A Game of Chance

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One player is $25 million richer. One player is out of the game altogether. Baseball is unique in how its stories play out. Triumph, tragedy, victory, and defeat echo off the walls and through the dugouts of minor league parks, major league stadiums, high school fields, and college yards. The strength of one player may pan out and lead to years of success and financial stability. Yet, the talents of another may never be fully realized. And then there’s the stories in between. Such are the cases of Cameron Maybin and Drew Cumberland.

The dichotomy of their tales is what makes baseball so great and painful and exciting and unpredictable. The middle, separating two distinctly different stories, is the shared trait of “prospect.” On either side of this diving line lay the differences, the paths that forked I the middle. On one side is Cameron Maybin and his up-and-down stock. On the other is Drew Cumberland and his terrible tale of medical limitations. Yet, as separated as they are, their paths both began on that middle line.

At 18 years old, Maybin found himself one of the hottest prospects in baseball.  He was the tenth overall pick in the 2005 draft, and he was heading to the Tigers organization.  Prior to the draft, Baseball America called Maybin, “the most promising outfielder available.”  Of course, he was just a high schooler, so many teams were wary of that.  Maybin was considered a top-five player at the time, but many were scared off by rumors of his bonus demands and the potential difficulty they would have in getting his contract negotiated.  So he fell to the Tigers.

Drew Cumberland was also drafted out of high school. At 18 years old, the Padres chose Cumberland with the 47th pick overall during the 2007 supplemental first round.  Cumberland was almost as highly touted as Maybin.  Of course, as a middle infielder, not many predicted the power to be there, and Cumberland was slower than Maybin.  But he still ranked high on most prospect boards.  In February of 2008, Baseball Prospectus ranked Cumberland the sixth best player in the Padres farm system.

The two prospects, drafted just two years apart, we on a similar course.  One in the Tigers organization.  The other in the Padres organization.  While they would both wind up under San Diego’s control, their similarities end there.

Maybin rocketed through the minors.  He played an entire season of rookie league ball in 2006, then moved up to Single-A in 2007.  He was quickly promoted to Double-A that same year.   And just prior to rosters expanding in September of 2007,  on August 17, 2007, Cameron Maybin made his Major League debut with the Tigers.  Maybin, just two years removed from the draft, was living every young baseball player’s dream.  He had made the Show, he was a Major League player.  Then came the struggles.  He hit just .143/.208/.265 in 24 games.  He struck out an astronomical 42% of the time.  He was over-matched.

It was certainly a humbling experience for Maybin.  The young center fielder was ranked as the third best prospect in the Tigers organization prior to the 2006 season – behind Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya.  By the end of the 2007 season, with 24 games major league service time under his belt, it was not clear whether Maybin would be given another shot.  And he didn’t ever get that shot.  At least, not with the Tigers.

In December of 2007, the Tigers traded Maybin, along with two other prospects, to the Marlins for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis.  The Marlins were looking to shed payroll, get younger, and rebuild.  The Tigers were trying to compete immediately.  With the Marlins organization, Maybin finally got some true playing time.  He played in 54 games in 2009 and 82 games in 2010.  However, he was quickly losing his prospect rating.  Combined, Maybin hit .257/.323/.391 with the Marlins over three seasons.  He struck out 30.2% of the time.  He also only stole 14 bases.  The Marlins gave up on him.

Shortly after the 2010 season concluded, on November 13th, the Marlins traded Maybin to the Padres for two relief pitchers; Edward Mujica and Ryan Webb.  This would likely be Maybin’s last shot at proving he had the talent to be a starting center fielder at the major league level.  The Padres were going after him for his defense, but they clearly were hoping to gain some top-of-the-order offense as well.  And Maybin did not disappoint.

While his numbers from the 2011 season at first glance may look very similar to his career numbers in Florida – .264/.323/.393.  However, Maybin cut down on his strikeouts by a large margin last season.  He struck out 24.2% of the time, an eight percent reduction from his days with the Marlins.  Maybin also stole 40 bases for the Padres.

His production led to accolades throughout the community, throughout the organization, and throughout baseball.  The prospect who had all but lost his shine, was back in the spotlight.  The trade, made by Jed Hoyer in his one season as the Padres GM, was clearly a lopsided one favoring the Padres.  Maybin rode his speed, his increased focus at the plate, and his glove work in the outfield to a $25 million contract extension.  No longer would he be playing for non-guaranteed, league-minimum money.  Maybin’s roller coaster career is still just starting, but he has overcome a slow start at the big league level and two trades in his young career.  His story is a far cry from Drew Cumberland’s.