Mike Cameron: The Rare Tools That Turned Into Skills

BOSTON, MA -: Mike Cameron #23 of the Boston Red Sox catches a line drive against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

The Chicago White Sox drafted Mike Cameron out of high school with their 18th-round pick in 1991. He is the greatest 18th-round pick in history, blowing away Bobby Higginson and Kirk Rueter for the title. He might not be the most athletic 18th-round pick ever -- that'd probably be John Elway, drafted by the Royals in 1979 -- but he's certainly the best.

In the late rounds of a draft now, scouting directors are likely thinking, "If we take that bag of tools, maybe we can build a Mike Cameron." That's the goal, the archetype. If Cameron has a legacy -- other than being one of the better defensive center fielders of his generation -- it's as one of the few toolsy late-round players to convert his athletic talents to baseball skills. I'd imagine his scouting report read something like this:

Strengths: Fast. Potential 60 ... 65 running. Incredible ball hawk with a strong arm. Chance to be a plus-plus defender.

Weaknesses: Has raw hitting skills. Has never really hit with a bat before. Took an at-bat in the first inning holding the barrel-end of the bat. Took an at-bat in the third inning with the donut still on the bat. Took his at-bat in the fifth inning with just the donut, no bat, and bunted for a hit. Really, really raw. I think he's trying to peel the batting donut now.

Cameron had a predictably rough debut in rookie ball, hitting .221/.325/.243 as an 18-year-old. Dig that teenage Barry Zito power. And while Cameron did well enough in low-A the next year, he couldn't break free from the orbit of the Midwest League. He quickly moved from a player who was young for his league to a player who was about the same age as the players around him, and he was merely holding his own.

Then the breakout:

1995 22 SOUL AA 107 419 350 64 87 20 5 11 60 21 12 54 104 .249 .355 .429 .784
1996 23 SOUL AA 123 563 473 120 142 34 12 28 77 39 15 71 117 .300 .402 .600 1.002
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/30/2011.


And that was it. Maybe a coach fixed a hole in his swing. Maybe he got smarter and used a better approach. Maybe he finally started gripping the other end of the bat. Whatever happened, he never stopped hitting. If the goal was for him to hit just enough to get his glove in the lineup, he surpassed it. He became a low-average, plus-power hitter to complement his amazing defense in center. He was an exceptionally valuable player for a long time.

Cameron will be remembered for a lot of things -- defense, strikeouts, homers, the horrific collision with Carlos Beltran -- but he'll always be one of the ultimate late-round, toolsy success stories. When teams take athletes in the late rounds, they're thinking of a Mike Cameron dream ceiling ... and that's pretty danged good.

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