YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Dodgers farmhands don't take status for granted

Ethan Martin and Aaron Miller say they are working hard because they know that having been first-round draft picks is not a guaranteed road to the major leagues.

August 21, 2010

Ethan Martin and Aaron Miller slumped on a bench in the third base dugout at an empty Clear Channel Stadium in Lancaster, hoping to escape the near-100-degree desert heat.

It was only a pause, they both hoped, on their way to Dodger Stadium, only 70 miles up the freeway. But for the two former first-round draft picks, still trying to find their way with Inland Empire of the Class-A California League, the majors must have seemed light years away.

After a week in which the Dodgers heralded the signing of their latest first-round draft choice, Texas high school pitcher Zach Lee, while the Washington Nationals were giving a record bonus to Nevada teenager Bryce Harper, the No. 1 overall pick, the stories of Miller and Martin offer a cautionary tale.

"Baseball's the one sport that first-rounders might not even show up in the big leagues," Miller said. "You have so many players and so many different levels and things that could go wrong.

"I still have a lot of work to do."

For Miller, the Dodgers' top pick in 2009, a lot went wrong during his six-start trial with double-A Chattanooga this summer, resulting in his demotion back to the Cal League. For the season, the left-hander is 4-8 but with a respectable 3.88 earned-run average and nearly as many strikeouts as innings pitched.

Martin, Baseball America's 2008 national high school player of the year and the first prep pitcher selected in that draft, tore up his right knee in a fielding drill shortly afterward and didn't make his pro debut until the next spring. Since then, he is 15-20 with a 5.00 ERA.

"It was an awakening," Martin, 21, said. "I found out ability is not going to take over anymore. You're actually going to have to work hard. You're going to have to concentrate on the little things that are going to make you successful."

For every Mike Leake who rockets straight to the big leagues, the road from the draft to the show is littered with dozens of players like former infielder Matt Bush, the top pick in the 2004 draft who has yet to advance beyond the low minors and is trying to reinvent himself as a pitcher.

Or Miami high school player Luis Montanez, whom the Chicago Cubs selected over Chase Utley, Adam Wainwright and Rocco Baldelli in 2000. Eleven seasons, two organizations and six positions later, Montanez has been shuffled between teams 21 times. And he has only 251 major league at-bats to show for it.

Being a first-round pick may mean something on draft day. But not on the day you pull on a professional uniform for the first time.

"You're just another player," said Martin, who was selected 15th overall in 2008. "There's a lot of people in the big leagues that weren't first-rounders, so obviously once you get to this level, after you sign, you're on the same playing field. Everybody's got the same opportunity once that comes."

Miller, a supplemental first-round selection out of Baylor University, agreed.

"Even though I was blessed to be drafted where I was, I still have a lot of work to do to eventually get to the big league level," he said. "Baseball's much faster here than it was even in college, than it was in high school definitely. You've got to learn to make the adjustments."

Off the field as well. Even at the lower minor league levels, teams play twice as many games as top college programs. And the travel is far more arduous.

"The maturity has to be there," said Miller, who turns 23 in three weeks, "You have to really love the game to come out here and work every day. And there are some guys who just might not be ready for that."

In his visit to Dodger Stadium last week, Lee, 18, certainly seemed ready. He came off as composed and confident but not cocky. The Dodgers' reputation for quickly promoting young pitchers played a huge role in his signing, he said. But he wasn't expecting anything to be handed to him.

A few days earlier, Martin was saying much the same thing.

"If I do what I have to do and go out and succeed and do everything, work my butt off, then the Dodgers aren't going to sit around and wait," he said. "If you're ready, they're going to move you up. That makes it a lot easier for me. That puts me in a situation where I have to work and work and work and be ready so they can move me up."

A few feet away, Miller was again shaking his head.

"The ball's in our court," he said. "Just learn as much as we can as quick as we can and try to beat the curve."

Los Angeles Times Articles