For O's draftees, no straight line to stardom
Different paths to Majors for franchise's group of early picks
In baseball, you don't get anywhere on pedigree alone. That message will carry additional resonance in the coming weeks, when fans and analysts begin breaking down the winners and losers of baseball's First-Year Player Draft, which begins on Monday at 7 p.m. ET and can be followed live on MLB.com. Perhaps no team tells that story as well as the Orioles, who have struggled this season but still boast six players who were chosen in the top 10 of their respective Drafts.
And even in that exclusive company, you have lots of room for deviation. The Orioles have three homegrown draftees of impressive vintage, and they also have a trio of former prospects who have plowed through adversity to realize the potential mapped out for them a decade ago. There is no straight line to stardom, and perhaps nobody understands that better than a former first-round Draft pick.
"A lot of these guys in this room have a lot of talent, and they've been able to work really hard to get here," said catcher Matt Wieters, the fifth overall pick in 2008. "It doesn't always work out that the top guys in the Draft are able to make it, so it's pretty neat that we have that many guys."
In fairness, not all of those picks have worked out to the same degree. Baltimore's three homegrown prospects -- Nick Markakis, Wieters and Brian Matusz -- all play prominent roles on the team. The trio of players who have moved on from the Cubs organization -- Corey Patterson, Lou Montanez and Scott Moore -- are all trying to carve out and hold onto bench jobs, a perilous position in the free-agent era.
All six of them know what it's like to play with expectations attached to every appearance, though, and all of them can identify with the fresh crop of talent that will be distributed throughout the league next week. For Montanez, the third overall selection in the 2000 First-Year Player Draft, the immediate observation is easy: The draft is vastly different just 10 years later, and it brings a lot more pressure with it.
"I know that they're televising the first round nowadays, but I received the news through a phone call," said Montanez, currently Baltimore's fourth outfielder. "You could also watch on the Internet to see your name pop up, but now they're trying to make it more like the NFL, and it's kind of neat. It's always been that the MLB Draft has gone unnoticed, because it's a lot of high-school kids that nobody knows nationally."
That billing certainly doesn't fit either Matusz or Wieters, two high-profile college players who were hyped before their junior season. Matusz, in fact, was a low-round draftee out of high school who was regarded as a potential top pick during his sophomore season. Wieters was a different kind of animal altogether, and many publications anointed him a sure-fire All-Star before he played his first professional game.
Both Matusz and Wieters breezed through Baltimore's organization and are still trying to find out how good they can become by the end of their careers. Draft Day, if nothing else, was more of a graduation and a welcome mat to the next stage of their life.
"I went up to my aunt's house in Georgia," said Wieters of his Draft experience. "My parents came into town, and me and some of my buddies from college went up there and had a good time. I was fortunate enough to go early enough where the stress didn't really build. It's more exciting once you see your name actually get called, and that's really the first time you get to see yourself on ESPN or anything like that.
"Getting to the big leagues may be your dream, but there's still a lot of work to be put in after your Draft Day. You sort of know that going in, but at least getting to know what team you're going to be with for a while is a good feeling."
Markakis, perhaps the biggest surprise on Draft Day and the greatest success story of the group, told a fairly similar story. Markakis went undrafted out of high school and starred at Young Harris Junior College for one season. Markakis stood out as both a pitcher and a hitter during his lone season at college, and he said on Wednesday that most teams wanted him to work from the mound.
The Orioles weren't one of those teams, though, and they cast the die on Markakis' future by picking him seventh overall in 2003. The left-handed hitter immediately showed that was a good decision, and he ripped through the Minors before establishing himself as Baltimore's right fielder. Markakis didn't spend Draft Day in a frenzy, though, and he wasn't really concerned with where he'd wind up.
"I spent time with my family," Markakis said. "We were waiting for the call the whole day. We were just hanging out, playing it by ear and seeing what happens. We were just having a barbecue, hanging out at the house, aware of what's going on -- and just waiting."
Moore, drafted eighth overall by the Tigers in 2002, can empathize with high-school draftees who aren't sure where their future may take them. Moore said that when he was coming up, he thought about following friends like Justin Turner and Blake Davis to Cal State Fullerton. Several of his friends wound up at Fullerton, but Moore followed the lure of a lucrative signing bonus to the professional ranks.
Moore played three seasons in Detroit's organization before he was traded to the Cubs, and just when his power was starting to develop, he was traded again to the Orioles. Moore missed much of the past two seasons with a lingering thumb injury, and at 26, he's still trying to establish himself. And while Moore sometimes thinks he missed out on the college experience, he doesn't harbor any regrets.
"As far as my baseball career, no," Moore said. "But as far as life experiences, I think that obviously, you need an education and that there are extracurricular things that go along with it that you don't really experience anywhere else. ... There was definitely a lot of uncertainty, but it wasn't stress, because I felt like either option for me was good. I was either going to be drafted or I was going to be at Cal State Fullerton."
For Montanez, things were a little different. The former infielder said that he was besieged by scouts during his senior season and that he really didn't know what he wanted to do with his opportunity. Montanez considered the University of Miami pretty heavily, but his questions came down to a pure financial decision. If the Cubs offered him $1 million, said Montanez, he was going to take it without asking questions.
And then, when the day came, he was offered nearly $3 million and took it without thinking twice. Montanez can clearly remember his Draft Day, and he said his entire school celebrated with him. The news of his lofty Draft selection was announced over the school's public-address system, which ultimately earned Montanez a half-day off and the enhanced respect of some of his teachers.
"Nowadays, it seems like 18-year-olds are ready for the big leagues. Back then, I was 18 and didn't feel ready for college baseball," Montanez said.
"It was cool, especially with teachers that think you're a slacker. And then all of a sudden, they find out that you may become a millionaire pretty soon. It kind of rubs them the wrong way. I remember my first-period teacher, and I used to take a lot of naps in her class and take a lot of flak for it. She didn't appreciate it. But it was early in the morning, and I used to work out before school to prepare myself before baseball. I'd come into school dead tired for first period, and she obviously didn't understand that. But I had my plan, and it worked out."
And how would that plan change if Montanez had to do it all over again? Would Montanez, now 28 years old and the owner of just 55 hits on his big league resume, do anything differently? Probably not. Montanez said that he sometimes wishes he could've played college baseball, but not at the expense of his big league dream. And a decade later, he thinks the allure of the Major Leagues is even stronger.
"It does seem like a long time ago, but I can immediately turn back the clock and envision what they're going through," Montanez said. "But it's probably changed, like everything else. I bet now that there's more attention. The media is bigger, the Internet is bigger and now there's even MLB Network, so you get much more coverage.
"The pressure must be even greater on them now. I'm sure that in the next couple of years, we'll even see high-school games televised, because you see that with basketball and high-school football players becoming household names. Baseball has always lagged behind the other sports in that way, but I'm sure that's going to change in the next couple of years."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.