PEORIA, Ariz.—It would be easy to write off the baseball career of Donavan Tate six years after the Georgia high school product was the third overall pick of the 2009 draft.
After agreeing to a $6.25 million bonus, the largest in Padres history, Tate has played in fewer than 200 games in a pro career marred by injuries, suspensions for substance abuse, and a pair of stints in drug rehab centers.
Tate, who passed on a football scholarship to North Carolina to sign with the Padres, is one of the biggest busts in draft history—largely because of the size of his bonus and the expectations for the athletic outfielder.
But Tate isn't ready to concede that he doesn't have a major league future. Now 24, he was recently assigned to high Class A Lake Elsinore. He says he is eager to get back on track.
"I was 18 and had just signed," Tate said of his early struggles. "I really had no idea what to expect. I'd never talked to anyone that had been through minor league baseball and had been a professional baseball player . . . Back then I was a kid getting thrown into a lot of things, a lot of mature adult decisions that I wasn't ready to partake at the time."
Tate has returned this spring from his latest injury, a torn Achilles tendon that sidelined him the entire 2014 season. It would have been easy at just about any point in Tate's career for him for Tate to move on with his life, which in 2014 included a marriage and his first child, a daughter. He never gave much thought to the idea of quitting.
"There have been a few down points in my life where I didn't necessarily know what I wanted to do as far as baseball," Tate said, "but didn't know what I wanted to do as a person and what I wanted to do in life. But whenever you go through the things that I've been through, you get to know yourself and you get to know the people around you."
Tate's injury problems began before even playing in his first official game. Signing too late to play in 2009, he missed his first instructional league because of a sports hernia. Prior to his first spring training, Tate was injured in an ATV accident and later that spring injured his shoulder when diving for a ball and sustained a concussion after getting beaned.
Tate finally saw his first game action in the Rookie-level Arizona League in 2010, but missed time that season with stomach and flu-related issues. He ranked sixth among Top 20 AZL prospects at the end of the year, with scouts and managers all lauding his off-the-charts athleticism, plus-plus speed and plus raw power, but with significant concerns about the holes in his swing.
Tate's off-the-field problems proved to be a bigger concern. During the 2011 season spent mostly at short-season Eugene, he was suspended for 25 games after a second positive test of a drug of abuse, culminating in a visit to a 30-day treatment center.
The San Diego organization supported Tate through every ordeal, despite multiple front office changes over the past
"There aren't words that can describe the help that they've given me," Tate said about the Padres. "I've just been very fortunate that I've been a part of people who actually care about me and who actually want to see me succeed in life and handle the issues off the field."
Anthony Contreras, Tate's manager in extended spring training, has worked extensively with the righthanded-hitting outfielder since the beginning of spring training. He agrees that there's plenty of room for improvement and development in Tate's game.
"He has a lot of pop in his bat," Contreras said. "He has to learn how to control that and know when to swing for the fences … he needs to get more discipline at the plate. But he shows the spurts, he shows that he can steal a base and bunt …. It's just going to take more at-bats."
Through six games at high Class A Lake Elsinore, Tate was hitting .217/.308/.217.
For now, though, Tate just wants to stay healthy and stay on the field. He knows that the game's been taken away from him before, both from injury and from his addictions. But he's not giving up.
"I don't think that at his point I've lost a step or lost anything," Tate said. "It's really just that everything's just starting to fall into place for me … This year a lot of people are going to see that and see that I can play, and I can play at a high level. I can compete with anybody, so I think this is going to be a good year.
"I have a strong faith and I think that God puts things in my life for me to go through and prosper. It's not going to come easy. I accepted that and I'm moving forward now."