The whole premise of that headline is dependent on a technicality, but I'm pedantic so I'm running with it. Johan Santana is of course the best Rule 5 player the Twins have employed, but -- and I'm preaching to the choir here -- he was actually selected by the Marlins with the second pick of the 1999 Rule 5 draft, then promptly traded to Minnesota for cash and the Rule 5 rights to fellow pitcher Jared Camp, who was picked first. Each team got the man they wanted, but the Twins managed to milk their top spot for $50,000. That's my favorite part of the whole historical snapshot: that not only did the Twins get a legend via the Rule 5 draft, they got paid to do so. But, as much as I'd like to go on celebrating the Santana steal and/or laughing at the Marlins, this isn't about them. It's about the criminally underrated Shane Mack, who the Twins snapped up from the Padres organization this day in 1989.
Mack was the Padres' first round pick in the 1984 June draft, one spot after the A's took Mark McGwire tenth overall, and three picks after the Twins selected Jay Bell. He was so offensively advanced straight out of UCLA that he was assigned directly to AA. He went on to rake in parts of four years with AAA Las Vegas, but was beginning to look like a Quad-A player after disappointing extended trials with San Diego in 1987 and '88. His 1989 season was two steps backward, as he hit poorly in just 24 AAA games before elbow surgery ended his year. San Diego general manager Jack McKeon, who recently hired himself to be the field manager as well, saw fit to leave Mack unprotected. Andy McPhail selected him with the fifth pick of the Rule 5 draft, behind four guys I'd be impressed if you'd heard of.
The percentage of Rule 5 picks who actually make the Opening Day roster of the team that selected them is fairly small, and a great deal of the ones who make it that far flame out quickly and are offered back to their old organization. Those who do stick around on the major league roster all year as required are usually tucked away nicely on a bench until there's a blowout in which they can't do any harm. And if you can find the rare Rule 5 pick who immediately latches on as a starter, you can certainly expect struggles and a steep learning curve. Shane Mack defied all of that in 1990.
All the potential that failed to click in San Diego fell into place the second Mack stepped foot in the Metrodome. He got into 125 games, starting 82 of them in the outfield, split mostly between right and center fields. The fact that the Twins were a last-place team that season allowed Mack to get a chance, but his play certainly wasn't a cause for their spot in the cellar. He hit .326/ .392/ .460 (.852) in 353 plate appearances, accruing 2.5 WAR on the year. A right-handed hitter, Mack laid waste to left-handed pitching, batting .370/ .439/ .548 against them, but he still hit well against fellow righties; he slashed .287/ .350/ .383 against them. His trips to the plate were split nearly down the middle, so both sample sizes were significant, but most importantly suggested that Mack's season wasn't a fluke or a product of careful protection and platooning.
There was no sophomore slump for Mack, as he got into even more games and hit even better for the 1991 World Champions. He put together a .310/ .363/ .539 line with new highs of 27 doubles, eight triples, and 18 home runs in 489 trips to the plate. Mack again annihilated lefties, to the tune of .350/ .412/ .709 (1.121) with an absurd 13 doubles, four triples, and nine homers in just 137 at-bats. It took him over twice as many at-bats against right-handers to replicate those extra-base totals (plus one double), but he still hit a very impressive .292/ 341/ .452 against them. His 5.0 WAR led all Twins position players and trailed just Kevin Tapani's 6.8.
1992 saw Mack once again second on the Twins in WAR; this time his obscene 6.5 mark was exceeded only by the 7.1 put up by Kirby Puckett in the first year of his second big contract. Mack set career highs in games and plate appearances, with 156 and 692, respectively. He topped 30 doubles and 100 runs for the first time to go along with his .315/ .394/ .467 (.860) line while serving as the everyday left fielder for the first time. That impressive OBP was aided by a career-high 64 walks and a league-leading 15 times being hit by a pitch. A big part of Mack's success was his increasing comfort against like-handed pitchers; for the first time he actually had a better BA and OBP against right-handers than lefties, .320/ .403/ .453 in 451 trips to the plate against righties versus .297/ .357/ .516 in 141 plate appearances facing left-handed pitchers.
The next season saw Mack return to his role as a starter with no set position; he started 60 games in left field and 63 others in center field when Puckett shifted over to right field or had the day off in Tom Kelly's game of musical outfield which also included Pedro Munoz, Dave McCarty, Dave Winfield, and the last gasps of Gene Larkin. Amidst the chaos, Mack had his worst season with the Twins, which wasn't even that bad. He hit .276/ .335/ .412 (.747) in 553 plate appearances over 128 games, once again doubling 30 times. The handedness of his opponent was virtually irrelevant in '93, as Mack had a .741 OPS against lefties and a .747 mark against right-handers.
He followed that dip by once again hitting like he did the previous three years, and then some. Although he played in just 81 games during the strike-shortened 1994 season, Mack hit five more home runs than he had the year before, with just nine fewer doubles in exactly 200 fewer at-bats. All of this added up to a slash line of .333/ .402/ .564 (.966) and a very promising payday as a free agent. The one thing standing between Mack and his money was the ongoing strike which had already eliminated the 1994 postseason. With that in mind, Mack headed to Tokyo to play for the Yomiuri Giants, signing the largest contract in Japanese baseball history. He performed decently in his two years there, hitting for a lower average, but with more power. He returned to Major League Baseball in 1996 and performed ably as a reserve for the Red Sox and then again with the Royals in 1997. He went to Spring Training with the Padres in 1998, but retired rather than report to the minors.
Mack had just five full productive season, but what a five seasons they were, and one can only imagine he would have continued to perform at the same level had the strike not encouraged him to take his game abroad. As it stands, those five years put him in rare company on the Twins' leaderboard. Of players who have had at least 2000 at-bats with the Twins, Mack ranks third in batting average behind just Rod Carew and Kirby Puckett, fifth in SLG, second in OPS behind only Harmon Killebrew, and fifth in OPS+. In the five years Mack was with the Twins (1990 through '94) he accumulated the most WAR of anyone on the team, his 19.6 edging out Puckett's 19.1, followed by Tapani with 16.9. That 19.6 WAR is also good for fifteenth overall in team history, despite the relative brevity of his stay.
It seems that Mack would be much more highly valued today than he was back then, both by fans and team officials. He did everything well, but no one thing jumped out. His most eye-catching statistic from year to year was his batting average, but he was likely stigmatized due to his home run totals being relatively low at a position usually manned by oafish sluggers. Mack was never named to an All-Star team amidst the blossoming new age of power hitters, but one suspects he'd have one or two under his belt if he was born 20 years later.
Either way, not too shabby for a guy the Padres didn't think was worth holding on to.