Allison hoping for another shot
Right-hander could follow Hamilton's Rule 5 path to redemption
It may sound a little bit familiar: a former first-round pick with a world of talent nearly throws it all away with drugs.
He gets suspended, on more than one occasion, struggles just to survive and gets back on his feet to give baseball one last try. He's not protected on a 40-man roster, meaning any organization can take the long shot and select him in the upcoming Rule 5 Draft.
It worked for Josh Hamilton in 2006. Could Jeff Allison be next?
The stories, to a point, are eerily similar. Allison was taken in the first round of the 2003 Draft, No. 16 overall, by the Florida Marlins. The Peabody, Mass., native was a can't-miss high school phenom with the kind of stuff on the mound that scouts drool over.
The parallel with Hamilton diverges over timing, but in short, both first-rounders had serious drug problems. Allison's started when he was in high school; Hamilton after his pro career began. But the result was the same -- hitting rock bottom and nearly losing everything.
Allison didn't pitch at all in '04, but came back to make 17 starts in '05, in what could have been the start of a feel-good comeback. But it didn't work out that way. He fell deeper into the abyss that drugs -- in his case, heroin -- can create and was out of baseball, seemingly for good. But the right-hander got one last chance this past spring, an opportunity in Marlins camp to make a team.
He did, spending the year with Class A Advanced Jupiter in the Florida State League. Allison's numbers don't look all that impressive, with a 5.22 ERA and .260 batting average-against. He did make the Florida State League All-Star team, posting a 1.88 ERA in April and a 4.36 mark in the first half. But his biggest accomplishment was throwing 120 2/3 innings after not pitching for three years. Some of the poor performances after a layoff like that make sense. Just being on the mound and sober all season was a triumph in itself.
And that leads to the question heading into the Winter Meetings and the Rule 5 Draft this year: is there another chapter to be written?
"The No. 1 question is, 'Does he have the physical ability?' If the answer is yes, then you do your homework," one scouting executive said. "I think people would look at him, depending on his stuff. If the scouting reports are solid, if he has upside and the feeling is he can mentally handle life in the big leagues, I think people would look at him.
"If he's healthy, everyone loved his stuff [as an amateur]."
Just what were the opinions of those who saw him pitch in '08? Those who saw him early likely saw a better version than the Allison who clearly tired at the end of the season, but overall the scouting reports were not too bad. Speaking to several scouts who saw Allison pitch at different times, the combined report would look something like this:
Fastball anywhere from 85-91 mph. Good life and sink on the fastball. Curveball, 74-76 mph. Slider is Major League average pitch, 76-80 mph, good bite and command when on. Changeup, 78-84 mph, average at times. Those who saw him early saw a back end-of-the-rotation pitcher. Those who saw him late thought of him as having average stuff at best. But even one scout who saw him later in the year and originally thought he wouldn't make for a good Rule 5 pick nearly talked himself into it as he discussed Allison.
"He was just a guy when I saw him, a good organization guy, maybe an up-and-down type," the scout began. "You'd be betting on his past like they did with Hamilton. I don't know if an organization would take the chance."
"But he was only 23," he continued. "He might get taken. Maybe someone will take a flier. But I also can see him getting returned as well."
Others who saw him late in the year weren't quite as critical, seeing some good things considering how much he threw after so much time off.
"His stuff was still OK, it was still average at the end," a former American League scouting director said. "His command and stuff wasn't crisp, as you might expect after 25 starts following no activity for two full seasons. Someone who had seen him as an amateur, maybe saw a little bit this year, not from a winning team at this point, might do it.
"He just turned 24, he's relatively young. He still has a relatively good feel for pitching. I'm sure his stuff was plus coming out of high school. Someone that knows they're not going to win, I could see it happening. In a smaller market, with less attention, one that's not going to win for a while."
If such a team does exist, it obviously will have to make the large leap of faith that Allison can continue to stay on the straight path. But with the success of Hamilton, it's possible to see a team more willing to make that jump. Not that Hamilton and Allison are the same person, but the fact that someone rolled the Rule 5 dice once before in a similar fashion and won big time certainly can't hurt Allison's chances.
There's another thing working in his favor. Hamilton definitely still had size and strength working for him when he was being considered for the '06 Rule 5 Draft. But he hadn't played all that much, participating in 56 games in '02, then not again until the '06 season. That summer, with Hudson Valley in the New York-Penn League, Hamilton managed to get only 50 at-bats before a knee injury ended his comeback. Still, the Reds, courtesy of a draft-day trade with the Cubs, took a shot that Hamilton still had the skills to be a Major Leaguer.
"I had the pick, it's the night before the Rule 5," Cubs scouting director Tim Wilken recalled. "We had not seen the guy play in four years. He played for three weeks and came up lame. I went downstairs to sell the pick. I asked every club down there that I could find. The only team that made a bid was the Reds, [scouting director] Chris Buckley and [GM] Wayne Krivsky, and they went with it. They didn't see him either. They went on a whim."
While anyone taking Allison would clearly be trying to do more of the same -- hoping he could rediscover the form that wowed scouts as an amateur -- there is more to go on. His overall numbers may not have been phenomenal, but the fact he played a full season in '08 gives teams a lot more information to work with. Even the scout who thought he was average felt he threw better through five innings before falling apart in the sixth. Perhaps then, there's a role perfect for a Rule 5 pick like this.
"He's a right-handed pitcher, you'd use him in relief," the scouting executive said. "A club, probably one that's not contending, can use him as the 25th guy and use him in the right spots. You can carry him and then option him out."
Or if you get lucky, he sticks around and has something that seemed as improbable as Hamilton's run: a big league career of any sort. Stranger things have happened and the more people thought about the idea, the more sense it seemed to make.
"Anyone that is pitching-strapped, and they've seen what he's done in the past, I could believe it," the former AL scouting director said. "Why not? It's a real good question. This Rule 5 Draft might get a little interesting."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.