Why the Astros drafted Phil Nevin over Derek Jeter
“We liked both players. Ultimately you have one selection, and we made ours, and as they say, the rest is history.”
This text is adapted from my book Playing Through the Pain: Ken Caminiti and the Steroids Confession That Changed Baseball Forever.
Hal Newhouser couldn’t help but be excited by a player he was scouting in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Newhouser—affectionately dubbed “Prince Hal”—knew baseball. He was one of the league’s premier pitchers of the 1940s and enshrined in Cooperstown in 1992 after being selected by the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee. After his playing days ended, Newhouser became a scout, and he spent years crisscrossing Michigan looking for talented players. While scouting for Houston, he found a shortstop named Derek Jeter who was graduating high school in 1992, and wouldn’t you know it, the Astros held the first pick in the June amateur draft.
Jeter’s swing was smooth as silk. Newhouser gushed about Jeter in his reports, claiming the infielder was “going to be the anchor and the foundation of a winning club.”
But with owner John McMullen streamlining costs and trying to unload the team, and salaries for draft picks climbing, Houston couldn’t worry so much about drafting the best player—it needed to focus on drafting the best player the team believed it could sign. And while Prince Hal was adamant that the Astros should spend everything it could and draft this Jeter kid, Houston took a liking to a college player: a California-raised third baseman who brought a football mentality to the diamond, was spending his summer playing with Team USA, and looked pretty badass with his eyes hidden behind a pair of Oakleys.
Come to think of it, Phil Nevin had a lot in common with Ken Caminiti. The Cal State Fullerton product was potentially more affordable than Jeter, who threatened to attend college at the University of Michigan if he didn’t get a suitable offer. Jeter had other options beyond turning pro. Nevin did not.
And the thinking went that Nevin, as a college player, was more polished and would probably reach the major leagues before a high school shortstop. The Astros were scouting a number of other prospects, and they also considered outfielders Jeffrey Hammonds and Chad Mottola. But inevitably the conversation kept returning to two players: Phil Nevin or Derek Jeter?
And those two players sparked a conversation about two other players, Brien Taylor and John Burke. In the 1991 draft, Taylor, an eighteen-year-old pitching prospect from Beaufort, North Carolina, used that college excuse—and some hard bargaining from his mother, Bettie, a crab sorter, along with advice from superagent Scott Boras—to rake in a then-record $1.55 million from the Yankees. They initially offered $850,000, and Taylor told them no until they offered a price that was sufficient for him and his mother.
Boras was also offering advice to Burke, a University of Florida right-hander selected sixth in the 1991 draft. The Astros scraped together a $360,000 offer for his services, but that wasn’t going to be enough, especially after Taylor signed for SO MUCH MONEY. Burke was looking for at least $500,000. So instead of signing with Houston and turning pro, Burke returned to college, waited one year until Houston’s rights to sign him expired, then reentered the draft, getting selected twenty-seventh in 1992 by the expansion Colorado Rockies (for slightly less money than the Astros had offered him one year earlier, albeit twenty-one spots later).
The failure to sign Burke was indicative of Houston’s draft difficulties with first-round picks and its money-saving ways. If the Astros drafted Jeter with the number one pick, then failed to sign him . . . that would be embarrassing. And while Nevin was seen as the more affordable option, he also had a winning pedigree, carrying his team to the College World Series. Against Prince Hal’s fervent wishes, Houston on June 1, 1992, selected Nevin with the top pick. Jeter slipped to the Yankees at number six, a partnership that would result in five World Series rings, 3,465 hits, enshrinement in Cooperstown. Prince Hal quit his scouting job in disgust. He was nearing retirement age anyway, but seeing his team pass on Jeter was the final straw, the last insult in his Hall of Fame career. Not that Nevin was a bad choice—he ended up playing twelve years in the majors. It’s just that Jeter was so good for so long.
“At that time, there were financial constraints that were in place in preparation for the upcoming sale of the club,” scouting director Dan O’Brien said. “We liked both players. Ultimately you have one selection, and we made ours, and as they say, the rest is history.” Drafting Nevin instead of Jeter was one of a handful of decisions that would haunt Astros fans for years.
During the 1991 off-season, after Biggio was finally on board with moving from catcher to second base, Houston found itself needing a backstop—while also flush with outfield talent. So the team traded away soon-to-be superstar centerfielder Kenny Lofton in a deal that brought them catcher Eddie Taubensee. And near the end of spring training before the 1992 season, reliever Curt Schilling was pitching poorly, but he was out of options—the team couldn’t demote him. But the front office couldn’t justify keeping him on the roster, so Schilling—who’d become one of the premier pitchers of his generation and among the gutsiest performers in postseason history—was shipped away.
Passing on Jeter stung the most. If the Astros had drafted and signed Jeter in 1992, and if it had kept its infield of Bagwell, Biggio, and Caminiti intact, and if those players’ stat lines had remained the same during the 1990s a lot of ifs, yes, but those four players combined for 26.2 Wins Above Replacement in 1997, just a shade under the all-time records of 27.9 and 26.9 by the “$100,000 infield” of the 1912 and 1913 Philadelphia Athletics consisting of Stuffy McInnis, Eddie Collins, Jack Barry, and Frank “Home Run” Baker.
Patience and money were potentially all that separated the Houston Astros of the 1990s from having the best infield in modern baseball history—the very two things in short supply as John McMullen looked to sell his team.