Donavan Tate has spent most of his professional career sidelined with injuries, but now the toolsy Padres prospect will sit out 50 games due to his second offense against MLB's drug of abuse policy. Tate's suspension means that, more than two years after he was drafted, he will have been banned from more games than he has actually played -- the 20-year-old has just 42 games and 183 plate appearances to his credit in professional ball. The time he has missed (and now this drug suspension) make him the most disappointing Padres prospect in recent memory, but those with deeper recollection will remember that this is just the exclamation point on a 14-year stretch of letdowns from the first round of the draft for San Diego.
During those 14 seasons, Kevin Towers, the current Arizona Diamondbacks General Manager, ran the ship in San Diego. While Towers was capable in many areas -- finding uses for pitching talent that other organizations had cast off, winning the vast majority of his trades (and in a lopsided fashion -- look up what was given up to get Adrian Gonzalez and Heath Bell, among others), bringing the Padres four division championships (including one World Series appearance in 1998) -- the first round of the draft was somewhere where he never had any real success.
Matt Bush is the first name that comes to mind when discussing Towers' problems in the draft, but there are many more players who never panned out and, at least in Bush's case, that was a signability pick that Towers didn't necessarily want, but ownership forced on him. You get what you pay for, folks, and what the Padres didn't pay for was Justin Verlander, who went next in the draft to a Tigers team that had just lost 119 games, and was signed to a lucrative major league deal out of the gate.
Looking back to his first draft in 1995 through his last in 2009 does not paint a pretty picture of first-round success: 10 of the 19 first rounders from 1995 through 2006 have never been to the majors, and of the ones who have, Tim Stauffer is arguably having the most productive career. The same Stauffer who, until last season, was considered a complete bust. Other than him, we're talking about such luminaries as Sean Burroughs (ninth overall in 1998), Cesar Ramos (#35 in 2005), Cesar Carillo (#15 in 2005, who has been released four times since September 2010), and Khalil Greene (whose greatest legacy with San Diego may be that he brought Luke Gregerson back in a trade).
Things were better in recent years, when Sandy Alderson, Paul DePodesta, and others were around to help out -- Jaff Decker and Logan Forsythe, a solid pair of prospects, both came in the 2008 draft, and Cory Luebke, who is now in the rotation, was taken at #63 in 2007 -- but there were still ugly picks: Allan Dykstra, no longer with the organization (he ended up in New York with Alderson and DePodesta), was the Padres' first-round selection in 2008, keeping the streak of disappointment alive.
It's too early to tell if that has changed with the new regime, but GM Jed Hoyer and Assistant GM Jason McLeod have good reputations. Both came from the Red Sox, who consistently drafted excellently since Theo Epstein took charge of the team. McLeod was the director of amateur scouting there, and responsible for the drafts that produced Dustin Pedroia, Jed Lowrie, Clay Buchholz, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Daniel Bard, as well as the three prospects that the Padres picked up in exchange for Adrian Gonzalez, a group that includes the team's current starting first baseman, Anthony Rizzo, and one of their representatives for this year's Futures Game, Reymond Fuentes.
In the Padres' first draft under Hoyer, the team selected Karsten Whitson, who did not sign, with the ninth pick. While that seemed like a typical San Diego draft problem, they did acquire Jedd Gyorko with their second-round selection. Gyorko was considered a first-round talent due to his bat, but fell into the second, helping the Padres make up for the Whitson problem. Gyorko is currently hitting .371/.435/.636 in 361 plate appearances for High-A Lake Elsinore, and it's believed the 22-year-old will rocket through the minor-league system as long as his defense at third can hold up.
Losing out on Whitson wasn't all bad, either. He wasn't drafted in 2011, and the Padres got the #10 pick in the 2011 draft thanks to not signing him. With that selection, they drafted Cory Spangenberg, who had declared before the draft that he would sign quick. Because of this, he now has a signing bonus and is playing professionally. With 58 plate appearances under his belt for for Low-A Eugene, Spangenberg is hitting .436/.603/.641 with a homer and five doubles. It's just 58 plate appearances, sure, but for an organization used to futility out of their first rounders (and the recent Whitson rejection), it has to feel good to see someone not only so willing to sign, but also totally mashing once he takes the field.
Feeling good about the draft is something San Diego fans haven't been able to do in years, a fact brought to the fore once again with Tate's suspension, but as the Tower regime ends up further in the rear-view mirror, maybe Padres fans will have their own prospects to smile about for once. After all, Jed Hoyer was given a job for a reason -- so far, he and his front-office team have been up to the task.