Donavan Tate’s last hurrah

This is the way Donavan Tate’s career as a Padre likely ends: not with a bang, but a whimper.

While there are no real specifics about what will keep Tate out of camp, Padres Vice President of Player Development & International Scouting, Randy Smith, did indicate the issue was significant enough to prioritize over his already-stunted baseball development:

“Anything else, I’m sure Donavan will talk about when he’s ready,” said Padres Vice President Randy Smith. “He’s just not gonna be here now.”

Though still considered one of the best pure athletes in the Padres organization, Tate had played a total of just 64 games in his first two years, nostly due to myriad and even freaky injuries. There were also a couple of failed drug tests and mandated suspensions.

“There’s Donavan the ball player and Donavan the person,” Smith said. “He needs to work on one before he can work on the other … Right now, he’s not ready to be here to work out the baseball part of it.”

“It’s too bad,” said manager Bud Black. “It’s a sad story.”

…and that’s the book on Donavan Tate – an athletically-gifted, two-sport high school star who has struggled to put the pieces together. While there’s the inevitable and incalculable risk of in-game injury, Tate’s inability to stay on the field isn’t limited to baseball activity. For all of his athletic gifts, talent evaluators did express concerns of volatility due to a variety of factors, and the Padres – who were undergoing a pretty extensive transitional period in baseball operations at the time of the draft – have indicated they were no different.

Donavan Tate: Super Prospect

Taking Tate with the third overall pick in the 2009 draft marked a massive sea change for the organization, with a franchise-record bonus commitment to a high-ceiling amateur athlete. The scouting reports were glowing. All the major prospect writers raved about Tate’s Gold Glove-caliber defense and cannon arm, convincing a sizable portion that he was one of the top amateur talents in that year’s draft class.

From Baseball America:

Widely regarded as the top prep position player in the class entering the spring, Tate has done little to dissuade scouts of that notion. He earned that status with premium athletic ability, graceful actions, good bloodlines and emerging baseball skills

Baseball Prospectus’ Kevin Goldstein:

The best athlete in the draft, and the guy with the highest ceiling. His raw power, speed, and arm are all rated as plus-70 by some scouts…A dynamic franchise-level power/speed center fielder, but it does require a bit of dreaming.

MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo had the Padres taking the “safer bet” in Mike Minor up until his last couple mock drafts, and when he settled on Tate during his final one, he even went so far as to commend the Padres from “going away from their old playbook” to take “perhaps the best high-upside athlete in the Draft class.”

To add a level of perspective, Baseball America ranked Tate as their 3rd-best prospect (#2 position player & #1 high school prospect), Goldstein believed the same, and ESPN’s Keith Law – decidedly more pessimistic than his contemporaries – still had him between #14-17. All three acknowledged his possible make-up concerns, however Law seemed to brush those concerns aside, writing that the “main knock on him in the industry is a perceived lack of effort, although I haven’t seen any of that myself.”  They were decidedly more pessimistic due to his hit tool and the fact remains, nearly everybody was in love with his potential upside as a monster player.

Most considered Tate’s lacking feel for hitting and asking price as potential factors to sink his draft stock, Law more than others. Interestingly enough, while many noted external rumblings of make-up concerns, most saw little evidence that it was enough to offset his talent. Baseball America threw in a Mike Cameron comp, and Randy Smith went so far as to consider that comparison to be their “worst-case scenario.”

While we don’t have access to every team’s draft board, it’s safe to say many teams viewed Donavan Tate as a talented two-way athlete with enough projection to place him at the top of his draft class. Obviously, respective risk assessment measures may have altered his ranking on a team-to-team basis, but the talent was undeniable. You might even be tempted to argue the organization’s decision to take Tate with their first pick was as much a symbolic gesture to distance itself from its desolate draft history as it was about acquiring top talent. With Tate in tow, gone were the days of sacrificing talent relative to draft slot for any combination of signability, pitchability, or hometown ties – what could best be described as the Matt Bush Special.

That said, no matter the athletic ceiling, all draft picks present an inherent risk of not fulfilling achieving their full potential. Tate is no different and, at least presently, has failed to develop into the star the Padres had hoped for.

What went wrong?

Despite a checkered past consisting of several bad off-field decisions, the news of Tate’s no-show still comes shrouded in mystery and as a bit of a surprise. 2012 marked Tate’s most prolonged period on the diamond since he was drafted and, while not terribly impressive from a numbers standpoint, it was encouraging from a developmental standpoint to see him getting the reps he so desperately lacked. As Randy Smith noted, 2012 was a big year because he was on the field for the entire season, and “that’s the key for his development as a player.”

To give you an idea of his absence on the field, in the three-plus years since Tate was drafted, his 440 PA between Fort Wayne and Lake Elsinore last season represented 61% of his career total as a professional. From a pure baseball standpoint, it’s upsetting to see this toolshed of a player miss continued development time as it only hurts his chances of turning that raw athleticism into on-field production.

I’ve spoken briefly about Tate’s lopsided displays of athleticism, having caught a glimpse of him during backfield drills in Spring Training last year and during his first week with the Lake Elsinore Storm. My father and I decided to get an early start on celebrating our nation’s independence by grabbing a Farmer John dog, Hangar 24 Columbus IPA, and taking in the Storm’s July 3rd contest against the Bakersfield Blaze. Sitting in Section 119 at The Diamond gave us a front row seat to Tate for the entire game. Make no mistake, Donavan Tate looks the part of a future big leaguer unlike many others – but he lackadaisically went through pregame drills, finishing last or avoiding them altogether, and generally just looked like he wasn’t part of a cohesive unit. His in-game routine may have presented itself more on the side of patience and maturity, especially with the relative ease with which he patrolled left field, but we both came away from that contest feeling Tate was disinterested.

Granted, what I’ve been privy to is but a single snapshot in a far more detailed portfolio, but the relative ease with which he played the game were equal parts impressive and infuriating. This isn’t exactly a unique perspective. Only a couple days after my visit to The Diamond in Lake Elsinore, Jason Parks penned the excellent “Bring Me the Head of Donavan Tate,” which explored his rise and fall as a top talent:

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.

Were his off-field issues due to a general lack of focus and disinterest in the game? Did the natural athleticism and ease with which he had previously played manifest itself in bad habits? Does a $6.25 million signing bonus buy too many distractions? It would be impossible for an outsider to answer these questions but easy to conclude that regardless of what led him to this point, time and production are not in Tate’s favor.

A lasting legacy

While Tate’s latest misstep may well close the book on his tenure with the San Diego Padres organization, it’s far too easy to declare him a bust and move on. Without discounting the fact that the lack of star production from Tate is a huge loss for a team lacking in elite talent, one might argue the improvements in process following Tate’s selection might have yielded a serious upgrade to the team’s baseball operations department – although it might be more accurate to say momentum played a factor as there was nowhere to go but up.

Since 2000, the contributions from the Padres’ first overall picks (non-supplemental) have been more miss than hit:

Year

Rnd

OvPck

Player

rWAR

2012

1

7

Max Fried

 –

2011

1

25

Joseph Ross

 –

2010

1

9

Karsten Whitson

 –

2009

1

3

Donavan Tate

 –

2008

1

23

Allan Dykstra

 –

2007

1

23

Nick Schmidt

 –

2006

1

17

Matt Antonelli

-0.3

2005

1

18

Cesar Carrillo

-0.7

2004

1

1

Matt Bush

 –

2003

1

4

Tim Stauffer

2.8

2002

1

13

Khalil Greene

8.3

2001

1

14

Jake Gautreau

 –

2000

1

9

Mark Phillips

 –

In fact, you would need to go back to 1991, when the Padres snapped up Joey Hamilton with the 8th-overall pick, before you find a Padres draft pick that provided the team a double-digit return in rWAR. Perhaps the ultimate sign of first-pick futility is that the combined total of all 42 first overall draft picks has only yielded a 32.4 rWAR return for the Padres and that, with a good 2013 season, Freddy Garcia (32.0 rWAR) can eclipse that total.

What’s more, Padres President/CEO Tom Garfinkel hasn’t been shy about the draft room disagreements and process during the 2009 draft. Jeff Moorad had just assumed control of the franchise and holdovers from the past regime had left a skeleton crew in the scouting department. While Garfinkel didn’t outright say that Tate’s selection was a mistake – and painting it as such would be misleading – he and Mayo both indicated there was a divide in the draft room. That offseason, the Padres parted with longtime General Manager, Kevin Towers, and replaced him with Jed Hoyer. In a cruel twist of fate, Bill Center noted during his most recent Padres chat that if Hoyer had come aboard sooner, the Padres may not have been saddled with a $6 million disappointment:

Comment From Chris in Leucadia:
Hate to keep bringing this up every week–but how could they have missed so badly with Donovan Tate? After the debacle with Matt Bush, this is bad on so many levels. You would have thought they would have done their due dilligence on this. And you can’t attribute it to bad luck, because their track record with #1 draft choices is beyond atrocious.

Bill Center:
I agree. I had a discussion with then Padres GM Jed Hoyer and then scouting director Jason McLeod the year after the previous regime took Tate with the third overall pick. They conducted the Red Sox draft that year and said Tate would not have been their first-round pick — and Boston was picking at the end of the draft. They loved his raw athletic ability but said they had “concerns elsewhere” regarding Tate. PS, they were not talking about drugs.

Either way, Hoyer wasted no time working with Moorad to beef up the team’s scouting department from among the league’s most understaffed to among the league’s elite. While drafting the best player available is a great first step, the hard work of expanded baseball operations staffers and a sounder evaluation process has already proven to be fruitful. The legacy guys like Jason McLeod, Jaron Madison, and Hoyer left for the organization has been in the improved focus of area scouting – getting to know the person they’re drafting, not just the player. Although all three have since left the organization, they’ve built a large enough scouting tree that several holdovers – including Billy Gasparino, the new Director of Scouting – are left to ensure draft dollars are spent more wisely.

As for Tate himself? Provided his personal issues don’t force him into retirement, despite many off-field mistakes, his pedigree and athleticism most likely ensure his career as a baseball player hasn’t flatlined. Whether or not this occurs with the Padres or any other organization is unclear, although any additional absence from baseball activity makes it increasingly unlikely. Tate may best be remembered as one of, if not the greatest draft bust in franchise history – having the largest price tag and the loftiest expectations. Blunder or not, it’s up to the San Diego Padres to learn from this error and determine whether or not the pick marks a turning point, the watershed moment in the philosophical and organizational direction for draft and development moving forward.

One hopes that, like Tate, they have nowhere to go but up.

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  • Epic post, Bry! Enjoyed it

    • As much as I hate the situation I would much rather the Padres fail with a Donavan Tate “type” versus a Nick Scmidt “type”. Of course, give me the Allan Dykstras of the world ALL DAY LONG!

      • Axion

        epic this, my bitches.

  • It’s easy to say, in hindsight, that “the Red Sox would not have made Tate their 1st round pick.” But as you point out, prior to that draft, the book on Tate was of an extremely high ceiling with a Mike Cameron comp being the worst-case scenario. Obviously, it’s not turning out the way the Padres expected or hoped. And considering their track record you can’t give them the benefit of the doubt. But I do wonder if, in regards to Tate at least, this really was just bad luck. They rolled the dice on the high ceiling athletic player and missed. But at least they rolled the dice.

    • Right. I’m not saying otherwise, because I liked (and still like) the pick. The Red Sox are likely one of the notable exceptions, as they deemed the risk too high for the price tag. That said, I’m not convinced one way or the other that this was simply bad luck – Tate’s a great athlete, but there were warning signs that might have been picked up with better research. Perhaps they still land Tate, but as a matter of process, it’s a shame to think that adequate staffing may have avoided this.

  • At least Mike Minor’s no Justin Verlander.

  • I really thought Antonelli would be the next Headley. Tate, from the second I saw a picture of him, I knew he would be another draft problem. He just looked like the kind of guy who would go blow his signing bonus on weed and hookers and never amount to anything. I know… judging books by cover and so on and so forth, call in a hunch but I just knew it. His injuries and suspension just solidified in me that this day would occur. I hope he gets his shit together and is marginally successful in whatever he pursues. But man what could have been, shame.

    • Yikes. Which part of his physical appearance gave it away?

    • Axion

      wow just wow

  • As a postscript, regarding the Padres’ problems with their first pick: I mentioned there were 42 instances/players. This is, technically, not true. There were 43, but I excluded their first pick in the 1992 draft as it didn’t come until the 2nd round (55th overall). This is a notable exception, however, as that player was Todd Helton and his career 58.4 rWAR.

  • VM David

    Great stuff, sir. I liked the pick then, and I like it now. Sometimes, you do the right thing and still end up failing. Get up, learn from it, do it better the next time.

    • VM David

      Also, I think San Diego fans have a unique perspective on first round “busts” in sports, with Ryan Leaf and Matt Bush. I hope Tate finds the help he needs, and gets things together. I don’t care about the sports aspect, in such a case; I’m just hoping he doesn’t follow their path afterward.

  • walnutfalcons

    Good post. I remember wanting the Padres to take Matzek, and being ready to rage if they took Minor. This was an important draft for morale. Fans were tired of safe, low ceiling college picks, and that’s exactly what Minor was looked at as. It annoys me when people say “Mike Trout was on the board,” because roughly twenty teams passed on Trout. I’m assuming a lot of teams don’t spend the time scouting places like New Jersey.

    I honestly think that was bad luck. There was a consensus #1 in that draft, a consensus #2 in that draft, and then the field blew wide open. The names we were hearing besides Tate and Minor (Crow, White, Green) wouldn’t have been much better picks. I never heard anyone link us to guys like Wheeler, Trout, or Miller.

    Also, you forgot Spangenberg on the 2011 1st round list. That was a pick I didn’t like. I was hoping for one of the UConn kids (Springer or Barnes)

    • Spangenberg was technically a compensation pick so I didn’t bother to include him. It wouldn’t have altered the results either way.

    • Spangenberg was a reach, but remember that was an unprotected first-rounder.

  • Tom

    You should have had a “Graphic scenes ahead” warning before talking about the Padres first round picks.

  • Neal White

    When you draft a player who just doesn’t care. It is not bad luck, it is bad research.

  • jwblue

    When are scouts going to understand the difference between an athlete and baseball player?

    Who cares if a prospect can fly like the wind, has a cannon for an arm, and plays great defense.

    What are his hitting mechanics like?

  • Sweetcheeksv

    Should have held on to Allan Dykstra at least he’s a consistent player/hitter currently at .310 . I mean he has passion for the game