Astros: How the team missed on Phil Nevin and 1992 draft

2 Jul 2000: Phil Nevin #23 of San Diego Padres looks on during practice before the game against the Colorado Rockies at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California. The Rockies defeated the Padres 3-2.Mandatory Credit: Jeff Gross /Allsport
2 Jul 2000: Phil Nevin #23 of San Diego Padres looks on during practice before the game against the Colorado Rockies at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California. The Rockies defeated the Padres 3-2.Mandatory Credit: Jeff Gross /Allsport /

The Houston Astros missed on their top draft pick in Phil Nevin in the 1992 draft.

The 1991 Houston Astros, despite having a roster consisting of Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Ken Caminiti, Luis Gonzalez, Steve Finley, Kenny Lofton, Curt Schilling, Darryl Kile and Pete Harnisch, lost 97 games and earned the team the No. 1 overall pick in the 1992 draft. What they did with that pick, selecting college third baseman Phil Nevin, begins one of the more disappointing chapters in franchise history.

Most fans look at the pick with the benefit of hindsight. Knowing what we know now, the club should’ve taken a high school shortstop named Derek Jeter, who went No. 6 overall to the Yankees. Famously, Astros scout Hal Newhouser lobbied hard for the team to select Jeter, but the front office passed, fearful that Jeter would command a signing bonus that was too high for their liking. So the club was cheap, and it led to Newhouser quitting his job and leaving the game.

Still, it’s hard to argue that Nevin was a bad pick based on the information the team had at the time. He was the definition of a standout in college, winning the Golden Spikes Award and the College World Series Most Outstanding Player Award. He was also viewed as a player who wouldn’t take long to reach the majors, in contrast to the young Jeter.

Where They Really Went Wrong

No one disputes that the Astros would’ve been better off taking Jeter, but they could’ve done much worse. Nevin was the only other player taken in the first 18 picks who would compile 10 WAR or more for his major league career. Half of the top 18 picks either never reached the majors or produced less than one career WAR.

Part of the issue was that Nevin was blocked in Houston. Drafted as a third baseman, he was stuck behind Caminiti, who was 29 at the time of the draft but had yet to really establish himself as a standout. As we looked at recently, Caminiti didn’t reach his ceiling until after the Astros traded him to San Diego.

With no clear path to the majors, Nevin’s development was stunted as the club tried him at different positions including left field and first base. He languished in the minors until Caminiti was traded prior to the 1995 season. When he was finally called up, he hit just .117/.221/.133 in 18 games before being sent back to the minors, letting his anger get the better of him by cursing at GM Bob Watson and manager Terry Collins. Evidently the Astros were done with him at that point.

So in August 1995, the Astros sent Nevin to the Tigers as a player-to-be-named-later in return for relief pitcher Mike Henneman. The right-hander would make 21 appearances with the team that year, but that would be it. The club gave Nevin away for 21 relief innings, and that’s where they really went wrong.

The Aftermath

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Nevin bounced around for a few more seasons, not really finding his footing in the majors until he was with none other than the Padres. In 1999, his age-28 season, he caught on by hitting 24 home runs in 128 games. From there, he hit his ceiling quickly.

He hit .303/.374/.543 with 31 homers and 107 RBIs in 2000, and followed that up with a .306/.388/.588 line in 2001 with 41 homers and 126 RBIs, earning his only All-Star selection. He dealt with injuries the next two seasons before coming back with 26 homers and 105 RBIs in 2004, his last truly good season.

He finished his career having played 12 seasons in the majors for seven different teams. His peak years with the Padres saw him compile 17.8 total WAR, a far cry from the -0.7 WAR he gave the Astros in his 18-game stint prior to being traded.

So in hindsight, taking Jeter would have been the better move. But I attribute the team’s failure to glean any value from their No. 1 overall pick more to their mishandling of his development and then giving up on him so quickly. They left him in the minors with no clear defensive position and then shipped him off after just 18 games in exchange for a few innings of relief pitching.

He clearly had the talent to be an impact player, but the team did him no favors. Nevin wasn’t without fault in all this, of course, but it’s not hard to see how his development was stunted by the Astros and how they traded him away far too soon.

In the end, he followed in Caminiti’s footsteps as a former Astros third baseman who reached his potential in San Diego. With so much raw talent and potential on those early 1990s teams, it’s easy to wonder how much more successful the team could have been if they’d only managed that talent more effectively.