Grouse Hunt: The Inside Story Of How Ian Kinsler Became A Ranger

Editor’s Note:  Since today’s a travel day during the 2011 World Series, and you have to wait a whole extra day to watch the Texas Rangers finish off the St. Louis Cardinals, we thought we’d share some classic content from the dearly departed Inside Corner. We recently received a request that we repost the following story by Mike Hindman from June 2009. Enjoy.

Six years ago, the Rangers amateur scouting department got together to merge their area draft boards into one big, comprehensive board as they do every year, including last week in preparation for the 2009 draft.

There were a couple of collegiate shortstops on the list who were being considered to fill out the Spokane roster for the 2003 season and when the meetings got started, Baylor’s Trey Webb looked like he’d probably be the guy who would get the job at the cost of a fourth or fifth round pick.

But one area scout spoke up during those meetings claiming that he’d been following a kid he knew was much better than Webb and could be had in the tenth round, probably much later than that. Though no one knew it at the time, it was a moment that would radically alter the future of the Texas Rangers.

The amateur draft takes place Tuesday and Wednesday. You’ll have no trouble finding stories about what happens in the first round or two, but what goes after that — and why, and how — is pretty murky. There’s no shortage of lists ranking the top-100 prospect lists (or top-50 high school hitters, or top-20 college left-handers, etc.), but the story of how and why a club decides to take a guy in the 10th, 17th or 30th round is rarely told.

With a focus on one of the greatest 17th round picks of all time and the scout who found him, Inside Corner takes you inside of the scouting and drafting process beyond the first few rounds.

Mike Grouse had been a Rangers draftee back in 1984 and played one season for short season Tri-City, hitting .325. He rejoined the organization as a scout a few years later. In the interim, he coached some and worked as an assistant GM for Winston-Salem where he barely survived a life-threatening accident when a tractor rolled and pinned him for nearly six hours.

While recuperating, Grouse made contact with Rudy Terrasas, the current Mets scouting director who was then a scout with the Rangers. Terrasas asked Grouse if he wanted to get back into coaching of if maybe he’d like to become a bird dog for the Rangers. Grouse knew he wanted to be a scout and jumped at the chance, starting off as a free lancer. Still in his wheelchair, the first player he ever worked out for Texas was Anthony Peeler who went on to play 14 seasons in the NBA.

Eventually, the Rangers assigned Grouse to the relatively talent-barren Kansas – Missouri – Nebraska – Dakotas territory. His claim to fame was 1996 draft-and-follow Travis Hafner, but given his territory, he didn’t have a real long list of big league stars to his credit by the time the spring of 2003 came around. That didn’t stop him from speaking his mind about the gritty shortstop from the University of Missouri who had captured his attention.

When Grouse first saw Ian Kinsler back in 2002, he was playing in the National Baseball Conference World Series in Wichita, Kansas and he grabbed the scout’s attention…sort of.

“I’d like to say he absolutely stood out, but that wasn’t the case,” Grouse admitted. “He had a lot of tools I liked at short. The bat was OK, but it was a question of what kind of hitter he was going to be. He was just obviously a baseball player and so when I found out he was coming into my area, he went on my list.”

Having played for one year at Central Arizona Community College and a second — mostly riding the pine — at Arizona State, Kinsler was transferring into Grouse’s territory at the University of Missouri, which made it a bit more difficult for the scout to get a good read on the player. “He was a move-in so I didn’t have any book on him coming into that year,” said Grouse. “A lot of guys by the time they get to college, I’d seen them in high school or even before that. I’d just had that one or two games in Wichita the year before to go on. If we had reports on him [from Arizona] I didn’t know about them.”

Once at Mizzou, it didn’t take long for Kinsler to make an impression on his ballclub, or on Grouse. But it was his makeup and approach more than his skills that heightened Grouse’s interest in Kinsler at that point. “He came into that situation in Missouri and he sort of took that club over,” recalled Grouse who relied on inside information to find out more about the vagabond shortstop. “I had scouted a couple of kids on that club in high school and talked to them about Ian. They all said the same things — he was a leader and a really hard worker and a winner. He just decided they were going to win that year and they did [36-22 with their first trip to the NCAA Regionals in seven years].”

It was clear to Grouse that Kinsler was a gritty “ballplayer” with a lot of heart and a love for the game, but coming to the conclusion that he’d hit enough to be a true prospect took a bit more time. And some reinforcement from a trusted friend and colleague.

Scouts, while being out on the road for months at a time by themselves, end up forming friendships with rivals from other organizations who share the same scouting territories. One of Grouse’s closest friends from the Midwest circuit was and is Dodgers scout Mitch Webster, who seemed to be the only other scout in on Kinsler. “The Diamondbacks had drafted Ian twice before he got to Missouri, so they were probably following him but I wasn’t aware of them putting a guy on him that year. I know there were quite a few guys around who thought he was just a Senior sign type of player.”

But like Grouse, Webster saw a player. “He was sold,” Grouse disclosed. “He said ‘this kid is going to hit.’ And he kept saying it and eventually he sold me on the idea.”

This is where the story takes an incredible twist. While both Grouse and Webster were gaining in their admiration for Kinsler, they also had their eye on a high school shortstop from Missouri named Lucas May. The agreed that May was likely to go around the seventh to tenth rounds. Kinsler, they believed, was beginning to look like a tenth or twelfth rounder.

“Mitch said that he’d probably take May first and if he got him, he wouldn’t come back around for Kinsler. So the Dodgers got their high school shortstop — who is a catcher now — and we got the college shortstop.”

May, it turns out, is a very nice prospect with a future as a power-bat catcher with somewhat suspect catch-and-throw skills. Baseball America ranked him the Dodgers’ 28th best propsect coming into this year.

He’s no Ian Kinsler.

Grouse turned in just one report on Kinsler. Though the Rangers (understandably) declined to make that report available to Inside Corner, Grouse recalls the basics of what he wrote: “Great feel for the game, athleticism, solid defensive actions, intensity. He had leadership qualities. It was mostly just a matter of waiting for the physical part of his game to catch up to the mental part of the game.”

That’s what keeps coming up when Grouse describes what ultimately sold him on Kinsler: the player had lots of room to grow and even more desire to do so.

“Ian was a player that I thought once the game speeded up, he’d be able to speed up with it.” Above all, Kinsler was clearly a “big makeup guy. That’s a huge deal with me,” Grouse explained. “A lot of guys say they want it but when it comes to working for it they don’t have what it takes. It was pretty clear that wasn’t a question with Ian. There was a sense of urgency with him to get better and move up.”

But selling Ian Kinsler to then-scouting director and assistant GM Grady Fuson (who has moved on to a similar role with the Padres) wasn’t necessarily easy. While the Rangers didn’t seem to have any book on Kinsler before he came into Grouse’s territory, Fuson did from his tenure as the Oakland A’s scouting director.

“I remembered him because he was at the same JUCO [Central Arizona College] as Rich Harden and Scott Hairston. He looked like a baseball player, but I didn’t really see the tools then. He had the right approach, but I didn’t remember seeing anything about him then that made me think there was just a whole lot there physically.”

Coincidentally, Fuson and the A’s selected Harden as a draft-and-follow in the 17th round of the 2000 draft and then signed him for early round money a few days before the 2001 draft. Hairston was a toolchest player that had scouts drooling for years. It’s not terribly surprising that a developing Kinsler, at age 18, paled in comparison to those two scout dream boats.

So, somehow, Grouse had to sell Fuson on the idea that the 2003 version of Kinsler was a much better prospect than the 2001 version Fuson had seen at Central Arizona, and that as much as he had grown in those two years, there was more to come. But he had to be careful.

“I had an old scout named Joe Ford from Toronto who was a mentor of mine,” said Grouse. “He told me that projection will get you fired. Just be careful. You have to be realistic and you have to detail the tools and what you think he can become…. You get into what the player can do and whether you see room for growth. You don’t go running around comparing a guy to George Brett.”

Grouse advocated just enough to bring in the Rangers then-central crosschecker Dave Klipstein (who has since moved on to Boston). “It was clear that Ian was a guy Grousie really liked,” Fuson recalls. “So we had him crosschecked. We saw a body that could get stronger. He was a baseball player who could run a little bit. We didn’t see 25 homer power and there was some question about whether he could stay at short, but he was a good athlete with good makeup and could do everything pretty well, probably nothing great at that point.”

With lukewarm-to-positive reports coming in from the crosschecker, the job of selling Kinsler to Fuson was unfinished business for Grouse. It became easier when Fuson went to see the player in the Big 12 tournament in Oklahoma City that spring. “The more we looked at him, the more we started to see everything that Grousie was talking about,” said Fuson. “I remember us all sitting there in the Big 12 tourney and seeing that he really understood how to play the game.”

With Kinsler now on Fuson’s radar, it was time for Grouse to get to know a little bit more about the player and what sort of future he had in mind for himself. “I met with Ian and [his father] Howard a couple of weeks before the draft. I remember it was in the press box at Missouri. We talked about what had happened with the Diamondbacks in the past and their concerns about what had gone on with all of that. They were very honest about where he was,” Grouse recalls. “It was his time and he knew it. Another year of college wasn’t going to do him any good.”

As for Kinsler, he didn’t especially like what Grouse had to say about where he fit in the Rangers draft plans, but he appreciated the scout’s honesty. “The thing that really stood out about Mike is he was honest with me,” Kinsler explained. “There are a lot of guys who will tell you the things you want to hear, but he didn’t. I thought I was a lot better than a 17th round pick. I thought I belonged in the top 10 rounds.

“Other guys wouldn’t tell me anything about the draft process. Mike explained the trickle down effect and how the board worked. If guys they had ranked higher than me fell, there would continue to be some trickling down. Everything would just get pushed back. But Mike said he was going to fight for me and he did. The way he explained the process and the way he explained the thinking made me feel comfortable when the Rangers did draft. I felt like I knew what was going on.”

Generally, Grouse agreed that Kinsler was probably an eighth to tenth round talent, but because he had a good feel for what other scouts thought of the player, he believed that he might slide further down into the draft. One of the reasons for the disparity of opinion was that Grouse knew something others didn’t which led him to believe that rival scouts, including Webster, were probably underrating the player.

“He had a stress fracture in his foot that year [at Mizzou],” Grouse disclosed, “so he really couldn’t run like I knew he could. I’d seen him in Wichita the year before so I knew he was a plus runner. Most people who looked at him at Missouri didn’t know that so they probably downgraded him. But I knew it and I wasn’t telling anybody.”

When Rangers scouts from around the country gathered in Arlington to organize the draft boards that year, Grouse took perhaps the most important stand of his career by insisting that Kinsler, who could probably be had in the 10th round or later was a better prospect than Webb, who was a likely fifth or sixth rounder.

It’s not that the Rangers were terribly hot on Webb, but on an early incarnation of the board, he was ranked ahead of Kinsler and the thinking was that he’d have to be taken much, much earlier. Grouse — who had come across Webb a few times as Baylor made its way through the Big 12 North — convinced Fuson not only that Kinsler represented the better draft value, but the better player as well.

Fuson recalls that “we moved Kins up the board in our pre-draft meetings because Mike was adamant about him. He made a push for us to take him, not in the top five rounds, but he really pushed for him.”

On draft day, Grouse was sitting on what he thought was a eighth round talent he could get later in the day. He’d started to sell Fuson on the idea. But as the draft unfolded, Grouse started to wonder if maybe they were getting a little too cute. “I got itchy. We take a break after about 10th or 11th round. I figured we could push him back a little bit, but I started to get nervous. Then a few rounds later Grady said that we needed a shortstop for Spokane and that’s when I spoke up and said I got your guy right here.”

At that point, Kinsler was just a guy taken eleven rounds after Adam Bourassa, four rounds after Andrew Wishy and one round after Kevin Altman. Did the Rangers actually think that Bourassa or Wishy were bigger and better talents than Kinsler? Not exactly, according to Fuson.

Grady Fuson
Grady Fuson

“When you get down to that part of the draft,” Fuson explained, “there are a lot of things going on. Sometimes you are reaching for one big tool and hoping you can do something with it and fill out the rest of the picture. Sometimes you’re looking for an organizational guy to fill out a roster. But Ian certainly wasn’t any of that. He was a guy who could do a little bit of everything and we thought was going to get better. We’d started to think that we got ourselves a heckuva deal in the 17th round, but the truth is nobody was saying Ian was going to go on and be a 30-30 superstar.”

Grouse was given authority to sign his player within a range specified by the scouting department. But Kinsler didn’t accept right away and by the time he did, Grouse had moved on to another assignment, doing pro scouting in Toledo. Kinsler was playing in Nevada, Missouri in the Jayhawk League. Grouse recalls that when he got word Kinsler had accpeted, “I had to drive from Toledo to Nevada, Missouri to pick him up and then drive him to Kansas City. I signed him at the Chili’s restaurant next to the K.C. airport and stuck him on a plane for Arizona so he could pack up for Spokane.”

Kinsler recalls that it was his 22nd birthday and for a present, the Rangers gave him $30,000.

Thirty thousand dollars. Plus some cleats and batting gloves.

For Ian Kinsler.

About 10% of players that sign a minor league contract will play at least one game at the Major League level and after you get past the first ten rounds, the odds dwindle down to almost nothing. Throw out the draft-and-follow types who are selected in the late rounds but end up signing for early round money (e.g. Rich Harden and Derek Holland) and the chances of landing an MLB starter — much less a star — in the 17th round are impossibly long.

But something like that can turn a franchise around.

Grouse refuses to take much credit for Kinsler’s success or suggest that he saw a future superstar hanging around Colombia, Missouri back in 2003. “I didn’t pound the table and tell Hoppy [Ron Hopkins] or Grady that he was going to be an All-Star. I said he’s going to be a solid major leaguer with plus makeup who can do some things with the glove, who has speed, who will hit enough and who had room to grow. I had no idea how fast it would happen for him. He just worked his butt off and it paid off immediately.”

Fuson is a little more willing to give credit to Grouse, as well as the Rangers development staff. “The biggest turnaround in that kid’s life was that he figured out real early about our preaching of getting stronger and becoming more selective. That’s where the makeup that Grousie talked about came into play. He might say that he didn’t see a future All-Star, but he saw the things that made it possible for Kinsler to become a great player and that’s why we drafted him more than anything else.

“Kinsler wanted it so bad and worked to make it happen and that’s what Grousie said he’d do. Kinsler came back to camp that second year 10-12 pounds stronger and quickly developed unbelievable strike zone control. Better timing, balance. Then he went to Clinton and just took off. And then he never stopped.”

Pausing for a moment, searching for a way to describe the magnitude of something like this for a scout, Fuson admitted: “It’s an unbelievable success story. What are the odds you find a star like Ian at that point in the draft? And a guy like Grousie…I’m telling you …something like this couldn’t happen to a better guy. There’s no doubt that the Kansas – Missouri – Nebraska area is probably the toughest to find players, but when they were there, Grousie didn’t miss them. He’s a scout’s scout.”

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