Rebuilding and the Draft
Rebuilding is a dirty word in baseball. In football or basketball, it’s possible to cobble together a youth movement with a few savvy trades and a strong draft. If you’re lucky, you’ll be competing again by year two. In baseball, if a player is even on a MLB roster after two years as a pro, it’s a rare return. The 40-man rules are even set up so that prospects don’t need to be protected from the Rule 5 draft until three or four years into their careers, and even then given three or more option years to be sent back to the minors. The development of prospects in baseball, even for the best of them, takes time. Even worse, when a team starts talking about a rebuilding effort, very often they’re dealing with a stretch where the organization wasn’t able to produce good, young players. Fans get impatient, journalists get impatient, owners get impatient, and before long, whatever groundwork a new GM worked to lay is now being salvaged off for quicker fixes. Rebuilding efforts are both perilous and time consuming.
What follows here is a study of the return the Mariners have gotten from the draft from 2003 to 2007. Anything more recent would be a bit too soon and anything before that would only upset everyone. The goal isn’t to make anyone sick so much as show how the present youth movement, while well-intentioned, is operating with substantial constraints left over by previous administrations. Let’s get to it then, here comes the horror show. I swear this hurts me more than it hurts you…
Graduates: CF Adam Jones (1), LHP Ryan Feierabend (3), LHP Eric O’Flaherty (6)
Yield: 6.5 WAR (-0.4 with Mariners)
Biggest Contributor: Jones, 5.5 WAR (-0.2 with Mariners)
We begin with what was probably Frank Mattox’ best draft as the scouting director, which should tell you all you need to know. I’d advise against looking at any of the prior ones unless you’re planning on opening a vein anyway. Both of the positive contributors were sent elsewhere pretty early on, Jones going to Baltimore in the Bedard trade and O’Flaherty joining the Braves after the M’s put him on waivers, where he’s been a good reliever albeit with the same back issues that have plagued him throughout his career. The return seems decent, but bear in mind that they’ve had longer to produce it than any other group we’ll be looking at.
The draft itself wasn’t particularly inspired, but three things limited it more than was anticipated at the time. The first was the stalled development of Jeff Flaig, their second round pick who drew Troy Glaus comps before a shoulder injury late in high school derailed him. That type of injury is no better for hitters than it is for pitchers, as it usually results in diminished power, and Flaig’s career .242/.302/.348 line attests to that. OF Casey Craig, the team’s 21st-round pick, represents another missed opportunity. It’s not that it was a bad choice on the M’s part, but the attitude issues he was known for worked against him and he had washed out of baseball by the age of twenty-three. A third flop would be RHP Aaron Jensen, a 16th round pick who was also considered a much better talent at the time. Jensen is still hanging around the system and has survived a few off-field scares, but he’s a full-time reliever now and just made it to double-A last season, posting a K-rate of over six just twice in his career.
Had any of those three developed as expected, the draft would have looked a lot better than it ended up. As it stands, they got three players, one of whom turned out to be an okay contributor, and a catcher who briefly caught in the Mariners bullpen in Brian Schweiger. So technically, four players made the big leagues.
Graduates: UT Matt Tuiasosopo (3), C Rob Johnson (4), RHP Mark Lowe (5), CF Michael Saunders (11)
Yield: 1.4 WAR (1.4 with Mariners)
Biggest Contributor: Lowe, 1.5 WAR (1.5 with Mariners)
Remember when there was a time that we were excited to have Tui in the organization? Bob Fontaine’s first draft at the helm wasn’t all that bad, considering that he was operating without a first and second round pick. That alone excuses some of the limited return. Condor was originally drafted as a third baseman, which is kind of funny now.
I can’t point to as many things that didn’t go right in this draft. The most notable slip up was CF Jermaine Brock, the team’s sixth-round pick who decided he liked playing XBox better than baseball. Twelfth-rounder LHP Steve Uhlmansiek didn’t develop as expected, but given that he needed TJ on draft day and was basically a crapshoot anyway, I don’t feel like making a fuss about it. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this draft in reviewing it is that the M’s were the team originally drafting Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia (which I knew) and Red Sox LHP Nick Hagadone (which I didn’t). Both would have made this draft awesome, but there’s only so much one can do without picks in rounds one and two. Saunders could yet be something.
Graduates: C Jeff Clement (1), LHP Justin Thomas (4), RHP Anthony Varvaro (12)
Yield: -0.5 WAR (-0.1 with Mariners)
Biggest Contributor: Clement (no, really), 0.0 WAR (0.2 with Mariners)
Oh, ’05 draft. I could never hope to speak my real opinions on you while still using family-friendly language. If you really want to know just how badly we handled this one, check out the recent Ask BA column for a re-draft of 2005 and a list of players we could have selected instead of Jeff Clement. Some excuses can be made again for lacking a second and third round pick, but screwing up with the third overall is just something you can’t do and hope to be successful in the future. Clement’s hopes for catching were quite questionable at the time and he was recently fighting for first base time with the worst team in baseball. All this after setting the prep record for home runs as an amateur.
I’d prefer to think about the ’05 draft as little as possible. There’s a chance seventh-rounder LHP Robert Rohrbaugh could still contribute, but he’s a fringe pitcher at best. Fifth-rounder RHP Stephen Kahn was once well-regarded as a reliever, but lately it seems like he can’t so much as think about throwing in an actual game without one of his ligaments blowing up. The lesser missed opportunity in this one would probably be not signing away RHP Lance Lynn from Ole Miss as a sixth-round pick, since he turned into a first-round pick for the Cardinals. I guess we could also talk about not signing Woodinville grad RHP Duke Welker, who puts up some hilarious minor league numbers. When forced to think about this one, I’d prefer to think of two things: the drafting and signing of one Andy Hargrove, and the signing of LHP Worth Lumry, a Princeton grad whose father I believe was part of the ownership group at the time. Or that we are the only team that has ever drafted Dennis Raben.
Let’s move on to some things that don’t suck as much.
Graduates: RHP Brandon Morrow (1), RHP Chris Tillman (2), RHP Nate Adcock (5), C Adam Moore (6), RHP Doug Fister (7), RHP Kam Mickolio (18)
Yield: 7.6 WAR (3.9 with Mariners)
Biggest Contributor: Morrow, 4.8 WAR (1.2 with Mariners)
Every so often, I see a draft and think that it all syncs up and makes sense. The ’06 one, Lincecum avoidance aside, is the one that did that for me at the time and still stands as Fontaine’s best effort. There were things that didn’t work out. Half the scouting world ended up thinking Tony Butler should have been a first-round pick after his first year, and boy, were they mistaken. Tillman still hasn’t developed into the #1/2 people thought he would be Edit: I wrote this on Friday. And then of course there is the matter of the bulk of the contributions coming from players that are no longer in the organization. Still, we managed to retain a serviceable back-up catcher and a back-end starter who throws strikes, so it wasn’t a complete loss for us.
Beyond the obvious three sent to the Orioles in the Bedard deal, the draft also got us some pretty nice things on the trade market. Twenty-fifth rounder CF Tyson Gillies was a component in the Lee trade and could still make the big leagues with the Phillies, and Adcock, who went to the Pirates in the Snell/Wilson deal, already has made it as a Rule 5 pick for the Royals. On their own, ninth-round RHP Justin Souza and twenty-second round LHP Fabian Williamson netted us IF Jack Hannahan and RHP David Aardsma, which is pretty awesome. If I were hunting for negatives, I’d point to the attempt to change sixteenth-round RHP Austin Bibens-Dirkx motion, but I don’t know if that’s one to pin on the scouting director.
The buzzkill, of course, is that again the contributions didn’t stay with us and that the first round pick could have been better. Other than that, it was a nice oasis in the middle of a draft wasteland. The ’07 and ’08 drafts could yet yield some minor pieces, but overall, neither look to be very good on their own merits.
For a four year spread covering two scouting directors, the total yield thus far has been 15.0 WAR. This isn’t good at all. One of the cool things that has come out of the MLB statistical community in recent years are studies on the returns drafts have on average and what the expected yield should be, including one from 2010 by Alex Pedicini using WAR to determine the average yield of first through third round picks that made the majors. We rarely had those second and third round picks, and those that did make it have been flops more often than not. Morrow and Jones were the only two overachievers among the picks in the first three rounds. If the return on the ’06 was even average, the whole exercise would look awful.
I don’t like reiterating the obvious because it’s boring as all get out, but a team can’t initiate a rebuilding effort if they’ve wasted opportunities in one of the primary areas they acquire young talent. The Mariners managed to skate by and appear somewhat respectable owing to a tremendous international effort, but given the number of players acquired there and their uneven skills, it’s better used to supplement, not take the place of the draft. I could quite easily run down a list of high dollar international signings that never turned into anything for the M’s, ones that went unnoticed because they were never strongly publicized.
Zduriencik took the helm at a period when the draft had done us few favors over a stretch of time going back well into the 90s. Recent history has only served us a little better. So, while others wonder over why this supposed youth movement is taking so long, I say it’s no wonder at all. We didn’t have any talented youth to work with for a long time, and what little we did was often traded elsewhere before we could make proper use of it.