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Baseball's Draft Is the Riskiest in All of Professional

By Bill Peterson · June 11th, 2008 · Sports
Jerry Dowling

Baseball people love quoting Ted Williams saying the hardest thing to do in sports is to hit a baseball, as if Williams could have become an excellent NFL quarterback had he taken the easy way out.

For the best damned hitter who ever lived to say hitting is the toughest act in sports doesn't merely smack of self service. It's self-service hitting the ball out of the park, which is the easiest thing to do in sports.

But Williams wasn't completely wrong. Baseball's amateur draft demonstrates every year that baseball is the most difficult sport in which to even reach the highest level, let alone master it.

The NFL teams now draft players after their junior seasons in college, believing they can obtain immediate help in starting positions. NBA teams would still draft players to The League immediately out of high school if the rules allowed it.

In baseball, however, only the fewest of the few go straight from draft day to the big leagues. In the last 13 years, only one player has made that jump. It happened in 2000, when the San Diego Padres drafted outfielder Xavier Nady from the University of California and brought him straight to their big league club.

Generally, even a player who starred in college and went to the pros as a high draft choice takes a couple years to arrive. A first-round pick out of high school doesn't make the big leagues until his fourth pro season in the most fortunate cases.

Bear in mind that baseball players are at least as well trained going through high school as the athletes in other team sports, and it still takes them longer to reach the top level.

A football or basketball player can play in the public schools and attend a few camps before moving up to the college level. Baseball players not only play high school and, often, college ball, but it's virtually mandatory that they also begin playing summer club baseball from about the age of 10 if they're going to draw interest on draft day, just so they can then ride buses for four years before making The Show.

By the way -- and this is a guess -- baseball's much discussed trouble attracting minority American athletes is largely grounded in that economic reality. Summer club baseball is expensive. Many clubs travel extensively, and they're not supported by public school taxes. Only well-off kids can afford it.

Because the distance from draft day to the big leagues is so great, the draft almost never anticipates sea changes in major league baseball. For example, last week's first round featured runs on catching, relief pitching and left-handed power hitting first basemen. But none of those players will change the game, let alone his team, any time soon.

The Reds joined that crowd, taking University of Miami first baseman Yonder Alonso with the seventh overall pick. No one knows what that means for Joey Votto, but that's a question for the future because Alonso won't be up for years.

When we get down to the 20th round, however, we find the fascinating case of Pat Venditte, the ambidextrous pitcher from Creighton. It's safe to say that no organization except the New York Yankees sees in Venditte more than a useless gimmick, since the Yankees picked him in the 45th round after his junior season last year and then took him again this time.

Venditte is a kid from Omaha whose dad coached him to pitch with each arm after noticing his ambidexterity at a young age. Venditte didn't knock them dead in high school and ended up walking on at his hometown university. He's since matured into a highly effective college relief pitcher, 9-3 with a 3.34 ERA this year pitching in the Missouri Valley Conference, which is a good college baseball league.

Venditte wears a special glove with two thumbs, switching hands depending on who is batting. This kid is not a joke. This year, as a reliever, Venditte appeared in 37 games, second in the nation, leading Creighton with 86 1/3 innings, striking out 101, giving up only 65 hits and walking 21 batters.

As a righthander, Venditte is said to throw a 91-mph fastball, about the big league average, and his 12-to-6 overhand drop curve is a devil to hit in any league. As a lefthander, he hits only about 80 mph with his side-armed fastball, which he augments with a slider that breaks straight away from left-handed hitters.

Based on the breakdown, we might expect left-handed hitters to bang him around a little, but he struck out 11.7 hitters per nine innings as a lefty during his sophomore season and held opposing batters to a .177 average (18-for-101) as a lefthander during his junior season.

Venditte turned the Yankees down last year, saying he wanted to add a pitch as a righthander and add velocity as a lefthander. Now that he's finished off his senior season, he'll certainly sign with the Yankees, who are as well armed as anyone to coach an ambidextrous pitcher through the minor leagues.

Imagine the possibilities for an ambidextrous relief pitcher in the major leagues. They're so enticing that it's remarkable only the Yankees would take a flyer on him.

It's true that Venditte doesn't have enough pitches with either arm and that his only plus pitch, if that, is the right-handed curve. So he's a project, but isn't that what the minor leagues and the player development systems are for? If the Yankees can make it work here, they have a pitcher who stands to be durable and strategically advantageous. What do they lose by trying?

Lots of players in last week's draft figure to be better than Venditte, and 619 players went ahead of him. Fans of the various clubs can watch their picks and hope for the best. But none of those other players can make the impact Venditte makes, if he makes it.

Contact Bill Peterson: letters@citybeat.com



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