First things first – the first picks in the annual amateur baseball draft are a reward – for playing poorly. The worse that a team plays the higher their draft pick. So Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Jason Varitek and Adam Jones, who were all chosen in the first round, were part of the Rainiers, at least briefly, because the Mariners had finished poorly the year before they were drafted.
The lesser-lights who were first round draft picks and were in Tacoma long enough to become fan favorites included Gil Meche, Jeff Clement, Brandon Morrow and Matt Thornton. Meche, traded to Kansas City in 2007, retired before the start of the 2011 season. Clement, drafted as a catcher, is playing first base in the Pirates’ farm system. Morrow (Blue Jays) and Thornton (White Sox) continue to pitch at the Major League level.
As the above list demonstrates, the draft is an imperfect animal. The players taken in the first round are rarely the greatest thing since Griffey and Rodriguez, who were taken first overall in their respective drafts – 1987 and 1993. Seattle’s other players selected first overall were Al Chambers (OF-1979), Mike Moore (RHP-1981) and Calvin Jones (RHP-1984). Those are names that do not come immediately to mind when fans think of memorable players.
Varitek, who has been the Red Sox’s primary catcher since he was traded away from Seattle in 1997, may have made the biggest impact on his current team. Named team captain in 2005, he has caught a Major League record four no-hitters and helped Boston win two World Series titles.
The jury is still out on Jones. Traded to Baltimore in 2008, he seems to be improving with age. One Mariners broadcaster went so far as to compare his fielding with Griffey’s when the Orioles were in town earlier this season.
Although many first-round picks have played in Tacoma, only a few are still with the organization at any level. They include IF Matt Tuiasosopo (picked in 2004), RHP Josh Fields (called up to Tacoma on July 1; 2008), IF Dustin Ackley (Mariners; 2009) and RHP Taijuan Walker (Double A; 2010). This year the Mariners’ first pick was LHP Danny Hultzen, the second overall pick in the draft. Hultzen remains unsigned as of July 18. Preparing for each year’s draft begins long before the three-day period in early June. Scouting reports come in for months, even years, from all over the country. Players are evaluated for their skills or tools, as well as how they would fit into the system.
Of course the player the Mariners figured to pick first could be gone by the time their turn comes. Then it is back to plan B or maybe C.
As soon as the draft is over, the signing process begins. Signing bonuses are involved. If players (and their agents and lawyers) do not feel the initial offers are what the players deserve, this process can go on for many weeks. The signing deadline is in mid-August. Sometimes the two sides cannot come to terms; then the player can choose not to sign, return to school, and go back into the draft the following year.
After he was drafted, Ackley did not sign with the Mariners until 15 minutes before the deadline on Aug. 17, 2009, so his only professional playing time that year was in the Arizona Fall League. However, he said that because his college season with the University of North Carolina was extended by playing in the College World Series, it was good to get some time off before he began his professional career. The team finished third.
Ackley played 52 games in Tacoma at the end of 2010 and started the 2011 season here. He was called up to the Mariners on June 16, just a little over two years from the date he was drafted.
He was in the Mariners’ starting lineup on June 17, his first Major League game. Playing second base and batting sixth, he got a single in his first at-bat. During the three-game series against the Philadelphia Phillies, the best team in baseball, he hit his first Major League homerun and triple.
Fields, a graduate of the University of Georgia, helped take the Bulldogs to the 2008 College World Series finals vs. Fresno State. Georgia lost the championship two games to one. After two seasons in Double A, he was promoted to Tacoma on July 1. Since becoming a Rainier just three years after he was drafted, Fields has appeared in five games, all in relief. He has given up only three hits. In 6.2 innings he has an ERA of 4.05.
Walker was drafted out of Yucaipa High School in Southern California. He pitched at the rookie level in Peoria, Ariz., in 2010, and is currently playing for single A Clinton, Iowa. In 14 games he has a record of 4-4 and an ERA of 2.84.
Tuiasosopo played a total of 71 games with the Mariners in 2008, ‘09 and ’10. His Major League batting average is .176. This season with the Rainiers he is batting .236 in 85 games.
Draft picks are signed for seven years with the organization but can be traded before that period is up. Hopefully Ackley, Fields and Walker are players who will not be seen in other teams’ uniforms for many years to come.