Taking Another Long Look at Athletics Four Aces of 1990 Draft

Todd Van Poppel, Don Peters, David Zancanaro and Kirk Dressendorfer were supposed to breathe new life into the Oakland Athletics starting rotation for a decade after they were four of the first 36 players taken in the 1990 MLB draft. It never happened.
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The next time you hear someone inside a baseball organization talk about his franchise having had a bad draft, it’ll be the first time.

Every franchise, officially at least, comes out of a draft on some level with an emotional high, convinced that they’ve done as well as possible.

There are times when it actually seems true. Thirty years ago, the A’s had four of the first 36 picks in the 1990 draft. Oakland was the defending World Series champion at the time. The hitters were being churned out by the minor league system – outfielder Jose Canseco, first baseman Mark McGwire and shortstop Walt Weiss were Rookies of the Year three consecutive seasons, 1986-88.

But the pitching was getting old. The A’s used the four picks to draft four of the best young pitchers available. These were going to be the guys – Todd Van Poppel, Don Peters, David Zancanaro and Kirk Dressendorfer – to carry the A’s rotation for the next decade. Van Poppel was a can’t-miss high school phenom out of Texas. The other three were college pitchers of note.

Dubbed the Four Aces, they turned out to be anything but. As this excellent portrait of the four by The Athletic’s Marc Craig underscores, the A’s completely whiffed on all four. Peters and Zancanaro never made it to the big leagues, although for years a “Don Peters Fan Club” sign was in evidence in center field for every home game at the Oakland Coliseum.

Dressendorfer made it to Oakland first, breaking in as part of the rotation in 1991, but his career would last just seven starts. Horribly overused as a starter for the Texas Longhorns in college, his arm was shot. He didn’t pitch in more than six games in a season the next three years, came back in 1995 but was out of the game by 1997, with only those seven 1991 games on his big-league ledger.

Van Poppel had a tremendous curve in high school; it was that pitch as much as anything that made him such a great prospect. But while working under the A’s minor league coaches, tweaks to his delivery saw the curve slip away, and it never regained its bite. 

He went on to have an 11-year big league career, but he never won more than seven games, he finished with a 40-52 career record and for the final five years of his career 206 of his 224 games pitched were in relief.

There was plenty of pitching to be had from that 1990 draft. Mike Mussina went with the 20th pick, winning 270 games and landing in the Hall of Fame. Ironically, when the Yankees celebrated Mussina's going into Cooperstown on Sept. 1, 2019, the A's were the opposition in Yankee Stadium.

Andy Pettitte, who went in the 22nd round, won 256 games and won five World Series rings. Troy Percival, who went in the sixth round, saved 358 games and was a four-time All-Star.

The A's, meanwhile, got nada. 

It’s a cautionary tale, and Carig tells it well.

Follow Athletics insider John Hickey on Twitter: @JHickey3

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