Can Donovan Tate Outrun The Bust Label?
BY JOHN CONNIFF
Few teams in any sport have had the first-round draft futility of the Padres, particularly in recent years.
Between 1999 and 2009, the Padres made 12 first-round selections (thanks to a trio of first-rounders in 1999). Of that dozen, only 2002 pick Khalil Greene and '03 choice Tim Stauffer had significant major league careers.
Eight never played a day in the big leagues, and Matt Bush, the No. 1 overall selection in 2004, is now an inmate in the Florida correctional system after his third drunken driving offense nearly killed a motorcyclist. Bush, who failed as a shortstop and as a pitcher after signing for $3.15 million ranks among the greatest busts in any sport's draft history—especially when you consider that Justin Verlander went No. 2 overall that year.
But 2009 was supposed to be different.
Jeff Moorad, a former agent, purchased a minority stake in the Padres from John Moores and as CEO stated that he wanted to build up the organization's farm system. Moorad sought to follow the same model implemented when he was a part-owner of the Diamondbacks, putting more resources into the draft and encouraging San Diego to focus on high-risk/high-reward players.
So with the third overall selection in 2009, the Padres took Donavan Tate, a multi-sport high school star from suburban Atlanta. Tate had cartoon statistics in high school, hitting .525 with a .781 on-base percentage. But more than just a good baseball player; he was a truly exceptional athlete.
The son of former University of Georgia and NFL running back Lars Tate, Donavan was 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds. He was committed to play baseball and football for North Carolina, and scouts considered him a potential Gold Glove center fielder with speed and power.
Many area scouts in Georgia thought Tate compared favorably with Dexter Fowler, a 2004 Atlanta product who in 2009 was breaking through as a rookie with the Rockies.
That potential intrigued Padres general manager Kevin Towers and scouting director Bill Gayton, the same executives who selected Bush in 2004. Since then, the Padres had added Sandy Alderson as team president (in April 2005), and he brought in Grady Fuson, with whom he worked in Oakland, as director of scouting and player development.
Fuson's first draft produced the Padres' best current player, third baseman Chase Headley, in the second round, as well as big leaguers such as lefthander Cesar Ramos (supplemental first round), catcher Nick Hundley (second), righthander Josh Geer (third) and outfielders Mike Baxter (fourth) and Will Venable (seventh).
However, the first round remained barren ground for the Padres under Fuson. Cesar Carrillo (2005), Matt Antonelli ('06), Nick Schmidt ('07) and Allan Dykstra ('08) either have had fringe big league careers or failed to reach the big leagues at all.
Tate's selection in 2009 represented a change in philosophy. He was the club's first prep first-rounder since Bush. Moorad authorized a team-record signing bonus of $6.25 million, doubling their previous high of $3.15 million given to Bush. Tate's bonus was a record for a high school player (since broken).
Tate was anointed the team's top prospect, but as with Bush, his troubles began immediately. He signed too late to play in 2009 and missed instructional league with a sports-hernia injury. In December, he broke his jaw in an ATV accident. His first season didn't go any better with two injuries in extended spring training—a shoulder injury and a beaning that left him with concussion-like symptoms—that limited him to 25 games in the Rookie-level Arizona League and .222/.336/.344 average in 90 at-bats.
At the time, farm director Randy Smith said, "I think the biggest thing he needs to do is get healthy and stay on the field.
"That way everyone is going to be able to see the athleticism and competitiveness that we saw when we drafted him."
By 2011, Alderson, Fuson, Towers and Gayton all were gone, and Jed Hoyer had taken over as San Diego's general manager, bringing Jason McLeod with him from the Red Sox in Fuson's former role as head of scouting and player development. And the season brought a bigger setback for Tate, who was off to a 6-for-19 start at low Class A Fort Wayne when he incurred a 50-game drug suspension for what was widely believed to be synthetic cannabis, known as "spice."
"It was his second infraction and there had been extensive conversations with him about what is illegal," McLeod said at the time. "Jed and I were both here when the first violation happened after the injury in Fort Wayne, so we made sure that he was aware that this was not something he was supposed to be doing."
Tate's suspension was cut to 25 games for attending a substance-abuse treatment after his first incident. He rebounded to hit .283/.406/.409 with 17 steals for short-season Eugene, but his lack of power was becoming a concern, as was his makeup.
He then tanked in his first try at full-season ball, hitting just .207/.294/.254 with Fort Wayne in 52 games in 2012. He never got his bat going, due in part to nagging injuries (including a hamstring strain) and being shuffled in five different lineup spots. His only bright spot was hitting his first home run since playing in the AZL in 2010.
The organization thought a change of scenery might benefit Tate, so they promoted him to high Class A Lake Elsinore in late June, but he hit .247/.391/.303 with just eight extra-base hits. Despite plus speed, Tate succeeded in just 21 of 35 stolen-base tries, and scouts questioned his swing path and aptitude.
More Looks, Better Picks?
The Padres first-round troubles haven't yet abated, though the future appears brighter than it did. San Diego failed to sign 2010 top pick Karsten Whitson, who chose Florida instead of signing as the ninth overall pick. And 2011 picks Cory Spangenberg and Joe Ross both had modest 2012 seasons. Both rank among the organization's top 15 prospects, as does 2012 first-rounder Max Fried, a prep lefthander.
In an effort to improve their draft track record, the Padres under current GM Josh Byrnes have a new set of top evaluators, including assistant GM Chad MacDonald and scouting director Billy Gasparino. They have added scouts to get more looks at players and to delve deeper into the makeup of players, a shortcoming that sidelined Bush and now may do the same to Tate.
As for Tate, he is still only 22, but he has not endeared himself to the organization with either his performance or his off-field behavior. And the clock is ticking.
"The first thing you talk about with Donavan is that he is a good athlete," Smith said, "but he is going to have to continue to make up at-bats. He is at a point where there are guys behind him pushing, so he's going to have to perform."
John Conniff is a contributor to FoxSports San Diego