Yesterday Shelby Miller struck Chris Duncan out, and while I didn't see it (or even hear about it live) I am taking as a matter of faith the fact that it was awesome. With Miller a few years from a long-term stay at Major League camp things have been a little dry, prospect-wise; there is the kind of enjoyment one gets from watching Stephen Strasburg pitch as a National for the first time, and there is the kind of enjoyment one gets from watching Allen Craig and Joe Mather compete for a job on the bench, and the Cardinals have begun 2010 with a lot of one and almost none of the other.
That the strikeout victim was Chris Duncan doesn't necessarily make it more awesome, but it adds something I can't quite put a word to; it also allows me a neat segue to the kind of untimely comparison that March engenders. Chris Duncan was the Cardinals' third first rounder in a 1999 draft that produced Dunc, Josh Pearce, Ben Johnson, Jimmy Journell, Coco Crisp, Mike Crudale, Bo Hart, and some other guy.
Coco Crisp and Chris Duncan isn't a bad haul for a draft, let alone Albert Pujols. But it's an interesting draft; far from the stingy drafts of 2002 through 2004 that kept the Cardinals' system in the dumps, the 1999 draft that pushed them in that direction was plenty rich for the average team's blood. It just didn't work out.
First Round, Pick 30: Chance Caple, RHP, Texas A&M: This pick was courtesy the Braves, who'd signed away Brian Jordan; the Cardinals' real pick, number 18, went to the Orioles for Eric Davis. A big (6'6") college pitcher without a dominant strikeout pitch. John Mozeliak, director of scouting operations at the time, may not know art, but he knows what the Cardinals like. Caple signed soon enough to make seven starts in short-season New Jersey, then spent a perfectly good full season in high-A Patomac.
Caple's one of the increasingly rare pitchers who never made it anywhere near back from elbow surgery. He missed all of 2001, then walked 77 batters in 109 innings during his 2002-2003 comeback. (According to a contemporary Baseball Prospectus article—I wasn't following so closely at the time—he also lost time in 2002 when he "suffered a broken hand when a foul ball drilled him in the dugout."
First Round, Pick 36: Nick Stocks, RHP, Florida State: Hey, it's the kind of pick we like to see every year! Stocks was a supplemental pick, but he got top-twenty money, $1.4 million. A USA Today article from 2002, stranded even now on their old website interface, has the following:
Back trouble didn't shut Stocks down in 2001 but it definitely deflated his numbers. The supplemental first-rounder in 1999 out of Florida State posted a 3.78 ERA in his pro debut in 2000 at Peoria. Like Journell, he already went through Tommy John surgery in college. "He has an electric arm and a plus-plus curveball," Mozeliak said. "All he needs is to make the adjustment to pitching at a higher level."
He never did, of course. 2000 was his best year in the minors; for the next several seasons he struggled to get out of AA as his control wavered and the injuries piled up. He reached AAA as a reliever in 2004, but got hammered in Memphis and sent back to AA in 2005 after a terrible camp; he was released shortly afterward.
First Round, Pick 46: Chris Duncan, 1B, HS: Duncan! Extra young—he played an age-18 season—and extra named-Duncan, he remained a prospect in the Cardinals' weak system long after 5'11" John Doe would have, then stopped being a prospect, and then crushed the ball for a year and a half in a way that was almost completely unforeseeable from his minor league numbers. Without his brief stint as Prince Fielder (on offense and, it should be said, defense) in 2006 the Cardinals are missing a World Series trophy.
To be honest, I'm not sure what there is to learn from a draft like this, except that to retreat, as the Cardinals did after their late-nineties trip into over-slot overdrive, into the chintzy drafts of the pre-Luhnow period doesn't do anything but save money. Sometimes a well-planned draft—especially one with two pitchers at its head—is a miss. Back problems crop up, a guy gets beaned in the dugout, etc.
The 2009 draft was a perfectly satisfying blogosphere draft. A high-risk, high-upside high school starter, some weird picks like Robert Stock and Scott Bittle; I, personally, cannot ask for anything more. But even though we have ten times the information we had in 1999—following a minor league team game by game was an ordeal as recently as 2006 or 2007—the risks are still there, and being able to watch Miller's every start live doesn't actually make his elbow more secure. I feel like someone who's been given the opportunity to watch his empty house on closed-circuit TV while he's on vacation; I'm glad I don't see any burglars in the area, but I still can't do anything if they show up.
That said, Robert Stock has a single and Shelby Miller has a strikeout. (And Scott Bittle doesn't have to retire after all!) I won't worry about the Curse of Chance Caple until I absolutely must.