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Baseball draft so unpredictable
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
But baseball might be the toughest draft of all, in case you've forgotten that Danny Ray Goodwin was the first overall pick not once, but twice, and that Steve Chilcott, Ron Blomberg, Dave Roberts, Billy Almon, David Clyde, Al Chambers, Shawn Abner and Brien Taylor all were selected as the No. 1 prospects in the nation.
It's hard enough to predict Triple-A players, in case you've already forgotten Chad Hermansen, the Mets' Fab Three (Paul Wilson, Bill Pulsipher and Jason Isringhausen) and that Glenallen Hill, Mark Whiten, Derek Bell and Sam Militello were voted by Baseball America as the top prospects in the International League in successive years.Amateurs? From 1987 through 1996, 95 of the 270 players selected in the first round did not make the major leagues (players selected and not signed count as not making the majors, such as Alex Fernandez or Kenny Henderson by Milwaukee).
So when the names begin to be called Tuesday, there are boundless promises that some bodies and minds won't fill. There doesn't seem to be an inkling of a doubt in anyone's mind that USC right-handed pitcher Mark Prior and Georgia Tech switch-hitting third baseman Mark Teixeira will be impact major leaguers.
"I believe that," says Devil Rays GM Chuck LaMar. "But I was with the Braves when we had the second pick in '91 and everyone knew that Brien Taylor and Mike Kelly couldn't miss being impact players. And they did."
On the other hand, the same thing was said three years later about a Florida high school shortstop named Alex Rodriguez and a Wichita State pitcher named Darren Dreifort, and if impact is measured by collecting $307 million in the same week as free agents, then they certainly impacted the game.
And economics, not need, rules the draft nowadays. When the draft was instituted in 1965 in the aftermath of the Rick Reichart signing, the concept was to give the lesser teams first crack at the premium talent.
In recent years, we've seen the top pitching prospect in a draft, Rick Ankiel, fall to the second round, and the best prospect, J.D. Drew, last until the fifth overall pick after sitting out an entire season rather than sign with the Phillies. But then, in this the year that gave competitive balance new meaning, three of the first four teams picking Tuesday are in first place, and the team that picks fifth is the team that gave A-Rod $252 million and is still playing so that it deserves to be picking fifth.
Teixeira might just go where he can do the most good -- home to Baltimore to replace Cal Ripken.
It is expected that the Minnesota Twins will use the first pick to select catcher Joe Mauer from Cretin High School in St. Paul, the same school that produced Chris Weinke. Now, Mauer is regarded as a tremendous prospect, on and off the field; one scout saw him swing and miss once in seven games. He will also be expensive, because, like Weinke, he is signed to play quarterback at Florida State.
"In talent terms, Mauer is a better prospect than Teixeira; he's just a high school kid who'll take longer," says a GM. "But he's one of the best prospects I've ever seen, maybe the best catching prospect in 20 years."
The Twins apparently will not even find out if they can sign Prior, who will require a major-league contract somewhere in the $10 million-$15 million range, so the Cubs will jump right on board and grab him with the second pick.
But because Teixeira is represented by Scott Boras and let the Devil Rays know that he'd prefer not to be drafted by a team whose future is as uncertain as Craig Grebeck, the power-hitting third baseman will likely slide past Tampa Bay.
The Devil Rays are expected to select hard-throwing Middle Tennessee right-hander Dewon Brazelton, even though they love Baltimore HS righty Gavin Floyd (who nixed a predraft $3M deal from the Rays). The Phillies pick fourth, and while they've thought about Teixeira, they remember what happened with Boras and Drew and are reportedly leaning toward Floyd, who attends the same high school (Mt. St. Josephs) from which Teixeira graduated. That would leave Teixeira for the Rangers, and owner Tom Hicks is Boras-friendly, in case you missed the A-Rod, Kenny Rogers and Darren Oliver contracts. If Hicks can maintain his attention, he will see that Rodriguez can be the big brother to a building team that includes Carlos Pena, Ruben Mateo, Kevin Mench and possibly Teixeira.
But late Friday night, several scouting directors heard that Hicks had ordered his people to draft a pitcher. Problem is, after Prior and Brazelton, there is a dropoff. Early in the season, UCLA right-hander Josh Karp was thought to be a top-five pick. However, he had a rough season, did not perform well when the Rangers watched him and thus his stock has fallen. Texas thought maybe he'd become a Matt Morris, Roger Clemens or Mike Mussina, whose junior year in college performances slipped them to 12th, 19th and 20th, respectively. If Hicks does force his baseball people to take a pitcher ahead of Teixeira, they'd better pray he's Mussina, not Jonathan Johnson.
All that said, there are a lot of teams -- the Rays, Royals and Red Sox included -- that believe the best player in the draft might be Roscoe Crosby, a 6-foot-2, 185-pound center fielder and burner from Union, S.C.
"The ball absolutely flies off his bat, he's got incredible power and speed," says one area scout. "I watch him, and I'm thinking, 'Griffey.' Really. He could be that good."
The Royals, who have the ninth pick, salivate over Crosby. But the reason that owner David Glass, GM Allard Baird, VP of baseball operations George Brett and scouting director Deric Ladnier all dined Crosby and his family earlier in the week was that he is a very "tough sign" because he also happens to be perhaps the best wide receiver prospect in the nation and is signed to play football for Clemson. Which all means that baseball may take on the Bowden family -- Bobby (Mauer) and Tommy (Crosby).
"(Roscoe is) going to sign to play baseball," says one GM, "but there's always that concern that he's going to go back and play football. That's why it's tough taking him high in the first round. Remember, George Lombard (Braves farmhand) was a second-rounder, Drew Henson (Yankees farmhand) went in the third round, Bo Jackson in the fourth."
"He's a program builder in football," says a GM, referring to Crosby. "A Randy Moss. He is a god in a little town, and as soon as he struggles -- and he faced inferior high school competition -- Tommy Bowden will be reminding him that he can be the Saturday matinee idol."
The Rays, Expos, Pirates and Orioles in front of the Royals would probably take Crosby if he were an easy sign, but he has Jeff Moorad and Eugene Parker (Deion Sanders' representative) for agents. Some college football recruiters warn that no matter what Crosby said to Brett, he is known as such a quiet, nice person that he has trouble saying no, which is why two or three other schools other than Clemson thought they got a silent commitment from him when he made his official visit to each school.
"We will only draft him if he indicates that he will give up football and concentrate on baseball," says Baird. "We want players who want to play baseball, who love the game."
As for two-sport guys who made it in baseball, Kirk Gibson sure worked out. He signed with the Tigers, went back for a final season as a wide receiver at Michigan State, turned down more overtures from the NFL (former Patriots personnel chief Bucko Kilroy claimed Gibson was one of the four or five best wideout prospects he ever scouted) and became an impact baseball player.
But Gibson is the exception, not the rule. If Crosby were to play for Clemson this fall, he would be a cross-state rival of Gamecocks QB Corey Jenkins, one of two first-round picks of the Red Sox in '95. Weinke gave baseball all he had, but Josh Booty, John Lynch, Quincy Carter, Mike Thomas and several others took baseball money and eventually went back to football. The Blue Jays got right-handed pitcher Scott Burrell all the way to Double-A in his summer job, but when the NBA beckoned, he forgot baseball. The Twins tried the baseball/college basketball route with Keith LeGree, Kelsey Mucker and Bret Roberts and none panned out.
Then, again, the hottest prospect in Triple-A right now is 6-6, 240-pound, power-hitting right fielder Adam Dunn, who plays for the Reds' top affiliate in Louisville. The Reds bought Dunn, who ran a 6.3-second 60-yard dash, out of his University of Texas quarterback career and his talent has exploded. However, the Pirates used the 11th pick of the '94 draft -- the one right in front of Nomar Garciaparra -- to draft Texas high school quarterback/third baseman Mark Fariss, and soon thereafter he was back in Texas calling signals for Texas A&M.
So the Royals have a difficult decision to make on Crosby.
The Cubs do not have a difficult decision. From February on, it has been Prior or Teixeira, whoever was there. Scouts universally love Prior for his power, command and his pitching instincts, and there are many who have gone on the record claiming that he will be a factor for the Cubs or Twins down the September stretch if he gets signed in time.Issue: How tough is it to go right from college to the big leagues?
For historical reference, here are 13 pitchers who went 1-2 in the draft and were considered No. 1 starter locks:
Mulder is a likely All-Star pick. Dreifort, Wilson and Benson have all undergone arm surgery.
When Dunning was at Stanford and Broberg was at Dartmouth, it was said that each could pitch right away in the majors. Both tried but were a combined 64-112.
Issue: Since this is expected to be a high school-dominated draft, how much of a gamble would it be to take a high school arm?
Floyd may go fourth, perhaps even third, and one GM says, "he's one of the 10 best high school pitching prospects I've seen in the last 15 to 20 years."
Colt Griffin, the legend of Marshall, Texas, who last season was a first baseman and this spring was lighting up radar guns at 100 mph with an easy delivery, will likely go in the first 10 picks.
Right-handers Jeremy Bonderman of Pasco, Wash., Mike Jones of Phoenix, Alan Horne of Marianna, Fla., Kris Honel of New Lenox, Ill., Dan Denham of Antioch, Calif., and J.D. Martin of Ridgecrest, Calif., as well as left-handers Jeremy Sowers of Louisville and Macay McBride of Sylvania, Ga., are all projected first-round picks by Baseball America.
But for those teams that get carried away with high school arms, history is against them. For instance, if the Twins or Cubs had already signed Prior and the rules changed so they could offer him to the Rays for Matt White (signed to an $11M bonus), the D-Backs for John Patterson ($7M signing bonus), the Indians for Jaret Wright (5.03 lifetime ERA) or Cards for Rick Ankiel -- all examples of what can happen to high school phenom pitchers, long after Todd Van Poppel -- would all those teams not make the deals?
Here are two studies:
In 1990, there were four high school pitchers who were locked on stardom: Todd Van Poppel, Kurt Miller, Steve Karsay and Todd Ritchie. Three of the four have found success, but it took them some time.
"I can be shown any number of statistics, but I think the draft is one place in baseball where stats don't necessarily apply," says Cleveland assistant GM Mark Shapiro.
"We feel we did very well with (Jaret) Wright, Tim Drew and C.C. Sabathia, and we'll go that way again if the right high school pitcher is there."
Do teams get too carried away with "tools?"
"A lot of scouting directors get afraid of failure," says one scouting director. "They have scouts grading tools, and if the player fails, he can tell his boss that the kid had all sorts of ability. There's not enough attention paid to baseball skills."
"If you grade out the tools of Jason Giambi and Mo Vaughn, they don't project," says Oakland general manager Billy Beane. "They're just MVPs. Look, the bat has to come first. We all love these athletes and tools guys, but if they don't hit, they can't play."
In contrast to Giambi and Mark McGwire, if one were to add up the grades of the five tools, the best player drafted by the A's in the last 15 years was Lee Tinsley, who played parts of five years in the majors (1993-97) and finished with a .241 batting average and 13 home runs.
In 1989, many clubs fretted that Frank Thomas couldn't do anything but hit. So James Jackson, Donald Harris and Paul Coleman were all selected before Thomas; combined, they had 17 hits and a .532 OPS -- all by Harris, as high school outfielders Jackson and Coleman never reached the bigs. Vaughn went late in the first round, and another big-time player named Jeff Bagwell went in the fourth round. In 1987, there were nearly as many teams that would have picked Florida high school star Mark Merchant with the first selection as would have taken Ken Griffey Jr.
The second college position player selected after Teixeira on Tuesday likely will be Kent State outfielder John VanBenschoten, a power guy who came out of virtual obscurity to become this spring's hot item. And after Teixeira, one of the top power bats is Florida high school first baseman Casey Kotchman.
But down the line in the first round, there are some college players who are pure "baseball players" but lack the size, 60-yard dash time or tools to send upstairs to the boss. Tennessee shortstop Chris Burke (some clubs say that he's telling them he doesn't want to sign, which leads folks to believe that he has a predraft deal with Oakland), LSU second baseman Mike Fontenot, Southern second baseman Michael Woods, Tulane third baseman Jake Gautreau, Auburn outfielder Gabe Gross and Florida State outfielder John-Ford Griffin will all likely go after the radar gun and tool studs, and some of them will hang around in the big leagues a lot longer.
You won't find Clemson shortstop/third baseman Khalil Greene or Wake Forest center fielder Cory Sullivan on any top-100 list, but check back five years from now and see if they aren't remarkably like Jeff Cirillo and Steve Finley. Greene and Sullivan are players.
Other issues to watch
Godwin was a first-round pick of the Yankees out of high school, went to North Carolina on an academic scholarship, was picked in the sandwich round last year but had his contract voided by the Rangers because of a pre-existing knee injury. He has worked extremely hard in Arizona to get back in shape, but teams are afraid of the knee and worried that after all this time, his speed and power may not translate to baseball.
"If any outsider got to sit in on our meetings, they'd be less critical," says one GM. "It's so tough, and the scouts work so hard and so many people care so much it breaks your heart when kids don't pan out. The important thing is to treat every round like the first couple. Remember, Mike Piazza was a 62nd-round pick."
"The Braves got Wes Helms in the 10th round, Kevin Millwood in the 11th, Jermaine Dye in the 17th and John Rocker in the 18th," says LaMar. "That shows what hard work will do. I was with the Pirates when we took Kurt Miller with the fifth pick in the country, and I still can't believe he only got a cup of coffee. But that's how unpredictable it can be. I've had scouts tell me Matt White is the best high school pitching prospect they ever saw.
"But I look at the draft one way and one way only. It's the most important day of the year."
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