Bullington Reaches End Of The Line

JaMarcus Russell, Ki-Jana Carter, Greg Oden, Kwame Brown. These names strike fear in the hearts of GMs in the NFL and NBA. They are a few of the worst first pick busts in recent draft history – their legacy nothing but disappointment and derision. Maybe the problem was injury. Maybe it was character flaws. Perhaps it was just poor evaluation of talent.

Whatever the reason for the failure, it’s devastating. Every team dreads betting the future of their franchise on a draft pick, only to see their hopes, as well as their finances, go up in flames. When it happens to a first overall pick in a draft, the effect is felt for years.

There isn’t quite the media scrutiny of first-pick failures in baseball as in other sports. For one thing, baseball draft picks often take years to rise to the major leagues, then take even longer to reach the national consciousness. The failure usually occurs outside the national spotlight.

Second, drafting in baseball seems even more like guess work than in other sports. You’re often dealing with teenagers, and levels of competition are even more diverse when it comes to high school sports. It seems more common for high MLB picks to fail than in other sports.

But baseball has its own ignominious list of first pick disasters. You just have to search a little harder to find them. A Google search reveals Matt Bush and Brien Taylor head the list.

One more name can probably be officially added to the roster of first-pick failures. Last week the Royals allowed Bryan Bullington, the first pick in the 2002 draft, to sign with a Japanese team.

Officially, the Royals placed Bullington on unconditional release waivers after he’d been designated for assignment. That basically means you’re not wanted. When you’re allowed to sign with a team in Japan, that means you’re not wanted by anyone in Major League Baseball.

It pains me to write that. I have no problem rooting for some players to fail. Guys with out-of-control egos, guys who break the rules or who treat others disrespectfully. There are some guys who I’d be glad to say they were no longer wanted in their league.

But when Bullington signed with the Royals a year ago, I found myself pulling desperately for him to succeed. Not only could the Royals use the help – God knows that’s true. But the more compelling drama was seeing a guy fighting for his baseball life.

Bullington had gone 0-5 in just 13 games before coming to KC, making the Royals seem even more than ever like the last stop on the road to oblivion. Shoulder problems had plagued him, but his minor league numbers had been decent. He just hadn’t found it in the majors. Yet.

I hoped this would be one of those fairy-tale, Rudy-meets-Rocky stories. Bullington gets healthy, suddenly harnesses his unbelievable stuff, and pushes Zach Greinke to #2 in the Royals rotation. Bullington wins a couple of Cy Young awards, helps the resurgent Royals to a couple of series titles and causes everyone in KC to forget Saberhagen, Cone, Appier, Leonard…

For one brief moment my dreams seemed to be coming true. On Aug. 15, Bullington held the Yankees to two hits over eight innings for a 1-0 shutout and his first major league victory. That’s the New York Yankees we’re talking about.

But it was not to be. That win would be his only one of the season, and it appears it may be the only one he ever records. He wound up 1-4 in 13 games for the Royals.

I had hoped the Royals wouldn’t give up on Bullington. Surely he could be useful out of the bullpen. Surely he had something to offer, or else Pittsburg wouldn’t have made him their top pick. I was sad to hear the news, but frankly the Royals gave him a fair shot.

I guess I’m a bit surprised to hear Bullington, at age 30, is willing to make the move to Japan. Surely he can’t be doing it for the money. And surely he doesn’t think there is still time to prove himself in Japan and earn another shot at the Bigs. Wouldn’t it be less painful to just move on to some other endeavor in life?

I wish you the best, Bryan Bullington. I hope you live up to the expectations of a number one pick with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp.

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