“One pick can change everything.”
Royals special assistant Tom McNamara says he learned that aphorism from former MLB player and executive Bill Lajoie when the two worked together in Milwaukee. It’s an important reminder for front office folks—and something scouts learn over and over, as each draft selection is a walking, talking road not taken.
That was especially true 10 years ago, when McNamara was the scouting director of the Seattle Mariners. In June 2011, the Mariners were in the middle of a massive retooling effort under GM Jack Zduriencik. Ichiro was starting to show his age; the next generation of would-be Mariners stars—Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, Kyle Seager—was beginning to trickle up to the big leagues; and the team was a few years removed from becoming the first in baseball history to run a $100 million payroll and lose 100 games. But from that winter of despair came a spring of hope: the no. 2 pick in the 2011 draft.
With a decade’s worth of hindsight, we know that 2011 was the best class in the 56-year history of MLB’s amateur draft. There isn’t a baseball equivalent to the 1984 NBA draft, which featured Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, and Charles Barkley in the first five picks, but 2011 is about as close as it gets. While your average MLB draft class produces a handful of impact players, this one had 22 future All-Stars; two Cy Young winners and a handful of other Cy Young finalists; and dozens of other future postseason heroes and big league stalwarts—and that’s just among players who signed that year.
UCLA right-hander Gerrit Cole was expected to go first overall that year to Pittsburgh, but the M’s had their pick of any other prospect in the U.S. or Canada. So in the interest of exploring all their options, they brought a 17-year-old shortstop from Florida’s Montverde Academy up to Safeco Field for a workout. This kid wasn’t considered a serious top-five pick, but various Mariners scouts had fallen in love with his glove, athleticism, and personality, and wanted to give him one last look in front of the club’s top brass.
He passed the test with flying colors, erasing any lingering doubts on the field and charming everyone he met off it. And the Mariners quickly became tempted to throw caution to the wind and draft him far higher than consensus would’ve deemed reasonable.
“He had so much fun,” says Tony Blengino, who was then a special assistant to Zduriencik. “There was not a nervous or tentative bone in his body. He was just all juice, all fun. … We took him out to lunch and ‘face of the franchise’ is all you could think of. This was the kind of kid who’d be in the big leagues when he’s 20, and if he hits for power—which was my only concern going in—then you’ve got a superstar on your hands.”
The shortstop had flown to Seattle on his own, so after the audition, two senior Mariners executives—McNamara and national cross-checker Mark Lummus—dropped by his hotel to check on him. “I thanked him for flying out by himself and wished him the best in the upcoming draft,” McNamara told me over email. “He gave me a hug and said, ‘I hope you guys take me.’”
They didn’t. With the no. 2 pick in the 2011 draft, Seattle chose Danny Hultzen, a left-handed pitcher from the University of Virginia. And six picks later, Cleveland took the kid: Francisco Lindor.
Relitigating an MLB draft isn’t as simple as wishing a team had selected the best player remaining on the board. If that were the case, the Pirates would be in for their fair share of criticism for picking Cole in 2011 ahead of a Tennessee high school shortstop named Mookie Betts, who went to Boston in the fifth round and was to that point completely unknown outside scouting circles.
But based on conventional wisdom at the time, the obvious pick for Seattle at no. 2 was not Lindor or Hultzen, but Rice University third baseman Anthony Rendon. The consensus top prospect at the end of his sophomore year, Rendon had suffered a serious ankle injury playing for Team USA in the summer of 2010, and then spent most of his junior year at DH after injuring his shoulder. Nevertheless, his athleticism and stellar offensive track record (including a .505 career OBP in college) made him the clear favorite to go second.
“Going into the draft, he was probably the player a lot of people thought we were going to take … and we did, too,” Zduriencik told The Athletic in 2019. ESPN’s Keith Law, Baseball Prospectus’s Kevin Goldstein, and Baseball America’s Jim Callis all mocked Rendon to the Mariners just before the draft.
But Rendon, a Scott Boras client, wasn’t going to be easy to sign, and Blengino says his long list of recent injuries gave the Mariners pause. Thus came the interest in Lindor as a potential alternative.
“He wasn’t a ‘loud’ raw tools workout type of player,” McNamara says of the shortstop. “He was the kind of kid you had to see multiple times to appreciate what he brought to the table.”
The Mariners got to know Lindor well in the months before the draft. Former GM Woody Woodward and senior adviser Ted Simmons, a Hall of Fame player in his own right, delivered glowing reports. Woodward spent a day with Lindor at a high school practice and came back gushing about his skills and personality. Simmons thought Lindor’s throwing accuracy expressed incredible confidence, and noted that in addition to having impressive tools, Lindor paid attention to detail—backing plays up, running the bases well, taking smart at-bats.
“There was always excitement with Lindor,” Blengino says. “With the scouts, the cross-checkers, up through the scouting director. It was always what a really good ballplayer this guy was going to be. Even the year before ... he would always come out at or near the top of everyone’s lists.”
McNamara made multiple trips to see the young infielder in person, often accompanied by Rob Mummau, the scout who’d signed Ackley and Seager out of North Carolina two years before. One particular standout performance came against Javier Báez’s high school team. Meetings between top prospects were a notable quirk ahead of the 2011 draft—Archie Bradley’s and Dylan Bundy’s schools played for a state title in Oklahoma, while Cole’s college rivalry with Trevor Bauer is the most well-documented since Rafael Palmeiro and Will Clark’s at Mississippi State in the 1980s. But when Lindor’s Montverde Academy faced Báez’s Arlington Country Day, more than 100 scouts turned up—and Lindor showed out with three hits and a walk in the game.
“It was like being at a Duran-Leonard fight,” McNamara says. “It was an electric atmosphere. When you see great players as a scout, it’s usually telling when there is more watching than talking. That night you didn’t want to miss anything.”
By the time Lindor came to Seattle for that June workout, McNamara was completely sold. But Blengino—while positive on Lindor generally—wanted another look at his bat. Lindor isn’t a big guy now, at age 27, and as a teenager he weighed only 150 pounds. Blengino believed there was a possibility the bat would get knocked out of his hands at the pro level unless he was stronger than his frame indicated.
“That was the first time I had seen him play in person,” Blengino says of the Seattle visit. “You can only get so much out of a workout, but we wanted to give him a good BP. Not just a little half-assed BP. We wanted to see what he could do with some tough pitching. And after watching him take a few rounds, it was clear to me that this little, wiry kid was pretty darn strong.”
By the time Lindor flew home, the Mariners were convinced that this elite defensive shortstop, who had an off-the-charts makeup (scouting shorthand for intelligence, work ethic, and all-around vibes), would also turn into a productive big league hitter. A superstar, in other words. Not only that, but because Lindor wasn’t expected to go in the top five picks, he’d command a lower bonus than Hultzen or Rendon, both of whom eventually signed for more than twice what Lindor got from Cleveland. The 2011 draft was the last to take place before MLB instituted its current bonus cap, but internal budgets being what they are, taking Lindor would’ve freed Seattle up to sign other talented high school draftees.
So given all those positives, and the team’s glowing evaluations of Lindor, how in the hell did the Mariners end up passing on him?
The first round of the 2011 draft fell on Monday, June 6, and though word of Lindor’s Seattle workout had leaked, Rendon was still expected to be the pick. So when Seattle ended up selecting Hultzen, nobody was more surprised than the Virginia left-hander.
The day before the draft, Virginia had wrapped up its NCAA regional, advancing to the round of 16—or Super Regional—in the NCAA tournament. So that Monday, the Cavaliers hosted a party that was to be televised as part of MLB Network’s draft coverage. Hultzen sat on a couch with his parents in the UVA clubhouse, wearing an earpiece that allowed him to hear the broadcast feed a few seconds before it showed up on the TV in front of him.
“I was totally disconnected,” says Hultzen, who now works in the Cubs’ front office. “During the middle of the college season, we would have meetings with some of the area scouts, and some of the higher-ups came in. But my focus at the time was absolutely trying to win games. I took the attitude of: The draft will be the draft, and I’ll get picked where I get picked.”
Hultzen’s focus on the NCAA tournament notwithstanding, he knew enough to have a basic idea of when he’d probably go. Cole and Rendon would be the first two players off the board. After that, the top prospects fell into groups: Bauer, Hultzen, and Bundy were viewed as polished arms. Then came Bradley and Bubba Starling, a pair of exceptional high schoolers who’d need big money to sign instead of playing quarterback in college (Bradley at Oklahoma, Starling at Nebraska).
And following that were two other groups: the Florida high school shortstops—Báez and Lindor—and a group of college players headlined by Texas righty Taylor Jungmann, Georgia Tech lefty Jed Bradley, and Connecticut outfielder George Springer. The Royals, who held the no. 5 pick, were known to be interested in a high-floor pitcher; just over a week before the draft, Callis mocked Rendon to Pittsburgh, Starling to Seattle, and had Cole falling to Kansas City, which would’ve been a dream scenario for the Royals.
Hultzen had met with the Mariners during the scouting process, but he generally expected to go to the Nationals with the no. 6 pick, or maybe to Kansas City at no. 5. He never thought he’d end up being the no. 2 pick—that is, until he heard his name through the TV earpiece.
“It was a slight delay,” Hultzen says. “What I saw happened three or four seconds after what I heard. So when I heard my name, it was about four or five seconds before it came up on the TV. I put my hands on my head and everyone was like, ‘Holy shit.’”
A narrative quickly emerged that the Mariners had played it safe by going with Hultzen. Bauer and Bundy both had higher upside, but Hultzen was bigger, left-handed, and didn’t carry the uncertainty that came with Bauer’s unorthodox training program or Bundy’s lack of college experience. Hultzen was, indeed, nearly big-league ready; when he made his professional debut in 2012, the Mariners sent him straight to Double-A, where he posted an ERA in the 1.00s over half a season.
But Bundy and Bauer both made the big leagues a year after they were drafted, while Hultzen pitched through a shoulder injury and stalled out in Triple-A for almost a decade. As time went on, and the players drafted behind him turned into stars, Hultzen became something of a Sam Bowie figure—which belies the potential he showed in college.
As a junior at UVA, Hultzen posted a 1.37 ERA, with a 12.6 K/9 ratio in 18 starts. Three of those came in the NCAA tournament, and Hultzen allowed just a single earned run through all of them. While not pitching, he hit .309/.396/.441 as a part-time DH, striking out just 12 times in 43 games.
“I personally saw Hultzen five times that spring,” McNamara says. “He delivered every time I saw him. We got to know him and were in on the makeup, stuff, and ceiling. We looked at him as a future no. 2 starter behind Félix [Hernández].”
After the draft, the Mariners broadcast Hultzen’s last collegiate start on the Safeco Field jumbotron before that night’s Mariners game. Hultzen struck out eight of the 10 batters he faced, including future big leaguers Jackie Bradley Jr. and Christian Walker, and hit 96 mph on the radar gun. This despite being so sick with the flu he had to be pulled from the game after just three innings.
“We knew Cole wasn’t getting to us,” Blengino says. “There was spirited discussion about the guys we knew we’d have a chance to select, but everyone was comfortable with Hultzen. It was a little unorthodox, but it was high-end stuff and impeccable command. And the kid was a tough, tough competitor. As it turns out, he got through all of the injuries and got to the big leagues after all that, that alone is saying something.”
After half a season dominating Double-A, Hultzen struggled upon his promotion to Triple-A and started to feel pressure to live up to his draft position.
“I’ve had plenty of time to look at it in hindsight and really understand just how much unhealthy pressure I put on myself to live up to those expectations that were put onto me,” he says. “I added a lot of pressure on top of that, which in hindsight was totally unmanageable and had hugely detrimental effects on both my psyche and my shoulder. Because I didn’t want to be the guy who disappointed everybody.”
Hultzen doesn’t blame anyone but himself—part of the problem was that he tried to pitch through pain instead of telling the Mariners he was hurt. But it’s hard to look at the lost years he suffered in the mid-2010s and not wonder what might have been. After starting 25 games in his first minor league season, he pitched just 12 more times over four seasons with the Mariners organization. He signed with the Cubs in February 2018 and finally made six scoreless big league relief appearances at the end of the 2019 season. But after that cup of coffee, he never pitched in the majors again.
Lindor was an incredibly polished high school player, but after the draft he still had a long way to go before he was major-league ready. While the Mariners saw the power potential in his bat, questions about his offensive ceiling remained until just before he reached the majors—he barely slugged .400 in Triple-A. He might look like a low-risk prospect in hindsight, but there was no guarantee he would develop the way he did—especially in a different system. Ackley and Smoak, for instance, were viewed as sure things when Seattle acquired them but both ultimately disappointed.
Now, if Lindor had arrived in Seattle and turned into a fast-track future Hall of Famer, that could’ve changed the direction of the franchise. Seattle has invested plenty of resources into acquiring and developing shortstops over the years. The franchise spent its 2011 second-round pick on Clemson’s Brad Miller, and a fifth-rounder the following year on Chris Taylor, whom they’d taken a liking to while scouting Hultzen at UVA. Nick Franklin, a 2009 first-round pick, was still in the pipeline, as was a teenaged Ketel Marte, a 2010 international signee.
None of them really panned out—at least not in a Mariners uniform—and it wasn’t until the team traded for Jean Segura before the 2017 season that it really locked down the spot between Seager and Robinson Canó. By contrast, Lindor hit .301/.358/.435 in 2016, made his first All-Star team, finished ninth in MVP voting, and led Cleveland to Game 7 of the World Series. That year, Marte hit .259/.287/.323 in 466 plate appearances, and Seattle’s shortstops were the second worst in baseball, according to wins above average. The Mariners missed the playoffs by three games.
Lindor almost certainly would have elevated Seattle at short, and possibly helped the Mariners end a postseason drought that’s now old enough to enter the draft itself. Less predictable, however, is how the rest of the league would’ve reacted to Seattle going so far off the board at the top of such a loaded draft. Goldstein wrote on the day of the first round that if Seattle picked Lindor, it “would tear open most draft boards and create serious chaos,” which seems like an understatement if anything.
There’s a strong possibility that not much would’ve changed if Lindor had gone second, because not only was the Hultzen pick a surprise, but so was the Royals’ decision to go with Starling instead of one of the college arms they’d been linked to. Hultzen could’ve gone anywhere in the four picks after Seattle, but he himself figured he had the best chance to go to Washington at no. 6. That scenario likely would’ve involved Rendon going off the board earlier—it was a minor miracle he fell as far as he did in the first place. (The most fun hypothetical involves the Royals taking Bundy or Hultzen and nobody else popping up to meet Starling’s bonus demands, leaving him bound for Lincoln, where he might have changed the course of Nebraska football and turned Bo Pelini into the second coming of Tom Osborne. Or something like that.)
But what would’ve happened to Cleveland?
Well, if Lindor had jumped up to second, it obviously would have pushed another high pick down to no. 8. Cole would’ve been off the board, as would Rendon—if the Diamondbacks weren’t scared off by Archie Bradley being a high school pitcher, they wouldn’t have been scared off by Rendon’s balky shoulder. It’s easy to look at Báez on the real-world draft board and assume he would’ve just jumped up a spot to Cleveland, but at the time, Báez was not the defensive wizard he would later become.
The most likely outcome is that Kansas City would’ve passed on Starling if one of the “safe” pitchers had been available. That would’ve knocked one of the two high school quarterbacks—Starling and Bradley—down to no. 8, and Cleveland would’ve either paid through the nose to lure one of those guys away from their college commitments (most likely Archie Bradley, but possibly Starling) or spent less on a college player (maybe Jed Bradley, possibly Jungmann or Matt Barnes).
Having a draft this deep—the first 29 picks all made the big leagues, an MLB record—takes a little bit of the fun out of the alternate history exercise, because Cleveland would’ve had a shot at one of several good players even with Lindor off the board.
But as Cleveland and Seattle both learned, there’s a difference between drafting another good player and drafting the face of the franchise.