Tuesday June 3rd, 2008

Fifteen years ago, the San Diego Padres spent their first-round draft choice on Derrek Lee, a lanky first baseman from El Camino High School in Sacramento. It was a wise and prescient pick. Lee had a big-league frame (6 foot 5, 225 pounds), a big-league pedigree (his father and uncle were professional baseball players) and blue-chip athletic ability (the University of North Carolina had offered him a spot on its basketball team). By drafting Lee with the 14th overall pick, the Padres demonstrated foresight and scouting acumen. The pick was a testament to talent evaluation, the bedrock upon which every franchise is built.

Today, the Padres are among the worst teams in baseball. There are a myriad of reasons why -- their reluctance to sign high-priced free agents, their dependence on bargain-basement veterans, and their blatant disregard for offense, to name a few. But more than anything, they are here because of the draft. Since they took Lee in 1993, they have put together a string of first-round picks that make Ryan Leaf look half-decent.

Of the last 14 top picks by the Padres, only one is currently in the major leagues. Seven are out of baseball. Of those seven, four never made the majors and none made a significant impact. In the past five years, the Padres have drafted three pitchers and a shortstop they turned into a pitcher. All four of them required reconstructive arm surgery. It is not as though the Padres always pick late in the first round, either. In the past 14 years, they have picked first, second, third and fourth. Each of those bonus babies went bust.

The baseball draft, by nature, is a complete crapshoot. A team that hits on one out of every four first-round picks will be hailed by Baseball America. But a team that hits on one out of every 14 first-round picks, and does not develop much Latin American talent either (only residents of the U.S., Canada and U.S. territories are eligible for the draft), could be in for an awfully long summer. Such is the case right now in San Diego. In recent years, the Padres have actually done better in the 15th round (where they snagged starting pitcher Jake Peavy in 1999) than they have in the first.

Part of their problem is miscalculation, and part of it is misfortune. In some cases, the Padres could not take the player they really wanted because ownership was unwilling to pay the signing bonus. In other cases, the scouting department simply whiffed. In the interest of full disclosure, I am from San Diego, so I have long since committed the following names to memory. When I look at the standings each morning, which currently show the Padres with the second-worst record in the National League, I think of them.

Dustin Hermanson, pitcher: Drafted third overall out of Kent State in 1994, Hermanson spent 12 years in the major leagues, mostly as a middle relief pitcher. But he appeared in just 34 games with the Padres, amassing an earned run average of 7.34.

Ben Davis, catcher: Drafted second out of Malvern Prep (Pa.) in 1995, Davis played one full season for the Padres, in 2001. He batted .239 and was traded to Seattle two months after the season ended. He has been in the minor leagues since 2004.

Matt Halloran, shortstop: Drafted 15th out of Chancellor High School (Va.) in 1996, Halloran never advanced beyond Class A with the Padres. He did make it to Class AA with the Rangers in 2001 and played 27 games, batting .214 with one home run.

Kevin Nicholson, shortstop: Drafted 27th out of Stetson University in 1997, Nicholson grew up in the baseball hotbed of Vancouver, British Columbia. He played 37 games in the majors, all with the Padres in 2000, and batted .216 with one home run.

Sean Burroughs, third baseman: Drafted ninth out of Wilson High School (Ca.) in 1998, Burroughs was a former star of the Little League World Series. In five major-league seasons, he was a solid singles hitter, but he managed just 11 home runs.

Vince Faison, outfielder: Drafted 20th out of Toombs County High School (Ga.) in 1999, Faison never advanced beyond Class AA with the Padres. He did make it to Class AAA with the Mariners in 2004 and played 10 games, batting .267 with two home runs.

Mark Phillips, pitcher: Drafted ninth out of Hanover High School (Pa.) in 2000, Phillips was the second player from Pennsylvania taken by the Padres in the first-round in six years. He played four minor-league seasons and never advanced beyond Class A.

Jake Gautreau, infielder: Drafted 14th out of Tulane University in 2001, Gautreau made it to Class AAA as a third baseman in his first professional season. Then he switched to second base, went back to Class A, and never reached the major leagues.

Khalil Greene, shortstop: Drafted 13th out of Clemson University in 2002, Greene was the third shortstop taken by the Padres in the first round in six years. Finally, they got the right one. Greene won the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 2004, is among the best defensive infielders in baseball, and belted 27 home runs last season.

Tim Stauffer, pitcher: Drafted fourth out of the University of Richmond in 2003, Stauffer reached the majors in 2005, but he appeared in only three games for the Padres the past two seasons. He underwent shoulder surgery last month and will be out a year.

Matt Bush, shortstop: Drafted first out of Mission Bay High School (Ca.) in 2004, Bush never advanced beyond Class A. He was converted into a pitcher early last season, but he tore a ligament in his elbow and is still recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Cesar Carrillo, pitcher: Drafted 18th out of the University of Miami in 2005, Carrillo reached Class AAA in 2006, but he too injured his elbow last season and underwent Tommy John surgery. He is expected to return sometime this summer.

Matt Antonelli, infielder: Drafted 17th out of Wake Forest in 2006, Antonelli advanced quickly through the Padres' system and nearly made the major-league team this spring. Instead, he was sent to Class AAA and batted .180 through April and May.

Nick Schmidt, pitcher: Drafted 23rd out of Arkansas in 2007, Schmidt made one start in Class A last year. Then he was shut down because of elbow soreness and underwent Tommy John surgery after the season. He is expected to miss all of this year.

It is remarkable, given some of those wasted picks and wasted signing bonuses, that the Padres won the National League West in 2005, repeated in 2006, and came within one strike of winning it again in 2007. They have only two home-grown regulars -- Greene and Peavy -- but general manager Kevin Towers has been savvy enough with his trades to keep the team competitive. The Padres succeeded in spite of a minor-league system that was rated 29th out of 30 teams by Baseball America in '06 and again in '07.

But there is hope. This year, Baseball America rated the Padres' system 12th, in part because the organization has hoarded compensatory draft choices for lost free agents. At the First-Year Player Draft on Thursday, the Padres will have five of the first 110 picks. They would do well to avoid shortstops from Vancouver, catchers from prep schools, and college pitchers who have shown even the slightest hint of elbow soreness.

The Padres' first pick is at No. 23. They are due.

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