One of the most fun things about following Major League Baseball is watching minor league players develop and trying to see what teams have the talent for future World Series runs, or just being able to say that you saw the major league debut of a future hall of famer. Even though the minor leagues struggle to actually draw attendance to games, they do a great job getting fans excited for up and coming stars. And even MLB owners came to acknowledge that.
At some point, general managers realized the value of certain players’ future potential could be enough to swing trades for major league players, and started including them in trades. Though this has been a thing for quite a long time, it’s certainly more prominent in today’s baseball landscape. Even top prospects like Yoan Moncada are fair game if the haul they can grab in major league talent is great enough. Part of this has to do with the start of the MLB Amateur Draft in 1965.
Before then, all players were signed simply as free agents by whatever team wanted them and had room on their rosters, and so few prospects were traded because if a team’s own scouts committed to signing a player, they usually weren’t going to trade them away on a whim. Once the draft started, teams became much more inclined to simply take whatever great talents they could find, often leaving them with great prospects that they may not actually have too much use for on their own roster. And thus they become trading chips.
Like we mentioned, even top minor leaguers get traded away if their team simply has an excess of talent at their position and badly needs other positions that they can nab away from another team by trading. But on top of that, lower level prospects are often traded as well simply because the team is much more willing to part with them in exchange for someone else. The end result of this is that there are many players who turn out to have great careers who never played for their original team.
And we’re gonna rank them: the top 15 MLB players who never played for the team that drafted them. Quick note: We’re not counting if a player didn’t sign with the team and was drafted again later, and we’re not counting Rule 5 Drafts or Expansion Drafts, since the original team can still protect the player if they so choose. Only the final team to have drafted them in an Amateur Draft was taken into consideration for this list.
15 Michael Fulmer - New York Mets
It might be way too early to be putting a player entering their sophomore season on a list of top anything, but keep in mind Michael Fulmer was AL Rookie of the Year, which is not easy to do as a starting pitcher. While there have certainly been Rookie of the Year winners who still turned out to be complete busts, with how well Fulmer did in his rookie year, it’s hard to imagine him dropping off so sharply to not earn a spot on this list.
Michael Fulmer plays for the Detroit Tigers, but was actually drafted by the New York Mets. And when you realize how many great starting pitchers the Mets have right now, you quickly realize why they were so willing to part with Fulmer. Sent over to the Tigers in the trade for Yoenis Cespedes in 2015, both teams got a great deal out of the trade, with the Tigers receiving a top level pitcher to back up Justin Verlander, and the Mets getting a much needed power bat, who they’ve even managed to re-sign twice since.
14 Justin Turner - Cincinnati Reds
Currently the Los Angeles Dodgers’ primary third baseman, Justin Turner was a long time utility player who for many years never produced enough value as a player other than simply being versatile and willing to play whatever position. After years of little to no value with the Baltimore Orioles and the New York Mets, he broke out after moving to the Dodgers. Although he’s no perennial MVP and his late blooming means his ceiling in total value is very low.
He was actually drafted by the Cincinnati Reds, and was actually very promising to start his minor-league career, easily the best player on his Rookie League team and still doing pretty well in Double-A. He was indeed promising enough for the Reds to trade him to the Baltimore Orioles for Ramon Hernandez. Hands up, who remembers him? Then because of Turner’s early struggles, he was designated for assignment by the Orioles and picked up by the Mets, who then non-tendered him after three years. The Dodgers took a chance on him and got a bargain out of him.
13 A.J. Burnett - New York Mets
A.J. Burnett was a long-time good, but not great starting pitcher. You still have to pretty good to last 17 years as a starting pitcher, but he also didn’t get an All-Star nod until his very last year in baseball. His career was an up-and-down affair, having great seasons mixed in between a bunch of mediocre ones and even a few where he was worse than replacement value. He played for the Florida Marlins, Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, and the Pittsburgh Pirates twice. But he was actually drafted by the New York Mets.
The Florida Marlins were infamous for winning two World Series titles and then instantly tearing it apart for a haul of prospects instead of actually running with a championship team for a few years like a sane management team would. A.J. Burnett came to the Marlins in their dismantlement after their first title in 1997, involved in the trade that sent away Al Leiter. And unfortunately for Burnett, he was out for Tommy John Surgery during their second title run in 2003.
12 Cliff Lee - Montreal Expos
Cliff Lee had a relatively short career, only lasting 13 years as a starting pitcher, and was also a bit of a late bloomer. But when he did break out, he was great enough to be a perennial Cy Young contender, and even won it once in 2008 with the Cleveland Indians. Lee is well-remembered for his long runs with the Indians and the Phillies, as well as short stints with the Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers. But he was actually drafted in 2000 by the Montreal Expos.
Cliff Lee came to the Indians in the trade that sent Bartolo Colon to the Expos. Fun fact, Colon is the last remaining active player who ever played for the Expos. In retrospect, it was a fair shake for the Indians, trading away a future Cy Young winner in exchange for another. But for about four years there, it looked like the Indians' haul in the trade was nothing but duds until Lee broke out. And mind you that trade also included Brandon Phillips, but he was also a bit of a late bloomer.
11 Fred McGriff - New York Yankees
Fred McGriff had a very productive 19-year career that often lands him on lists of the best ever MLB players not in the Hall of Fame. McGriff ended his career just short of 2,500 hits and 500 home runs, so it’s hard to argue with that. He played for seven different teams in his career, including the Atlanta Braves during their 1995 World Series title run. However, none of those seven teams were the one that drafted him, the New York Yankees.
The Yankees didn’t have much room for McGriff as he was a primary first-baseman and had to compete with Don Mattingly for a spot. So with nowhere really to put him on the major league roster, they traded him to the Toronto Blue Jays in what has since been known as one of the most lopsided trades in MLB history, as none of the prospects they got in exchange for him turned into much of any value as major leaguers.
10 Adrián González - Florida Marlins
The man affectionately known as A-Gon, Adrián González has led a long and productive career as a premier power hitter and first baseman. Though his peak was never enough to win him MVP accolades, and while he probably won’t end up in the Hall of Fame, he is no less one of the greatest players of this generation. But even the team that drafted thought it wasn’t meant to be.
Adrián González was drafted by the Florida Marlins straight out of high school, but a wrist injury threatened to derail his career, so they shipped him off to the Rangers. He struggled in his short stint at the major leagues with them before breaking out with the Padres, and later offering his services to the Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers, who he continues to play for.
9 Anthony Rizzo - Boston Red Sox
Another in a string of greats at the first base position, Anthony Rizzo is part of the young core of the Chicago Cubs that just helped break the longest championship drought in North American sports history. He had a flop of a year for the San Diego Padres after being called up too early according to their own general manager, but then found his stride with the Chicago Cubs, having two decent years before truly breaking out as a perennial MVP contender at just 26 years old.
Rizzo was actually signed and traded twice all by the same general manager Jed Hoyer. This guy clearly wanted Rizzo, but kept changing teams. Rizzo was initially drafted by the Red Sox before being sent to the Padres in exchange for Adrián González himself in 2010. And then after a failed call up with the Padres (and Hoyer leaving the Padres front offices for the Cubs), Rizzo made his way to the Chicago Cubs where he figures to be a franchise player. Or at least the Wrigley fans hope so.
8 Corey Kluber - San Diego Padres
Corey Kluber struggled for a few years as a starting pitcher before breaking out with an AL Cy Young season in 2014 and never having looked back since. The Klubot, as he’s affectionately known, led a great Indians rotation to an AL Central title last year and even was the main star in their push to the World Series. He even looked to be the first pitcher since Randy Johnson to win three games in a single World Series until the Chicago Cubs finally figured him out in Game 7. So what poor suckers gave up on the Klubot? The San Diego Padres.
Drafted in 2007, Kluber was sent over to the Indians in 2010 in a three-team deal along with the St. Louis Cardinals. The Padres landed…Ryan Ludwick. Yeah, the Indians clearly got the bargain here, both in dumping Jake Westbrook, a pitcher who figured to be dead in the water, and landing a future star pitcher in Kluber.
7 Ben Zobrist - Houston Astros
Long one of the most underrated players in MLB before winning back to back World Series titles with the Kansas City Royals and Chicago Cubs, Ben Zobrist is one of the few utility players out there whose versatility to play multiple positions adds to his value instead of simply covering up his lack of value. In a long run with the Tampa Bay Rays, Zobrist put up multiple seasons of 8+ WAR, but somehow never won an MVP award, which is the main reason why he was long considered underrated.
His long career with the Tampa Bay Rays might lead you to assume he was drafted by them, but he was actually selected in 2004 by the Houston Astros. He was traded in 2006 in exchange for Aubrey Huff, and struggled for two years before breaking out into an under-the-radar star. The under-the-radar part has gone out the window, but his value as a player certainly hasn’t.
6 Darrell Evans - Kansas City Athletics
Also up there on the list of best non-Hall of Famers, Darrell Evans had a long career with the Atlanta Braves, San Francisco Giants, and Detroit Tigers. He didn’t have the constant MVP candidate credentials usually needed to hit the hall of fame, but he was certainly capable of turning in great seasons. His peak in 1973 with the Braves saw him put up 9 wins of value, and followed it up the next season with 7+. But perhaps the most interesting thing about his career was getting drafted.
Most players get involved with a lot of teams after getting called up and being traded all around, but not Darrell Evans. Evans was actually drafted by more teams than he actually played for. Back when January drafts were still a thing along with the June drafts, Evans was drafted over the span of two years by the Cubs, Yankees, Tigers, and Phillies, before finally signing with the Kansas City Athletics in the June 1967 Draft. But he was quickly taken away from the Athletics by the Braves in the Rule 5 Draft in 1968.
5 Trevor Hoffman - Cincinnati Reds
Trevor Hoffman is often considered the second-best closer of all-time behind Mariano Rivera. But even then, he’s struggling to get enough votes to hit the Hall of Fame. That pretty much sums up what baseball writing think about relief pitchers. Even the one they consider second-greatest, they’re reluctant to put in Cooperstown. Hoffman is known mostly as the longtime closing pitcher of the San Diego Padres, but was actually drafted by the Cincinnati Reds.
Hoffman was actually drafted as a shortstop and third baseman, but scouts saw what a power arm he had and even before being drafted talked to him about converting to catching or pitching. After failing as a batter, he made the switch to pitching and found minor league success. But despite this, he was left unprotected for the 1993 Expansion Draft and was taken by the Florida Marlins, who then traded Hoffman to the Padres later that year. And the rest is history.
4 John Smoltz - Detroit Tigers
John Smoltz was one of many all-time great pitchers who spent a lot of time with the Atlanta Braves. He indeed was great enough to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2015 alongside Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson. He spent all but his final year in the majors with the Atlanta Braves, including three years where he pitched in relief while dealing with lingering injuries and was even NL saves leader one year. So just as easily as we like to forget that last year in 2009 with the Red Sox and Cardinals, it’s easy to forget he was actually drafted by the Detroit Tigers.
The Tigers drafted Smoltz in 1985 and was as promising a prospect as his Hall of Fame career would suggest. But in 1987, the Tigers were in a heated race for the division title and in order to get some pitching help, were willing to part with him in exchange for Doyle Alexander. And while they did get that division title, one can’t even imagine how many they must have missed out on by sending Smoltz away. The Braves were more than happy to pick him up and use him as a cornerstone in their long run of dominance.
3 Josh Donaldson - Chicago Cubs
You might see this and think “Really? Josh Donaldson ahead of an actual Hall of Famer?” To which I reply, have you seen his stat lines? He may have broken out later than most eventual Hall of Famers do, but in every full season he’s played in the majors, he hasn’t put up less than 7 WAR. Josh Donaldson is crazy good. Barring a sudden and steep drop off that he never recovers from, you can almost pencil Donaldson into the Hall of Fame already.
After breaking out with the Oakland Athletics, he was traded to the Blue Jays in a move that had everyone scratching their heads at Billy Beane. But he was originally drafted not by the Athletics, but by the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs traded the successful minor leaguer to the A’s in a trade for Rich Harden. The thing is, the risk in putting someone early in their career on this list is that they could easily later move to that team and prove me wrong. But with Kris Bryant taking up third base on the Cubs for the foreseeable future, this pick’s actually pretty safe.
2 Jeff Bagwell - Boston Red Sox
Jeff Bagwell is possibly the most iconic player in Houston Astros history, if not second behind Craig Biggio. Suspicions that he used PEDs kept him from the Hall of Fame in his first few years on the ballot, but he finally received enough support in the most recent vote and will be inducted later this year. He will be remembered as a 15-year great of the Houston Astros, but he was actually drafted in 1989 by the Boston Red Sox.
Bagwell was a great hitting prospect for the Red Sox, but in 1990 they needed some relief pitching to help them push to the playoffs, and contacted the Astros about Larry Anderson. The Astros demanded Jeff Bagwell in return, and for whatever reason, the Red Sox agreed. It has gone down as one of the most lopsided trades in MLB history, trading away a future Hall of Famer for one season of a relief pitcher.
1 Tom Seaver - Los Angeles Dodgers/Atlanta Braves
Tom Seaver is not just a Hall of Fame pitcher, he’s one of the greatest players in MLB history. Baseball Reference has him at number 20 on the all-time WAR leaderboard, number 7 when you filter for just pitchers. Known especially for his run with the early Mets franchise, Tom Seaver was a Rookie of the Year, 12-time All-Star, and 3-time Cy Young winner. But the story of his draft is a strange one.
Tom Seaver was first drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in June 1965, and was willing to sign with them. However, he knew what he was worth as a player, and demanded a $70,000 signing bonus. The Dodgers were not willing to pony up, which is surprising considering the Dodgers nowadays are not normally considered a team who aren’t willing to pay up for the best players. And so Seaver didn’t sign and entered the January 1966 Draft and was selected by the Atlanta Braves, who he signed with.
However, MLB Commissioner Willam Eckert voided the contract, as Seaver’s college team had already played exhibition games, making him ineligible. Seaver intended to play out his college year as a result, but NCAA wouldn’t let him play since he’d signed a professional contract. Complaints were issued by the Seaver family and in order to avoid a larger fiasco, Eckert decided that any team who was willing to match the Braves offered signing bonus would be put in a lottery for signing rights to Tom Seaver. Thus he ended up with the Mets, and led them to becoming the first expansion team to win a World Series in 1969.
I know, a little disappointing that the number one entry on this list was just the result of a technicality.