It might be a bit early to conjecture about reactions to Danny Hultzen's big league performance. After all, Hultzen is months away from the major leagues, assuming he pitches in Seattle this year at all. There is little to appreciate about Hultzen right now, unless youíre a big fan of the Jackson Generals (and judging by the screen shots of the Generalsí consistently uninhabited statdium, I will surmise that you would not place yourself in that camp.) What this post is meant to do is to prepare for some likely backlash caused by the 2011 draft in general, and towards Hultzen in particular.
For the healthy and sane among you that don't obsess over the MLB draft, you might have missed that last year's draft class was unusually star studded. Furthermore, most of the stellar prospects that emerged from the draft have been brilliant this year. I think that these performances will eventually lead to comparisons between Hultzen and his classmates, comparisons that might not reflect well on Hultzen in the long run. I want to speculate a bit about what all of this means for fans and how such comparisons should be treated.
First though, allow me a brief digression: the role and presence of media in baseball's draft is very different than in basketball and football. While the NFL draft is a multi-day event televised in its entirety by ESPN (with similar coverage provided for at least the first round of the NBAís amateur selection) baseballís draft occurs with relatively little fanfare. Because even first rounders are at once years away from the majors, well out of the public eye as amateurs, and very difficult to grade and project, the MLB draft will never have the notoriety that the NFL and NBA drafts have now. Even hardcore baseball fans rarely do more than memorize the names and skills of a few of the players likely to be taken early. Hell, hardcore baseball fans pretty much can't do more than read what Keith Law, Kevin Goldstein, Jim Callis, Jason Churchill and a handful of other prospect evaluators post in advance of the draft.
But this lack of transparency rarely results in fans and columnists abstaining from opinions and criticism about the draft as it happens. Itís an annual occurrence, but the best example might have been the incensed reactions from Cubs fans in 2010 when the club dared to venture off the reservation (which can be practically defined as Law's Top 50 Draft Prospects List) in selecting D-II pitcher Hayden Simpson in the first round. Many had never heard of Simpson and as such, from the moment the pitcher's name was called, he was pressured with labels like 'reach,' 'likely bust,' and the dreaded 'easy sign' tag.
Once the draft is over, such scrutiny is magnified and only intesifies as the years progress. The MLB draft, with its clear delineations for success and failure among first round picks (did the player reach the majors or not? Was he an all star or not?) unfairly labels clubs as winners and losers for factors far outside team control at the time of the draft. Take the example of Jeff Clement. Clement was considered as solid as a pick can get when he was drafted in 2005. His selection was lauded at the time and he continued to receive high marks from prospect evaluators up until he performed poorly in an extended big league showing in 2008. There was nothing flawed about the Mariners selection process, but in recent years the pick has been an unwarranted target of criticism directed towards the much-maligned Bavasi administration.
Such assessment is negative mostly because of the major league success the four players selected immediately after Clement (Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Ricky Romero, and Troy Tulowitzki) have enjoyed. This is, of course, entirely reactionary. Nobody could have predicted which players were destined to succeed or fated to flop before they played professionally. Even those that generally restrict their commentary to rooting for 'high ceiling' or 'low floor' type of players often fail to realistically appraise other pertinent factors that determine who is drafted by whom, including signability, likelihood of pro succes, or a desire to spread bonus money among several players throughout the draft.
The overarching point here is that the MLB draft, even in the very earliest picks, is a lottery. Smart picks often fall flat and conversely, picks derided as reaches can flourish. The inevitable outcome though, is that each early first round pick is graded against an impossible standard: the success of the very best players in the draft. Clement will always be compared to Tulowitzki, Brandon Morrow will forever be linked to Tim Lincecum, and on and on. In this situation, even a good selection, like the Blue Jays pick of Romero in 2005 is viewed as somewhat of a disappointment in that the Jays passed on Tulowitzki.
And this, finally, brings us to Hultzen. The impetus behind the post has very little to do with Hultzen himself. Hultzen's performance has pretty much fit the bill this season. He's been a little more liberal with the base on balls than expected, but he's also pitching at an advanced level for his age, and he's still striking out hitters while keeping runs off the board. There aren't any glaring red flags in his game.
The potential problem with Danny Hultzen is that he's not one of several other players. The 2011 class was as loaded with top level talent as any draft in recent memory. Measuring star potential is subjective, but most evaluators would acknowledge that Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer, Dylan Bundy, Bubba Starling, Anthony Rendon, Archie Bradley, and Francisco Lindor (and possibly more) were all players with recognizable tools that could realistically enable them to become major league stars if everything pans out. On draft day, the above seven sandwiched Hultzen, who was certainly a talented and enviable prospect, but also one with a lower ceiling than the rest of the players listed above. By comparison to the star power seeping from the other seven, Hultzen comes away looking a bit vanilla.
I can envision a scenario in which fans (and possibly writers) develop some longing for the 'ones who got away.' While Cole was off the board, the rest of the pitchers highlighted above both had higher projections and have also been more impressive than Hultzen thus far in 2012. Bauer is a strikeout machine in Double A and he combines high ceiling talent with enough polish to possibly beat Hultzen to the big leagues. Bundy's career is off to a legendary start, as he's allowed just two hits while striking out nearly half of the hitters he has faced in six outings. Bradley has overwhelmed Single A batters, having only permitted thirteen hits in thirty-five innings, and he recently earned a mention from Goldstein as one of the few minor league pitchers with the potential to turn into the all-elusive 'ace.'
The top offensive prospects the M's passed on don't yet have a minor league pedigree to rival their pitching counterparts, but talent alone would have instantly turned each of Starling, Rendon, and Lindor into the top positional prospect in the Mariner system. Starling hasn't played a minor league game yet, but his power and athleticism is as enviable now as it was the day he was drafted. Rendon has been hamstrung by injuries, but he remains the best college bat in the class. Lindor, who the Mariners very nearly drafted last year, has the ability to stay at short and is demonstrating signs that he has the bat to be an all-star: he's only eighteen, but is more than holding his own with an .807 OPS in the pitcher friendly Midwest League.
Inevitably, at least one and probably a couple of the prospects drafted just after Hultzen will become perennial all-stars. Hultzen, for all of his strengths, was not billed as one of the higher ceilinged players available to the M's, and when someone like Bundy or Lindor turns into a superstar, it might be hard to avoid feeling a twinge of regret when reflecting on the draft. Such sentiment is natural and probably unavoidable.
But I think such thinking is futile and detracts from what we as fans can get out of watching and rooting for Hultzen. Even if Bundy turns into an ace (and there are strong indications he will) there's no sense in lamenting what could have been. The Mariners didn't choose Bundy; they drafted Danny Hultzen and he ought to be appreciated or maligned for what he brings to the franchise, not what Bundy gives to the Orioles.
Barring injury, Hultzen should be a good pitcher for a long time, and his abilities will be complemented very well by a strong defense in a great park for left handed hurlers. And because he was so polished relative to most of his peers, he should be ready to meaningfully contribute to the big club very soon. In all likelihood, Hultzen's career numbers will not compare favorably to a number of the players drafted just after him. In an ideal world, he will be evaluated on his own merit, not the performance of the members of his draft class. I hope Mariner fans can give him that chance.