Donavan Tate was selected with the third overall pick in the 2009 amateur draft. The two-sport athlete was given a then record bonus for a high school player, signing at the deadline for a cool $6.25M. A physical specimen standing 6’3’’ and weighing 200 lbs., Tate’s raw gifts were off-the-chart, with all five tools projecting to grade out as plus at maturity, and some scouts suggested three of those five tools could end up in the well-above-average range. He was entering professional ball with a pocket full of treasure and a toolshed that could stand alongside any player in the minors.
Before Tate played his first professional game in 2009, he suffered a hernia that required surgery, knocking him out for the remainder of the short-season. While recovering from the first freak injury, Tate suffered another freak injury from an off-the-field incident, which raised eyebrows across baseball and prompted the early unfurling of a red flag, as his focus and dedication were already being questioned.
The Padres made a substantial investment in the high-ceiling talent, hoping that 2010 would be the year they could unveil Tate to the world. Unfortunately, the grand reveal was more like the big tease, as Tate once again struggled with freak injuries and couldn’t log many games for the complex league team, much less ascend to a more advanced affiliate. His off-field behavior was still a frequent mention on Page 6 of the Scouting Daily, but his backers were still vocal about the makeup concerns being more gossip than gospel. When on the field, Tate looked very raw at the plate, with a loose swing that featured a great deal of miss and—despite walking a respectable 15 times in only 25 games—Tate’s immature pitch recognition skills were apparent to observers. He was still extremely young, but his first full season of professional baseball was a major disappointment, and the lofty expectations that existed only a few months prior seemed to be dissipating into the ether.
After falling down national prospect lists, not to mention falling down the depth chart in his own organization, Tate needed a rebound campaign, a season where he could show off the loud tools that were still very easy to identify and dream on. The 2011 season was a success if you view success by on base percentage, as Tate reached at a 41% clip. The problem was that he managed to play in only 39 games during the season, suffering more injuries and setbacks, including a drug suspension for a second positive test for a drug of abuse. So in two full seasons, the $6.25M bonus had bought the Padres 64 total games of on-the-field action, a highly publicized drug suspension, and a bunch of questions about the makeup of their investment. Onlookers were still in awe of Tate’s athletic prowess and his physical gifts, but he couldn’t stay on the field long enough to make the dream a reality.
With only six games of experience in a full-season league, Tate started the 2012 season back in the Midwest League, and the results were straight-up funky. The fast-twitch toolshed might have looked good in a uniform, but he didn’t play well in a uniform, looking utterly lost at the plate; in 219 plate appearance, the now 21-year-old struggled mightily to make contact, and when he did, it was quiet and soft. Despite once owning plus-plus power projections, Tate only managed to slug .254 for Fort Wayne, a dreadful output regardless of the pitcher friendly environments. The feel for hitting just wasn’t present, regardless of the intensity raw tools, and reading the scouting reports was like reading the obituary of a friend. It brought back all the memories of what was once promising only to remind you that those days no longer exist.
Tate was promoted to the California League at the end of June, but a necessary change of scenery is a more apt description, as promotion usually brings a connotation of accomplishment with it. The sample is too small, but sources suggest Tate looks better at the plate, with a more focused approach to his game. As someone who spent a lot of time watching Tate this spring, I know what is possible when he plays up to his hype; when it clicks, Tate is an above-average center fielder with a plus arm and well above-average speed, and even though the swing has some holes, the power is legit enough to play. Fans of Midwest League baseball didn’t get to see the high ceiling player the Padres made into a teenaged millionaire, and it remains to be seen how many California League fans will be treated to the show. But the most positive development so far in 2012 has been Tate’s ability to stay on the field, already playing in a career high number of games, and it's only early July.
Receiving a $6.25M bonus out of high school creates enough expectations to last a career, and with scouts and industry insiders slobbering at the mention of your physical gifts and ultimate ceiling, it’s hard to maintain developmental perspective. Coming into professional baseball, Tate was viewed as a triple-impact player, the type that can change the game with his glove, his speed, and his bat. The defensive tools were all there to develop into an above-average center fielder, with plus-plus speed/quickness and a strong arm, and the bat flashed middle-of-the-order promise, with big raw power. The total package is a freak, a superstar that suburban families name their children after. That’s a massive amount of hype and hope to justify.
“Donavan Tate is the top prep position player in this draft, a superior athlete who projects to have plus tools in all five categories.” – Keith Law (April 2009)
“No player in the 2009 draft could match Tate in terms of athleticism. His raw power and speed rate as well above average, giving him true 30/30 potential, and possibly even more. He's a very good center fielder now with the possibility of turning into an impact defender, and his arm is yet another plus tool.” –Kevin Goldstein (February 2010)
So What Happened?
With Tate, it starts with his overall approach to the game, which hasn’t always been viewed in a positive light. Despite hearing early praise from the Padres organization about Tate’s makeup, the makeup has been his biggest hurdle. I don’t know Tate as a man, and I can’t speak to what is really going on in his head, but based on his record thus far in his professional career, it’s clear that the gifted prospect hasn’t always kept his eyes on the baseball prize. Becoming a multi-millionaire as a teenager might have some influence on the approach, but the drive to succeed comes from within, and until recently, Tate’s hunger for the process has been questioned.
Freak injuries are freak injuries, unless, of course, those injuries could have been avoided with better conditioning or a better off-the-field approach. Regardless of the factors involved, injuries have limited Tate’s time on a field. Young players need excessive skill repetition, and much like children learning to function in the world, without a continued effort to rapidly learn and develop, the skills won’t fully mature. Several sources mentioned that Tate still has all the physical qualities necessary to reach and excel in the majors—the gifts that made him the number three pick in the draft skill exist—but he’s still a newborn in the developmental process, rolling around the floor with strange fluids coming out of every opening and playing with his binky. Tate has barely eclipsed the 500-plate appearance plateau; just as a reference point, fellow 2009 draftee Brett Jackson has over 1700 plate appearances over the same time. Tate needs to play, which is why 2012 is an important season, regardless of the statistical output. At this stage of the game, standing in the box four times a night for a full season means more to Tate’s development than anything else. Without continued repetition against quality opponents, Tate might as well hang up the spikes.
The combination of suspect drive (or #want) and inconsistent and limited playing time is the reason Donavan Tate has yet to scratch the surface of his hype. If Tate wants to push himself to the next level, which means avoiding bad off-the-field situations, passing drug tests, and dedicating himself to baseball, he has the raw gifts that a player development crew would salivate to work with. Staying healthy is paramount, and if he can stay on the field, he has a good chance to carve out a major league career. His feel at the plate leaves a lot to be desired, and some doubt he has the swing to hit in the big leagues, but with only ~500 plate appearances under his belt, can we really say with any certainty that he can’t figure it out? I’d give Tate another 1500 opportunities to fail at the plate before I’d document his future in concrete. Again, it comes down to the approach Tate decides to take, but if he wants it, the Padres will benefit from the extra patience. He might not become the superstar his original status suggested, but if he can develop into a major league contributor—a late bloomer with enough bat to allow for game power, above-average speed, and defensive quality and versatility in the outfield—that alone would be worth the initial investment. It’s not the scripted outcome, but it might not have such an unpleasant ending after all.