Dick Allen and the 1961 expansion draft

Dick AllenBaseball expansion drafts are fascinating things. To add a major league franchise is no small feat. It involves approval from the league, a wealthy person or people to pour in a lot of upfront cash and a city ready with a stadium and able to support the team moving forward. It’s the reason that expansion doesn’t happen all that often.

The drafts themselves are at odds with the whole process. Adding a franchise to Major League Baseball is adding revenue to the entire league, yet the teams themselves, from whom the players for any expansion team have to come since that team doesn’t exist yet, don’t want to make the team all that good. This of course makes sense from a competitive standpoint, but makes zero sense from a financial view, which has resulted in a wide range of players that become available via expansion.

On October 10th, 1961, two new franchises in New York and Houston took part in what was the second expansion draft. The first one took place the year before, when two new teams in Los Angeles and Washington joined the American League. In that draft, minor league prospects were made available, leading to some decent talent actually being acquired by the fledgling teams. The Los Angeles Angels would make the most of that availability, acquiring future All Star shortstop Jim Fregosi (yes the one the Mets ended up trading Nolan Ryan for, but he was excellent during the 1960’s) and future Cy Young Award winner Dean Chance in that draft.

The National League clubs changed the rules for their expansion draft. Whereas in the American League draft of the year before, the Los Angeles and Washington teams could select non 40 man roster players, the New York and Houston Franchises could only pick off of the 40 man roster and only pick from a list of 15 players provided by each of the pre-existing National league teams. These 15 player lists also had to include seven players from the 25 man roster, as it stood on August 31st, 1961. These initial 120 players would be made available in two rounds, two players taken from each existing club by Houston and New York in round one, totaling 16 players for each club and an optional second round where each team could take an additional player. Each of the first round players would cost $75,000, while the second round players would cost $50,000 each. 16 additional “Premium” players would made available in a third round, two from each existing teams 25 man roster. The New York and Houston franchises had to choose four of these players, max of one per existing team, at a cost of $125,000 dollars a player.

The issue with the draft was the timing in which the rosters had to be set. There was only one division in 1961, so many of the National League teams were already out of contention by August 31st, allowing them to demote valuable prospects from the 25 man roster and replace them with the dregs of their forty man roster. Also, since only 15 players needed to be made available and seven had to be from the 25 man roster, it allowed the team to cherry pick the other eight players to further protect their prospects. Everyone understands that players get removed from the 40 man roster after the season ends, by either release or passing a player through waivers to outright them to the minor leagues. The expansion draft of 1961, in essence, allowed the existing National League teams to not only gut their rosters of the players off the 25 man roster they didn’t want, but also cull some of the players they were probably going to release or push through waivers anyway.

What that left Houston and New York with was a group of over the hill veterans, players in their late 20’s who either hadn’t been successful in the majors or were superfluous on their perspective rosters and a lot of very low level prospects as many of the teams filled those eight slots left after the 25 man roster players with minor leaguers that were nowhere near the major leagues.

It did not make for enviable choosing and, predictably, Houston and New York chose a smattering of veterans with most of their selections being those 20 something players. This of course makes logical sense as each team needed to field a roster for 1962 and already had been working towards signing players for their minor league squads. However, there were some diamonds in the rough that could have made a difference for either club.

Five such players that could have changed some of the Mets fortunes in the 1960’s were Dick Allen, Dick Dietz, Vic Davalillo, Eddie Fisher and Jim Brewer.

Allen is the key selection here. Allen turned into one of the great hitters of his time. Over the course of a 15 year career, Allen hit 351 home runs, knocked in over 1100 runs and had a massive 912 career OPS. His career WAR, even though he wasn’t much of a fielder, was 58.7. Those numbers are excellent, but don’t’ appear staggering when you compare him to the other National League sluggers of his era, like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda and so on, but when you look at the top ten finishes during his National league tenure up until 1972 (he would play in the American League from 1972 to 1974, earning an MVP and two home run titles in those three years), you see how he compares. Those top ten finishes include four in batting average (64 – 67), six in slugging percentage (64, 66-70), eight consecutive in OPS (64-71), four in total bases (64-66, 68) and six in home runs (64, 66-70) amongst others. Allen struck out a lot, but posted a ludicrous .387 career BABIP. Yes, that’s his career BABIP in over 6000 at bats.

Allen wasn’t perfect of course. He was a poor fielder and had a bad relationship with the Philadelphia media, but he wasn’t the cancer in the clubhouse that he was portrayed to be at the time. Go read his Autobiography, Crash, and you’ll get a better perspective. In fact, you’ll get the perspective his teammates often had, which was of a hard working professional who helped others, notably credited by Mike Schmidt with fixing his approach at the plate. Yes, the Schmidt who is also known as the greatest third baseman of all time, so that’s a pretty good character reference.

So why was Allen available? He hadn’t played above Single-A  and hadn’t been able to stick at a position. The Phillies organization had signed him as a shortstop and then tried him at second base and the outfield, without success. His offensive skills were not in question as he could hit for average, had tremendous power and showed surprising speed for such a large man. In addition, Allen had shown offensive improvement in each of his first three minor league seasons, increasing his batting average, slugging percentage and on base percentage each year. The Phillies probably didn’t think anyone would take a chance on a guy who had yet to find a stable position and probably wouldn’t factor into the 1962 season. They got lucky as there was really no good reason why either expansion franchise didn’t take a chance on Allen with such prodigious potential with the bat. It wasn’t like New York or Houston was going to compete in 1962 anyway, so spending some money on a young player who would probably factor in as early as 1963 was a chance worth taking.

Davalillo is a little bit of a stretch from the standpoint that he was used mostly as a pitcher up until this point in his career, but a few things stand out. One is that he was a left handed pitcher, which was something the expansion draft of 1961 was seriously lacking in. The other is that he had extensive experience, and success, in the Mexican league as a center fielder. The Mets were reportedly “scouring” the country looking at players, so it’s logical that they should have sent some scout to the Mexican league who could have seen Davalillo play after the 1961 season ended, before the draft began, or talked to people in the league about Davalillo. If that was done, they would have come back with the impression of a fleet footed 25 year old (turning 26 in season) who had been extremely successful in that league. They also would have heard about how good he was in centerfield and how that left handed pitching arm was a weapon itself from the outfield. Basically, if the Mets had gambled on Davalillo in the less expensive second round, they would have walked away with at least a left handed pitcher and possibly a fast, sure fielding centerfielder coming into his prime. That’s not a bad gamble that would have paid off as Davalillo became just that with the Cleveland Indians for most of the 1960’s (after being sold to them by the Reds almost immediately after going undrafted).

Brewer is the one that makes the least sense of the five. Brewer was a 24 year old, left handed pitcher. As previously mentioned, left handed pitching was scarce in the draft. In fact, only two such pitchers were taken, Bobby Shantz by Houston and Al Jackson by the Mets. Brewer had not been successful so far in his major league career, pitching to a 5.82 ERA over 15 starts and 26 relief appearances in 1960 and 1961, but this was an expansion draft and if the Mets expected to get Sandy Koufax, they had their eyes trained way too high. In fact, they would gamble on another such pitcher with a good arm and poor recent major league experience, Jay Hook. When you consider that they took a run of the mill career Triple-A infielder from the Cubs in Sammy Drake instead of Brewer, it makes even less sense, especially in retrospect as Brewer became a key member of the Dodgers bullpen throughout the 1960’s and into the mid 1970’s (after being acquired from the Cubs prior to the 1964 season).

Fisher is the next least logical, non-selection. Fisher was a knuckleballer who had spent parts of the 1959 through 1961 seasons with the Giants. He had made seven starts and 28 relief appearances, amassing a 6.25 ERA over 86.1 innings over that span. Those are horrible numbers, but Fisher was only 25 (turning 26 in season) and had both major and minor league experience unlike the player that the Mets selected instead of him from the Giants, Ray Daviault who was older (turning 28 during the season), had never pitched in the major leagues and hadn’t even started a game in the minor leagues since 1959. Why the Mets would select an older pitcher with no major league experience and less starting experience when the team needed flexibility in its pitchers is a mystery, further compounded by the fact that Fisher went on to become a bullpen ace for a multitude of teams in a career that lasted until 1973.

Dietz would have been a gamble, but a gamble that made sense as a second round selection. Dietz was a young offensive catcher who was still learning his way behind the plate. Dietz was really only available for two reasons. One was that the Giants had spent a lot of money signing him in 1960 and were hoping to get something back if he was drafted and because they were loaded at the catching position in the minor leagues. They were so loaded that they would try to convert Dietz to an outfielder while he was in the minor leagues to try to help find a way to get his bat to the major leagues. Dietz wasn’t selected because he had never played over C Ball and never shown success outside of D Ball. However, that success had been massive. In 1961, at the D level, Dietz had hit .332 with a ridiculous 1203 OPS according to Baseball-Reference. Dietz had also hit 24 home runs in just 328 at bats. Basically he had two natural skills you can’t teach, a great batting eye and natural power. There were a lot of catchers available in the expansion draft, but none had the raw potential of Dietz. Dietz wouldn’t really factor into a major league team until the mid-1960’s, but that probably wouldn’t have been the case with the Mets. Part of the reason he didn’t make it to the majors was due to the back log of catching on the Giants and the attempted outfield conversion. In 1970 and 1971, Dietz was one of the best catchers in baseball, so it isn’t a far stretch to say that similar success could have occurred earlier if he was on one of the expansion teams and not stuck in the Giants system.

How much better could these players have made the Mets? Not much in 1962. Fisher would have added another solid arm to the pitching staff and Davalillo probably would have made an impact in Centerfield as he literally decimated Triple-A pitching that year (.346 AVG, 903 OPS), but Allen and Dietz would have been no more than September call-up’s. Brewer’s impact is hard to determine as he only posted decent numbers in Triple-A  and may have been one of the many pitchers that struggled in that first year for the Mets.

Starting in 1963, things would have changed. Davalillo would have earned a spot as the team’s starting Centerfielder, solidifying a position that the Mets would struggle with until the acquisition of Tommie Agee, although an injury would hold back his progress in 1963 (as it did historically with the Indians). Allen would become the team’s third baseman, also solidifying a position the Mets would have a history of problems with. Fisher would have taken over as a bullpen piece, while Brewer and Dietz would have gotten major league burn with more than likely minimal success.

1964 would have been where the differences really manifested. Allen came into his own in 1964, where in his actual career he was the rookie of the year in the National League for the Phillies. Dietz, without the conversion to the outfield, probably would have taken over as the clubs regular catcher, while Brewer would have finally settled into a bullpen role, as he did with the Dodgers that year, with Fisher as his pen mate, giving the Mets reliability in the bullpen that they didn’t have consistently throughout the 1960’s. Davalillo, back from injury, would put up solid numbers at the top of the order, giving the Mets a successful leadoff hitter, something they didn’t have until Agee in 1969.

In addition, these players would have allowed the Mets to not make other moves. It’s possible they wouldn’t have traded Felix Mantilla after he had a solid 1962 season, knowing that Allen would be taking over at third base. They most definitely wouldn’t have traded Al Jackson, their best pitcher, for an aging Ken Boyer prior to the 1966 season. In fact, 1966 may have seen a team that actually contended a bit, not for the World Series, but possibly for close to a .500 record.

Basically, these players wouldn’t have given Mets fans a championship prior to 1969, but there would have been more stability in the franchise and more hope during that time period. Of all of these players, Allen’s probably the only one that would have made it to 1969, as the others would more than likely have been traded off for better, younger players or to fill needs as seasons went along. That could have made vast differences as the team might have been able to bring back more high end young players, keep other talent they historically moved (such as Sandy Alomar, who was traded to get J.C. Martin, who they wouldn’t have needed with Dietz on the team), or acquire worthy veterans (such as Jerry Adair, who the Orioles traded for Fisher in 1966, a move that would have made a lot of sense for the Mets as Ron Hunt got injured that season and Adair would have been the perfect Gil Hodges bench infielder, an upgrade over someone like Bobby Pfeil in 1969).

In the end though, Allen would have been enough. Allen was that good offensively and would have been a player the team could have built around. He would have been beloved by Mets fans and may have had an even more productive career than he did historically. Of course this is all conjecture, but it is certainly fun to think about.

7 comments for “Dick Allen and the 1961 expansion draft

  1. May 2, 2014 at 3:13 pm

    Good stuff Scott!

    Makes you wonder if NYC would have been a better place for an outspoken black man in the 60s than Philly. I’d like to think Casey would have found a way to handle him and hopefully left a blueprint for his successors.

  2. Scott Ferguson
    May 2, 2014 at 3:27 pm

    I like to think so too Brian. Alle also wouldn’t have had to play in Little Rock Arkansas either, which according to his bio was tough for him.

  3. Doug Parker
    May 2, 2014 at 3:34 pm

    Awesome piece of speculative history! And dang, I never realized how good Mantilla was for two years in Boston (’64, ’65)…

  4. steevy
    May 2, 2014 at 4:56 pm

    I have to check the numbers but I seem to think the Astros did much better with the dregs available than the Mets.

  5. steevy
    May 2, 2014 at 4:59 pm

    Well,they didn’t reach quite the lows the Mets did but the Mets of course won a WS in 69 when the Astros only reached .500 for the first time.

  6. NormE
    May 2, 2014 at 6:53 pm

    Scott,
    This was a terrific article!
    We’ll never know how things would have turned out, but it is fun to speculate. I lived through those early Mets days and they were truly dreary. That helped to make 1969 so special.

  7. Pox
    May 21, 2014 at 8:30 pm

    Joe Morgan wrote in his autobiography that he was approached by a Mets scout in 1961. The scout wanted to sign Morgan but someone in the front office vetoed the signing. During the offseason of 1962 in the First Year Player Draft, a draft where the Mets lost Paul Blair to Baltimore and got Amos Otis from Boston, the Mets passed on Cincinnati Reds Jimmy Wynn three times. Wynn was the last player taken in that draft by Houston. So, Richie Allen, Joe Morgan and Jimmy Wynn were all in the Mets grasp. If you add Dick Dietz and Amos Otis to the lineup by 1969 the suicide trades of the 1970′s would not have happened. Ron Hunt would probably have stayed on that team at third base adding his unique on base skills to a rather potent lineup. I love this article but at the same time I get nausea thinking about how close but how far it all became for the Mets.

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