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MLB Draft 2018: Reviewing the Mariners’ past drafts - 2014

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What could have been the Mariners’ new guard instead fell flat on their collective face

Boston Red Sox v Seattle Mariners
Alex Jackson, boy wunderkind-turned-struggling minor leaguer
Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The 2014 MLB Draft was supposed to be a watershed moment for the M’s. As compensation for signing Robinson Canó, Jack Zduriencik sacrificed the team’s second-round pick, but he kept the No. 6 pick in his arsenal. If things had broken right, the stars from this draft would be forming the young core of the current squad. Instead...well, just keep reading.

The Strategy:

I actually remember this draft vividly, as I was serving as a front office intern for the Mariners during the summer of 2014. From the moment I started helping with MLB Draft preparation (mostly by putting together videos and such), it became clear that Jack Z and scouting director Tom McNamara were entranced by a young Canadian outfielder named Gareth Morgan.

The Mariners’ braintrust knew it would take a serious signing bonus to get Morgan to forego his commitment to NC State, and the decision was made to do what it takes. The MLB Draft is designed to reduce competition and depress player salaries, but rather than requiring players to sign for specific values depending on where they’re picked (as is done in both the NFL and the NBA), each team is instead given a maximum amount of money to sign all of its picks in the top 10 rounds. This pool varies depending on where your picks are, so even though the M’s didn’t have a second-round pick, the competitive-balance pick they nabbed at #74 helped make up for that, and the #6 pick has a huge amount attached to it.

So the goal was to take a top player at #6, Morgan at #74, and find ways to cut corners in rounds 3-10.

The Draft:

At #6, the Mariners took Alex Jackson, a high school catcher from southern California. A power hitter with a bazooka of an arm, Jackson seemed destined for greatness, and that’s not just my Mariner bias coming through.

Jackson was the Mariners’ right fielder of the future, with raw power galore, and at #74, the Mariners’ center fielder of the future was taken in Morgan. When you hear the phrase “a guy that scouts can dream on,” Morgan comes to mind. Not many 17-year-olds stand 6’4” and 220 lbs., and even fewer have the raw power that the Canadian righty had (sensing a pattern??).

At first, Morgan’s pick generated praise from the commentariat, though that was in large part because he was such an unknown. On days 2 and 3 of the draft, however, it became clear the consequences of taking both Jackson and Morgan. The slot value of #6 was a hair under $3.6 million dollars, and Jackson, a Scott Boras client, signed for $4.2 million. The slot value for #74 was $760,000, and Morgan signed for a whopping $2 million, which would value him at roughly the #19 overall selection.

gareth
The photo quality here says a lot about what everyone knew about Gareth Morgan at the time of the draft

In order to fit those guys in the bonus pool and avoid forfeiting future draft choices, the M’s proceeded to take nothing but college players, especially college seniors who had limited-to-no leverage to negotiate more money, in the top 10 rounds. The trend seemed to be soft-tossing college seniors (including Ryan Yarbrough from Old Dominion), with a couple of notable exceptions: third-round selection Austin Cousino, a center fielder from Kentucky, and a mysterious hard-throwing Division II pitcher named Dan Altavilla.

The Results:

Let’s start with the good. Though Ryan Yarbrough was potentially seen as a LOOGY back in 2014, and though he was traded to Tampa Bay as part of the Drew Smyly deal, he did make the major leagues and has posted a 3.95 FIP in 40.2 IP thus far. And that mysterious Pride of Mercyhurst University, Dan Altavilla? He climbed the minor league ladder quickly and has contributed as a solid reliever for the M’s. Plus, look at Diesel Dan’s smile!

He is, undoubtedly, the Hero of the Draft.

Okay, now that we’ve gotten the good out of the way, on to the bad. And boy, is it bad.

Remember Jackson, that sweet-swinging catcher-turned-outfielder? He posted a 30.2% K rate in 2015, his first full season in the M’s organization. The next year, playing in A-ball, he “improved” to 27.0% while slashing .243/.332/.408. His raw power remained just that, and he was traded away for Rob Whalen and Max Povse after that 2016 season. In case you were looking for an update, through 31 games this season in AA, Jackson is hitting .189/.293/.274 with 33 strikeouts compared to just 20 hits.

Remember Morgan, that toolsy Canadian prepster? He’s still around, and still just 22 years old, but his strikeout rate makes Jackson look more discerning than the New York Times’ top art critic. Morgan struck out 40% of the time last year in a full year of A ball. That’s actually an improvement from his first half-season, when he failed to make contact 73 times in only 178 plate appearances. Could something click for him? I mean, it’s possible, but this is looking like another bust.

Even beyond the first two picks, this draft stunk to high heaven. (Sorry, Dan and Ryan.) Austin Cousino always had a lingering question about his bat, and he never rose above a cup of coffee in high-A ball in the M’s org. He hasn’t played baseball since 2016. Nobody else in the draft seems likely to make the bigs.

Putting all your eggs in two baskets isn’t necessarily a bad strategy, but it means that you better really hit with those two baskets. Jackson may have been highly touted out of high school, and Morgan certainly impressed in batting practice — I remember watching him when he visited Safeco in a clandestine pre-draft workout — but neither has been able to translate that power to actual games.

And this draft gets even more painful when you realize who was still on the board when the Mariners grabbed Jackson:

  • Aaron Nola, currently blowing away batters for the Phillies, was taken immediately after Jackson.
  • Michael Conforto, a Redmond native who is (not actually) best known for playing against both myself and fellow LL’er John Trupin in high school, was the 10th pick.
  • Trea Turner, a favorite of at least one of my coworkers with the M’s, is currently excelling with the Nationals and was taken at #13 overall.
  • Sean Newcomb, a big lefty traded from the Angels to the Braves as the jewel of the Andrelton Simmons deal, has been sensational this year in Atlanta with a 2.39 ERA in nine starts. He was very seriously considered at #6, but ultimately fell to #15.

Sure, Altavilla is a contributor for the current Mariners. But one big-league player out of an entire draft is truly miserable. Given the expectations and chance to take a star in the top 10, this draft gets a big, fat F.