McGrath: Let’s hope M’s won’t have backyard blindness in MLB draft

June 4, 2014 

Even for those who don’t pay attention to it, the Major League Baseball first-year player draft is a painful exercise for Seattle Mariners fans. They are reminded of June 6, 2006, a day that poses a question destined to be asked for, oh, the next 25 years or so.

What were the Mariners thinking?

Right-hander Tim Lincecum, the NCAA leader in strikeouts per nine innings and regarded among the best pitchers in the history of what is now known as the Pac-12 Conference, still was on the board when Seattle picked fifth. Arranging trips for scouts to check out Lincecum couldn’t have been a problem, as he played his home games at Husky Ballpark, a few miles from Safeco Field.

But the Mariners bypassed Lincecum and chose California’s Brandon Morrow, another right-handed pitcher. Morrow wasn’t a terrible first-round selection — a junior, he had earned third-team recognition on the all-conference team — he just wasn’t, and never would be, comparable to two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum.

The Mariners, like the eight other teams that selected before the San Francisco Giants in 2006, were concerned about Lincecum’s slender physique and unconventional delivery. At least that’s one theory. Another theory — mine — is steeped in Lincecum’s background. Instead of a hometown connection working on behalf of the Renton native, Lincecum’s status as a Washington Huskies’ star found the Mariners attempting to prove how smart they were.

They overthought something

that required no thinking at all.

Lincecum wasn’t the first highly regarded player with area ties the Mariners allowed to get away. In 1989, they determined that Interlake High grad John Olerud, a first baseman/pitcher who had been named Baseball America’s college player of the year as a Washington State junior, had less potential than California high school pitcher Roger Salkeld and Connecticut high school pitcher Scott Burrell. Both went to Seattle before the Toronto Blue Jays took Olerud in the third round.

A similar oversight was committed in 2002, when the Mariners, presumably familiar with Bellarmine Prep left-hander Jon Lester, chose John Mayberry Jr., a high school outfielder from the Kansas City area. Lester ended up going to the Boston Red Sox in the second round. Mayberry? He declined to sign a Mariners contract and enrolled at Stanford.

Olerud, Lester, Lincecum: Besides All-Star game appearances (eight among them) and World Series rings (five among them), the trio represents a baseball organization’s longtime trend of ignoring the future stars in its backyard.

Which brings us to Michael Conforto, regarded as the top collegiate hitter in the 2014 draft. Conforto, a Redmond High product, is to Oregon State’s nationally acclaimed baseball program what Lincecum was to Washington’s: The Man, atop the short list of the best-ever players at his school.

Conforto was named the Pac-12’s Player of the Year this season for the second consecutive time, something nobody in Corvallis, Oregon, has done — not even Jacoby Ellsbury, a former Beavers star guaranteed $21.1 million a year from the New York Yankees through 2020.

The committee for the Golden Spikes Award, which since 1978 has recognized America’s premier amateur baseball player, recently revealed Conforto as one of its three finalists.

A left-handed hitter, Conforto put up crazy slash numbers this season — .345/.504/.547 — and that doesn’t account for the most impressive numbers of all, a walk-to-strikeout ratio of 55-to-38. He’s patient, content to take the ball the other way with two strikes and, let’s see, what else can be hijacked from predraft scouting reports?

“There’s no doubting Conforto’s offensive ability,” reports one, “with above-average power from the left side and a solid approach at the plate … defensively, however, he’s a bit of a mess.”

The scouting report cites Conforto’s slow jump to the ball and weak throwing arm, defensive vulnerabilities that might surprise those who watched him play quarterback at Redmond. For what it’s worth, he made two errors in 115 chances this season, and if that qualifies as “a bit of mess,” I’m wondering what an authentic, indisputable mess is. Three errors in 115 chances?

Seattle has the No. 6 selection Thursday, and because general manager Jack Zduriencik guards privacy with a vigilance that makes Vladimir Putin look like he enrolled in a “How To Operate Behind the Scenes” class taught by Donald Sterling, the Mariners’ draft priorities are anybody’s guess.

Pitchers with upside appear to be more plentiful than polished hitters in the first half of the first round, and you never can have too much pitching. (Unless Taijuan Walker and James Paxton someday manage to rejoin a Mariners starting rotation already occupied by Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Chris Young and Roenis Elias, in which case the Mariners will have too much pitching.)

The Mariners also could select a high school outfielder, trusting that their next pick of a high school outfielder in the first round turns out as well as the last one: Ken Griffey Jr. in 1987.

And then there is Michael Conforto, the best hitter in college baseball, a Seattle-area guy whose only obvious drawback to the Mariners — besides those two errors in 115 chances — would be a baseball card stained by original sin.

He’s a Seattle-area guy.

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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