Did you know that Ken Griffey Jr. should have been a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates? Let’s dive into one of the biggest ‘what ifs?’ in franchise history.
Ever franchise in sports history has plenty of ‘what if?’ moments. For the Pittsburgh Pirates there are plenty. What if Roberto Clemente had not gotten onto that plane on New Year’s Eve 1972? What if Bob Moose had not uncorked that wild pitch against the Reds a little over two months prior?
In more recent years, what if Andrew McCutchen had not gotten hurt in 2014? What if the Tampa Rays had accepted the Pittsburgh Pirate offer for David Price instead of Detroit’s that same season? What if Starling Marte’s 101+ MPH missile with the bases loaded against Jake Arrieta in the 2015 NL Wild Card Game had any air under it or wasn’t snagged on unreal play by noted terrible human being Addison Russell?
However, possibly the biggest ‘what if?’ in franchise history came in 1987. What was this you may ask? Well, in 1987 Ken Griffey Jr. SHOULD have become a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
In 1986 the Pittsburgh Pirates finished with a MLB worst 64-98 record. At the time, however, MLB had a rule that the American League team with the worst record would have the first overall pick in odds years while the worst National League record would selected first overall in even numbered years. Due to this, the 67-95 Seattle Mariners had the first overall selection.
With the first overall selection in the 1987 MLB Draft the Mariners selected Ken Griffey Jr. As most everyone reading this knows Griffey Jr. would go on to become one of the best players in baseball history.
Had MLB used the rule they implemented in 2005 that the worst record in baseball, regardless of lead, got the top pick in the draft, then the Pirates would have had an outfield that consisted of two of the best players in baseball history. This is due to the Pirates selecting Barry Bonds with their top pick, and the 6th overall pick, in the 1985 draft.
Griffey Jr. reached the majors in 1989. This means that Griffey would have been entrenched in the Pirate outfield when they won the National League East in three consecutive seasons from 1990-1992 Griffey Jr. would have been a member of an outfield that already included Bonds who won a pair of NL MVP awards during that time.
During those three seasons Griffey Jr. had a wRC+ of 132, 148, and 145, to go with fWARs of 5.0, 6.9, and 5.3. This greatly increases the chances that the Pirates would have won the National League Championship in one of those three seasons, as well as possibly having won a 6th World Series Championship.
Drafting Griffey Jr. would have given the Pirates an outfield of Griffey Jr., Bonds, and Andy Van Slyke during their three postseason runs in the early 90s. This would have given the Pirates the best outfield in baseball, and by a lot, during this stretch, as well as arguably the two best players in baseball in the early 90s in Griffey Jr. and Bonds.
Watching that beautiful swing of Griffey Jr.’s, maybe the sweetest in MLB history, mash home runs for the Pirates would have been a wonderful thing. Watching Bonds step to the plate after him? Talk about a dream scenario for baseball fans.
Additionally, when the 1992 season ended and the Pirate run came to an end and the team began to crumble, Griffey Jr. would have still been around for at least three more seasons. This could have helped prevent the absolute collapse of the Pirates that ensued and could have changed the course of the next 20 seasons.
With Griffey Jr. off the board, the Pirates instead drafted Mark Merchant. Merchant never reached higher than the Low-A level in the Pirate organization before he was traded to, ironically enough, the Seattle Mariners. Merchant also spent time in the Reds and White Sox organizations, never reaching the Major League level.
Had Major League Baseball awarded the top overall pick in the draft to the team with the worst record the previous season then the Pirates would have had an outfield consisting of both Bonds and Griffey Jr. in the early 90s. This would have changed the course of Pirate history in more ways than one. Without a doubt this is one of the biggest ‘what ifs?’ in franchise history.