<
>

'The Extra 2%': Whiffing on Albert Pujols

3/8/2011 - MLB Albert Pujols Tampa Bay Rays + more

Editor's note: This excerpt from "The Extra 2%," by Jonah Keri, recounts how Tampa Bay, in 1999, failed to draft a young slugger named Albert Pujols despite a glowing recommendation from the team's area scout.

Copyright © 2011 by Jonah Keri. Excerpted with permission by ESPN Books, an imprint of ESPN Inc., New York, and Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc., New York.

*****

The only thing that keeps this organization from being
recognized as one of the finest in baseball is wins and
losses at the major league level.

-- Chuck LaMar

There are few jobs in baseball less glamorous and more
taxing than that of the area scout. These road warriors
cover wide swaths of territory in pursuit of baseball talent.
Their cars become their homes on their long, lonely drives down
drab highways, burger wrappers and soda cups strewn all over the
passenger seat. The area scout dreams of uncovering that hidden
gem, the player other teams miss who goes on to stardom. The area
scout isn't the person who makes the final decision on whether or
not to draft a player. He doesn't even have a direct line to the scouting
director, much less a team's general manager. For every player
an area scout touts, a cross-checker -- itself a pretty thankless, often
lonely job -- must travel to see that player perform, then report back
to his bosses. Area scouts do gain credit if the team drafts and signs
the player. But until that moment, the scout can only hope that
someone will listen to him.

Fernando Arango understood the drawbacks of his job. Arango
covered five states in his role as area scout for the Devil Rays:
Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Nebraska. His region
was nowhere near the baseball hotbeds of California, Florida, and
Texas. But the relative lack of talent in his area could also mean
fewer eyes on some intriguing players, thus causing a few to slip
under the radar. One spring Arango drove to the tiny town of Republic,
Missouri, to catch a high school tournament. One player
stood out. This one kid, a burly third baseman, just a junior, was
smacking line drives all over the park. Arango introduced himself,
and the two hit it off. Both scout and player were students of the
game, happy to talk about the finer points long after others would
tune out. Arango saw a rare mix of natural ability and baseball intelligence
in the third baseman. He got the player's contact information
and promised to keep in touch.

The following year, Arango's prospect accelerated his education.
A strong student with an affinity for math, he earned all his high
school credits by January 1999, then transferred to Maple Woods
Community College in Kansas City. Arango went back to see the
young man play. This time there would be no covert operation. Several
major league scouts and representatives, including former
Kansas City Royals manager John Wathan, also showed up to see
various players. The high school third baseman, now playing as an
oversized shortstop, launched two long home runs over the fence in
left-center, into a thicket of trees.

"The ball sounded like a cannon went off," Arango recalled. "It
wasn't even fair for him to use an aluminum bat."

No way we'll get this guy, Arango thought to himself. Still, when
he met with his cross-checker, Stan Meek, as well as scouting director
Dan Jennings, Arango filed a glowing report on the player.
Meek had gone to see the young man in action, but wasn't nearly as
impressed as Arango.

"He was this paunchy, thick-bodied kid," Jennings recalled.
"Stan said to me, 'I saw this kid strike out two or three times, I don't
know what position he'd play, I can't do anything with him. I can't
write him up.' "

Undaunted, Arango told his bosses, "All I want to say about this
guy is that someday he'll hit 40 home runs in the big leagues."
Jennings wasn't ready to dismiss Arango's report or his ranking of
the top prospect in Arango's five-state area. So he sent in R.J.
Harrison, a national cross-checker (who would take over, years
later, as scouting director). Harrison's verdict: "I can't do anything
with this guy."

Even after two emphatically negative reports, Jennings wanted
to give Arango's find one last shot. The Devil Rays invited him to a
pre-draft workout. No other team extended an invite. Not even the
Royals, who played twenty minutes away.

Arango met his young protégé over Grand Slam breakfasts at a
Denny's. The more they talked, the more Arango loved the smarts
and grounded approach that went with the kid's talent. A huge contingent
was waiting when Arango arrived at Tropicana Field. Jennings
and Meek were there, along with fifteen other talent evaluators,
Chuck LaMar, even Vince Naimoli. They watched a big group of
draft hopefuls take their turns. Finally, the Missouri kid got his
chance.

What happened next depends on who's telling the story. Arango
claims his prospect looked like Lou Gehrig. Jennings saw no such
thing.

Arango observed a 60-yard dash in 7.1 seconds, a good time for
a player that size. The Devil Rays tried him at his college position of
shortstop, where Arango says he handled an array of sharply hit
grounders and showed good instincts for a big man. Jennings looked
at the player's body, then suggested maybe he should catch. He'd
never caught before and was worried he'd make a bad impression.
Arango told him to relax, put on the equipment, and humor everyone
for a few minutes. His first throw to second base came in a
flash: 1.89 seconds. That time was phenomenal for a high school
catcher and solid for a college catcher; several big league catchers
show similar times. Only this player had never caught at any level.
Then he got in the batter's box and started roping line drives all
over the park. Growing up, his dad had taught him to hit the ball
with authority to right-center. Do that consistently, his father told
him, and he could one day hit .300 in the big leagues. Jennings
wasn't impressed. "Where's the power?" he muttered. Arango got
the message. "They'd like you to hit it a little farther," he told his
pupil. On the very next pitch, the kid crushed the ball off the top of
the left-field foul pole. Arango smiled. He was going to get his man.
Jennings said he and the other scouts in attendance -- all except
Arango -- remained concerned about the kid's thick build. They also
focused on the negatives rather than the positives as Arango and
Jennings both fell into a bit of confirmation bias. Jennings didn't
like the player going down on one knee more than once to field
grounders at short. He was also concerned about the player's performance at catcher: messy footwork and iffy throwing mechanics,
despite a few good throws. At bat, he worried about the player's approach more than the results. "He's sitting very deep on his back
leg, uppercut swing, back shoulder dipping pretty good," Jennings
said.

"We go back upstairs, and I pose the question to the room," Jennings
recounted. " 'This kid Fernando's got on his list, you see anything
different today than what we've seen before?' Nope, no one
saw anything. We left the workout with the same identical issues
that caused us not to have him high on our board."

When draft day arrived, Arango waited. And waited. The Devil
Rays weren't going to take his guy in the first round, he knew. But
after the third, fourth, and fifth rounds passed, with the kid still undrafted,
he started to wonder if his prediction of forty-home-run
seasons had simply been forgotten. The D-Rays weren't the only
team passing. On and on the draft went, and still no news. There
were a bunch of reasons for the snub. The Devil Rays went after
Florida players aggressively, giving them preference over other
prospects -- and Florida-raised veteran free agents priority over non-
Floridians -- in a constant quest for local identity and support. It
was a shortsighted practice that never paid tangible dividends and
often hurt the team. They still worried about the player's build, as Jennings had earlier, and wondered what position he would play.
This was especially odd, since the player didn't get much chance to
try out at third base, his natural position, or first, where Arango
thought he could also fare well. Many skeptics also wondered about
his age: he was born in the Dominican Republic, didn't move to the
United States until high school, and always looked old for the age
he was supposed to be. Meanwhile, the player's agent was new to
the gig, and that uncertainty raised fears that just signing the guy
could become dicey, even in the later rounds. Besides, the Devil
Rays had their targeted names up on the draft board, and the draft
was flying by. Jennings wasn't ignoring Arango's projection per se.
There was just so much other stuff going on that they didn't give it
much thought. By the time you get past the tenth round, most players
have no shot of ever sniffing the big leagues, let alone becoming
productive regulars, let alone becoming the kind of superstar
Arango envisioned. No big deal.

With the first pick of the thirteenth round, the Devil Rays selected
Jason Pruett, a left-handed pitcher out of a Texas community
college. Seventeen picks later, the Cardinals threw their own dart.
With the 402nd overall pick in the 1999 draft, St. Louis grabbed
the player Arango had wanted all along. A pudgy kid from Missouri
named Albert Pujols.

Arango was crushed. He quit his job and went to work at a
sports agency. It didn't take long for the Devil Rays to realize their
mistake. The player who once carried the weight of his abuela's rice
and beans carved his body into granite. Pujols crushed the ball the
minute he got to the minor leagues. He continued to mash in spring
training of 2001, impressing St. Louis brass so profoundly that the
Cardinals tossed him into their opening day lineup, despite Pujols
having played only three games above A-ball to that point. He hit
.329 that year with 37 homers, a .403 on-base percentage, and a
.610 slugging percentage, one of the greatest performances by any
rookie in major league history.

Arango never forgot his initial scouting report, and neither did
Pujols. Late in Pujols's third season, he reached 39 home runs.

Arango called Pujols with a message: he and his wife had a bottle of
champagne chilling that they would open as soon as Pujols cracked
number 40. The next day Pujols called back. Arango already knew
what he was going to say.

"I got forty," Albert Pujols told one of the few scouts who had believed
in him, "and forty-one too. You can go ahead and call the
Devil Rays now."

To be fair, twenty-eight other teams missed on Pujols too. But
the D-Rays' whiff on the greatest player of the past decade epitomized
the team's early struggles in building a productive farm system.
Tampa Bay would eventually become known as a scouting and
player development powerhouse, one built partly on high draft
picks, but also on a smarter approach than the competition. That
reputation would take a while to bloom, though. Before that, the
D-Rays were a team that struggled to build the talent pipeline it
needed to win at the major league level. Those failures were the results
of poor choices, cheapskate spending habits, and in the case
of the thirteenth-round pick turned future Hall of Famer, plain old
bad luck. That and failing to listen to baseball's equivalent of a foot
soldier -- the overworked, underpaid, underappreciated area scout.