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No. 1 picks rarely overcome bad debuts

by Jim Callis
May 20, 2005

CHICAGO--All things considered, Matt Bush may have had the worst pro debut ever for a No. 1 overall draft pick.

Three days before the 2004 draft, Bush wasn't even in the mix to be the top choice. But Padres upper management suddenly decided Florida State shortstop Stephen Drew wasn't worth the money he would demand, leaving the scouting department to scramble for an alternative.

When Bush, a local high school shortstop, called the team to say he wanted to be a Padre, San Diego not only had its man but also a nice little story it could spin on draft day.

The next few chapters weren't as pleasant. Two days before he was to appear in his first game, Bush, then 18, was arrested after an altercation at a bar. Later the local newspaper reported that on the night Bush celebrated his signing at Petco Park, some members of his party stole items from a private team suite.

As we've seen all too often, a player who performs well on the diamond usually is forgiven for any number of transgressions off of it. Bush's performance in his first pro summer only added to his problems, however. Splitting time between the Rookie-level Arizona and short-season Northwest leagues, the bottom two rungs on San Diego's minor league ladder, he hit .192 with 26 strikeouts and 17 errors in 28 games.

That's a small sample size, and player-development and scouting officials agree almost unanimously that you can't read too much into a player's first-year stats. But an examination of the debuts for other No. 1 overall selections reveals that Bush's struggles are a bad omen.

Jones: Exception To The Rule

Bush's .549 on-base plus slugging percentage wasn't the worst ever for a No. 1 pick. That distinction is held by catcher Steve Chilcott, who posted a .506 OPS in 1966 after the Mets chose him over Reggie Jackson. Jackson went on to Cooperstown while Chilcott became the lone position player taken that high whose career ended without him reaching the majors.

Another Padres shortstop, Bill Almon (1974), also fared worse than Bush, in part because San Diego rushed him from Brown to Double-A, Triple-A and the big leagues. Almon had a .516 OPS, foreshadowing his being an offensive liability throughout his 15-year major league career.

Of the 28 position players taken No. 1 who signed, just eight have posted an OPS below .700. Only one of them rebounded to reach expectations. The Braves drew ridicule for passing on Todd Van Poppel in 1990 to take Chipper Jones after he turned in a .592 OPS in Rookie ball, but Jones since has built a potential Hall of Fame career that has included one MVP award and five all-star selections.

While Jones' turnaround offers hope, the rest of the sub-.700 OPS performers do not. Padres third baseman Dave Roberts went straight to San Diego in 1972 and had a .596 OPS. He recovered to hit a stunning 21 homers for the Padres in 1973, then fell apart in 1974 and never played regularly in the big leagues again.

Mariners outfielder Al Chambers had a .689 OPS in 1979 and played just 57 games in the majors. Yet another Padre, Mike Ivie (1970), is still one of the standards by which high school catchers are judged. Not only did he put up a .693 OPS, but he also developed a mental block about throwing that undermined his career.

Angels catcher Danny Goodwin (1975), who also went first overall to the White Sox four years earlier, hit .698 and compounded his problems by hurting his throwing arm. Of all the No. 1 position players whose careers are finished, Chilcott, Chambers and Goodwin were the biggest busts ever.

Looking at the other end of the spectrum--the eight top choices who had the best OPS in their first taste of pro ball--also reveals a common theme. Ken Griffey Jr. (1.049), Jeff Burroughs (1.047), Darin Erstad (1.028), Pat Burrell (.946) and Alex Rodriguez (.896) are all success stories, while Joe Mauer (.983) and Delmon Young (.922) are two of the best young players in the game. Only Ron Blomberg (.899) proved to be a disappointment.

Bush Still Scuffling

The Padres already have acknowledged that Bush wasn't the No. 1 prospect available in the 2004 draft--just the best fit for them under the parameters they were dealing with. He was a legitimate top 10 choice, though, considered the top defensive player available.

There were questions about Bush's ultimate offensive potential. At 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, he was the smallest top pick ever, and more than one scouting director speculated before the draft that he'd have to hit toward the bottom of a big league lineup.

Bush hasn't dispelled those notions with his play this spring at low Class A Fort Wayne. He was batting .217-2-8 with a .258 on-base and .326 slugging percentage, with 18 strikeouts and seven errors. (Interestingly, almost every previous No. 1 position player had a solid first full season, as only Almon at .590 and Blomberg at .695 had an OPS below .750.)

It's too early to write Bush off. But if history holds true, the Padres, who have blown more No. 1 overall choices than any franchise, might have done it again.

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