A Series of Mistakes

How the Padres screwed up to take Bush




CHICAGO—A week before the 2004 draft, the Padres had settled on Stephen Drew as the No. 1 pick. Then general manager Kevin Towers had a fateful conversation with owner John Moores.

Moores wondered what Drew would cost, and Towers estimated a $7 million big league contract. Moores asked if Drew was worth it, and Towers said no. But that would have been a sound investment in a shortstop who would be an everyday player in the majors within two years.

That was Mistake No. 1, and the Padres' decision-making began spiraling deeper into doom. Moores and Towers decided San Diego would be better off taking a lesser player for less money and spending the savings elsewhere. That was Mistake No. 2.

Because the Padres didn't have a second-round pick, they had decided to save time and cash by not bearing down on players who figured to go well before their third-rounder. After also ruling out college pitchers Jeff Niemann and Jered Weaver as too expensive, San Diego wasn't going to have as much information as it would want on any other candidate. That was Mistake No. 3.

When local high school shortstop Matt Bush called area scout Tim McWilliam to express his desire to play for San Diego, the Padres sent a contingent to watch him in a playoff game. A better alternative would have been mobilizing scouts to get another look at players all over the country that they hadn't seriously considered yet. That was Mistake No. 4.

While Bush was a first-round talent with a big league arm and defensive skills, several clubs had concerns about his size (5-foot-10, 170 pounds) and had trouble projecting him as more than a bottom-of-the-order bat. But San Diego decided it liked Bush, not to mention the savings. That was Mistake No. 5.

The Padres hammered out a $3.15 million bonus with Bush the day before the draft and didn't spend much time vetting his makeup, which concerned several teams. That was Mistake No. 6.

Before playing in his first pro game, Bush and his friends trashed a suite at Petco Park, and he was arrested after fighting with a bouncer at an Arizona nightclub. El Cajon, Calif., police are investigating Bush's role in an alleged assault of two high school athletes in early February, prompting the Padres to dump him on the Blue Jays for a player to be named.

In between his run-ins with the law, Bush hit .219/.294/.276 and made 76 errors in 204 games. He showed a mid-90s fastball after moving to the mound in June 2007, but he blew out his elbow two months later.

Barring a reversal of fortune, the worst process in the history of making No. 1 picks will have resulted in the worst No. 1 choice ever.

Some Busts Weren't Mistakes

Only two of baseball's 44 No. 1 picks have concluded their careers without appearing in the majors: Steve Chilcott (Mets, 1966) and Brien Taylor (Yankees, 1991). Both of those teams made sound decisions at the time.

Chilcott was a power-hitting high school catcher from California, and the Mets passed on Reggie Jackson, who went No. 2 to the Athletics. Jackson has blamed racism for New York's decision, but the truth is that clubs were split on who was better and the Mets took Chilcott because of his positional value. He was hitting for power and average as an 18-year-old in high Class A in 1967 when he hurt his shoulder, the first in a series of injuries that drove him out of baseball by 1972.

Taylor had as electric an arm as scouts have seen on a high school lefthander, and he was on course when he excelled in Double-A in his second full season. Then he wrecked his shoulder in an offseason fight and never was the same pitcher again.

San Diego isn't the only team bitten by faulty decision-making on a No. 1 choice, however. Of the top picks who had major league careers, the two worst belong to Al Chambers (Mariners, 1979) and Bryan Bullington (Pirates, 2002).

In 1978, Seattle budgeted $50,000 for sixth overall pick Tito Nanni but had to spend $100,000 to land him. To avoid repeating that, Seattle signed Al Chambers for $60,000 the day before the 1979 draft. Chambers wasn't one of the draft's elite talents, and he never fulfilled Seattle's prodigious power projections, hitting .208 with two homers in 57 big league games.

The Pirates' scouting department wanted B.J. Upton, the consensus No. 1 prospect, with the top choice in 2002. But owner Kevin McClatchy insisted on a college player who could advance quickly, and GM Dave Littlefield agreed, taking Bryan Bullington. Upton raced to the big leagues by 2004, while Bullington was scuffling in Double-A. His stuff has declined since he tore his labrum, and he's with his third organization (the Jays) looking for his first big league win.