.
Others of note:
Rafael Palmeiro and Will Clark both had great MLB careers, but it would be hard to justify taking either over Bonds or Larkin. Aside from Johnson, it was a very weak class for pitchers: The top two selected in the early rounds were Bobby Witt (drafted third overall by the Rangers) and Jeff Brantley (taken in the sixth round, No. 134 overall by the Giants).
Again, this is no knock on Surhoff, a very good player over his 19 MLB seasons. But it’s hard to not wonder how much history you could change if you could go back in time to this day in 1985.
Kyle Lobner writes Milwaukee Magazine’s Frosty Mug every morning, Monday through Friday, scouring the Internet for all the Brewers news and views you can drink. Follow him on Twitter at @BrewFrostyMug.