Nostalgia Prospect Retro: Shawon Dunston
Shawon Dunston is a good player to pair with Walt Weiss. While Weiss was an extreme example of a weak tools player who survived in the majors on baseball skill, Dunston is an extreme example of a player with weak skills but who survived due to his awesome athleticism.
In the spring of 1982, Shawon Dunston of Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, New York, was almost universally regarded as the best overall prospect in the draft class. He hit .790 his senior year. He has excellent speed and good raw power. He had a cannon for a throwing arm. He was somewhat raw and needed experience, but the Cubs had no hesitation, selecting him with the first overall pick in the draft.
Dunston began his pro career by hitting .321 with 32 steals in just 53 games in the Gulf Coast League. His strike zone judgment was poor, but he hit well overall due to his bat speed and quick wrists. I would probably have given him a Grade A- or B+ retrospectively, due to his draft position, athleticism, and decent early performance, but the questionable plate discipline and general rawness would have kept him from a pure Grade A right away.
Assigned to Quad Cities in the Class A Midwest League in 1983, Dunston hit .310 with 58 steals in 117 games. He showed some pop to the gaps, knocking 17 doubles, eight triples, and four homers, and continued to impress scouts with his throwing arm. His strikeout rate was decent with 51 whiffs in 455 at-bats, but he drew just seven walks all season. I'm not sure what I would have done with his grade. I might have kept it as B+, but I might have dropped it to straight B (or even B- if I was in a bad mood) due to his extremely low walk rate.
The Cubs skipped Dunston past advanced A in 1984, sending him directly to Double-A. He hit .329 in 73 games for Midland in the Texas League. He kept his strikeout rate decent but again, he didn't draw many walks, picking up just 11 free passes, granted that was still an improvement compared to his '83 numbers. A mid-season promotion to Triple-A Iowa overmatched him: he hit just .233 in 61 games in Des Moines, with just four walks in 210 at-bats. I saw Dunston play a lot that spring. The two positive things that stood out most about him were his absolutely outstanding throwing arm, and his blazing speed. But he was a sloppy player. . .he made frequent mental mistakes, running himself into outs on the bases, or trying (and failing) for the spectacular play on defense rather than the sure one. He could hit fastballs well, but had massive trouble with breaking balls or changeups. He was still very young and had time to improve. But in most ways he never really did; the scouting report you could write about him in 1985 would still be valid 10 years later.
Dunston split 1985 between Iowa and Chicago, hitting .260/.310/.388 in his 74-game major league trial. He was Chicago's starting shortstop in 1986, hitting .250/.278/.411. He hit 37 doubles and 17 homers, but his horrible 21/114/581 BB/K/AB ratio, and his dismal 13-for-24 stolen base percentage stood out as major negatives.
The Cubs used Dunston as their regular shortstop from 1986 through 1995, or at least they tried to. . .he missed major time to injuries in '87, '92, '93, and '94. He eventually learned how to get good jumps and became an effective basestealer, although he'd still run himself into reckless outs at times. His throwing arm was a major asset, and he had good range early in his career, but he was never an especially reliable defender. He had enough power to be dangerous, but if you worked him outside the strike zone he would get himself out more often than not. His best OPS+ mark in a full season was +109 in 1995, but most of the time he was below average overall.
Dunston signed with the Giants as a free agent for 1996, beginning a long trek through baseball rosters, playing for the Giants (three different stints), the Cubs again, the Pirates, Indians, Mets, and Cardinals. By the end of his career he was a utility bat off the bench. His strike zone judgment became a bad joke by the end of his career; he drew 11 walks against 112 strikeouts in his last 547 at-bats.
I think Dunston was one of the most unique and interesting (if frustrating)-to-watch players of his era. Although he improved in some ways, he never really seemed to have a great feel for the game. Walt Weiss survived because his outstanding skills and feel for the game compensated, somewhat, for his weak tools. Dunston survived because his superb tools compensated, somewhat, for his lack of real skill at baseball. If you could take Weiss' skills and add them to Dunston's tools, you'd have a superstar. Take Weiss's tools and add them to Dunston's skills, and you wouldn't get drafted.
A Final Note: For all their differences, Weiss and Dunston ended up having careers of very similar value.