In the lull leading up to Spring Training, I've had a lot of time to look around for tidbits of information to write about. With the amateur baseball seasons kicking into gear, there is a lot of noise around about the 2013 draft. The MLB draft, while not nearly as ballyhooed as it's NFL or NBA counterparts, is beginning to pick up more and more followers and be scrutinized closer and closer by the experts as the years go on in baseball.
For fans of the Seattle Mariners, talking about the draft usually means a lot of head shaking over the 2005 (Clement over Tulowitzki) and 2006 (Morrow over Lincecum) drafts. But the draft that may have hurt the Mariners the most in terms of building a sustainable winner from within may have been the 2001 draft.
In 2001, the Mariners were coming off of just their 3rd playoff appearance in franchise history having won the American League wildcard behind a season for the ages from their 24-year-old superstar, shortstop Alex Rodriguez, and their 37-year-old franchise face, designated hitter Edgar Martinez. Despite the presence of Rodriguez, they were the 3rd oldest team in MLB that year with an average player age of 31.2 years. And when A-Rod left for the green (money) pastures (Texas) offered by owner John Hicks and the Texas Rangers, the Mariners looked to replace him on the big league roster and keep the team competitive.
Competitive, of course, doesn’t even begin to describe how things unfolded, as the Mariners went on a magical run and would win an MLB-record-tying 116 games during the 2001 season, finishing an astounding 70 games over .500 and winning the American League West by 14 games over a 102-win Oakland A’s team. But despite all of the veterans on the roster (the M’s actually got older over the off-season), the team flamed out quickly in the playoffs and went home with little to show for their historic season.
The abrupt end to Rodriguez’s stay in Seattle and the subsequent abrupt end to such a great season in 2001 definitely still hurts the Mariners and their fans, as even to this day A-Rod is booed mercilessly whenever the New York Yankees visit Safeco. But the event that happened in June the year that he left -- the best single season in Mariners’ history -- may be the one thing that set the franchise back the most.
I’m talking about the 2001 First Year Player Draft. The Mariners, of course, received draft pick compensation for losing Rodriguez to their division foe Texas, and they were awarded the 36th pick (the 6th pick in the compensation round) as well as the Rangers’ 2nd round pick (as their 1st round pick was protected), the 5th pick in the second round, No. 49 overall. Seattle had forfeited their natural 1st round pick (No. 23 overall) by re-signing veteran reliever Jeff Nelson back from the Yankees, so these two selections represented their earliest chances to try and recoup some of the talent lost with Rodriguez leaving via free agency.
To say they blew those two picks is putting it far too mildly. At No. 36 they selected Michael Garciaparra, the younger brother of Boston Red Sox superstar shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. Michael wasn’t nearly as polished a product as his All-Star brother was at the same age and wasn’t a highly thought of prospect at the time of the draft. At No. 49 (5th pick of the 2nd round) Seattle tabbed Puerto Rican high school catcher Rene Rivera. Garciaparra never reached the major leagues, and Rivera has bounced around as a defensive back-up, but the point is that neither player helped the Mariners, as they combined (Rivera only) for -0.3 WAR in MLB.
Now, virtually every season’s baseball draft has a number of, “why did ‘X’ team pass on ‘Y’ player” type selections in the higher rounds. Let us not forget that the 21-year-old in Los Angeles that is looking like a runaway favorite for AL MVP honors this year was selected 25th overall in 2009. And certainly the further away we get from a draft, the easier it is to play the, “they should have selected THAT guy!” game. But the table below shows just a few players that the Mariners passed on when they reached for Garciaparra at 36 and Rivera at 49:
The Garciaparra pick was a “bloodlines” pick -- that has been admitted by front office people from that time. But even if they hadn’t taken anyone from the above table and made a different reach based on genetics Seattle could have been better off. Third generation talent Scott Hairston was tabbed in the 3rd round by the Diamondbacks in that years’ draft, and while he hasn’t turned into a superstar or even an everyday player, he is still a very useful guy on a roster with some pop and versatility that could have instilled some useful youth into the Mariners roster back in the early and middle part of the last decade.
The Mariners lost a once-in-a-generation type player prior to the 2001 year in Alex Rodriguez, and they basically got nothing in return for him. Or really, considering Rivera’s -0.1 WAR as a member of the Mariners, they got less than nothing. With a golden opportunity to build up the organization in the form of two additional early picks, the Mariners made poor selections that likely set the franchise back a few seasons. And somewhat ironically, in the midst of that magical 2001 year where they always seemed to come out winners, that draft was a loss that the franchise may still be feeling.
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