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Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

October 5, 2010 at 9:44 AM

No. 2 draft pick in June could be key to M’s rebuilding

There’s a lot of justifiable gloom and doom about the M’s future right now (which should be distinguished from the anger and disgust about their present).

But one sometimes overlooked aspect of their rebuilding efforts is the fact they have the No. 2 pick in a June draft that the people who know about such things rate as one of the most talent-laden in recent years. I wrote about that earlier in the season, with names and quotes from draft analysts.

I think it’s instructive to look back at how quickly some recent high-end draft picks have come up and impacted their teams:

Justin Verlander, Tigers: No. 2 overall pick in June of 2004; A member of Tigers’ rotation in 2006, going 17-9 and starting Game 1 of the World Series. Now a three-time All-Star with a career 83-52 record.

Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals: No. 4 overall pick in June of 2005; was in the majors by September of 2005, and a full-time starter at third base in 2006, hitting .287 with 20 homers and 110 RBI. Now Zimmerman is an established star at third base who hit 33 homers in 2009.

Ryan Braun, Brewers: No. 5 overall pick in June of 2005; made it to the majors in late May of 2007, wound up that year hitting .324 with 34 homers and 94 RBIs in just 113 games. In three subsequent year, has hit 37, 32 and 25 homers while driving in 106, 114 and 103 runs. Braun is a .307 career hitter and three-time All-Star.

Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies: No. 7 overall pick in June of 2005; cracked the majors in 2006 and was the Rockies’ full-time shortstop in 2007, one of the key players on their World Series team with a .291 average, 24 homers and 99 RBIs. Now established as one of the best shortstops in baseball, coming off a .315/27 homer/95 RBI season despite being limited by 122 games by injury.

Evan Longoria, Rays: No. 3 overall pick in June of 2006. In the majors by 2008 and a key component in Rays’ rise to the World Series that season, hitting .272 with 27 homers and 85 RBI as a rookie. Went .281-33-113 his second year, and .294-22-104 this past year. A three-time All-Star and rising superstar.

Tim Lincecum, Giants: No. 10 overall pick in June of 2006. Was up in the majors by early May of 2007. Lincecum went 7-5 with a 4.00 ERA in 24 starts in ’07, then broke out with Cy Young seasons in 2008 and ’09. Fully established as one of the leading aces in all of baseball.

Pedro Alvarez, Pirates: No. 2 overall pick in June of 2008. Alvarez, a third baseman, broke into the Pirates lineup in mid-June of 2010 and hit .256 with 16 homers and 64 RBIs in 95 games. He finished strong, hitting .306/.355/.577 in September/October with six homers, 10 doubles and 27 RBIs. Many scouts believe he’ll be a breakout star next year in his first full season.

Buster Posey, Giants: No. 5 overall pick in June of 2008. After stumbling in a major-league callup in September of 2009 (2-for-17, a .118 average), Posey has been a key player in the Giants’ rise to the NL West title in 2010. In 108 games after joining the lineup on May 29, Posey hit .305 with 18 homers, 67 RBI and an .862 OPS, tremendous production for a rookie catcher.

Of course, having a high draft pick is no guarantee of acquiring an impact player. Just ask the Padres, who wasted the No. 1 overall pick in 2004 on Matt Bush. The Royals are still waiting for Alex Gordon, No. 2 overall in the bountiful 2005 draft, to blossom. The Mariners gave up on waiting for Jeff Clement, the No. 3 overall pick that same year. The M’s traded Clement to Pittsburgh last year, and he’s been a bust there so far as well.

But the benefit can be immense and rapid, as those examples illustrate. The jury is still out on Dustin Ackley, the No. 2 overall pick in 2009, whom the Mariners hope will be on a similarly accelerated timetable. Ackley may not start out in the major leagues next year, but I’d be very surprised if he didn’t break into the lineup at some point during the year.

The M’s drafted Ackley with the idea he could zoom through their farm system and have the same sort of rapid impact as many of the other players I mentioned. He made it to AAA in his first full season and showed enough flashes to leave that possibility open, even though his numbers weren’t spectacular. I’m sure the Mariners are hoping for Ackley to take a quantum leap forward next season, which would be a major boon to revamping their offense.

In the best-case scenario, they would add another impact bat in the upcoming draft, and the most likely player to fill that bill is third baseman Anthony Rendon of Rice. Last year, as a sophomore, he was Baseball America’s College Player of the Year, hitting .394 with 26 homers, 85 runs batted in, a .530 on-base percentage and .801 slugging percentage.

Keith Law of ESPN and Jim Callis of Baseball America both told me for the aforementioned column that if Rendon had been in this year’s draft, they would have chosen him ahead of Bryce Harper, the No. 1 overall pick by the Nationals.

“If you take Rendon in June, in 12 months he’s probably in the big leagues; no worse than a year and a half,” Law said. “Harper has to learn a new position, and it will take him longer.”

Rendon will be coming off a severe ankle fracture that required a three-hour operation, but he’s expected to make a full recovery. Of course, the Pirates will have first crack at Rendon with the No. 1 pick, but they have Alvarez at third already and could opt for one of the many quality pitchers who will be available in the draft (Gerrit Cole, Matt Purke, et al). The Pirates had the worst pitching in baseball last year, so they could well go in that direction. On the other hand, they had the second-worst offense in baseball (behind Seattle), so you just don’t know.

Even if Rendon is gone by the time the Mariners draft (or doesn’t recover well from the injury), there are other potential impact bats available, including outfielders George Springer (Connecticut) and Jackie Bradley Jr. (South Carolina), not to mention a deep stable of pitchers.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that the Mariners end up with Rendon, who turns out to be everything scouts say he is. Suddenly, they would have a young nucleus of Ackley, Justin Smoak and Rendon around which to base their rebuilding process. Or maybe it’s a starting pitcher who can break into the rotation by late 2012 and join a Felix-Michael Pineda nucleus.

Then maybe things don’t look quite as hopeless as they do right now. Hey, it’s something for a Mariner fan to cling to in the wake of 101 losses.

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