Last year at this time I discussed how, after three full seasons, teams have a fairly good idea what they have in a drafted player. I also identified eleven players who got million-dollar bonus who were entering critical seasons in 2006. Of the eleven, a whopping one has done anything to
improve his stock, and that’s White Sox righthander David Aardsma, who now looks like a solid middle reliever. Of the remaining ten, only two or three have any sort of prospect stock remaining. That number disturbs me, and makes me wonder if we hold on too long to failed first-rounders, but that’s for another day. For now, here’s ten first-round picks from 2004 on the verge of the same fate:

Matt Bush, SS, Padres (No. 1 overall pick; $3.15 million bonus)

Bush is already on the verge of going down as one of the worst No. 1 overall picks in history. There are several factors in play here, and it what was a fairly strange choice. First off, it’s important to note that the baseball people in San Diego hardly had Bush as their first choice. They wanted one of the premium talents, most likely Stephen Drew. Ownership feared massive bonus demands from Drew’s agent, Scott Boras, and put the kibosh on that. That left the team scrambling to find somebody who’d sign quickly, and Bush fit that bill. It’s also important to note that Bush was a reach at one, but not a ridiculous reach. He was a consensus top 10 talent. In a recent discussion with a scouting director who did not have an early pick in the ’04 draft, I asked him about Bush, and his answer proved how highly regarded Bush was at the time: “I know we liked him,” he recalled. “But to be honest with you we didn’t put too much time into scouting him, because we knew there was no way he was getting to us.”

Bush’s career got off to a bad start, with an incident outside a Phoenix nightclub before he played his first pro game, and a miserable pro debut in 2005 in which he hit .221/.279/.276 at Low-A Fort Wayne while committing 38 errors. A broken ankle and a hamstring injury limited him to just 22 games last year, with little, if any progress. In the High-A California League this year, Bush is 5-for-36 (.139) with five more errors in ten games. His arm is still a pure 80 on the scouting scale, and he had late first-round talent as a pitcher coming out of high school, so if he doesn’t hit this year, a last-gasp move to the mound will be imminent.

Chris Nelson, SS, Rockies (No. 9; $2.15 million)

While Bush certainly earned universal acclaim in the spring of 2004, it was Nelson who was generally considered the top high school player in the draft. He moved up draft lists all spring long, and unlike Bush, he rocketed up prospect lists as well by hitting .347/.432/.510 in his pro debut for Casper in the Pioneer League. Since then, each new development has been troubling. Also a
victim of hamstring troubles, Nelson hit just .241/.304/.330 in his full-season
debut, forcing a return to the Sally League last year. He was certainly better
at .260/.313/.416, but that’s hardly a world-beater performance, and his defense went backwards with 41 errors in just 109 games at short. Like Bush, Nelson is a year behind the standard development path in the California League, and like Bush, he’s off to a tough start. Batting .208/.269/.354 in 12 games looks even worse when you take away his one really good game–a 3-for-6 effort last Friday that included two doubles and a home run, his only extra-base hits of the season. If he’s going to remain a prospect to anyone’s way of thinking, he can’t afford another performance that forces him to repeat a level once again.

Neil Walker, C, Pirates (No. 11; $1.95 million)

Walker entered the season with not-so-bad career averages of .286/.324/.428, so you might ask, does he really belong on this list? Let me make the argument why he does. The numbers aren’t bad, but they’re far from great, and more importantly, before April they were judged in the context of a Walker being a switch-hitting catcher. Then, despite his athleticism, Walker struggled behind
the plate, leading to a move to third base this spring. Judged at that position, his lack of secondary skills becomes a glaring concern–in 1046 career minor
league at-bats, Walker has just 21 home runs and 52 walks. Facing a big test
at Double-A this year, Walker is batting .256/.268/.308 with zero home runs and
just one walk in 39 at-bats.

David Purcey, LHP, Blue Jays (No. 16; $1.6 million)

On a pure scouting level, there’s a whole lot to like about Purcey. At 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds, Purcey is a pure power lefthander who can touch 95 mph. That combination of size and velocity is rare in a southpaw, and his full-season debut was the cause for more optimism, as it included 163 strikeouts in 137.1 innings. Pushed to Triple-A in 2006, Purcey’s lack of control and lack of a third pitch caught up with him. After putting up a 5.40 ERA in 12 starts for Syracuse, he was dropped to Double-A, where his ERA actually jumped a bit, up to 5.60. While the strikeout rate (126 in 140 innings) was still impressive, Purcey also walked 82 and gave up 160 hits. Back in Double-A this year, Purcey, now 25, is off to a tremendous start, striking out 18 and walking just two in his first two starts, so things may be looking up for him.

Chris Lambert, RHP, Cardinals (No. 19; $1.525 million)

Lambert was the oxymoronic raw college arm. He didn’t become a pitcher until after high school, but with a sturdy body and impressive velocity, he offered plenty of projection coming out of Boston College. That projection has yet to be fulfilled, as Lambert has made little progress developing command or his secondary pitches. A quick split by levels shows how the issues have affected Lambert as he’s moved through the system, in what is a typical progression for power pitchers who fail to develop:

Level ERA H/9 W/9 K/9
Below Double-A 2.61 8.13 3.77 8.90
Double-A and above 5.75 9.79 4.76 7.90

Back at Double-A, Lambert has a 2.87 ERA in three starts, though his peripherals show no real progress.

Trevor Plouffe, SS, Twins (No. 20; $1.5 million)

Plouffe was another two-way star in high school whose mound achievements were also draft-worthy. He’s an impressive defensive player, but he’s struggled at the plate since signing. Although he hit just .223 in his full-season debut at Low-A Beloit, there were still signs of something good, including 13 home runs, 50 walks, and just 78 strikeouts in 466 at-bats. Pushed up to the Florida State League, Plouffe continued to struggle with his batting average, hitting just .246, and his power took a dip as well (just four home runs). Young when drafted, Plouffe is still two months short of his 21st birthday, and off to a solid start at Double-A, batting .320/.370/.560 in six games. A small sample size to be sure, but Twins officials have never lost faith in Plouffe’s talent, insisting that all of the tools and the work ethic for a breakout performance are still there. Is this the year?

Greg Golson, OF, Phillies (No. 21; $1.475 million)

Without question, Golson the best raw tools in the 2004 draft. His speed, raw power, and arm are all plus-plus, but his baseball aptitude was low. Approach has been Golson’s primary issue–in 269 games, he’s amassed 320 strikeouts while drawing just 64 unintentional walks. He began 2006 with a repeat assignment to Low-A Lakewood, and despite batting just .220/.258/.333, he was promoted to the Florida State League for the last six-plus weeks of the season. All of a sudden, a few things started to click, as Golson hit .264/.324/.472 with 19 of his 42 hits for Clearwater going for extra bases. He seems to be making a little more
progress this year–still in Florida, Golson is batting .302/.303/.540 in 14
games, with nine of 19 hits going for two bags or more, and he’s a perfect six-for-six in stolen bases. At the same time, in 63 at-bats he’s drawn one walk and struck out 19 times. Something good is happening here, but it might not be

Landon Powell, C, Athletics (No. 24; $1 million

Powell is a switch-hitting catcher with power and patience, but age, injuries, and conditioning issues are all working against him. Powell put on far too much weight as a junior at South Carolina, and fell in the draft because of it, forcing him back to college for a fourth year, meaning he was 22 when drafted. Then he missed all of 2005 because of knee surgery; that left him making his full-season debut at 24, where conditioning issues struck once again. By the end of last year, Powell was pushing 300 pounds, and scouts who saw him catch in the Arizona Fall League last year said that it bordered on embarrassing. Powell spent the offseason getting into the best shape of his life, but we’ve seen this before, as the same thing happened before his final year of college. A career .257/.352/.410 hitting in 140 games, the talent is there, but as a 25-year-old in Double-A, time is running out. He’s been slow out of the gate, batting .148/.281/.259 in eight games for Midland.

Richie Robnett, OF, Athletics (No. 26; $1.325 million)

In all fairness, Oakland had a very good draft after the first round in 2004. Huston Street is enough on his own to make any draft successful, and they also found Kevin Melillo, Kurt Suzuki, and Jason Windsor in later rounds. Robnett had raw
power and center-field skills, but a slim track record and some contact
issues–issues he has yet to overcome. Sent to High-A Stockton in 2005
for his full-season debut, Robnett slugged 20 home runs in 115 games, but also
hit .243 with 151 strikeouts. He returned to the Cal League in 2006, but a broken bone limited him to half a season, in which he hit .266/.358/.434 with 73 whiffs in 267 at-bats. That’s minor progress at least, and early on at Double-A there’s been a little more, with a .256/.326/.538 line after 10 games.

Blake Dewitt, SS, Dodgers (No. 28; $1.2 million)

On scouts’ charts, Dewitt’s hit scores were as high as anyone going into the draft, but he dropped to the end of the first round because he was undersized, had no more than gap power, and didn’t have a real defensive home. He was
good-not-great in his full-season debut, batting .283/.333/.428 in the Sally
League, but he seemed to take off last year–although his average dipped to .268
in the Florida State League, but his home run total up to 18 in just 106 games. That looked like a Vero Beach-inflated total when Dewitt collapsed following a promotion to Double-A Jacksonville, batting .183/.241/.221 in 26 games with just one long ball in 104 at-bats. Dewitt began his career as a third baseman, but was moved to second last year, where his reviews of his glovework by scouts considered is work there sub-standard. Back at third and back in High-A at the Dodgers’ new California League affiliate, Dewitt is trying to get back on track, but is off to a slow start, .220/.258/.424 mark in 14 games.

The 2004 draft was a fascinating one for many reasons, and I’ll come back next week to talk about the injuries, bad picks, good picks, and the surprising large number of big bonuses handed out to late picks. In general, that type of gambit worked very well, providing some teams with players that now sit near the top of their prospect lists.

Thank you for reading

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