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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

M’s hope to strike gold picking third

The Seattle Mariners hit pay dirt in 1987 when they selected Cincinnati high school standout Ken Griffey Jr. with the No. 1 pick overall.
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Corey Brock Tacoma News Tribune

In 1987, then Seattle Mariners director of scouting Roger Jongewaard knew which player he wanted to take with the No. 1 overall pick in baseball’s draft. So did former owner George Argyros, the man who would write a fat bonus check for that top pick.

The problem was Jongewaard and Argyros wanted different players. Jongewaard was enamored with a lean, left-handed hitting high school player from Cincinnati who hit tree-clearing home runs with seemingly little effort. Argyros was insistent on taking a college pitcher from Cal State Fullerton, someone who could get to Seattle quickly and help a pitching-starved staff.

After much wrangling, Jongewaard got his way.

Seattle picked outfielder Ken Griffey Jr., who built most of his Hall of Fame credentials during a 10-year career with the Mariners.

As for that college pitcher? Mike Harley was drafted fourth by the Chicago Cubs. Harley went 36-36 during an undistinguished eight-year career.

“When you look back at it now … it really should have been an easy decision,” Jongewaard said last week from his home in Fallbrook, Calif. “But with the draft, it’s never easy.”

The Mariners know that will be the case again Tuesday when they pick third overall – their highest draft position since 1995 – in baseball’s annual draft.

Anxiety? You can count on it, mostly because Seattle is drafting behind two teams – Arizona and Kansas City – who haven’t pegged one particular player.

“I don’t think we feel any extra pressure,” said Bob Fontaine, Seattle’s vice president of scouting. “There is pressure on a club that takes a player third in the first round. You expect to be right. You expect to get a good player.”

The Mariners are convinced they’ll get that player at No. 3, regardless of what the Diamondbacks (No. 1) or the Royals (No. 2) do.

Seattle is said to be looking hard at University of Nebraska third baseman Alex Gordon, Great Bridge High (Chesapeake, Va.) shortstop Justin Upton, Long Beach State shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and Southern California catcher Jeff Clement.

Picking the right player this year is of utmost importance for the Mariners, who haven’t drafted and signed a first-round draft pick since 1999 when they selected California high school catcher Ryan Christianson.

The Mariners have lost a handful of draft picks recently as compensation for free-agent signings, including first-round picks in 2000, 2001, 2003 and 2004. In 2002, the Mariners picked a high school first baseman, John Mayberry Jr., with the 28th overall pick, but he opted to attend Stanford. This year, the Mariners lost their second-, and third-round picks for the offseason signings of free agents Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson.

In other words, the Mariners don’t want to miss at No. 3.

“It’s pretty apparent that everybody is looking at the same players, so many things have to happen before a club decides on a player,” Fontaine said.

Like reaching a consensus on who to pick. That’s not easy when the manager gets involved.

In 1993, Jongewaard – who retired last season after working 19 years with the Mariners – pegged a Miami high school shortstop, Alex Rodriguez, as his target pick. Then-Seattle manager Lou Piniella had other ideas. Piniella liked the idea of picking Wichita State relief pitcher Darren Dreifort first.

“We needed bullpen help and Dreifort was thought to be close to being big-league material,” Jongewaard said. “You can’t blame Lou. All managers want the same thing (immediate help). We just felt A-Rod was too special to pass on.”

The Mariners picked Rodriguez and the Dodgers – who picked second behind Seattle – chose Dreifort, who has been plagued by arm injuries most of his career.

“They might have made the two best No. 1 picks ever in the draft in Griffey and A-Rod,” Baseball America executive editor Jim Callis said of the Mariners.

But for every Griffey and Rodriguez, there’s an Al Chambers (No. 1 overall pick in 1979 who played 57 games for the Mariners), Roger Salkeld (No. 3 overall pick in 1989 who pitched 16 games for the Mariners, but the White Sox took Frank Thomas at No. 7), Tito Nanni (No. 6 overall in 1978 who never reached the majors, but Baltimore picked Cal Ripken in the second round) and Darrel Akerfelds (No. 7 overall in 1983 but never pitched for the Mariners, yet Roger Clemens was picked by Boston at No. 19).

“It’s a learning experience,” Seattle’s vice president of player development and scouting Benny Looper said. “You have to be a gambler and know you’re going to be wrong sometimes. You make your best call and hopefully it works out.”

Picking a player isn’t always the hard part, though. Trying to sign him can be difficult, especially with the escalating cost of signing bonuses. Last year, the No. 3 overall pick last season – Rice pitcher Phillip Humber – received a $3 million bonus from the Mets. Two players from the 2004 draft – shortstop Stephen Drew and pitcher Jered Weaver – held out until just last week as their agent, Scott Boras, negotiated $4 million signing bonuses for each.

Had Drew and Weaver not signed before June 1, they would have gone back in the draft this season.

“We’ve got to look for the player that fits first,” Fontaine said. “That’s the only thing you care about. The signability issue has always been there.”

The man in charge of the Mariners’ draft is Fontaine, who has 34 years of baseball experience in various scouting capacities with several clubs on his resume. Fontaine was responsible for the drafting and signing of players such as Ozzie Smith, Randy Johnson, Tony Gywnn and Jim Edmonds.

“A lot of scouts talk about the guys they get to the big leagues,” Seattle general manager Bill Bavasi said of Fontaine when he was hired in 2003. He can talk about the guys he got to the Hall of Fame.”