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Pressure a constant companion for MLB first-round draft picks

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Fri. June 5, 2015 | Kelly Parsons

Pressure a constant companion for MLB first-round draft picks

TAMPA — Kyle Tucker can easily recall the days of pretending to be Ken Griffey Jr. while in the batter’s box as a little leaguer. Or getting a hit more times than not every time he stepped up to the plate at the Forest Hills youth baseball park, eventually leading his Cal Ripken team to a world series championship as a 12-year-old. 

After all, it wasn’t that long ago. 

Tucker, 18, graduated from Plant High School less than two weeks ago. But Monday, when the Major League Baseball first-year player draft begins, the young centerfielder who dreamed of someday playing in the big leagues could be one step closer to making that happen.

MLB.com and Baseball America project that the 6-foot-5 slugger, who recently was named Gatorade Player of the Year for the state of Florida, will be a top-10 overall pick. Scouts say he’s an even better prospect than older brother Preston, an outfielder who recently made his major-league debut with the Houston Astros. 

Tucker has more than 30 career home runs, hit at least .400 each of the past three seasons and has proven to be one of the best high school players in the nation. But even that, paired with a first-round selection, doesn’t promise an easy road to the majors.

According to Baseball America, only 39 percent of first-round picks selected from either high school or college between 1987 and 2008 became steady contributors in the majors, and that number drastically diminishes the farther in the draft a player falls.

“What happens is, first-round draft picks get their money, they go away from home to play ball, and they stop their work habits and they stop listening,” said Plant alumnus and former minor-leaguer Sal Urso, who coached Tucker in youth baseball. “It’s 100 percent a lot tougher than people think it is. They think first-round draft picks make it.”

And while many of them do — including Tampa Bay area elites like Jose Fernandez (Alonso, 2011), Denard Span (Tampa Catholic, 2002) and Gary Sheffield (Hillsborough, 1986) — others crumble under the pressure of being a top pick, struggle through years in the minors or lose their way en route to the dream.

Hard part comes post-draft 

Geoff Goetz, a left-handed pitcher, threw a complete game against Pasco High in the 1997 Class 5A state championship game, leading his Jesuit team to a 7-1 win, the program’s second state title and eventual national championship recognition. 

But pretty soon, the prospect learned that the work he put in to deserve his sixth-overall selection by the New York Mets was a brisk walk around the bases compared to what he was tasked with after the 1997 draft.

It was in that first summer away from home that baseball became a business, one in which Goetz desperately wanted to prove he belonged. 

“I was used to having a close relationship with everyone I was around. Now they were looking at me differently, being a first-rounder,” he said. “That’s all you want to do is be drafted as high as you can, but then you enter in the reality of, now that’s your identity. …Now all of a sudden if you failed, it’s in the spotlight. It’s a blessing and a curse at the same time.”

The adjustment was a challenge, Goetz admitted, but he found his place. In 2000, he posted a career-low 1.75 ERA in 27 games with the Advanced-A Brevard County Manatees and was promoted that same season to Double-A Portland.

Injuries, though, prevented Goetz from riding that momentum. 

Goetz struggled with wear and tear on his arm throughout his career and would get shut down for extended periods of time. In 2002 he was diagnosed with a torn left labrum and had surgery. His minor-league career ended when he was released by the New York Yankees in 2005. 

And though Goetz had been on the Marlins’ 40-man roster and pitched spring training games, he never made a regular-season debut in the big leagues.

Unlike Goetz, Rays right-hander Jake Odorizzi, the 32nd overall pick in the 2008 draft out of Highland (Ill.) High School, beat the odds to make it to the major leagues, but the pressure he endured to get there was all the same.

Odorizzi said he refrained from giving himself a timeline for eclipsing the minors, choosing instead to focus on his game and let the results follow.

But along the way, not everyone followed suit. 

“People are going to put pressure on you regardless. You might as well not put it on yourself,” Odorizzi said. “It’s the perception (from the media, fans and friends) — they’re always in your ear, 'Why aren’t you in the big leagues yet?’ ”

Success sometimes comes quickly

For Lance McCullers Jr., high school baseball at Jesuit — where he posted a 0.18 ERA during his senior season — went pretty much as planned. Draft day, however, was a different story.

The right-hander’s skill set was well-documented, and after meeting with teams prior to the draft, McCullers expected to among the first 15 picks. 

But when the Cleveland Indians selected outfielder Tyler Naquin 15th overall and McCullers was still on the board, he got a little restless.

“As those picks passed, it was more I think disappointment than anything,” said McCullers, whose father of the same name was an MLB pitcher for seven years. “It’s hard for an 18-year-old kid to really comprehend the business side of things and what was really happening behind the scenes.”

McCullers wouldn’t have to wait much longer, and he was selected 41st overall in the supplemental first round by the Houston Astros. Fourteen days later, McCullers signed a $2.5 million contract, the largest ever awarded to a Hillsborough County player and almost double the slotted amount for that pick. 

And from there, things continued to look up for the former Tiger. 

McCullers cruised through the Astros’ farm system and began this season at Double-A Corpus Christi, where he posted a 0.62 ERA in six appearances (four starts). On May 14, he was promoted to Triple-A Fresno, but he didn’t even suit up for the Grizzlies before receiving a long-awaited call the very next day.

McCullers, 21, made his big-league debut on May 18 in the Astros’ 2-1 loss against the Oakland Athletics, while a crowd of his family and friends looked on. He gave up one run in 4 ⅔ innings pitched, receiving a no-decision.

McCullers has continued to dazzle since, most recently striking out 11 in a complete game to lead the Astros to a 3-1 win against the Orioles. According to the Astros, only three other pitchers — Bert Blyleven, Dwight Gooden (another first-round pick from Tampa Bay) and Kerry Wood — as young as McCullers have struck out at least 10 and walked none in a complete game.

McCullers said he feels grateful for his experience thus far in professional baseball, having moved up the ranks so quickly — because he knows just how easily it could have turned out differently. 

“I don’t think those guys (who don’t make it) have done anything wrong by any means, I just think that you’re kind of dealt your cards, and however you play those is how you play them,” McCullers said. “I feel blessed and lucky that I was able to kind of jump through and make a transition to the Astros’ big-league club quickly.

“Before I knew anything, I knew I wanted to be a big-leaguer.”

'Just go play the game’

A month ago, Tucker got a small glimpse of what his future might look like.

Less than three years after being drafted by the Astros in the seventh round out of the University of Florida, his brother was called up to the big-league club from Triple-A Fresno on May 6. Tucker and his family flew out to Anaheim, where in his debut Preston Tucker went 1-for-3 with an RBI as the Astros won 3-2.

“You get there and your brother is playing against the guys you watch on TV and people you grew up watching,” Tucker said. “Watching him, you can be like, 'That could possibly be me in a few years.’”

And while the odds of that happening might not be in Tucker’s favor, Urso — thinking back to the days when 12-year-old Tucker would lead the team at the plate then be back the next day trying to get better — thinks his former player is looking at a bright future. 

“When I saw that, I said, 'He’s going to go a long ways, because he doesn’t take things for granted,’ ” Urso said. 

After nine years in professional baseball, Goetz eventually moved back to Tampa, went to work for the Achieve Institute (a company that helps organizations improve productivity and performance) and married former Tampa Bay Buccaneers cheerleader Erica Permane. And though he never made a big-league debut, Goetz looks back at his experience, and the game he still loves, positively.

As he experienced nearly 20 years ago, Goetz doesn’t doubt that the pressure will be there for Tucker should he earn the tag of first-rounder Monday. Still, he said, it doesn’t have to get in his way.

“Be yourself, and always look to learn. Just commit to what you got picked and paid for,” Goetz said. “Do the best you possibly can, day in, day out, and just go play the game.”

Staff writer Matt Baker contributed to this report. Contact Kelly Parsons at [email protected] Follow @_kellyparsons.

Big-league dreams 

A look at the area players taken in the first round, or supplemental first round, out of high school over the past 15 years.

Year Player Pick, Team Present 

2013 Christian Arroyo, Hernando 25th, Giants San Jose Giants, Class A Advanced

2012 Lance McCullers Jr., Jesuit 41st, Astros MLB debut May 18 with Houston Astros

2012 Keon Barnum, King 48th, White Sox Winston-Salem Dash, Class A Advanced 

2011 Jose Fernandez, Alonso 14th, Marlins Miami Marlins

2007 Michael Burgess, Hillsborough 49th, Nationals Bowie Baysox, Class AA

2006 Steve Evarts, Robinson 43rd, Braves Out of baseball; never called up

2003 Ryan Harvey, Dunedin 6th, Cubs Out of baseball; never called up

2002 Denard Span, Tampa Catholic 20th, Twins Washington Nationals

2001 Casey Kotchman, Seminole 13th, Angels Omaha Storm Chasers, Class AAA

2001 Bryan Bass, Seminole 31st, Orioles Out of baseball; never called up

2000 Boof Bonser, Gibbs 21st, Giants Out of baseball; 111 MLB games from 2006-2010

2000 Derek Thompson, Land O’Lakes 37th, Indians Out of baseball; four MLB games in 2005

Teams in post

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