Fate Lies In Critical Call
By Jason Becker
HOUSTON--Two years ago, Jordan Danks was known in scouting circles simply as “Little Danks” or “John Danks’ little brother.”
While the elder Danks was mowing down hitters, guiding Round Rock High to the Texas Class 5-A state championship game as a senior before being drafted ninth overall by the Rangers, Jordan was hitting near the bottom of the lineup, a tall, slender sophomore playing right field. Much as he had throughout the first 14 years of his life, he was the little guy, tagging along behind his big brother and playing up with John’s classmates.
Outside of standing 6-foot-4, 200 pounds and running like a deer, Jordan did not do a whole lot to set himself apart back then.
Times have certainly changed. Somewhere between that last high school game in 2003 and the first contest of 2004, a light went off in Jordan’s head. And it sparked his swing.
“My sophomore year, I was given a big opportunity, and sometimes I felt like I didn’t take full advantage of it,” Jordan said. “It began to get embarrassing. My goal in my junior year was to not strike out anymore. I started seeing the ball better and I started crushing it. My confidence level really rose after that.”
Jordan hit .530 with 11 home runs, 16 doubles and four triples in 2004, while being walked 35 times. He stole bases as he pleased and showed off a strong arm in center field. In a matter of months, he had stepped out of his big brother’s shadow and proved there was another premium prospect named Danks on the rise at Round Rock High.
“It feels a lot better now,” Jordan said. “Before, they would confuse me with him. The one time I hit a home run my sophomore year, my brother struck out. The paper assumed it was him, so they listed it as him hitting the home run and me striking out. Now that I’ve established myself as a pretty good player, they’re getting it right. It feels a lot better.”
Jordan’s whirlwind tour of 2004 continued through the summer and included eye-opening performances at showcases in Texas and Oklahoma, as well as the AFLAC All-American game, where he won the home run derby, mashing numerous blasts over the right-field wall with a wood bat at a minor league park in Aberdeen, Md. At 6-foot-5, 210 pounds with 6.6-second 60-yard-dash speed, Danks combines above-average tools with a history of good performance. He was a preseason BA High School All-American this spring and projected to be a first-round draft pick.
When Danks committed to Texas, it was viewed mostly as a formality--a tool for leverage at most, similar to the scenario after John committed to Texas. As much as the Longhorns have to offer, not many high school players turn down the seven-figure signing bonuses that come with being a first-round pick.
But in May, that’s exactly what Danks did. He called the Longhorns coaching staff and told them he was coming to school. His father, John Sr., told any scouts who called him of his son’s intentions. Suddenly, the phone stopped ringing quite as much.
“I’ve always been a UT fan,” Danks said. “I’ve followed their sports programs since I was real little. I’ve always wanted to go there. I never thought I would be in a position to be a predicted first-rounder. When that happened, it kind of came as a shock. I really had my heart set on going to UT, so that’s what I did.”
Danks’ decision to make his intentions clear to the pro clubs considering drafting him is a seldom-used courtesy. As more organizations stress frugality and gauging players’ signability is paramount, Danks’ approach came as a surprise to scouts, but one most appreciated.
“I had no idea it was coming, so yes, I guess you could say I was surprised,” an American League scouting director said. “We got the message, 'Thank you, but no thanks,' and quite honestly I appreciated it. Instead of playing a game with us, he just came out and made his intentions known.”
The news, of course, came as a pleasant surprise to the Texas coaching staff that missed out on Danks’ talented brother but savors the chance to slot Jordan into the lineup.
“Any time you get a player the quality of Jordan Danks that decides college is better for him at this time than pro ball, it’s a huge boost for your program,” Texas recruiting coordinator Tommy Harmon said. “Not too many potential first-rounders go to school in this day and time.”
Another College Try
College baseball might get another high-profile prep player this year, albeit one a notch below Danks' class. Zach Putnam plays his high school games in the shadow of the Michigan campus at Pioneer High in Ann Arbor. Like Danks, he's had a lifelong love for the local team, and he spurned offers from other major programs and committed to Michigan before his senior season.
Putnam was considered the best pitcher at USA Baseball’s Tournament of Stars in Joplin, Mo., last summer, played with Danks in the AFLAC game and found his name near Danks’ among the best high school prospects before the season. His performance has been solid this spring, but the consensus among scouts is that he would not be worth a seven-figure bonus if that's what it will take to keep him away from Michigan. Some scouts have even said they like him better as third baseman than as a righthander.
“He was just OK,” one AL crosschecker said after watching Putnam pitch. “He didn’t have the arm strength we’d like to see, he was 86 to 90 (mph). His secondary stuff was OK, the breaking ball was pretty good . . . But a guy that’s looking for that type of dollars throwing 87-90, it’s unclear if he’s going to get it. And I’m not positive, but I just think he’s been high-profile for so long, I'm assuming he's got pretty good expectations."
Putnam’s father Steve, who is also an assistant coach at Pioneer, concurs but with a caveat. “It’s absolutely fair to say with respect to how he has gone into this season,” Steve said. “Even as recently as (early May), there’s more of an openness to signing for less because of his interest in wanting to play professionally.
“His stance throughout the winter was very firm and I think that as the season has unfolded, the reality of all of this is a little bit closer to him. It’s not as much of an abstraction as it was, say in January and February.”
So while Danks says he definitely wants to continue his career in college, it remains to be seen if the Big 10 Conference will get its own version of the prized high school prospect who chose to put the draft and professional ball on the back burner.
Jason Becker is a freelance writer based in Houston.