Clement toils while ’05 draft mates shine

Any year now, on a warm July afternoon at the Baseball Hall of Fame, the inductee will stand on the dais and offer the proper perspective on his place among the game’s immortals.

“I have never shared the company of so many truly great players,” he will say, “since, as you know, I wasn’t selected in the first round of the 2005 draft.”

OK, maybe that was a joke. Given the choice, I would take Andre Dawson (Hall, Class of 2010) over Justin Upton (Draft, Class of 2005). But the ‘05 crop was so remarkable that casual fans hear about it, at least indirectly, every day during the baseball season. It’s a group that challenges — in bulk talent, if not superstar power — the celebrated NBA class of two years earlier: LeBron, Carmelo, Bosh, Wade … Darko Milicic.

Troy Tulowitzki has finished among the top five in National League MVP voting twice. But he doesn’t have an NL Rookie of the Year award; draft classmate Ryan Braun edged him in a hairsplitting vote four years ago. Braun has since made three All-Star teams.

Already, both have contracts through 2020. Tulowitzki will earn $157.75 million, Braun $145.5 million. Braun is 27. Tulowitzki is 26. Life is good.

Upton and Ryan Zimmerman joined Braun on the 2009 NL All-Star team. Ricky Romero (Blue Jays) and Mike Pelfrey (Mets) made Opening Day starts this year. Alex Gordon, after two disappointing seasons, has been a left-handed-hitting force during the Royals’ fast start.

All were selected among the top 10 picks. All are with their original organizations.

Look beyond that and you find more notable names: Andrew McCutchen, Jay Bruce, Jacoby Ellsbury, Matt Garza, Colby Rasmus, Clay Buchholz, Jed Lowrie … Yes, 2005 was a good year to pick pretty much anywhere.

But amid the thriving careers and fulfilled potential, it’s important to remember that not every fresh-faced 21-year-old turns into a franchise player. Sometimes the scouts were wrong. Sometimes the scouts were right — but it looks like they were wrong. Sometimes the players don’t develop the way they should. Sometimes the players just can’t stay healthy.

A combination of that, so far, has been the story of Jeff Clement.

He is 27 years old. He has a .223 batting average in fewer than 400 major-league plate appearances. On Thursday, when the Milwaukee Brewers announced Braun’s new deal, Clement endured another five-hour day in his rehabilitation program following microfracture surgery on his left knee last September.

Clement likely won’t appear in a game at any level until July at the earliest.

And you would not believe how gracious he is about it all.

“I don’t spend time thinking, what-if this? What-if that?” Clement said over the phone from Bradenton, Fla., where he’s locked into a rehab/cardio program seven days a week. “I’ve moved forward. Everything happened the way it did. I’m where I’m at today, looking ahead to the future.

“I’ve got a great family — great parents, great siblings and a great wife and kids that are a joy to be around. So many things are so great in my life that I’ve got no time to sit around and think about what might have been.”

Clement was the No. 3 overall pick that year — right after Upton and Gordon, right before Zimmerman, Braun, Romero and Tulowitzki. The Seattle Mariners took him. There was a lot to like: He was a handsome, hardworking kid who set the national high school home run record while starring for the Marshalltown (Iowa) Bobcats. He won the Johnny Bench Award as the nation’s top collegiate catcher during his final season at USC.

Clement checked three boxes where the Mariners were deficient: catcher, power, left-handed hitter. The Seattle scouts were smitten by Tulowitzki, too. Tulowitzki told contributor Tracy Ringolsby that Seattle had planned to take him until the night before the draft.

What changed?

“They said they had a shortstop in the organization, but no catchers, and therefore that made the pick easy,” Tulowitzki said.

Naturally, it all goes back to Yuniesky Betancourt.

So, in the end, the Mariners drafted for need, and Clement received a $3.4 million signing bonus.

“Catching being what it is, we gambled,” Bill Bavasi, then the Mariners’ general manager, recalled over the weekend. “Thought if we hit on a left-handed-hitting catcher with power, we’d really have something.”

For a while, it looked like they would. Clement reached the majors in 2007 — an on-time arrival, near the end of his second full season as a professional. There was a game-tying, ninth-inning home run off Cleveland closer Joe Borowski. There was a walk-off homer — to center field, no less — against the Texas Rangers. He batted .375 that September.

But in retrospect, the harbingers existed even then. Clement suffered a torn meniscus in his left knee during the previous season, requiring surgery. He’s had a total of three operations on the knee, including the microfracture.

Clement acknowledged during our lengthy telephone interview that his knee won’t allow him to be a major-league catcher anymore. His future is likely at first base. “As much as I’d like to tell you that catching would be the thing, because that’s what I love doing the most,” Clement said, “they’ve made it pretty clear that’s out the window.”

Meanwhile, questions about the Mariners’ long-term commitment to Clement began not long after the happy news conference at Safeco Field. Kenji Johjima signed a three-year, $16.5 million contract with the team roughly four months after Clement joined the organization. Longtime Mariners owner Hiroshi Yamauchi played an influential role in the acquisition of Johjima, his Japanese countryman.

Johjima remained with the Mariners throughout Clement’s final 3 1/2 years with the organization.

“Jeff’s minor-league performance was similar to his peers from the ’05 draft, (but his) opportunity to earn a full-time starting job was drastically different after the Johjima signing,” said Brodie Van Wagenen, an agent at CAA, which also represents Zimmerman and Braun. “He was not given a legitimate opportunity to win a starting job in spring training until 2010 with the Pirates.”

In four years in the Mariners organization, Clement made 35 starts as a big-league catcher. We can debate which factor — his knee, his lack of production in the majors, the presence of Johjima — had the most to do with that. Clement, though, isn’t interested in rehashing the past. Sure, he said, the Johjima signing surprised him. But he doesn’t see it as an excuse.

“My career, up to this point, has not gone the way I expected of myself,” Clement said. “There were flashes where I did show what I was capable of. But I’m not where I thought I would be right now. I would like to be an established major-league All-Star. I’m not. I’m sure a lot of people (in Seattle) are disappointed.

“But as far as being done, or considering myself a bust, no way would I say that. I feel like my career is far from over. There’s still a lot of time. Until that day comes when I have to do something else, I’m going to pour everything I have into becoming a better baseball player.”

Clement said he can’t remember the last time he felt “really healthy” on a baseball field. That could change later this summer. He’s heard positive feedback about his prognosis. Dr. Richard Steadman, the noted orthopedist who performed the surgery, has told Clement that he should be able to move better than before. “I’m looking forward to that,” Clement said.

The rehab may be grueling, but Clement can spend time at home with sons Jake and Benjamin after each daily session. “Kids have completely changed my perspective on a number of different things,” he said. “It’s been a blast. I look forward to every new stage. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Mariners fans won’t soon forget what the ’05 draft has meant to so many other franchises.

Tulowitzki is one of the best four or five players in the game, while Clement’s bio can be found in the minor league section of the Pirates’ press guide. Page 282. In Seattle, at least, it’s a contrast that may never go away.

But there’s at least one person who still believes in Jeff Clement. And that is Jeff Clement. In a story like this, that’s an essential place to start.

“You can’t live your life based on everybody else’s expectations,” he said. “My expectation for myself, first, is to get healthy, then to play hard every single night and be productive on a winning team. I expect to get the most out of my abilities. I haven’t done that, but I don’t feel like my career is over. There’s still time for me.”

Every Monday morning this season, we will examine a pressing baseball issue in our baseball column Behind the Seams.