Former can't-miss Eric Munson follows trend of No. 3 picks
For some strange reason, many No. 3 overall draft picks never make it
Munson was heralded prospect and got off to good start, but things went downhill
Munson, now 33, is down to his last chance with the indpendent Bridgeport Bluefish
CAMDEN, N.J. -- If one desires to walk from the visitors' dugout to the clubhouse at Campbell's Field, he must brave a maze-like underbelly most rats would find distasteful. First, there is the ducking -- beneath a beam and into an unnerving, ode-to-death darkness. Then, there's the garbage-laced floor -- discarded cups, a wrinkled poster for the film, Thor, a half-eaten pretzel, random clutter and assorted trash.
Finally, you have arrived.
Or, to be more precise, you have done anything but arrived.
Sipping from a cup of coffee, the stubble on his face three or four days old, Eric Munson leans against a clubhouse wall, takes a deep sigh and considers the question hanging before him: What are you doing here?
It's a loaded one, in that the very asking implies what everyone -- including the infielder for the visiting Bridgeport Bluefish of the independent Atlantic League -- knows to be true. Namely, that Munson has been an enormous disappointment. "What am I doing here?" he says. "I'm trying to get to the major leagues. That's been the ultimate goal from Day 1, and it's still the ultimate goal."
Thirteen years ago, in one of the most heavily anticipated drafts in baseball history, the Detroit Tigers used the No. 3 overall selection to tab Munson, a University of Southern California catcher with a compact swing and middle-of-the-order power. At the time, Munson seemed to benefit from the draft's high school-oriented buzz. As a great debate lingered over which prep phenom (outfielder Josh Hamilton of Raleigh, N.C.'s Ashville Road High or pitcher Josh Beckett from Spring, Texas, High) the Tampa Bay Devil Rays should take with the No. 1 pick, Munson quietly went about his days, unburdened by pressure and hype. "I didn't even watch or listen to the draft," he says. "I knew beforehand the Tigers were taking me. There was no stress."
Yet while Munson's career got off to a blazing start (after a switch from catcher to infielder, he was with the Tigers by the end of 2000), the fade was just as rapid. He hit a career-high 19 home runs in 2004 (coupled with a .212 average), was granted free agency at season's end and has spent the ensuing seven years bouncing from one franchise to another (Tampa Bay, Houston and Oakland), never lasting more than 53 games in a season. His last major league action came in 2009, when he received one at-bat in a September call-up with Oakland.
When the website Baseball-Reference.com compares Munson's career to the immortal Floyd Rayford, it is being kind.
Munson, 33, is no Rayford.
What he is, however, is yet another in the long, baffling string of disappointing No. 3 draft picks. Dating back to 1990, few of the top 10 spots of the June draft have failed as miserably as the third overall selection. According to a Wall Street Journal researcher, in the 21 drafts since 1990, the No. 3 picks have combined for just 140.1 Wins Above Replacement. This places behind the first two picks and trails the cumulative selections at spots 10, nine and five. In fact, save for All-Stars Evan Longoria (2006), Troy Glaus (1997) and Mike Lieberthal (1990) and solid big leaguers Corey Patterson (1998), Braden Looper (1996), Jose Cruz, Jr. (1995) and Dustin Hermanson (1994), the third picks have been, by and large, colossal failures.
"I think the reason is pretty obvious," says Mike Moore, the former president of Minor League Baseball. "It's not hard identifying one or two can't-miss prospects, where are the tools are there and the athleticism is undeniable and the level of competition is high. But after those two picks are made, organizations start saying, 'We couldn't get guys we were sure of, so who do we project could possibly be a lot better in five years from now than they are today? There's a big gap there, and you're trying to make the best educated guess.
"Plus, if you mess up at No. 15, nobody notices. But the third pick is high. You need to get it right."
Indeed, in 2001 Tampa Bay -- picking third -- watched as the Twins plucked catcher Joe Mauer first and the Cubs took pitcher Mark Prior at No. 2. That left Tampa's officials debating between pitcher Dewon Brazelton and third baseman Mark Teixeira. Impressed with his mid-90s fastball and a wicked slider, the Rays decided upon Brazelton, an All-America at Middle Tennessee State.
Brazelton hasn't appeared in the majors since 2006. His lifetime record: 8-25, with a 6.38 ERA. Last season, Brazelton pitched for a team called the Kansas City T-Bones. A representative of the T-Bones says Brazelton hasn't been heard from in months.
"He just wasn't very good," says a major league scout. "Nice on paper, lousy in games."
Though Moore speaks confidently of his theories, the truth is No. 3 picks have struggled for many reasons. Some, like Brazelton, never adjusted to the majors. Others, like David McCarthy (Twins, 1991) and B.J. Wallace (Expos, 1992) simply weren't that good. "Logically, it's hard to pinpoint a specific premise," says Brian Johnson, a San Francisco Giants scout. "Obviously the top two guys are -- on paper -- a little better than the third. But why there's such a drop-off, I don't know."
In 2002, the Cincinnati Reds, selecting third, landed righthander Chris Gruler, who had struck out 135 batters in 66 innings as a senior at Liberty High in Brentwood, Calif. Though not of Josh Beckett's caliber, the Reds considered Gruler -- blessed with a 96-mph fastball and wicked overhand curve -- to be a can't-miss future ace. Johnny Bench, working as a consultant with the organization at the time, said Gruler had "a better change-up and breaking ball" than Tom Seaver.
Upon signing, Gruler was immediately assigned to the Reds' Rookie League club in Billings, Mont., and after just four games was promoted to Class A Dayton. Then the trouble began.
"I started developing discomfort in my right shoulder, and when I went to see a doctor he said I didn't need surgery," Gruler says. "So I pushed through it and I wound up with a torn labrum." Gruler underwent three shoulder surgeries, and after missing all of 2005, then appearing in just five games in 2006, was released at age 22. "There was a point when I was throwing in he mid-70s, but after I threw a couple of bullpen sessions I wasn't able to move my arm," says Gruler, who now owns his own branding company. "That was a bad sign."
At least he can blame bad luck. For Munson, the illusive dreams -- major league life, major league money, major league consistency -- remain painfully out of reach. Before this season, he signed with Bridgeport with the hope that, within a matter of weeks, a big league club would take notice. Yet through 16 games, Munson was batting just .149, with no home runs, three RBIs and 12 strikeouts in 47 at-bats. He is backing up someone named Wes Bankston at first base, seeking out hope when little hope remains.
"In my heart, I still believe I can play at the highest level," he says. "I still believe."