WHAT IF ... Derek Jeter hadn't lasted to No. 6 in the 1992 MLB Draft?How would history be altered if he were, say, the Captain of the Astros?
Today’s question is one that has 21 years of history behind it: What if Derek Jeter hadn’t lasted to No. 6 in the 1992 MLB Draft?
As history goes, of course, five teams passed on what turned out to be a sure-fire first ballot Hall of Famer who will finish with at least five rings and a placement somewhere in the Top 10 on the all-time hits list; instead, Houston selected Phil Nevin No. 1 overall, two pitchers and two outfielders went next, and Jeter ended up with the team he grew up a fan of.
Great story, Hollywood ending, clichés on down the line…but as anyone can tell you, the MLB Draft is often a crapshoot of epic proportions, unlike the NFL, NBA or even NHL in that there are more occurrences of top picks being busts and serious longshots – think 62nd-round pick Mike Piazza – becoming superstars.
So, in thinking of this What If? scenario, there are three avenues to consider: where Jeter goes and/or what happens to him, who the Yankees select, and how life is different for both entities.
We’ll start with the former, and with that, the backstory. As legend goes, then-Astros scout Hal Newhouser lobbied the team to select Jeter No. 1 overall, but the team balked fearing he’d want a huge signing bonus (upwards of $1 million) to forego his scholarship to Michigan – so instead, they took Cal State Fullerton product Nevin, who signed for $700,000, and Newhouser quit in protest. The Yankees were the only other team who rated Jeter as highly, and despite similar concerns, the brass listened to scout Dick Groch and took the man who would eventually become the Captain.
So then, if Jeter hadn’t lasted until No. 6, it’s almost certain that he would have been the No. 1 overall pick. Assuming he follows the same path of a cameo debut in 1995 and a full-time gig in 1996, he would have made his first impression on a 76-win second-place team, and then the following year taken over for Orlando Miller – a journeyman who, oddly enough, was originally signed by the Yankees in 1987 and traded to Houston in 1990 – to join an infield with Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, and third baseman Sean Berry.
Would Jeter’s presence have turned Houston, who went 82-80 under Terry Collins in 1996 and made the playoffs in four of the following five years, into more of a contender? He actually had a better all-around season than Miller in 1996 (.314-10-78 vs. 256-15-59) and has been better than the cavalcade of shortstops the Astros have had since – even matching up favorably for the two years Miguel Tejada manned the position – so it’s likely they wouldn’t have been any worse, at least.
As for the Yankees, the aforementioned crapshoot of the draft means they could have realistically ended up with anyone else minus Nevin, who would’ve gone No. 2 overall. Excluding Nevin and Jeter, 20 other Major Leaguers – including, at least among position players, outfielders Johnny Damon and Shannon Stewart, catchers Jason Kendall and Charles Johnson, and then-shortstops Preston Wilson and Michael Tucker – were selected in the other 36 picks of the first round, so they would likely have gotten a “good” player, but nowhere close to the caliber of Jeter.
Finally, in terms of the latter, you have to assume that while Jeter could be even better (especially playing in a lineup with Bagwell and Biggio for over a decade), he shouldn’t be any worse, so he’s still a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But the Yankees? Tony Fernandez was the starting shortstop in 1995 and missed 1996 due to injury, but you’d have to figure that his resume and the Yankees’ lack of options (28-year-old Robert Eenhorn and Matt Howard were Triple-A Columbus’ top two shortstops in 1996) would have gotten him re-signed, which would likely leave a hole at shortstop a few years down the line once he got into his late-thirties.
So then what is our final answer to the What If? conundrum, you ask? Simple: It’s the Yankees, so you’d still love Derek Jeter anyway.
The way we see it, Jeter would’ve had pretty much his same first six years in Houston, but with two other franchise cornerstones locked in to big deals, the Astros would have been unable to re-sign him when he hit free agency…leaving the Yankees, who had a one-year stopgap after Fernandez retired in 2000, to swoop in and sign Jeter to the 10-year, $189 million deal he actually got following the 2001 season.
He may only then have one or two rings, and the Yankees may not have been as much of a dynasty in the late-1990s…but would you love Derek Jeter any less if he came from somewhere else? After all, it’s not where he came from, but where he’s going – and as Groch reportedly said to the Yankees to persuade them to draft The Captain, “the only place Derek Jeter is going is to Cooperstown.”