The demotion of Dustin Ackley to Triple-A last week was more than a wake-up call for a once-heralded prospect. It undermined Jack Zduriencik’s reputation as a superior scout.
Zduriencik’s trade record as general manager of the Seattle Mariners is checkered: A few hits (Phillies starting pitcher Cliff Lee for three obscure minor leaguers) along with a few misses (Lee to the Rangers for a package headlined by first baseman Justin Smoak). On the free-agent front, Zduriencik’s biggest splash turned out to be the flop remembered as Chone Figgins.
Overhauling the roster through the baseball draft was always the top priority for Zduriencik, formerly a well-respected scouting chief in Milwaukee. That’s why Ackley’s regression is so troubling: The University of North Carolina product, selected No. 2 overall in 2009, was Zduriencik’s first and most significant draft choice for the Mariners.
It was not a stretch. Seattle scouting director Tom McNamara, realizing the Nationals had dibs on first pick Stephen Strasburg, identified Ackley as a future everyday player months before the Mariners were on the clock.
“I would walk over hot coals naked just to watch this kid hit,” an anonymous scout told
Four years after his sweet swing inspired such hyperbole — Shoeless Joe Jackson could emerge from a cornfield with Babe Ruth, Marilyn Monroe and Abraham Lincoln, and I’m not walking over hot coals naked to watch it — Ackley is in Tacoma, attempting to relearn a skill scouts touted to be natural.
But before he’s labeled a bust, check out the position players selected behind Ackley in 2009. Outfielder Donavan Tate went to the Padres at No. 3, and catcher Tony Sanchez went to the Pirates at No. 4. Do these names ring any bells?
What about shortstop Grant Green, chosen at No. 13 by the Athletics? Or third baseman Bobby Borchering, chosen at No. 16 by the Diamondbacks?
Of the 16 position players selected in the regulation phase of the first round that year, the number of players with big league experience can be counted on one hand: There’s Ackley, who has appeared in 288 games with the Mariners after making his debut in midway through 2011. There’s A.J. Pollock, a center fielder for the Diamondbacks who got called up last year. There’s Brett Jackson, back in the minors after spending parts of 2012 with the Cubs. There’s Nick Franklin, the Mariners’ other first-rounder from ’09.
And, of course, there’s Mike Trout, the lone star of the ’09 draft class. It required unusual foresight for Eddie Bane, then scouting director for the Angels, to sense the potential in a high school outfielder from New Jersey, where the inclement spring weather reduces a prospect’s sample size. The Angels saw enough. They caught the prize that was Trout at No. 25, immediately after selecting another outfielder, Randal Grichuk, at No. 24.
Grichuk’s career has been stalled by injuries, and while he may yet make it to the majors, here is all you need to know about the baseball draft: Randal Grichuk, who is hitting .243 in the Double-A Texas League, was chosen before Mike Trout, who would’ve won the American League MVP trophy in 2012 if not for the Triple Crown season of Detroit third baseman Miguel Cabrera.
The baseball draft can be broken down into four categories, each with unique risks and rewards. The safest picks are college pitchers, generally accustomed to dueling an opposing team’s ace in the Friday opener of a weekend series. The next-safest picks are college position players, more mature — in years and wisdom — than their 18-year-old counterparts, who have never left home.
High school pitchers are more of a gamble but offer an intriguing upside: Their arms are raw but fresh. If there are subtle flaws in their delivery, pro coaches can correct them.
And then there are high school position players, kids who can either turn out to be legends (Ken Griffey Jr., drafted No. 1 overall in 1987) or flame-outs (Mark Merchant, drafted No. 2 overall in 1987). Griffey figures to be a first-ballot inductee into the Hall of Fame class of 2016. The pinnacle of Merchant’s 12-year career was a Triple-A stint that spanned 85 games.
At least Merchant gave baseball his best shot, which is more than can be said of Matt Bush, the first overall selection in 2004, by the Padres. A shortstop with an electric arm, Bush offered both local appeal — he starred at San Diego’s Mission Bay High School — and a fiscal one. Padres owner John Moores was wary of dealing with agent Scott Boras, who represented Stephen Drew and Jered Weaver, the top two prospects on the team’s draft board.
So the Padres settled on Bush, rewarding him with a contract that included a $3.15 million signing bonus. Guaranteeing $3.15 million to a high school brat invites trouble, not that Bush needed an invitation.
A few weeks after collecting his lucky-for-life jackpot, Bush was arrested for felony assault, misdemeanor trespassing, disorderly conduct and underage drinking. Things deteriorated from there.
Last December, with a depressingly long police blotter that evoked three words — menace to society — Bush was sentenced to 51 months in a Florida prison. He’s scheduled to be released on May 25, 2016.
Dustin Ackley’s reluctance to put his sweet swing on fastballs in the strike zone might be maddening, but it’s hardly as maddening as the grief and destruction wrought by Matt Bush. The consequences of drafting a hot-shot shortstop out of high school still haunt the Padres, whose No. 1 slot in 2004 was followed by the Tigers’ selection of a right-handed pitcher from Old Dominion University.
Three first-round draft picks from the 2009 draft have become All-Stars: Stephen Strasburg, Aaron Crow (drafted No. 12 by the Royals) and Mike Trout (No. 25 by the Angels). A closer look at the top 10 picks from that draft:
1. Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Nationals
A true ace but missed most of 2011 after Tommy John surgery.
2. Dustin Ackley, 2B, Mariners
Career .237 hitter in 288 major league games is back in Triple-A.
3. Donovan Tate, OF, Padres
Has not played this year, reportedly dealing with substance-abuse issues.
4. Tony Sanchez, C, Pirates
Career .271 hitter in minors but has not played in the majors.
5. Matthew Hobgood, RHP, Orioles
Career 4.93 ERA in 55 minor league games, still in Single-A.
6. Zack Wheeler, RHP, Giants
Traded to Mets in 2011 but on the verge of making the majors.
7. Mike Minor, LHP, Braves
Made MLB debut on Aug. 9, 2009. Now part of Atlanta’s starting rotation.
8. Mike Leake, RHP, Reds
Member of Cincinnati’s rotation since 2010.
9. Jacob Turner, RHP, Tigers
Traded to Marlins in 2012, has 13 career starts (2-6, 5.19 ERA).
10. Drew Storen, RHP, Nationals
Key member of Nats’ bullpen; had elbow surgery in 2012.
Darrin Beene, staff writer