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Foreign signees mitigate Seattle’s draft woes

February 14, 2004
By Corey Brock

SEATTLE—One of Benny Looper’s favorite tales of the Mariners’ early forays into the international baseball market is about the one that got away. The name of the player isn’t important. The irony certainly is.

“We were trying to sign a kid from Australia but he eventually signed with the Yankees,” said Looper, the Mariners’ vice president of player development and scouting. “I remember we asked him how we lost out. The kid said he wanted to sign with a major league team.

“In the late 1980s and 1990s we weren’t very well-known internationally.”

Times have certainly changed for the Mariners, who have had as much success signing and developing international players as any team in baseball in the last decade. That’s been of paramount importance because the organization that once drafted Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez, has recently struggled to draft and develop its own players.

“You want to be equally aggressive internationally and nationally,” said Bob Fontaine, the organization’s new scouting director. “I don’t think it’s a case of going one direction or the other. You want to get the best players. There’s 30 teams fighting for players all over the world.”

Of the Mariners’ Top 10 Prospects, six were signed as international free agents. Two players (Jose Lopez, Felix Hernandez) were born in Venezuela, which isn’t uncommon in baseball circles. But what is unusual is where several of the Mariners other prospects have come from: the Pacific Rim.

Cha Baek and Shin-Soo Choo are from Korea, Chris Snelling and Travis Blackley from Australia. They are evidence of the club’s increased push into the Pacific Rim market. Seattle has made up for its draft failings with key international signings.

“Through the draft (recently), they have maybe been a C-minus,” said one National League executive, who requested anonymity. “I think their biggest contribution to their farm system is what they have done internationally. Quite honestly, they’ve had more success internationally than just about any other team.”

The Mariners were one of the first teams to mine the Pacific Rim for baseball talent. Seattle can thank Jim Colborn for opening the door.

When Roger Jongwaard, then the organization’s head of the minor league and scouting departments, hired Colborn in 1996 as director of Pacific Rim operations, the Mariners took a new direction in player procurement.

A former big league pitcher, Colborn spent four seasons (1990-93) as the pitching coach of the Orix Blue Wave of Japan’s Pacific League. He saw that there were talented players in Japan who not only wanted to make the jump to the major leagues, but more importantly were capable of making an impact overseas.

“Baseball is different than it was 20 years ago,” Jongewaard said. “It has truly become an international game. We have signed players from all over the world—Japan, Korea, Australia, South Africa, Italy, Russia and Holland. Our theory is we can take a good athlete and make him a good baseball player.”

As it turned out, Colborn was right. There was talent in the Pacific Rim. He was about the only one mining it. The first player Colborn signed was an 18-year-old Korean pitcher, Cha Baek, in 1998. Colborn saw a live arm with untapped potential and recommended him to the Mariners. Though Baek has struggled through arm injuries, he rebounded with a robust 2003 season and ranks eighth in the organization’s top 10.

In 1999, Colborn played a key role in Seattle’s signing of reliever Kazuhiro Sasaki, who went on to save 129 games for the Mariners over the next four seasons. Later that year, the Mariners entered a working agreement with Orix, exchanging scouting information, coaches and front-office personnel with the Kobe-based team.

The relationship with Orix proved profitable on another level in 2000. That’s when Colborn pitched yet another player to the Mariners: outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, who went on to capture the American League Rookie of the Year and the league’s MVP in 2001, his first year with Seattle.

Before leaving in 2000 to become pitching coach for the Dodgers, Colborn signed two more top prospects: Blackley and Choo, who was awarded a $1.335 million signing bonus.

Seattle spotted Blackley, a lefthander, during the 2000 World Junior Championship in Edmonton, when it was scouting Choo. Blackley went 17-3, 2.61 last season at Double-A San Antonio and ranks as the organization’s No. 3 prospect.

The Mariners’ success internationally has covered for the team’s various setbacks with drafting players. In the last four years the Mariners have forfeited five premium draft picks as compensation for signing free agents, moves that have helped them remain among baseball’s elite teams in that time.

Seattle didn’t have a pick until the fourth round in 2000 after signing free agents John Olerud, Aaron Sele and Arthur Rhodes. Instead it signed players like Blackley and Choo with money that otherwise might have been spent on a first- or second-round draft pick. The trend of losing draft picks doesn’t figure to end anytime soon. The Mariners won’t have a first- or second-round pick in the 2004 draft as they signed two free agents: closer Eddie Guardado and outfielder Raul Ibanez.

“When you sign free agents, you lose draft picks,” Looper said. “At the same time, the history of the draft shows that a lot of first-round picks never make it to the big leagues. I think what has happened to us is we have lost some picks and some of them haven’t progressed as quickly.”

Ryan Anderson is at the front of the stalled progress line. A highly touted first-rounder in 1997, the 6-foot-10, hard-throwing lefthander hasn’t thrown a single pitch since the 2000 season, thanks to three labrum surgeries. He was removed from the 40-man roster this offseason.

A year after taking Anderson, the Mariners tabbed another big lefthander, 6-foot-6 Matt Thornton, with their first-round pick. Thornton was considered a reach out of Division II Grand Valley (Mich.) State because he was primarily a basketball player in college. Thornton has also been plagued by injuries.

The Mariners’ first-round pick in 1999, catcher Ryan Christianson, also has battled injuries. He missed part of the 2002 season after breaking a bone in his left foot. In 2003, he missed almost the entire season with a shoulder injury.

Because they signed righthande Jeff Nelson as a free agent, the Mariners lost their first-round pick in 2001. Their first selection was shortstop Michael Garciaparra, who has hit just .247-2-61 in two seasons while committing 72 errors at shortstop in 175 games. Far from a consensus first-round talent, Garciaparra wasn’t even on some team’s draft boards.

Looper is fast to point out that the Mariners haven’t given up on these players. But the clock is ticking.

“Some of the guys that we’ve drafted recently have been longer-range players,” Looper said. “The odds of missing on them are higher, and we’ve missed on some of them. But the jury is still out. We still think they have a chance to play even if they haven’t shot through our system.”

Compounding the Mariners’ woes was their inability in 2002 to sign first-rounder John Mayberry Jr., and third-rounder Eddy Martinez-Esteve. Both opted to go to college instead, at Stanford and Florida State. A year ago, they forfeited their first-round pick for signing utilityman Greg Colbrunn, who is no longer in the organization.

The combination of injuries, unfulfilled potential, forfeited picks and unsigned picks surely hasn’t helped the farm system. But thanks to Seattle’s success internationally, the Mariners have enough talent in the minor leagues both for trades and to supplement the big league roster.

“If you would have asked me even in the 1980s if I could have saw this coming, I would have said no,” Looper said. “But the face of the game has changed.”

Draft, Then Follow

The Mariners have covered for their questionable track record at the top of the draft since 1998 with an influx of international talent. Six of their Top 10 Prospects, as well as big leaguers Ichiro Suzuki and former closer Kazuhiro Sasaki, were acquired outside of the draft. A player’s ranking in the team’s top 30 prospects, as listed in the Baseball America Prospect Handbook, is in parentheses.

First-Round Pick, Pos.

Year Signed

Free-Agent Signing, Pos., Country

Matt Thornton, lhp (19)

1998

Cha Baek, rhp, Korea, (8)

Ryan Christianson, c (29)

1999

Chris Snelling, of, Australia (6)

*Jeff Heaverlo, rhp

Kazuhiro Sasaki, rhp, Japan

No first-round pick

2000

Jose Lopez, ss/2b, Venezuela, (4)

Wladimir Balentien, of, Curacao (16)

Shin-Soo Choo, of, South Korea (5)

Travis Blackley, lhp, Australia (3)

Ichiro Suzuki, of, Japan

*Michael Garciaparra, ss (25)

2001

None

#John Mayberry Jr., 1b

2002

Felix Hernandez, rhp, Venezuela (1)

*Adam Jones, ss (9)

2003

None

*Supplemental first-rounder. # Did not sign.

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