Here's a Thought: The Brian Dopirak Story

Nathaniel StoltzSenior Analyst IJuly 16, 2009

Possibly my favorite thing about baseball is development patterns.

In any other sport, players (barring injury) generally get better until their late 20s, have a peak of maybe four years, and then start getting worse.

In baseball, however, players' careers can have all sorts of twists and turns.

Rookie of the Year winners like Bob Hamelin, Ben Grieve, Angel Berroa, Scott Williamson, Todd Hollandsworth, and Bobby Crosby often never have another good season after their rookie campaign.

Some players are never considered good prospects and become All-Stars.

While fascinating stories like Rick Ankiel and Josh Hamilton get a ton of attention because the player is in the majors, there are also many more under-the-radar bizarre stories that go on in the minors.

One of the weirdest stories belongs to New Hampshire Fisher Cats first baseman Brian Dopirak.

Dopirak was a highly touted second-round draft pick of the Chicago Cubs in 2002. He and his high school teammate, Ryan Harvey, were both drafted by the Cubs. Harvey and Dopirak were supposed to be the future middle-of-the-order sluggers the Cubs needed.

In case you're curious about Harvey, his lack of strike zone judgment and contact ability have hindered him his entire career. He's having a mediocre season for the Rockies' Double-A affiliate this year.

Anyway, back to Dopirak. 

The hulking first baseman (6'4", 235) didn't get off to the greatest of starts in his first two years, putting up mediocre numbers in short-season ball and brief exposure to Low-A.

There's nothing wrong with that: As a high school draftee, Dopirak made his full-season debut at age 20.

And what a debut it was.

Dopirak soared up prospect lists with an impossibly good season in arguably the most pitcher-friendly league in baseball. His 39 homers were three shy of establishing a Midwest League record, and he hit .307/.363/.593.

He was ranked as the Cubs' No. 1 prospect coming into 2005 and was arguably the top power prospect in the game.

After all, who doesn't like a .300-hitting first baseman with 50-HR potential who's already made it to High-A at age 21?

Sent to High-A to begin 2005, Dopirak started slowly.

Hey, it happens.

After 2004's greatness, Dopirak clearly wasn't expecting to struggle. He tried to break out of his slump by changing his swing, and all that did was throw him off.

He never got on track, hitting a miserable .235/.289/.381.

The Cubs were encouraged by Dopirak's strong spring the next year, so they sent him to Double-A. Dopirak responded by breaking his foot running the bases on Opening Day, missed two months, came back, was terrible, and then had more surgery on the foot.

Two years after his huge 2004, Dopirak hit one home run in 52 games.

He posted a line of .256/.330/.359.

It shows how much promise Dopirak once held that, after all that, he was still ranked the No. 12 Cubs prospect by Baseball America.

Dopirak, finally healthy, got a shot at Double-A again in 2007 and did even worse, hitting .218/.247/.269 in 21 games before being demoted back to High-A.

He actually wasn't awful there, hitting .277/.325/.490, but he was old for the level at that point.

The Cubs looked at Dopirak's three years of poor play and released him following a poor 2008 spring.

You'd think that most teams wouldn't want a first baseman who hadn't hit in three years.

But the Blue Jays had an idea.

The Blue Jays' High-A affiliate is in Dunedin, FL. That's the same place where Dopirak and Ryan Harvey were slugging phenoms in high school.

The Blue Jays thought that if they signed Dopirak and assigned him to Dunedin, there was a chance he'd relax in the familiar surroundings and find his 2004 form.

They were right.

Dopirak put up near identical numbers to 2004 (.308/.382/.577) in his third try at High-A. After three years going absolutely nowhere, Dopirak was finally on the right track, and, at 24, he was just young enough to have the smallest of chances to carve out a big-league career.

Of course, there was the elephant in the room: What would happen when Dopirak left Dunedin?

The Blue Jays finally gave him a Double-A look in the last month of the 2008 season.

He was okay...he wasn't 2006-2007 awful at the level, but a .287/.297/.425 line is pretty underwhelming, especially for a first baseman.

The Blue Jays gave Dopirak, now 25, a fourth (and most likely final) chance to prove he could hit upper-minors pitching this year.

And five years after the big 2004 in Low-A, Dopirak finally came through.

In yet another pitcher's league, Dopirak is having essentially the same season as 2004 and 2008, as he's hitting .308/.374/.576 at the Eastern League All-Star break. He leads the league in slugging and home runs, and a Triple-A callup is probably coming soon.

You have to admire Dopirak for persevering through three years of struggles and unlocking his considerable potential. He still has the ability to be a big-time slugger in the majors if he plays well in Triple-A and a team gives him the opportunity.

Brian Dopirak's long, winding road to the Eastern League All-Star Game is another story in a long line of those that make the game of baseball what it is.

NOTE: Dopirak was called up to Triple-A Las Vegas later in the day I wrote this article.


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