By Ed McGranahan
Hate may be too strong.
Let’s just say Jack Leggett generally doesn’t much care for this juncture of the baseball season. Bad enough Clemson won’t play another game until next February, now Leggett must wait to see which players will join him.
In a matter of hours Major League Baseball can undo months, even years of work by Leggett and his staff.
Eleven years ago three players Leggett had signed were among the first two dozen picks in the 2002 draft. And though pitcher Zack Greinke (No. 6 to Kansas City) and outfielders Jeremy Hermida (No. 11 Florida) and Jeff Francoeur (No. 23 Atlanta) reached the big leagues within three years, a case can be made that they may have benefitted from time at Clemson.
Two members of this year’s class are potential first-round picks. Outfielder Austin Meadows of Loganville, Ga., and catcher Chris Okey of Eustis, Fla., are on the radar of every team in the game.
Meadows has been identified as one of those “toolsy” players projected to hit for average and power, capable of impacting the game as a fielder and runner. At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds Meadows looks the part and could be a top 10 pick Thursday.
In most mock drafts this week, Meadows was projected as a top 10 pick. Okey – No. 51 by MLB.com – is coveted as a catcher with a reasonably solid bat, not Joe Maurer or Brian McCann but maybe Alex Avila.
At one point this spring there was speculation Okey would honor his scholarship if picked beyond No. 10. And while it’s difficult to project any draft in any spot beyond the first couple, nobody expects Meadows to be in a Clemson classroom this summer.
Francoeur slipped slightly because he was also a top prospect in football and was thought to be a risk. Still, he went in the first round, darted through the Braves’ organization, and for a while the absence of plate discipline was merely a curiosity. After two productive seasons, Atlanta became frustrated with his inability to discriminate between pitches and traded him to the New York Mets for Ryan Church – which says as much about the Braves’ frustration as anything.
For half a season in New York, he was “The Natural,” again, but the next year the act grew old when his on-base percentage plummeted. The Mets traded him to Texas for Joaquin Arias – another statement in itself.
Before the 2011 season he hooked on with Kansas City as a free agent and had his most productive season since his second full year with the Braves. That August the Royals signed him to a two-year extension. Now he’s a $6.5 million albatross who still hasn’t seen a pitch he doesn’t like.
Football may have been a better choice. At least he’d have a hit every day.
Hermida is with the Cleveland Indians’ organization, the sixth since delivering a grand slam for the Marlins as a pinch hitter in his first big-league plate appearance. Unlike Francoeur, with whom he has been friends since high school, Hermida had to be encouraged – almost prodded – to swing, but injuries and fielding woes seemed to interrupt his career and he played in 123 games or more in only three seasons.
The best career of the three has been Greinke’s, though not without issues. Signed by Clemson as a two-way player out of a Florida high school, Greinke hit over .400 with 31 home runs. Pitching was initially an afterthought, an experiment according to one story, yet as a senior he was named Gatorade National Player of the Year after going 9-2 with a 0.55 ERA, 118 strikeouts in 63 innings.
Greinke was The Sporting News minor league player of the year in 2003 and made his debut with the Royals the next May. Quickly it became apparent he was not comfortable as a big-league ballplayer, and the Royals tried several avenues to help him acclimate. Eventually he left the team and essentially missed the entire 2006 season while being treated for social anxiety disorder.
Through therapy and medication, he was able to rejoin the team in 2007, return to the rotation midway through the year and develop into one of the game’s top pitchers. He won the 2009 A.L. Cy Young Award, and after stops with Milwaukee and the Angels he signed a six-year $167 million contract with the Dodgers.
Neither Meadows nor Okey have written off Clemson, and based on conversation with both this week they indicated a continuing interest in the program.
Leggett wishes they would give Clemson three years. While it certainly could provide a major bump for the program, it may be worth more long term to the two of them than a big check now.