MILWAUKEE -- The idea, the reporter told former Brewers scouting director Jack Zduriencik, was to pick one prospect in each franchise's history who was drafted but did not sign, then went on to be an impact player elsewhere.The sentence is barely finished when Zduriencik answers.• 2018 Draft order | 2018
MILWAUKEE -- The idea, the reporter told former Brewers scouting director Jack Zduriencik, was to pick one prospect in each franchise's history who was drafted but did not sign, then went on to be an impact player elsewhere.
The sentence is barely finished when Zduriencik answers.
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"Jacob Arrieta," Zduriencik said. "That's the guy."
Yes, Arrieta was nearly a Brewer. Milwaukee drafted him in the 26th round of the 2005 Draft, but he didn't sign with the club.
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In running nine Drafts for Milwaukee from 2000-08, Zduriencik laid the foundation for the Brewers' breakthroughs in '08, when they snapped a 26-year postseason drought, and '11, when they played within two victories of the World Series. But Zduriencik still wonders about a few players he drafted and couldn't sign. Andrew Bailey is one, a 16th-round pick in '05 who went instead to the A's a year later and won the American League Rookie of the Year Award in '09.
And there are others in franchise history before Zduriencik came along. The most notable is Nomar Garciaparra, Milwaukee's fifth-round pick in 1991 who went to Georgia Tech, got drafted by Boston in '94 and went on to a stellar big league career.
For Zduriencik, however, Arrieta is the big "what if."
"That's the guy I wish we would have signed," he said.
A right-hander who grew up in Plano, Texas, Arrieta was drafted out of high school by the Reds in the 31st round in 2004 but declined to sign. He went to Weatherford College, a junior college 80 miles from home, where Zduriencik remembers reports detailing a right-hander with a big, projectable frame throwing 88-90 mph with a promising curveball. The Brewers picked Arrieta in the 26th round a year later as a "draft and follow," a since-retired practice by which a team owned a player's rights for a full year, and could further scout him before deciding whether to negotiate a contract.
Zduriencik found some future big leaguers via that method -- Lorenzo Cain and left-handers Manny Parra and Dana Eveland among them.
"I always felt like if a guy really came on the next year and you had to pay him a lot of money, well, he earned the money," Zduriencik said. "Now he's pitching well, you've got him under your control, hopefully you're winning and you have to pay the guy."
With Arrieta, the Brewers never got that far.
In the middle of the summer, Texas Christian University offered Arrieta a scholarship.
"That's very unusual for a four-year school to steal a kid out of junior college when he still has another year left to play in junior college," Zduriencik said. "But he ended up deciding he wasn't that interested in signing. He wanted to go to TCU, an up-and-coming program. He decided, 'I'll take my chances [in the Draft] two years from now.' He did a very unusual thing.
"We could have still signed him in that summer [before he went to TCU], but it kind of changed the whole thing. Basically, we were under the impression that his price had now gone up."
For Arrieta, the decision literally paid off. The Orioles drafted him in the fifth round in 2007 and signed him for $1.1 million, a record at the time for that round.
"The Brewers have a history of drafting young, hard-throwing right-handed pitching. ... I still felt like I wasn't ready," Arrieta said. "I was physically immature. I was mentally, emotionally immature at the time. Just a dumb, hard-throwing kid and wasn't sure where the result was going to end up."
Now, Zduriencik is clear-eyed about the fact it took years for Arrieta to develop into the horse who helped pitch the Cubs to the 2016 World Series. He made it to Baltimore in '10 and pitched to a 5.46 ERA and four walks per nine innings in parts of four seasons before Baltimore traded Arrieta and Pedro Strop to Chicago in July '13 for Steve Clevenger and Scott Feldman.
Would the Brewers have been similarly impatient? General manager Doug Melvin found himself criticized over the years for being too patient with young pitchers with promising arms. Parra was one. Had Arrieta followed the same timeline with Milwaukee, he would have entered his first full season in the Majors in 2011, just as the Brewers were in "go for it" mode after acquiring Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum in offseason trades. How long a leash would they have afforded Arrieta?
Zduriencik sometimes wonders.
"I always say this: Milwaukee was the best time of my career," he said. "I loved the city, I loved being there, I loved what we accomplished while we were there together. I love all the guys who worked for me there and went on to be scouting directors. …
"Those were such good times there. What we accomplished, I thought it was pretty good. I didn't dislike any of the other places I worked, but that challenge at that time in Milwaukee was so much fun."
Zduriencik went on to be GM of the Mariners through 2015. Now he does pre- and postgame radio in Pittsburgh and occasional television work.
It's fun, he said, thinking back on what might have been with various Draft picks.
"Arrieta is definitely the one," Zduriencik said, "just because of how good he became later on. … At some point, all of a sudden, he was taking it to another planet."
"It's a crazy journey for us," Arrieta said, "and no journey is the same. And that's why this game is so unique."
Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy and like him on Facebook.