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From 17th Round to the Big Leagues: Kent Hrbek

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Kent Hrbek 1983 Topps baseball card
Kent Hrbek 1983 Topps baseball card

The 2013 Major League Baseball Draft is almost upon us. Everyone knows the top prospects and likely early picks. . .Mark Appel, Jonathan Gray, Kris Bryant, etc.. That said, I've always had a particular fascination with the latter rounds, the sleeper picks and diamonds in the rough. This goes back to my childhood, when my favorite player was Minnesota Twins first baseman Kent Hrbek.

Hrbek played for Kennedy High School in Bloomington, Minnesota, growing up very close to old Metropolitan Stadium where the Twins played in the pre-Metrodome days. He didn't attract a lot of attention from other teams, but the Twins were aware of the local star and selected him in the 17th round of the 1978 draft. Signed by veteran scout Angelo Giuliani (who had worked for owner Calvin Griffith and family since the Washington Senators days), Hrbek didn't make his pro debut until 1979.

It was not an especially auspicious debut: 17 games in the Appalachian League with a .203/.288/.288 mark for Elizabethton. Things improved tremendously in 1980 however, with a .267/.364/.442 mark and 19 homers for Wisconsin Rapids in the Low-A Midwest League, earning circuit All-Star honors and finally some notice as a solid prospect.

The huge breakout occurred in 1981: Hrbek annihilated the High-A California League with a .379/.446/.630 mark for Visalia, with 27 homers, 111 RBI, 59 walks, and just 59 strikeouts in 462 at-bats. He was so impressive that the rebuilding Twins jumped him directly to the major leagues for September. He wasn't great, but he held his own considering that he skipped the high minors, hitting .239/.301/.358 in 24 games.

Hrbek seized full control of the first base in the spring of 1982, hitting .301/.363/.485 with 23 homers and 54 walks that season. He made the American League All-Star team and was an early favorite for Rookie of the Year, though a late slump nicked his stock and he finished in second place behind someone named Cal Ripken Jr.

Kent's position as hometown favorite was secured however. After a solid 1983 (.297/.366/.489), he had an outstanding 1984 season (.311/.383/.522, 27 homers, 107 RBI) and finished second in MVP voting behind Tigers closer Willie Hernandez.

The Twins brought Kirby Puckett to the major leagues in 1985 and Hrbek gradually lost his position as the heart of the franchise, though he remained a very productive (if often injured) and enormously popular player. He helped lead the team to World Championships in 1987 and 1991 and remains one of the greatest players in team history. He retired after the 1994 strike, finishing with a career line of .282/.367/.481, OPS+ 128, career WAR 37.2. His number 14 was retired in 1995.

As a young Twins fan in the early 1980s, Hrbek was my favorite player because he was a symbol of hope for a struggling franchise. From a player development perspective, he's a good example of why teams should keep close track of local talent, and a reminder that there should be no such thing as a wasted draft pick.

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