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Gristmill: Riding the Draft

Wed, 07/12/2023 - 18:18
The man who invented baseball’s minor league system, Branch Rickey, circa 1914 to 1919 with the St. Louis Browns, for whom he both played and managed.
National Photo Company Collection / Library of Congress

So I was reading what’s got to be the best baseball book ever written, Lucas Mann’s “Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere,” when who should grace its pages but Mike Trout.

This was 2010, the year Mann spent with the Clinton (Iowa) LumberKings, then of the Midwest League. The Cedar Rapids Kernels roll into town, with Trout playing the foil to the LumberKings’ rising star, a significant character in the book, Nick Franklin — same age, similarly high selections in the amateur draft with similarly hefty signing bonuses, comparable abilities to punish a baseball, but, as it would turn out, entirely different professional trajectories.

Trout, a once-in-a-generation talent who went on to big things with the Los Angeles-area Angels, seems to have been built like a brick wall since birth. Franklin, however, didn’t appear particularly prepossessing — about 6 feet, at most 175 pounds. What he did have was an uncanny knack for whipping a bat around on a ball, and it would carry. Hand speed: Supposedly that’s how Babe Ruth hit all those home runs.

Yet it took Franklin only so far. He made it to the major leagues for more than a cup of coffee, as they say, it’s just that those expectations built up in the minors were not nearly met. In 2013 he hit .225 for the Seattle Mariners, with 12 home runs and 45 runs batted in across 102 games. He hit a very respectable .270 in 174 at-bats for the Tampa Bay Rays three years later. And that was it.

The impossibility of predicting this stuff in the most difficult of sports is top of mind as I write this Monday night, as Major League Baseball has finished day two of its three-day draft. That’s 10 rounds, with 10 more to go, which is of note because not long ago the league powers-that-be cut it exactly in half. And even 40 rounds was a reduced number; it used to simply, charmingly, go on and on.

Naturally the cognoscenti are up in arms, because you never know who will surprise you. Keeping it close to home, the most famous example of this is Mike Piazza, the former Mets catcher, now a Hall of Famer, who was drafted in the 62nd round, and then, it’s said, only because the Dodgers’ Tommy Lasorda was doing someone a personal favor. In other words, what about the late bloomer?

And now it comes to pass, at the end of this long day, near the end of the 10th round, that the Mets have chosen another catcher, one Christian Pregent out of Stetson University in Florida, a fundamentally sound defensive specialist, is the word.

I think Lucas Mann is done writing about the sport, sadly, Class A or otherwise, so let me just say to the baseball gods, may this dude rise.

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