Third is the word? The best and worst Detroit draft picks at No. 3

Detroit Free Press

As we’re reminded annually, there are no sure things in the MLB draft, whether you’re picking first, 30th or third, as the Detroit Tigers will on Sunday night in Seattle (thanks to a win in December’s first-ever MLB draft lottery).

It’s the fifth time the Tigers have had the third overall pick in the draft, which dates back to 1965, and, uh, it hasn’t gone particularly well: 1975’s pick, prep outfielder Les Filkins, hit the celiing at Triple-A; 1999’s pick, Eric Munson, lasted just parts of five seasons with the Tigers; 2003’s pick, Kyle Sleeth, never even reached Triple-A ; and 2021’s pick, prep pitcher Jackson Jobe, has yet to pitch in a game this year after dealing with lumbar spine inflammation in the spring.

So the Tigers are clearly cursed at No. 3. But what about Detroit’s other big-league squads? Here’s a look at the best and worst picks at No. 3 for all four teams:

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Lions: Barry Sanders and Joey Harrington

The best: What more is there to say about Sanders? <Checks with editor, starts typing again> In a 1989 NFL draft that featured five future Pro Football Hall of Famers in the first round (plus a potential sixth in Michigan State’s Andre Rison), Sanders was arguably the top talent (with apologies to No. 1 Troy Aikman, No. 4 Derrick Thomas, No. 5 Deion Sanders and No. 20 Steve Atwater). Yet somehow the 1988 Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma State fell to third, behind Aikman and MSU offensive lineman Tony Mandarich.

He played just 10 seasons — infamously ditching the Lions just before the start of training camp in 1999 — and made the Pro Bowl in all of them, with six All-Pro nods. That was in addition to two Offensive Player of the Year awards (1994, ’97) and one MVP (1997).

In all, Sanders nearly lived up to the hype delivered by head coach Wayne Fontes on draft night: “I told you people we were gonna restore the roar. … He will electrify the crowd. We’re gonna put the ball in his hands … This guy is going to win some games for us.”

Sanders led the NFL in rushing yards in four seasons and topped 1,350 yards in nine of 10. (His worst season, 1993, saw him rush for just 1,115 yards … in 11 games as he led the Lions to their most recent division title.) He retired with 15,269 yards rushing, good for No. 2 at the time, and still fourth in NFL history.

The worst: Harrington’s time in Detroit was similarly short, though not because he walked away from football. Rather, the former Oregon star, drafted in 2002, played his way out of town in just four years, victimized both by the rebuilding Lions’ multiple schemes — he played under three head coaches and four offensive coordinators in those four seasons — and a propensity for turnovers, with 62 interceptions in 58 appearances with the Lions.

Harrington finished his Lions tenure with a 54.7% completion percentage, passing for 10,242 yards and 60 touchdowns; his best season came in 2004, when he completed 56% for 3,047 yards, 19 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Then-Lions coach Steve Mariucci, of course, then brought in Jeff Garcia to compete for the starting job (though he was injured in the preseason finale).

Harrington landed with Miami in 2005, returning to Detroit to beat the Lions in the Thanksgiving game and deliver the summary of his time in the Motor City on national TV: “I stood on the sidelines at the end of the third quarter there, and I looked across, and I saw guys were hanging their heads, and I saw people start walking out of the stadium,” Harrington said. “At that moment, I thought to myself, ‘I’m glad I don’t have to go through this anymore.’ ”

Pistons: Grant Hill and Bill Buntin

The best: Hill’s 1994 draft class was nearly as accomplished as Sanders’ with the top five picks — No. 1 Glenn Robinson, No. 2 Jason Kidd, Hill, No. 4 Donyell Marshall and No. 5 Juwan Howard — combining for 82 NBA seasons, 20 All-Star berths and two Basketball Hall of Fame nods. (Future Pistons coach Monte Williams was less heralded, going at No. 24 to the New York Knicks.) Of those top five, Hill was responsible for 18 seasons and seven All-Star nod before being inducted into the Hall in 2018.

Hill was an instant hit with the Pistons, averaging 19.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 5 assists and 1.8 steals a game as a rookie and splitting the Rookie of the Year Award with Kidd. The Duke product spent just six seasons in Detroit, averaging 21.6 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.3 assists before he opted to sign with the Orlando Magic. Injuries left the second half of his career more of a “What if?” though he finished his time in the NBA averaging 16.7 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists.

(The selection of Hill kept on giving after his departure from Detroit, by the way: Sent back from Orlando in the sign-and-trade was Ben Wallace, a future Hall of Famer and a key member of the “Goin’ to Work” squad that won the 2004 NBA title.)

The worst: Buntin seemed poised to star in the NBA after the Pistons selected the Detroit Northern standout in 1965. He’d averaged 21.8 points and 13.1 rebounds over 79 games at Michigan, earning two All-American nods and leading the Wolverines to the 1965 NCAA title game.

But he lasted just one season in the NBA, averaging 7.7 points and six rebounds over 17 minutes a game with the Pistons, getting into just 42 games. The reason? Pistons player-coach Dave DeBusschere said the 6-foot-7 center was overweight at 250 pounds — 20 pounds over his weight with Michigan — and exiled him to the Pistons’ taxi squad. Before the move, Buntin averaged 8.3 points a game, and after his return, in late February, he averaged just six.

Buntin was released with little fanfare at the end of training camp in October 1966. He attempted to catch on with the Indiana Pacers, then in the ABA, but was cut quickly. He then tried out for the Lions — despite not having played since high school — but was nixed in the summer of ’67 for a balky knee suffered in a rec-league hoops game. Less than a year after that, Buntin was dead at age 26 after suffering a heart attack during a pickup basketball game in Detroit.

Red Wings: Mike Foligno and Keith Primeau

The best: Foligno, the Wings’ 1979 selection out of Sudbury, was overaged in juniors, and it showed in his final season in the OHA — 65 goals and 85 assists in 68 games. He carried that momentum over to the Wings, with a team-high 36 goals and 35 assists in 80 games during the 1979-80 season en route to finishing second in voting for the Calder Trophy (given to the rookie of the year).

His time with the Wings was short, however, as he was dealt to Buffalo in his third season in a package for Danny Gare, Jim Schoenfeld and Derek Smith. Wings GM Jimmy Skinner made the deal in December 1981; nine months later, he was out of a job, as new ownership — the Ilitches — cleaned house. The Buffalo GM’s name, however, may ring a bell: Scotty Bowman, who would eventually join the Wings as head coach in the 1990s.

Foligno went on to play parts of nine seasons with the Sabres before finishing up with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Florida Panthers; in all, Foligno finished with 355 goals, 372 assists and 2,047 penalty minutes over 1,018 games. (He also fathered a pair of current NHL’ers, Marcus and Nick Foligno, which we guess is the other sort of Gordie Howe Hat Trick.)

The worst: We could give this nod to the Wings’ 1965 pick, George Forgie of Manitoba’s Flin Flon Bombers, but the NHL draft was just three years old at the time, and draft-eligible players were still few and far between — a rule change requiring draftees to be 18, rather than 16, meant most of the best talent was already locked up in juniors contracts with the Original Six franchises. In Forgie’s draft year, there were just 10 NHL picks TOTAL: five first-rounders (the Maple Leafs skipped the draft entirely), four second-rounders and a third-rounder. Forgie was left in juniors to gain experience and never made the NHL, with stops in the minors in Winnipeg, Nashville and Long Island, among others.

So, instead we’ll go with Primeau, the Wings’ 1990 pick out of Niagara Falls of the OHL. As “worst picks” go, Primeau was pretty good despite starting slow, with just three goals and 12 assists in 58 games as a 19-year-old with the Wings in 1990-91. His breakout year came in 1993-94, when he put up 31 goals and 42 assists, though that was followed by just 42 goals over the next two seasons combined as the Wings became a Stanley Cup contender. His Wings tenure came to an end in October 1996 as he was packaged with future Hall of Fame defenseman Paul Coffey in a trade with Hartford for Brendan Shanahan, who turned out to be the missing piece of the Wings’ Cup puzzle. Primeau went on to play three seasons with the Whalers/Hurricanes before a trade to the Philadelphia Flyers. In all, Primeau finished with 266 goals, 353 assists and 1,541 penalty minutes over 909 NHL games.

Tigers: Eric Munson and Kyle Sleeth

The best: Munson, a catcher selected in 1999 out of Southern Cal, didn’t actually spend any time behind the plate until his fifth season in the majors. But this pick was all about his bat, following Tampa Bay’s pick of prep outfielder Josh Hamilton and Florida’s pick of Texas right-hander Josh Beckett. In his final season with the Trojans, the left-handed hitting Munson hit .346 with 15 homers and 41 RBIs (despite a hand injury that cost him more than 20 games), leading the Tigers to dream of his power stroke in yet-to-open Comerica Park.

“We’ll move him as rapidly as his bat dictates, but I think there’s a chance that we can see him next year,” then-GM Randy Smith told the Freep. “Obviously he has some pull-pwer, but we think he can hit the ball all over the field. He has a very special bat, and him playing in the new Comerica Park intrigues us.”

Indeed, Munson made his Tigers debut the following July, going hitless over five at-bats in three games. He changed positions during his short stint in the minors, however, moving to first base. After short big-league stints in 2001 and ’02, Munson made the Tigers for good in 2003 — the year they lost an AL-record 119 games. He was arguably the team’s second-best hitter, with a .240 average, 18 homers and 35 walks in 357 plate appearances. He regressed the next season, however, going from 61 strikeouts to 90 in the same number of PAs, and that was it for his time as a Tiger. After brief runs with Tampa Bay, Houston and Oakland, Munson retired with a career .215/.284/.414 slash line.

The worst: Sleeth went from non-prospect to college star at Wake Forest, thanks to a new delivery that had him throwing in the high 90s, with a 3.47 ERA over three seasons. Still, the Tigers weren’t taking any chances after nabbing him in 2003; they waited until 2004 to start his minor-league run with High-A Lakeland. The delay looked like it paid off, with Sleeth putting up 65 strikeouts in 68 innings with a 3.31 ERA. But his second stop, Double-A Erie, wasn’t as smooth — 57 strikeouts in 80 innings with a 6.30 ERA.

By the spring, the news was worse: Forearm tightness delayed his return to Double-A, and the verdict was Tommy John surgery by early June. He missed the entire 2005 season, then couldn’t find his stuff again upon his return in 2006 and 2007. Sleeth posted an 8.11 ERA in 114⅓ innings after the surgery, ad by March 2008, it was clear: “My arm’s at full strength now, but I never got back the velocity where I was previously,” Sleeth told the Erie Times-News as part of his retirement announcement.

Contact Ryan Ford at rford@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @theford. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.  

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