MLB Draft: Ten Notable Major Leaguers That Went Undrafted

Jim Leyritz Interview
April 22, 2019
Jim Leyritz: A journey of fame, faith and redemption
June 11, 2019

MLB Draft: Ten Notable Major Leaguers That Went Undrafted

A select group of ballplayers will hear their names called on Monday night as the 2019 MLB Draft kicks off at MLB Network’s studios in Secaucus, New Jersey, a life-changing moment for each one good enough to make the cut.

The draft continues through Wednesday, and approximately 1,200 players will be selected by a major league organization by the time it’s all said and done. Some will continue pursuing their education while others will opt for other sports or different paths in life, but most of these aspiring amateurs will make the transition to professional athlete and report to a minor league club in the coming weeks.

With the exception of blue-chip prospects on the fast track to the show, ascending through the minors after being drafted and making it onto a major league roster is the type of uphill climb that only a small percentage ever actually achieve.

There will also be a wealth of talented youngsters with big league aspirations not among those chosen in the draft, making them non-drafted free agents still hoping to pursue their diamond dreams. For those who go undrafted, the ascent is akin to scaling K2 or Mount Everest with shoddy equipment and a bum knee.

With the odds stacked firmly against them, these ten players went on to have impactful careers, one even reaching the baseball pinnacle that is Cooperstown.

Larry Walker

17 Jun 2001: Larry Walker #33 of the Colorado Rockies at bat during the game against the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Rockies defeated the Reds 4-2.Mandatory Credit: Mark Lyons /Allsport GETTY

A Canadian-born slugger who slashed .313/.400/.565 with 383 homers throughout an illustrious 17-year career, front offices and their scouting teams didn’t think much of Walker as a teenager, partially due to the fact that the former hockey player didn’t really commit to baseball until the age of 16.

A five-tool talent who went on to win three batting titles and the 1997 NL MVP award, Walker’s 72.7 career WAR ranks 56th all-time among position players. The five-time All-Star has an outside chance at getting elected to the Hall of Fame come January, his tenth and final year on the writers’ ballot.

Walker received 54.6% of the required 75% this year, a 20.5% jump from 2018. Not bad for a goaltender who signed for a measly $1,500 with the Montreal Expos back in 1984.

Bruce Sutter

COOPERSTOWN – JULY 30: Hall of Famers Ozzie Smith (left) and Johnny Bench (right) wearing fake beards to lighten up the moment for Inductee Bruce Sutter (center) during the 2006 Hall of Fame Induction ceremonies at the Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown, NY on July 30, 2006. (Photo by Rich Pilling/MLB Photos via Getty Images) GETTY

The bushy-bearded right-hander wielded a nasty splitter during a 12-year career that almost didn’t happen, one that eventually led to his enshrinement in Cooperstown as the only non-drafted player in the HOF.

Sutter was drafted out of high school by the Washington Senators in 1970 but chose to attend Old Dominion instead. A year later, the now-college dropout played some independent ball before latching on with the Chicago Cubs, pitching to a 2.70 ERA and 1.068 WHIP in 52 relief appearances as a rookie in 1976.

The six-time All-Star led the league in saves five times, finishing with an even 300 to go along with 861 strikeouts and a 2.83 ERA in 1,042 innings. Sutter was elected to the Hall in 2006 with 76.9% of the BBWAA vote, his thirteenth year on the ballot.

Dan Quisenberry

BALTIMORE, MD – APRIL 25: BALTIMORE, MD. Dan Quisenberry of the Kansas City Royals pitches against the Baltimore Orioles at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland (Photo by Owen C. Shaw/Getty Images) GETTY

With a signature look and submarine-style delivery synonymous with some of the coolest-looking 1980s Topps cards, the mustachioed closer was not chosen in the draft following a solid 19-7 season as a starter for La Verne College in 1975. Quisenberry signed with Kansas City and made his Royals debut as a 26-year-old in 1979, becoming one of the game’s premier firemen in the years that followed.

A three-time All-Star, the righty spent the bulk of his 12-year career donning the powder blue and white, making eight postseason appearances during the club’s 1985 world championship run. He led the league in saves five times (244 career), compiling a 2.76 ERA in 1,043 1/3 big league innings.

The affable Quisenberry died of a brain tumor in 1998 at just 45 years old.

Kirby Yates

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – MAY 28: Kirby Yates #39 of the San Diego Padres in action against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on May 28, 2019 in New York City. The Padres defeated the Yankees 5-4. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images) GETTY

The National League’s Reliever of the Month this April, the 32-year-old recorded the most saves before May (14) in baseball history and has not slowed down since.  A middling reliever with Tampa Bay and the Yankees before joining the Padres on a waiver claim two years ago, Yates refined his now-signature splitter with San Diego and has transformed into a veritable strikeout machine.

Selected by Boston in the 26th round in 2005, the Hawaiian-born hurler chose community college instead but ended up missing two full seasons after undergoing Tommy John Surgery, skipped over in both the ’08 and ’09 drafts. Yates signed with the Rays later that year. The right-hander had a major league-leading 22 saves entering Sunday’s action with a 1.04 ERA, striking out a whopping 15.6 per nine innings.

Larry Bowa

PHILADELPHIA – AUGUST 10: Phillies Alumni and bench coach Larry Bowa stands on the field during a pre game ceremony before a game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park on August 10, 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Phillies won 7-6. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images) GETTY

A baseball lifer in the truest sense of the term, the fiery Bowa was skipped over coming out of Sacramento City College but later signed with Philadelphia for $2,000 after a promising showing in winter ball piqued the organization’s interest. He debuted for the Phillies in 1970, the start of a 16-year run in which he slashed .260/.300/.320 with 99 triples and 318 stolen bases, winning two Gold Gloves as a slick-fielding shortstop.

Bowa was 9 for 24 with 2 RBIs and three runs scored in the 1980 World Series, helping Philly defeat the Royals in six games. He was named 2001 NL Manager of the Year after leading his old club to an 86-76 record, a 21-game turnaround good for second place in the East. The 73-year-old currently serves as a Senior Advisor to Phillies’ General Manager Matt Klentak.

Danny Darwin

8 Jun 1998: Danny Darwin #43 of the San Francisco Giants in action during a game against the Seattle Mariners at 3 Com Park in San Francisco, California. The Giants defeated the Mariners 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Otto Greule Jr. /Allsport GETTY

One of the lesser-known names in the group, at least to younger generations, Darwin pitched across three decades in the majors and had a considerably underrated career. Known as the Bonham Bullet, an ode to the Texas town where he was a high school pitching standout, Darwin was a walk-on at Grayson County College in nearby Denison who went unclaimed in the draft before inking a deal with the Texas Rangers in 1976.

He compiled a 39.8 WAR over 21 seasons during which he suited up for eight different teams, retiring in 1998 with a 171-182 record and a 3.84 ERA in 716 games (371 starts). A notoriously stingy arm when it came to issuing free passes, the right-hander led the league in WHIP twice and walked just 874 (101 intentional) batters in 3,016 2/3 innings. Darwin also won the NL ERA title in 1990 with a 2.21 mark for Houston.

Darwin is now the pitching coach for Double-A Chattanooga in the Cincinnati Reds system.

Kevin Millar

ST. LOUIS, MO – OCTOBER 27: Kevin Millar and Red Sox players celebrate after winning the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. (Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images) GETTY

The former first baseman coined the rallying cry “Cowboy Up” for the 2003 Red Sox and a year later made waves with Boston down three-games-to-none against the rival Yankees in the ALCS, noting that if his club took Game 4 that there was a strong possibility they’d win the series and break the dreaded Curse of the Bambino.

Millar’s “don’t let us win tonight” quote will forever live in infamy as the Sox pulled off the seemingly impossible, winning four straight over New York and going on to sweep the Cardinals for the franchise’s first World Series title in 86 years.

A vociferous presence for Florida, Boston, Baltimore and Toronto, Millar hit .274/.358/.452 with 170 home runs over 12 big league seasons and is now an analyst on MLB Network.

Undrafted out of Lamar University, Millar played for the independent St. Paul Saints during the club’s inaugural 1993 season before signing with the Marlins.

Jim Leyritz

23 Oct 1996: Jim Leyritz of the New York Yankees blasts a 3-run homer in the 8th inning to tie the Atlanta Braves in game four of the World Series at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. Mandatory Credit: Doug Pensinger/Allsport GETTY

An 11-year-veteran who played in three Fall Classics and was part of two world championships, Leyritz signed with the New York Yankees as an amateur free agent in 1985 and suited up for six different big league clubs before hanging up the spikes at 36 years old.

“Once I was signed I had a chip on my shoulder,” Leyritz recalled. “Guys that were interviewed that played with me after I made it to the bigs said that while they were trying to figure out how to survive in A-ball, that all Jimmy talked about was how he belonged in the big leagues. That was my attitude. I wasn’t satisfied with just being a minor leaguer. I wanted a baseball card with my name on it.”

A reliable backstop that also played both corners in the infield and outfield, Leyritz’s three-run homer off of Atlanta closer Mark Wohlers in Game 4 of the 1996 World Series is regarded by many as the launching pad for the Bombers’ dynasty run in the late 90s.

Those guys that they had signed were going to get the opportunity first, but my attitude was go ahead and let them fail and I’ll be ready to step in,” Leyritz said about the challenges of moving up through the system as an undrafted player. “What I will say was one of the biggest reasons I made it was because not being drafted I worked harder than anybody… I can’t tell you how many number one and number two draft picks I saw that never made it because their work ethic was not the same as mine. My advice to any kid whether he’s drafted or not is to work harder than the guy that’s trying to take your job.”

Bobby Bonilla

PITTSBURGH, PA – 1990: Bobby Bonilla #25 of the Pittsburgh Pirates at Three Rivers Stadium before a game in 1990 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images) GETTY

Somewhat infamous for the fact that he’s still being paid $1.19 million every July 1 by the Mets, remnants of a deferred-money deal that requires New York to dish out that same amount through 2035, the Bronx-born Bonilla played the last of 16 seasons in 2001 with St. Louis, his eighth big league team. A six-time All-Star that finished top-3 in NL MVP voting twice, the enigmatic and often controversial slugger slashed .279/.358/.472 with 287 homers and 1,173 RBIs in 2,113 games despite being passed over in the 1981 draft.

He eventually signed with the Pirates on the recommendation of then-scout and eventual Pittsburgh general manager Syd Thrift, debuting in April of 1986. Bonilla is currently a Special Assistant of Player Services for the Major League Baseball Players Association.

T.J. Rivera

05 OCT 2016: New York Mets second baseman T.J. Rivera (54) at bat during the National League Wild Card Game between the New York Mets and the San Francisco Giants played at Citi Field in Flushing,NY. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) GETTY

Like many on this list, Rivera’s story is one of perseverance and being undeterred by bottom-of-the-barrel  positioning on the organizational depth chart. Another Bronx product who played at Bonilla’s alma mater Lehman High School, the mild-mannered utility man was one of Street & Smith’s 50 Juniors to Watch in 2005 alongside All-Star Yankees reliever Dellin Betances.

After graduation T.J. left New York for Alabama to play for ex-Met catcher Mackey Sasser at Wallace Community College, where he performed well enough to earn a scholarship to nearby Troy University. Rivera spent two years as a member of the Trojans, helping the club reach the 2011 College World Series Regionals by hitting .303 in 62 games. 

Rivera played the last game of his college career on June 5 of that year in Nashville, just one day before the MLB Draft. Fresh out of school and still dreaming about a future in professional baseball, the next few days would prove disappointing as he kept an eye on the draft online, hoping his name would pop up. Over 1,500 players were selected and he wasn’t one of them.

“Ever since I was a kid I saw myself playing professional baseball, so not being drafted was a letdown,” Rivera said. “When I wasn’t picked I didn’t really know what the next step was. Grad school was really the only other thing I had in mind.”

After a few weeks of uncertainty, Rivera signed with the Mets as a non-drafted free agent and started out in rookie ball, finishing up the 2011 season in the New York-Penn League.

From 2011-14 he hit close to or above .300 at every level, including a 54-game stretch with Double-A Binghamton in ’14 where he compiled an impressive .358/.394/.438 slash line and went 11-for-34 during the postseason en route to an Eastern League championship. Rivera’s combined .349 batting average that year led all qualifying Mets minor leaguers and led to his second Organization All-Star award.

2015 was different, however. Now 26 years old and becoming somewhat of a minor league veteran, Rivera started the season in Double-A but wound up seeing significant time in Triple-A Las Vegas. He batted .325 across both levels and was especially effective with runners in scoring position, compiling a .407 (22-for-54) average at Binghamton and .356 (16-for-45) with Vegas.

Despite sticking with the big league club until the final days of spring training in 2016, Rivera was reassigned to minor league camp; a place he had become very familiar with. Now 27 years old, Rivera was back with the Las Vegas 51s and silently wondering if his shot would ever come.

He got back to work, a lesson his father instilled in him, dominating PCL pitching to the tune of a .349/.391/.513 slash line over 97 games; ranking among the league leaders with 80 RBIs.

“He was always telling me that someone else is out there working harder than you,” Rivera said. “I’ve always been someone that goes out there and works as hard as they can and whatever happens happens.”

Rivera finally got the call that August following 617 regular season games in the minors and plenty more in the postseason and winter ball, a journey longer than many on our list. He slashed .333/.345/.476 in 33 games for the Mets that season, and compiled a .290/.330/.430 line over 73 games in 2017, playing all infield positions except shortstop and manning a few games in left field.

Perhaps even more telling, Rivera was in the starting lineup for the 2016 NL Wild Card Game against elite left-hander Madison Bumgarner, light years away from the countless bus rides and cheap motels that highlighted his rather lengthy minor league career. He made his last big league appearance in July of 2017 before undergoing Tommy John surgery that September.

Rivera’s comeback was thwarted last year when he was shut down after just six rehab games, with the hopes that he’d be ready for action this spring. It wasn’t to be, though, as the 30-year-old was released by New York in early March. A free agent once again, Rivera has begun some baseball activities and is working towards continuing his big league career with another club.

I will tell kids like T.J. Rivera that all it takes is to get your foot in the door and the rest is up to you,” Leyritz said back in 2015. “Hard work and determination is what will make you successful in whatever you do… Not too many guys like us even make it to the big leagues, much less have a moment in history.”

Scott Orgera

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