Reflecting on a 2009 draft full of whiffs and what-ifs
With the Mariners' second overall pick in 2009, Dustin Ackley, getting sent down to Tacoma, it's time to play the painful game of looking back on what could have been.
Times baseball reporter
Mariners fans are fond of playing the what-if game to the point of distraction — or tears.
As in, what if Jack Zduriencik had asked for Chris Davis — currently battling for a Triple Crown with a .354 average, 19 homers and 51 runs batted for the Orioles through Saturday — as the targeted first baseman from the Rangers in the Cliff Lee deal?
Or, what if Bill Bavasi had never traded Shin-Soo Choo, or Asdrubal Cabrera, or Adam Jones (I'll stop there, before the outright sobbing commences).
Or, what if the Mariners had hired Terry Francona, a semifinalist in their managerial search to replace Lou Piniella after the 2002 season, instead of Bob Melvin? Francona got the Red Sox job the next year and won two World Series titles.
The draft, which begins on Thursday, is always fodder for maddening what-if scenarios. Such as, what if the Mariners had stuck to their original intention and taken Troy Tulowitzki, instead of washout catcher Jeff Clement, with the third overall pick in 2005. Also available for that pick (prepare to wince) were Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Andrew McCutchen, Jay Bruce and Jacoby Ellsbury. And we won't even get into the pitchers.
And now the latest revisionist draft game involves 2009, when the Mariners owned the No. 2 overall pick and came away with North Carolina hitting sensation Dustin Ackley. In light of Ackley's ongoing struggles, which have landed him back in Class AAA to try to regain the stroke that exhilarated Mariner followers after his call-up in 2011 but has been mostly dormant ever since, that draft is increasingly getting a second look.
The first lament from the 2009 draft, of course, came before it even began, when the Mariners, sitting at 101 losses, chose the final three games of the 2008 season to put it together. What if the Mariners hadn't swept those three games from Oakland, allowing the Nationals to swoop below them with 102 losses, thus clinching the worst record, and top pick, in June 2009? That was highly significant, because the prize was San Diego State fireballer Stephen Strasburg, who at the time was being hyped as the next coming of Roger Clemens, Nolan Ryan and Pedro Martinez all rolled into one.
The funny thing is that if teams were magically allowed a 2009 redraft, knowing what they know now, the Mariners would probably get their chance to land Strasburg, after all. That's because the Nationals, I've got to think, would take outfielder Mike Trout, who was flying under the radar for any number of reasons — a bias against prospects from New Jersey, a rainy spring that had kept scouts away from many of his high-school games, or plain miscalculation of his incipient greatness.
Strasburg has been no slouch, mind you. In 57 career starts, he's 24-15 with a 2.85 earned-run average, 386 strikeouts in 325-2/3 innings, and a .222 opponents' batting average. Any team in baseball would leap at a chance to put him in their rotation.
But with a Tommy John surgery already behind Strasburg, and ongoing concern in some quarters about mechanical issues that might lead to further problems, I think most baseball personnel would lean toward a young Mickey Mantle if given the choice.
Which, come to think of it, brings to mind another painful Mariners what-if. In 2008, the final Bavasi draft, the Mariners selected reliever Josh Fields with the 20th overall pick, but didn't sign him. Bavasi was fired shortly after that draft, and Zduriencik hired in the offseason, with one of the first items on his plate being whether or not to continue the effort to sign Fields.
The Mariners did so in February of 2009, a decision that may well still haunt them, though not because Fields has gone on to prominence since being a throw-in with the Erik Bedard trade with Boston in July 2011. Fields was left unprotected last winter, allowing the Astros to take him in the Rule 5 draft. He's missed most of the season with a forearm strain.
But that's only a sidelight to this sad tale. Had the Mariners not signed Fields, they would have been given a compensatory pick in the 2009 draft. As fate would have it, the Angels had a compensatory pick that year, No. 25 overall in the first round, because Mark Teixeira had left them to sign as a free agent with the Yankees. The Mariners' compensatory pick for Fields, however, would have been just ahead of the Angels.
Whether or not they would have taken Trout, we'll never know, but as I've written before on the Hot Stone League blog, I've been led to believe that scouting director Tom McNamara was definitely on to him and liked him a lot. The Mariners took Nick Franklin two picks after Trout at No. 27 (compensation from the Phillies for signing Raul Ibanez), and we don't know whether they would have jumped at Franklin in the Fields spot. But that's one what-if scenario that will haunt the dreams of Mariner fans.
As fate would have it, Franklin has replaced Ackley as the Mariners' second baseman, and his showing could alter the longterm perception of the 2009 draft. So, of course, could a revival by Ackley, who was simply too accomplished and too highly touted to write off at age 25.
Taking Trout out of the equation — 22 other teams passed on him as well, including the Diamondbacks twice — a glance at the 2009 first round shows a few well-regarded names that were available to Seattle.
The next three picks after Ackley — outfielder Donavan Tate (Padres), catcher Tony Sanchez (Pirates) and pitcher Matt Hobgood (Orioles) — have not popped yet. But they were followed by Zack Wheeler, a top prospect in the Mets' organization after coming over in a trade with the Giants; Mike Minor (No. 7, Braves) and Mike Leake (No. 8, Reds), two pitchers in the rotation of playoff-contending teams. Drew Storen, who saved 43 games for the Nationals in 2011, was taken 10th. Shelby Miller, breaking out as a Cardinals starter this year, went 19th.
As with all these exercises, conclusions can and will fluctuate as prospects emerge from the minors or struggle in the majors. But that's part of the fun — and frustration — of being a baseball fan. When the Mariners make their No. 12 overall pick on Thursday, another cycle of the what-if game may be set into motion. Check back in a couple of years.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.