Donavan Tate, now 20 years old, was seen as a high risk, high ceiling talent coming out of Cartersville High School in Georgia. The San Diego Padres—an organization that typically doesn't bet the house on inexperienced players in the draft—couldn't pass on a player whose already drawn comparisons to Arizona Diamondbacks All-Star outfielder Chris Young.
The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Tate has enough athleticism for an entire starting lineup. A four-star football recruit, he runs a 4.5-second 40-yard-dash—that's the only way a center fielder can survive Petco Park's infinite outfield. Tate, considered a five-tool player, has a long, slender build. His raw ability to hit for average and decent power is only overshadowed by his almost rhythmical defense, which he considers his greatest strength. He glides around center field, trimming gaps into microscopic slivers. He might as well place a flag at his position that reads, "You'll have better luck hitting up the lines." Maybe Tate should be drawing comparisons to 10-time Gold Glove winner Andruw Jones.
Oh wait, he already has.
So why, in just his second season in the Padres organization, has Tate's name become less synonymous with those of Jones and Young and more with that of Matt Bush? —The last prep player taken by the Padres in the first round (No. 1 overall in 2004), and who didn't advance past the Class A level.
Well, it doesn't have much to do with what he's done on the field. Heck, he's barely seen any time in the field. Tate has been hampered by a string of injuries since signing with the Padres.
Tate's bad fortune began just two days after he signed the highest singing bonus ever for a high school player, at the time. Tate developed a sports hernia while at the Padres complex in Arizona, which required surgery and forced him to miss the rest of the minor league season and an instructional camp in October. A clean bill of health wouldn't last more than a couple of weeks. In late November, Tate broke his jaw while riding an ATV near his home in Cartersville, Ga.
Tate entered 2010 looking for a clean slate in a new season—but he wouldn't even make it past spring training as he sustained a strained shoulder while diving for a ball. He would return to play 25 games in the Arizona League. His 2011 season would be halted in mid-April after he hyper extended his knee and bruised a bone during a collision with fellow outfielder Everett Williams.
Being a two-sport athlete, who would have thought it would have been baseball to sideline Tate this many times?
"Staying on the field—that would be a weakness for me right now," said Tate. "I just need to get things going."
Tate, now fully recovered, joined the Padres short-season Class A team, the Eugene Emeralds, based in Oregon. Besides trying to make up for nearly two years of missed at-bats and reps in the field, Tate is trying to approach the rest of the season without the fear of it coming to another abrupt end. It's almost like he has to look both ways before crossing the white lines. But he says that he just wants to get his time in on the field.
"I think the biggest thing is just getting the reps," he said. "Just getting reps everyday in the outfield, and when you get a ball hit to you, knowing what you got to do before the ball is even hit to you, because you've done it so much. It just becomes a part of your game.
"You always have it in the back of your mind. You wonder, ‘what if?' but you can't really think about that. Just go out and do what you got to do everyday and take it day by day, and then, I think, everything else will fall into place."
Even while away from baseball, Tate has begun to learn the demands of being a professional. In high school, he would play two to three games per week; now he plays nearly every day. The operative word for Tate has now become "preparation." He is learning to prepare his body for a lengthy season, which puts strains on any player. Not to mention, the bus rides don't make the grind any easier.
Tate's minimal time on the field has been more reminiscent of his age than his record signing bonus and draft selection. In his 90 at-bats in the Arizona League last year, the only thing higher than his potential was his amount of strikeouts. Tate batted .222 with 31 total bases, seven stolen bases in eight attempts, and 41 punch-outs.
Emeralds first-year hitting coach Chris Prieto—who played 15 seasons with seven different organizations—says one of the toughest things for any recent draftee is adjusting to the speed of the game at the professional level. This is the first time that Tate is out of his "comfort zone," as Prieto puts it, so now Tate must find ways to slow the game down.
"His weakness right now," Prieto began, "may be the fact that maybe he puts too much pressure on himself because he was a high round guy. Maybe he feels like he should be ahead of where he is and he should do spectacular things.
"We just got to keep telling him that that's not the case. (Tate needs to) just go out there, learn this game and get better everyday. It's a process. Sometimes it doesn't work out as fast as we want it to, but it's still a process, and you got to be patient and just keep working hard."
Tate understands hard work. Growing up in a single parent house, his mother, Traci Sims, introduced Tate to baseball by playing catch with him. As his talent developed, Sims worked two or three jobs so her son could play on travel teams. And exposure wasn't limited to only baseball.
"My mom is a big influence because when I was little, she was getting me involved in all sports—not just singling me to one specific sport," Tate said with an infectious smile. "She wanted me to get out there and see what I love to do and what I wanted to do.
"Just her making a sacrifice to make me better and allow me to do what I love to do. She's gotten me where I am today."
Where Tate is today is at the start of his 2011 season, not counting the six games in Low-A Fort Wayne prior to the collision. There was no glorious affirmation of arrival in his first series of the season. He began the year by going 0-for-14 with six strikeouts. While strikeouts continue to pester him, he looks to have begun his baseball ascent. In seven games since June 20, Tate has gone 14-for-31 with four doubles, three triples, and he has five stolen bases on the season.
"What a great foundation to work with," Prieto said. "He's got so many tools, and you can just see the ability is there.
"He has to get better just like every athlete has to get better in a lot of different areas. He knows that. He's a hard worker, and he's just a good, fun-loving kid, and he's great to work with."
Tate has been working on driving the ball to the opposite field and becoming more of a gap hitter. These are just the initial steps in his long road to the Majors. He is aware of what is expected from him, and he says that he'll continue to prepare himself—on and off the field—to live-up to the high standards he is being held too. He just hopes that the easiest part of the game doesn't continue to be the hardest—stepping on a field.
"Stay healthy, that's number one," Tate said. "Get my at-bats in. Work on my swing and have a solid year.
"Play. That's my biggest thing. Play."
So, maybe "play" should be Tate's optimal word.