Garrett Atkins, 31, signed a minor league deal with an invitation to camp with the Bucs last week. Three years ago that would have been huge news; now he's just another comeback kid trying to grab a spot on a MLB bench. If he makes the roster, he’ll earn $800K.
Out of baseball since the Orioles DFA'ed him on June 27th in 2010, Atkins batted just .214 with one homer and nine RBIs in 44 games for Baltimore. But Atkins had been all that at one time, and enjoyed his best years under Bucco skipper Clint Hurdle while playing in Colorado.
Atkins first made a name for himself at University High School in Irvine, California. He hit .557 with 13 home runs as a senior, and was recruited by Pepperdine, USC, Oklahoma State, Cal State-Fullerton and UCLA. He was even drafted out of prep school by the Mets in the tenth round of the 1997 draft, but decided to play for the Bruins instead.
At UCLA, Atkins became the first three-time All-America in school history. The first baseman kept some pretty fast company on campus, too - his roomie was teammate Chase Utley. From the time they stepped on campus, he and Utley started every game for UCLA.
On the field, Atkins put together a 33-game hitting streak and finished his career with a .369 batting average, 40 home runs, 56 doubles and 167 RBI. He honed his wooden bat skills, too. Atkins was the Cape Cod League Playoff MVP and on the All-Star West Squad MVP in 1999; the season before he hit .383.
So it was no surprise when the junior was drafted by the Rockies in the fifth round (137th overall) in 2000 and signed in June. Playing in Low Class A Portland, Atkins was named the 2000 Northwest League Co-MVP after batting .303 with seven homers.
During the 2001 pre-season, the Denver Post and TeamOne Baseball anointed him as the Rockies' top first base prospect (he would switch to third in 2002 thanks to a certain Mr. Todd Helton), as he advanced to High A Salem.
There, he finished second in the Carolina League in batting average (.325) in 2001, losing the title on the final day of the year. Atkins did lead the Carolina League in doubles with 43, on base percentage (.421) and in OBS with a .892 mark.
It was quite a season for Atkins. He had a 20-game hitting streak and was named the Carolina League Player of the Month in August when he hit .349. Atkins was the starting first baseman for the CL All-Star Game and homered.
He was named as the Colorado Rockies Minor League Player of the Month in April, and by season's end, he was the 2001 Colorado Rockies Minor League Player of the Year. After the season, Atkins was ranked as the Rockies' No. 3 prospect, and top position player.
In 2002, Atkins batted .271/12/61 for the Class AA Carolina Mudcats, and after the season, he batted .354 in the Arizona Fall League.
In 2003, he nearly broke camp with the Rox after batting .525 with a dozen RBI in spring training. It carried over, and Atkins hit .319/13/67 for the Class AAA Colorado Springs SkySox. He got an August call, but didn't do much with it, hitting .159 in 69 at-bats.
Atkins spent 2004 at Colorado Springs, where he hit .366 with 15 home runs and 94 RBI. He led all of minor league baseball in batting average, and the Pacific Coast League in doubles (43) and OBP (.434). The third baseman got his September cup of coffee with Colorado, and this time hit .357, though with only 28 at-bats.
Atkins started the 2005 season on the DL with a strained hamstring, but after a quick rehab stint at Colorado Springs, he took off. He batted .287/13/89; his RBI total led both the Rockies and all MLB rookies. Atkins was selected as the NL Rookie of the Month in June, finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting, and earned a spot on the Topps Major League Rookie All-Star Team.
At 26 years old and in his second full big league season, Atkins hit .329 with 29 homers, 120 RBI, and 117 runs in 2006, with a slash line of .329/.409/.556 and an OPS+ of 136. He was fourth in the NL in average and fifth in RBI. Atkins was the NL Player of the Week after the first week of the year and finished 15th in MVP voting.
He helped lead the Rockies to 14 wins in their last 15 regular season games in 2007, pushing them into the playoffs and World Series. During that stretch, Atkins batted .414.
Overall, he hit .301, with 25 homers and 111 RBIs from the fifth/sixth hole hitter, and .349 with 12 home runs and 58 RBI after the all-star break. But a couple of cracks were beginning to show. Atkins batted .349 at Coors Field, but hit only .254 in away games. He had 13 fewer doubles, and his K's jumped by 34%. But that was of little concern then; his monster 2006 season would be tough for anyone to replicate, and 2007 was a fine year with the stick for Atkins by mortal standards.
Atkins spent much of the season playing his original position, first base, in 2008 because of an injury to Helton. He hit .286/21/99, having another solid season. But his eye was beginning to wander. In 2006, he actually drew more walks than he had K's; in 2008, he walked just 40 times and whiffed 100. His OBP dropped nearly 40 points, and after four strong seasons, his run of offensive excellence was about to end.
During the off-season, Atkins inked a one-year $7M contract with the Rockies for 2009. But he struggled mightily, becoming a part-time player and putting up a line of .226/9/48. Ian Stewart and his 25 dingers made Atkins expendable, and he was non-tendered, becoming a free agent. In his seven seasons with the Rockies, Atkins hit .289 with a .354 OBP, 98 homers and 479 RBI in 773 games.
He signed with Baltimore in 2010 for a guaranteed $4.5M and expectations of being their full-time first baseman. But Atkins got only 140 at-bats and hit .214 with seven doubles, one homer and nine RBI before the O's gave up on him. He was DFA'ed in June and released in July. No one picked him up, even though his salary would be on Baltimore's dime.
Now Atkins will get another chance to play in the big leagues in 2011 with the Pittsburgh Pirates and his old boss Clint Hurdle.
Does he have a good shot at breaking camp with the Bucs in 2011? Well, perhaps Hurdle can help him regain some of his old thunder. And he might be in line for a break from the baseball gods; in the past two years, his BABIPs have been .246 and .266, way under the league average.
Could he become the next Pat Burrell and rediscover his mojo? Maybe, but his average, homers, doubles, OBP and ISO have all declined each and every year over the past five years, and that's not an easy trend to reverse.
Also working against him: he's considered a product of hitter-friendly Coors Field; his batting splits are fairly even, so platooning won't be much help; no one took a chance on him last year, even for minimum wage; he's a below average fielder at both 1B and 3B, and conditioning is not his strong suit.
Hey, even with all that, Atkins is worth the price; after all, he's going head-to-head with Steve Pearce, Josh Fields and Andy Marte, not Joey Votto and Albert Pujols. But we don't see him coming north with the Pirates this spring, although it would be a good story if he could.