Ryan Garko was the 78th pick in the 2003 draft and he performed admirably within that context. He's one of only fourteen players from that round to make the majors and he's certainly one of the three or four most valuable. But, despite Garko's value relative to his immediate draft cohort, he's illustrative of the years of draft picks that Mark Shapiro and the rest of the front office squandered.
In 2003, despite three first round picks, including the 11th and 18th overall, Garko is the best player Cleveland found that year, Kevin Kouzmanoff disregarded because of Josh Barfield. In fact, it's not hard to argue that Garko is the player that added the most value to Cleveland from the 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, or 2006 drafts. I'll stop there because it's not fair to evalue the 2007-2010 drafts yet.
Ryan Garko, the Indians most valuable draft pick from 8 years of drafts, is not going to play baseball in America next year. He's going to play in Korea, in what's apparently the equivalent of a AAA league. If you think about it like that, it make it clear exactly how incredible Cleveland had to be in every other aspect of minor league player acquisition in order to compete in 2005 and 2007. And, of course, it makes it clear exactly how predictable the current state of the franchise was.
Garko moved through the minors quickly after the Indians drafted him, reaching AAA in his first full pro season and making an impressive debut in the majors in 2006. In 2007, he was the third best hitter on a team that advanced to Game 7 of the ALCS and, on top of that, he ran an incredibly charming blog about the postseason experience:
Tonight’s game had an 8:20 p.m. start, which is pretty weird. We all had nothing to do all day. I spent my day at the food court eating chicken fingers with my cousin, Corey "Big Body" Erb. I was getting ready to go.
Garko was never going to be a major league star, but his first exposure to the bigs indicated a guy who had enough power to play at first base as a second-division starter. Unfortunately for Ryan, his power diminished considerably between the end of the 2007 and July of 2009, when the Indians traded him. As Garko's struggles at the plate made his hold on first base more and more tenuous, Eric Wedge started trying to play Garko in left field. It was a disaster. Everything about 2008 and 2009 was a disaster.
In terms of anecdotal memories, by the end, Garko was notable for looking a lot like Fred Flintstone, an incredible lack of footspeed and seemingly trademarking weak pop-ups. Wedge's obsession with finding a new defensive home for Garko was understandable in a strange way. Ryan had been drafted as a catcher and it seemed like there was always a feeling that if this guy could just start catching again, well, heck, we'd really have something! Of course, catching was never a realistic option, so Wedge aimed lower, affording us the chance to watch the worst of a long parade of bad Indians left fielders.
Garko's journey from being a player good for an 830 OPS to one good for a 750 OPS was really about his splits. Ryan had come to the majors in 2006 and 2007 and absolutely destroyed lefties, OPS > 900, and hit righties well enough to survive, OPS > 800. His washout saw both numbers move down, and he leaves the majors with career marks of 858 vs lefties and 750 vs righties.
Still, when Garko was traded, a lot of the smart analysis said he was a player that should have some value to a contender. An 858 OPS against LHP at first base has some value, after all; the Indians once employed a guy to do exactly that. And, besides, as a 28 year old, there was still some hope that Garko would refind or refine his stroke against right-handers. His continued struggles against right-handed pitching, combined with his total lack of devensive versatility or value, effectively ended any thought that a major league team could carry him and, in the end, his career looks about like it should. He got the chances he deserved, more or less. He had the skill-set of Josh Phelps and their careers are similar in a lot of ways, with the exception being that Garko got to participate in a magical playoff run.
Garko did make an impression a lot of fans, and there was considerable anger when he fell out of favor with the front office and coaching staff in 2008 and 2009. Selections from the Castroturf comments on the day he was traded indicate how highly some fans valued him:
i'm gonna miss him in a Indians uniform but at least he's getting out from under wedgie....
So we traded a proven Major League RBI machine for a 9th rated Class A prospect? Gee Mark, why didn't you just GIVE Garko away? Disgusting.
All that anger evaporated pretty quickly when, less than a year after he'd been traded away, Garko had moved through the Giants, Mariners (who did, by waiving him, just GIVE Garko away), and Rangers major-league rosters before getting assigned to the Texas AAA squad for good in mid-2010. Clearly, the Indians had extracted about as much value from Garko as anyone could've, getting both his best major-league at bats and turning him into a prospect, Scott Barnes, that's still held in some regard.
This player, with this circuitous, nondescript tale of major league below average-ness, may be the most successful draft pick (evaluated by value delivered to Cleveland) of the Mark Shapiro era. Ryan Garko, who deserves praise for getting a lot out of his talent, should not be the jewel of eight seasons of drafts.
Ryan will be fine. He'll probably be a star in Korea, and I wish him all the best. He appears to have gotten $300,000, probably more than he could've made in the United States and a number in-line with his yearly earnings to this point. And, of course, as was nearly constantly mentioned when he was in Cleveland, he has a Stanford degree.
For a brief period of time, Garko seemed like everything right about the Shapiro era: a young, hard-working player who was on his way up, using high character and intelligence to contribute to Shapiro's plan. In retrospect, he seems more like much of what was wrong with the Shapiro era: a guy who contributed to an epedemic of not getting offensive production out of classically offensive positions, a player forced to do things he wasn't good at because of a manager run amok, and a terrifically mediocre performer who represented the best of multiple Indians drafts.