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Tuesday, June 6, 2006 - Page updated at 10:08 AM

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M's off target in recent drafts

Seattle Times staff reporter

As another Mariners season appears on the verge of slipping away, fans inevitably search for silver linings.

Maybe, some wonder hopefully, this will at least give us all a chance to see the kids play.

To which those who judge these things for a living respond — what kids?

In what serves as simply another dark cloud hovering over a franchise that has struggled unfathomably since the heights of the early years of this decade, the Mariners don't appear to have much immediate help waiting in their farm system.

"There is some depth, but I really don't see a lot of high-end-type guys," said Deric McKamey, author of the 2006 Minor League Baseball Analyst. "As far as having some standout players who are going to be stud major-league players, I just don't see it. There just seems like a lot of backup infielder types, middle relievers, that sort of thing."

Baseball America, regarded as the most authoritative source on such matters, concurs, having slotted the Mariners 27th out of the 30 major-league teams in its Organization Talent Rankings earlier this year.

And the main blame, most agree, rests with some unusually unproductive drafts in the past decade, something the team will try to counter today when the 2006 Major League Baseball draft begins.

Just how barren have recent drafts been?

Well, consider that since the Mariners selected Gil Meche in the first round in 1996, they have not drafted a single player in the first round who is currently on their roster.

They have drafted only one other player in the first round — pitcher Matt Thornton, picked in 1998 and now with the White Sox — who is on a big-league roster anywhere.

And just four players the Mariners have selected in any round since 2000 have appeared in the big leagues, none of whom have made a significant impact — catcher Rene Rivera, reliever Bobby Livingston and outfielders Jamal Strong and Jaime Bubela.

Obviously, there still is hope for first-round picks taken more recently — such as Adam Jones, a supplemental first-rounder (No. 37 overall) in 2003 and catcher Jeff Clement in 2005 — and some lower-round selections from more recent drafts could still pay off, as well.

But when scouts look for reasons the Mariners are again holding up the bottom of the American League West, they point to the draft.

"The bottom line is that they have drafted pretty poorly," said Jim Callis, a writer for Baseball America who specializes in coverage of the draft and the minor leagues.

As Callis points out, it hasn't been simply a matter of taking the wrong guys — though that has been a huge part of the problem, too.

But from 2000 to 2004, the Mariners rarely gave themselves a chance to have a good draft, forfeiting their first-round pick all but one time as compensation for signing a veteran free agent — John Olerud (2000), Jeff Nelson (2001), Greg Colbrunn (2003) and Eddie Guardado (2004).

In 2000 they also lost picks in the second and third rounds, and in 2004, they lost their pick in the second round — all for signing veteran free agents. Last season, they lost their second- and third-round picks for signing Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson.

It's a strategy that can be defended as having helped result in the good times from 2000 to 2003. Some might argue, though, that it also makes more baffling the team's reluctance to make deals at the trade deadline since it was already taking a mortgage-the-future approach when it came to the draft.

The strategy can be defended somewhat because veteran free agents — who have a track record — have a better chance of panning out than draft picks. The MLB draft has proven to be even more of a crapshoot than those of the NFL and NBA.

Rany Jazayerli, a writer for Baseball Prospectus who has done extensive research on the history of the draft, says that based on his analysis, the odds of taking a player in the first round "who contributes in the majors for a few years is really no more than 50-50." The lone exceptions are players taken with the very first pick, who have a pretty good record of coming through.

But Mariners general manager Bill Bavasi says the draft has to be the foundation of any major-league team, calling high draft picks "hugely important."

"I've said before that no matter what free agent you sign at the major-league level, they will never have the true impact they could have until you have a minor-league system supplying the club with a core of players," Bavasi said. "When you sign a [Jarrod] Washburn and you're throwing him on top of the heap you have, all of a sudden his impact is felt at a greater level as opposed to signing guys like that and catching up with the farm system. ... The free-agent market will always be important to major-league clubs — we're not swearing off that — but scouting and player development will always be the lifeblood."

Compounding the problem is that when the Mariners have had high picks in the past decade, they've often swung and missed.

As Callis pointed out, "The one time they kept their pick [in the period from 2000 to 2004], they spent it on [first baseman] John Mayberry [in 2002], who I think most other teams had a pretty good idea wasn't going to sign."

That's exactly what happened, as Mayberry instead decided to attend Stanford and was later drafted and signed by the Rangers in 2005.

The upshot is that only one of the players the Mariners took with their first pick from 1997 to 2002 — drafts that in a best-case scenario would now be yielding some top prospects to the big club — is still in their system. That player, infielder Michael Garciaparra (a supplemental first-rounder in 2001), is at Class AAA Tacoma and isn't considered by most to be a big-time prospect.

Pitcher Ryan Anderson (1997) saw his career ruined by injuries. Thornton spent a middling two years with the Mariners before being traded to the White Sox. Catcher Ryan Christianson (1999) never panned out, was released, and is now in the Devil Rays' system. Pitcher Sam Hays (fourth round, 2000) battled injuries, never made the big club, and recently retired.

Mariners officials, as might be expected, say they don't think it's been as bad as portrayed.

"I think they drafted OK, but they didn't get lucky," said Bavasi, who arrived in Seattle in 2004. "If they just get lucky with one guy — Ryan Anderson, if they are lucky with him — or if they sign Mayberry, it looks a lot different."

Few blame the Mariners for Anderson, however. A left-hander with a blazing fastball who drew comparisons to Randy Johnson, Seattle got him with the 19th pick in 1997 after many teams passed on him for what Bavasi said were concerns about his "makeup."

The Mariners took a chance, and it looked good for a while as Anderson blazed through the system until suffering arm injuries that derailed his career.

But many of the other picks were greeted at the time from the outside with lukewarm enthusiasm at best and outright head-scratching at worst.

Callis, in fact, said, "There probably has not been a more baffling first-round pick in recent memory" than Garciaparra, the younger brother of Nomar Garciaparra whom some teams didn't even have on their draft boards after he suffered a knee injury as a high-school senior.

"They've given up a lot of picks and had a lot of busts," Callis said.

Where the Mariners get credit is for signing free agents from Japan (Ichiro, Kenji Johjima) and from other countries — notably, Felix Hernandez (Venezuela), Jose Lopez (Venezuela), Yuniesky Betancourt (Cuba) and top prospect Asdrubal Cabrera (Venezuela).

"They've masked a lot of [their draft problems] by bringing in guys like Johjima and Ichiro," McKamey said. "That's sort of like drafting in the first round."

Still, by drafting well, the Mariners could have added greatly to what Bavasi calls their "inventory" of players, which would have greatly increased their options for trades and other moves the past few seasons.

Also heartening is that most observers say the Mariners have drafted better the past three years, coinciding with the arrival of Bob Fontaine as vice president for scouting in December 2003. Seattle's past three top draft picks — shortstop-turned-outfielder Jones (2003), shortstop Matt Tuiasosopo (2004) and catcher Clement (2005) are all players most scouts expect will make a significant impact at the major-league level.

Asked to assess Seattle's past two classes, Fontaine said, "I'll tell you in three and four years, respectively. Not having a lot of high picks, we were real happy to get Tui and Clement, and I think that kind of set the tone. We think we have gotten some kids farther down the line that have a chance to be pretty good."

Until then, the cupboard carries a vacancy sign.

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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