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The Seattle Mariners, Troy Tulowitzki and a reminder of how close it really was


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There’s an important life lesson to be learned in playing pool drunk. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say "drunk." Genuine inebriation never helps any action involving hand-eye coordination. But those who have played billiards after a couple good beers—maybe three—know to what I refer.

Playing pool, of course, normally comes with some kind of alcoholic beverage. And once you’ve been at it for a little bit, you find that the more you drink (to a point), the easier things become. You move more quickly. You make fast guesswork of the angles involved, you line up behind the ball and you take your shot. Before you know it, you’re on a run, going from ball to ball to ball with less and less time in-between. You're confident, you trust what you're doing, and you just do it.

Playing stone-cold sober is the opposite. You spend way more time trying to figure which way the balls are going to bounce. You’re always adding more chalk. You’re walking around to the other side of the table like you know what the hell you’re doing. You’re finally over the cue ball, you look out at the ball you’re trying to hit, back at the cue ball, up again, back at the cue ball—"wait what if I hold the stick this way?" And now you’re walking around the damn table again.

When I think about the process that went into the Mariners passing on drafting Long Beach State shortstop Troy Tulowitzki in 2005, going instead with USC catcher Jeff Clement, my mind instantly comes back to drunk pool.

For those who know the tale, most of you I’d assume, you understand the similarities. And I apologize to you now for bringing this up again, now on the eve of this year’s draft. But from the times I’ve shared it on Twitter, I get the sense that some of you don’t know how close the M’s were to drafting the best shortstop in baseball.

On the day of the draft the Seattle Times ran the headline "Expect the M’s to make the safe pick in draft" with a Bob Condotta piece describing why the Mariners would likely take Tulowitzki:

...almost all draft projections have the Mariners ready to take Troy Tulowitzki, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound shortstop from Long Beach State. That's assuming the top two picks go according to plan — high-school shortstop Justin Upton to Arizona at No. 1 and Nebraska third baseman Alex Gordon to Kansas City at No. 2. […]

But the Mariners know they can't botch this pick, which is why most analysts figure they will take Tulowitzki.

"Tulowitzki is regarded as a safe pick who almost certainly will return the investment a team makes in him," wrote Baseball America magazine.

That would be good news for the Mariners, who haven't had a first-rounder reach the majors since Matt Thornton in 1998, though there is obviously still hope for players such as Adam Jones, taken in the first round in 2003. (As well as Matt Tuiasosopo, the team's first pick a year ago, though he was selected in the third round).

That Jones and Tuiasosopo are each shortstops has led to the question of whether the Mariners really need to take another one. But Tuiasosopo may project elsewhere long-term and Tulowitzki may simply be too good of a player to ignore.

Yes, Adam Jones was a shortstop when he came into the Mariners’ system. And you want to gripe about how the M’s can’t use converted infielders as outfielders.

But anyway, we go on to the aforementioned Baseball America for Jim Callis’ last mock draft that year, also published the day of the draft, a Tuesday.

3. Mariners: Jeff Clement, c, U. of Southern California
The Mariners were expected to take Tulowitzki as recently as Friday, but they're looking for a catcher and a power bat. Clement fits the bill on both counts, and as a bonus he's lefthanded. Seattle would gladly snap up Upton or Gordon if one of them falls to No. 3. Rumors persist that the Mariners are considering Stanford first baseman John Mayberry Jr., their unsigned 2002 first-rounder, but he would be a huge reach.

So the Mariners kind of changed their mind over the weekend, right? Not so bad? Well, no. An extensive profile from Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci tells the whole story.

Tulowitzki awoke on the morning of June 7, 2005, convinced he was headed to Seattle. The Mariners held the third selection. "A couple of minutes before the draft," he says, "they'd called me and said, 'You're our guy.' "

Then, the first two picks went as expected, Justin Upton to the Diamondbacks and Alex Gordon to the Royals.

Seattle, at No. 3, presented the first suspense in the draft. Scouts talk to one another enough to get a good idea of how the opening round is likely to play out. The Nationals were known to be taking Zimmerman, a strong hitter and extraordinary fielder who, like Gordon, had the added value of being a regional attraction (he grew up in Virginia Beach and played college ball at Virginia) with terrific intangibles. Seattle, though, had not shown its hand.

At home in Sunnyvale, Calif., Tulowitzki was hosting a draft party to which he had invited family, friends, coaches, "anybody in my life who had helped me in the game of baseball," he says. "Anybody who took me to any games or threw me any balls."

His phone rang. It was the Mariners, saying that they needed a catcher -- during the '05 season they would use seven -- and were choosing Jeff Clement. A 6' 1", 210-pound lefthanded hitter, Clement was second alltime in home runs for USC (46), behind McGwire. Baseball America rated him the 12th-most-talented player in the draft.

Only five months later Seattle signed Japanese catcher Kenji Johjima to a three-year, $16.5 million contract.

And that’s how it went. Jeff Clement is now out of baseball, having played just 75 games for at the major league level the Mariners. Meanwhile, Tulo is Tulo.

Now, it’s important to note that there’s no guarantee that Tulo is Tulo in a Mariners uniform. As the Mariners themselves have shown in recent years, developing über-talented college players isn’t the easiest thing in the world.

And then second, that—of course—was a different front office. Though I will say, if my uneducated self has any advice for this front office heading into tomorrow’s draft, it's that they take to this one as if they were taking to a billiards table after a couple good IPAs. Act with confidence, trust that you know what you're doing, even if you don't (reminder: with the baseball draft, almost no one does—this is such a crapshoot).

They need to trust themselves going in, and the work they've done over the past year. Regardless of what sport you're watching, strong executives always say they "trust the board." When franchises begin to second-guess themselves, and start drafting for need over talent, things go awry.

Under Jack Zduriencik, the Mariners have drafted quite well. They frequently get credit for late-round picks, but even in the first round, they've landed players like Mike Zunino, Taijuan Walker and Nick Franklin. Still, I agree with something Jason Churchill wrote recently, that the Mariners need to crush it with this pick, by finding a high-upside player who can become a star.

The Mariners targeted a kid like that once, actually were as fond of him as about any team. That player was Mike Trout, whose dad thought the M's would take at number two, in place of Dustin Ackley.  I've heard other reporters say that the Mariners loved him, and likely would've taken him had they drafted a little lower; up at number two, they were almost bound to Ackley, the consensus player there after tearing up the ACC at North Carolina. Trout, of course, was a high schooler, playing in the more talent-devoid Northeast.

Well, the Mariners are picking a little lower, and their hands should not be tied.

Who knows—as we sit here tonight, the Mariners may have already targeted a player with the potential to shape the future of this franchise. If so, let's hope they don't change their minds this time.