There’s a better than good chance – it’s around 76 percent – the Seattle Mariners will use their first choice in the baseball draft today on a prospect who reaches the big leagues.
Of the 47 players taken No. 3 overall, 36 have made it to the promised land, where promise can be elusive. Roger Salkeld, Tommy Bianco and Eric Munson had short, unremarkable careers, but Matt Williams, Hubie Brooks and Lonnie Smith turned into productive veterans, and Paul Molitor and Robin Yount retired with Hall of Fame credentials.
When you consider that the three most recent players selected third overall – UCLA pitcher Trevor Bauer, Florida high school shortstop Manny Machado and Georgia high school outfielder Donavan Tate – also could advance from the minors, the rate of future major leaguers taken at No. 3 spikes beyond 80 percent.
And yet when commissioner Bud Selig announces Seattle’s first-round selection today, there will be none of the fanfare that has turned the NFL draft into a souped-up ritual combining a dash of Mardi Gras with a sprinkle of New Year’s Eve.
If the Mariners decide on, say, University of Florida catcher Mike Zunino, most fans will wonder: Mike Zoo-who?
Sure, Seahawks fans reacted similarly when the team selected West Virginia pass rusher Bruce Irvin, whose name conjured images of a South Tacoma Way car dealership. But within hours, Seahawk Nation learned everything there is to know about Irvin except the last four digits of his Social Security number.
Because high school players are so vital to baseball’s talent pipeline – Byron Buxton, an outfielder from Baxley, Ga., could be taken by the Houston Astros as the No. 1 selection – the MLB draft always will be regarded as a budget-basement version of its NFL counterpart. But the Bud Team tries, I’ll give it that much.
Borrowing a cue from football, baseball has moved the first round into prime time on the East Coast (it’ll begin at 4 p.m. PDT), with MLB Network analysts providing insights and opinions about dozens of guys you (and they) have never heard of.
There’s one aspect about the MLB draft that’s always been a head-scratcher: Why is it held during the first week of June, simultaneous with the NCAA baseball tournament?
Scouts have been traveling back roads from coast to coast since February. In the search for arms and legs, no campus is too remote, and no single visit is enough. Scouts want to see a prospect’s best work, but they also need to see how he reacts to failure because, baseball being baseball, failure is inevitable.
They also need to note how a player performs under pressure, which brings me back to the NCAA baseball tournament: These are the games that try a young man’s soul. Wouldn’t it make sense to hold a draft after the conclusion of the College World Series?
Including the “sandwich” picks awarded as compensation for lost free-agents, last year’s first round featured 17 NCAA tournament participants. Among them was Virginia starting pitcher Danny Hultzen, chosen No. 2 overall by the Mariners.
The pick of Hultzen appears to validate the very educated hunches of general manager Jack Zduriencik and scouting chief Tom McNamara – the left-hander is enjoying a sensational spring at Double-A – but the notion of drafting a player, before he’s competed in the most significant games of his college career, strikes me as absurd.
Can you imagine an NFL draft held before the bowl games, or an NBA draft held before Selection Sunday?
Of course, baseball has short-season Class-A rosters to fill. The Northwest League, for instance, starts June 15.
On the other hand, the College World Series will be over no later than June 26, so it’s not as though we’re talking about a seismic scheduling shift. We’re talking about delaying the draft for three weeks to allow for the most comprehensive evaluations possible.
Another problem with the June 4 draft: general managers are forced to hold their breath, and cross their fingers, while college pitchers are racking up pitch counts well beyond 100. Coaches should be responsible for the long-term health of their athletes – and for the most part, they are – but the temptation to coax one more inning out of a tired ace, with a possible national championship on the line, can muddle the judgment of any well-meaning coach.
And if a kid gets hurt? Tough. There’s no do-over for the team that made the draft pick.
The College World Series draws surprisingly strong ratings on ESPN.
Casual fans who otherwise ignore college baseball should start paying attention. As theater, the double-elimination format can be gripping, but the names of those destined to occupy prominent roles in Omaha will have a brief shelf life.
Still, there’s a shelf life. Instead of looking at the College World Series as a sort of necessary evil, Major League Baseball should look at it as a prelude to a draft that produces far more first-round success stories than it doesn’t.John.firstname.lastname@example.org