Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Reinstate the draft

Back in 1991, Alice in Chains' Man in the Box and Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit were 1-2 on the billboard charts. The Gulf War was fought and won by coalition troops in a matter of weeks. Terminator 2 was smashing both vehicles and box office records for movie sequels. Not to be forgotten, the Seattle Mariners posted their first winning season after fourteen years of utter futility.

All was not completely for naught with respect to the M's by that point in time. With the exception of the 1982 draft (which produced Mike Moore, Mark Langston, Phil Bradley and even the semi-serviceable journeyman Lee Guetterman), most M's drafts were case studies in how not to load up for the future. Anybody recall Tito Nanni, Al Chambers, Darnell Coles, Spike Owen, Darrel Akerfelds, Mike Campbell and Patrick Lennon? All high first rounders with nary a true success amongst them. Sure, Bill Swift was a modest exception in 1984 and Matt Young, Mike Schooler, Erik Hanson and a few other lower picks made noise in the show, but for their first ten years of existence, the Mariners' draft record was truly abysmal.

The string of failures was broken in spectacular fashion in 1987 when a backwards-hat wearing progeny of a former successful major leaguer was drafted #1 overall. Ken Griffey's selection began a solid period of drafting for Seattle, who subsequently picked Tino Martinez in 1988, Bret Boone in 1990, Shawn Estes and Jim Mercir in 1991, Ron Villone in 1992, Alex Rodriguez in 1993, Jason Varitek in 1994, Jose Cruz Jr. in 1995 and Gil Meche in 1996. Not coincidentally, the Mariners' rise to perennial condender began shortly thereafter, with mainstays Griffey, Martinez and A-Rod leading the way and Varitek, Cruz and Mercir used as trade bait during playoff runs. For the many swings and misses management had during that second ten-year period, they had more than their share of extra base hits.

They say history repeats itself and that cycles occur naturally in life. If so, it seems that the Mariners' drafting success or failure runs in ten-year cycles. Sadly, we're in the middle of a downturn once again.

Starting with the flame-out that was Ryan Anderson (granted, due primarily to chronic injuries) in 1997, the team has seen little success from its recent drafts. Matt Thornton is presently on the team and could become the primary lefty stopper in the bullpen someday, but at three months shy of 29 years old, his clock is ticking loudly. Willie Bloomquist will be Spike Owens, redux, if he's lucky. The best pick in the 2001 draft seems to be Rene Rivera, which isn't saying much, especially since the 2005 draft was all about picking up a bona fide catching prospect with power. Our #1 pick in 2002 (John Mayberry Jr.) is now the property of the Texas Rangers due to the team's inability to come to terms on a contract. Felix Hernandez was a notable exception in 2002. The 2003 draft didn't net any sure-fire major leaguers on paper and of course 2004 and 2005 are in the "too soon to tell" category.

To be fair, there is still hope for some of those prior drafts. Clint Nageotte, Jeff Heaverlo, Ryan Christianson, Michael Garciaparra, Matt Tuiasosopo and others are still in the system and could become key producers. And of course, every team has the same issues: some great picks, some busts, some that seem to hang around forever in the "maybe" category. Given the inherent truisms there, it made me wonder: how do the M's stack up against other major league franchises with respect to recent drafts?

I decided to sample 15 major league teams and used what can only be argued as a very arbitrary benchmark. To wit, the percentage of high draft picks (defined in this case as the first five rounds) since 2000 that had ascended to AAA or higher. Having decided upon my criteria, I quickly realized that there would be some potential inherent flaws. One, five years isn't a particularly long period of time. Two, some clubs literally rush their players to the big leagues while others are stocked with talent and have the luxury of bringing them along more slowly. Three, small market clubs probably cannot be compared fairly to large market teams in this area. Nevertheless, I threw caution to the wind and stayed with the assumptions anyways. I tried to use a representative sample of teams and split them evenly between the American League (8) and the National League (7).

Without further ado, here are the results:

Minnesota: 35%
Oakland: 45%
Kansas City: 14%
Atlanta: 14%
L.A. Dodgers: 19%
Boston: 12%
N.Y. Yankees: 14%
N.Y. Mets: 38%
Texas: 13%
San Francisco: 29%
Florida: 13%
Baltimore: 8%
Philadelphia: 14%
Houston: 22%
Seattle: 9%

Only nine percent of the Mariners' draft picks since 2000 had made it to Triple A or the big leagues as of this writing (http://www.sports-wired.com/teams/mlb.shtml). Nine percent! Only Baltimore had done more poorly amongst these fifteen teams. Oakland and Minnesota, two franchises that have been lauded for "doing it right" with limited budgets, sat atop the list at 45% and 35%, respectively. Curiously, the Mets were up there as well, although a quick perusal of their minor leaguers doesn't seem to indicate many real impact players in the group. Of the teams that seemed to have above average numbers (Minnesota, Houston, San Francisco, the Mets and the Dodgers), there are three of the more successful franchises in recent history, along with two that have excellent historical resumes. As the percentages dwindle, the correlation with winning generally seems to drop -- Boston and the Yankees notwithstanding.

One other flaw I forgot to mention: free agency. It's implied in one of my precepts, but not stated. Boston and New York have been built in recent years largely with marquee free agents and deadline trades, which will deplete the farm systems and quell their rise to the majors. Those factors probably explain why their numbers are so low for teams that are always in the race.

I think the one glaringly obvious point to be made here is the inefficiency of Mariner drafting in recent years. It's just not been very good. We've been fortunate to have long-time stars dot the lineup and the pitching staff from older drafts and various trades, which kept the team up there for years. That time is over now and the kids are beginning to take over. We've repeatedly discussed the younger players such as Reed, Lopez, Morse, Snelling, Choo and King Felix. In a way, we're fortunate that most of them have been acquired via trade.

It's time for the Mariners to get serious about the draft once again. Frankly, they've done a pretty bad job of it over the past several years.


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