Later round draft picks who've developed rather nicely
The Major League Baseball draft is a time for celebration and visions of multimillion-dollar grandeur -- provided your last name happens to be "Upton."Once the first-round euphoria subsides, history tells us that the wait can be excruciating. Just ask Mike Piazza, Jeff Conine and Kenny Rogers, all of whom spent between 39 and 62 rounds feeling unwanted, unloved and thoroughly overlooked. Some late draft picks (e.g. Don Mattingly and Ryne Sandberg) slip because of "signability" concerns -- the perception that they'll want too much money or spurn a professional offer for college. But others linger on the board simply because their skills aren't such obvious indicators of future success. For the afterthoughts, happy endings are often facilitated by the local scout who refuses to take no for an answer. Behind every hidden draft gem, you'll find a determined baseball man who kept pushing the organization to take the plunge. "If you're going to do well in the draft, it's because you have good area scouts," said Jim Fleming, the Florida Marlins' vice president of player development and scouting. "I can go watch a guy play and see his tools, but you don't know who he is and all the background. The area guys get down in the trenches and dig it out for you." As representatives for the 30 clubs prepare for Thursday's draft, we'll take this opportunity to salute some noteworthy late hits. This week's edition of "Starting 9" is devoted to active players, listed by position, who were chosen after the 10th round and proved to be well worth the wait. How would this lineup fare against big league clubs? A little too right-handed, perhaps, but pretty darn well, we think.
Roy Oswalt (23rd-round pick by Astros in 1996)Oswalt's hometown of Weir, Miss., has a population of 553, according to the 2000 U.S. census. His graduating class had either 18 or 23 people, depending on which account you believe. And other than the drugstore, the grocery store and the ballfield, there weren't a lot of places to congregate. It would have been easy to miss the 5-foot-10, 160-pound right-hander from the dinky 1A program. But Astros scout James Farrar took a shine to Oswalt, and he routinely camped in the seats behind home plate when it was the kid's turn to pitch. Houston selected Oswalt as a "draft-and-follow" out of Holmes Community College in Mississippi in 1996. The Astros invested the 684th overall pick in the hope that Oswalt might continue to mature physically and they could bring him into the fold before he re-entered the draft the following June. Oswalt spurned a $50,000 offer to return to school, and it proved to be a wise move. He grew 2 inches and added 15 pounds, and his fastball spiked from 91 to 95 mph on the radar gun. Oswalt cost the Astros $500,000 the second time around. But in light of his 116-59 career record and three All-Star appearances, Houston got its money's worth.
Russell Martin (17th-round pick by Dodgers in 2002)Good catchers are hard to find, so Logan White, the Dodgers' assistant GM for scouting, scopes out the entire field for candidates. For years, White instructed his scouts to monitor shortstops, third basemen and other premier athletes who might have the aptitude to switch positions. "You try to think outside the box to maximize your drafts," White said. "In college, you'll see a lot of kids who can catch but can't hit. That's why a number of big league catchers were converted guys. That's an avenue we've tried to explore." Martin dabbled in ice hockey as a youth in Montreal, but he was a baseball rat at heart, riding the subway with his father to watch Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom and the Expos at Olympic Stadium. Martin eventually chased his baseball dreams to Chipola Junior College in Florida, where he played third base and was a teammate of hot-shot pitcher Adam Loewen. After Dodgers scouts Clarence Johns and John Barr gave their seal of approval, Martin chose the Dodgers' $40,000 bonus over a scholarship offer from North Carolina State. When White watched Martin behind the plate in the minors, he realized the Dodgers had themselves a bargain. "When we drafted Russell, I didn't have any clue he was going to be an All-Star in the big leagues," White said. "By the time he got to Double-A, we all figured out, 'Russell Martin is a pretty good player.'" The Dodgers were so successful in executing the conversion principle, they're back at it again. Lucas May, a former outfielder, has a .513 slugging percentage as the starting catcher for Double-A Jacksonville and might not be in the minor leagues for long.
Albert Pujols (13th-round pick by Cardinals in 1999)He went by the name Jose Alberto Pujols at Fort Osage High School in Independence, Mo., and showed enough promise to play at the Area Code Games showcase and make Baseball America's top 100 prospects list. But Pujols was a tad heavy and slow, he had no natural position, and there were rumblings that he might be older than his listed age. Some scouts even wondered if he could make the transition from an aluminum bat to wood. The Cardinals, at the urging of area scout Dave Karaff, selected Pujols out of Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City, then signed him for $60,000 after he tore up the summer Jayhawk League. In his second instructional league at-bat in Jupiter, Fla., Pujols crushed a homer off the roof of a building beyond the left-field fence. As eyebrows arched and jaws dropped, farm director Mike Jorgensen nudged then-scouting director John Mozeliak in the ribs and asked, "What do we have here?" Six All-Star appearances, three Silver Slugger Awards and 296 home runs later, the Cardinals have their answer: A first-ballot Hall-of-Famer-in-waiting.
Dan Uggla (11th-round pick by Diamondbacks in 2001)Uggla was a college shortstop with Memphis when Mike Rizzo, then Arizona's scouting director, watched him play in a conference tournament. That single viewing confirmed why Scott Jaster, a Diamondbacks area scout, had been so fervent in his enthusiasm for Uggla. "He was cocky, but in a good way, with a little bit of a swagger," Rizzo said. "He wasn't a great 'tools' player, but he could really hit. A couple of times, he got ahead in the count and he really let it go." The Diamondbacks began sweating out the possibility of losing Uggla in the seventh or eighth round, and signed him for a $40,000 bonus in the 11th. The bat has come along precisely as hoped -- just with a different organization. Florida snagged Uggla in the Rule 5 draft in 2005, and he made the All-Star team the following year. After averaging 29 homers and 89 RBIs over the past two seasons, Uggla has emerged as the most formidable second base bat in the majors behind Chase Utley.
Mike Lowell (20th-round pick by Yankees in 1995)After Lowell graduated from Coral Gables High in Miami, he received only one Division I scholarship offer, from Florida International University. He hit .338 as a junior, posted a 3.68 GPA in finance to win his conference's student-athlete of the year award, and led the Golden Panthers to an NCAA regional berth. But Lowell was a second baseman and a shortstop in college, and big league teams harbored enough doubts about where he might play to cause him to slip in the draft. The Yankees traditionally focused on players with great makeup and one exceptional tool in the lower rounds of the draft, and Lowell fit the description. Scout Rudy Santin loved the bat, and when Lowell acquitted himself nicely in the Cape Cod League, the Yankees were sold. "We thought if the power didn't come, maybe he could be an offensive second baseman. And if the power came, maybe he could play third," said former Yankees scouting director Bill Livesey. "Well, the power came." Just not in New York. The Yankees traded Lowell to Florida for Ed Yarnall, Mark Johnson and Todd Noel in 1999, and Lowell went on to make four All-Star teams, win a Gold Glove and capture a World Series MVP award in October for Boston.
Clint Barmes (10th-round pick by Rockies in 2000)Scan the list of big league shortstops, and you won't find many overlooked, Mike Bordick types who overcame the odds to enjoy lengthy and productive careers. If you're skilled and athletic enough to have a prayer of playing every day in the majors, you won't last long in the draft. Derek Jeter, Stephen Drew, Khalil Greene Troy Tulowitzki and Bobby Crosby were all first-round picks, and Jimmy Rollins and J.J. Hardy went in the second. And some wonderful Latin shortstops -- from Miguel Tejada and Rafael Furcal to Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez -- weren't subject to the draft and turned pro as free agents. David Eckstein certainly was a nice afterthought. Boston picked him in the 19th round in 1997, and a decade later Eckstein had two World Series rings as the shortstop and leadoff man for championship clubs in Anaheim and St. Louis. But we'll give the nod to Barmes, who signed with Colorado as an unheralded guy out of Indiana State. After hurting his shoulder in the infamous deer meat incident, batting .220 in 2007 and losing his starting job to Tulowitzki, Barmes made an impressive comeback this season. He was hitting .343 and earning rave reviews until a knee injury sent him to the disabled list 10 days ago. He's hoping to return next week.
Jason Bay (22nd-round pick by Expos in 2000)The Expos hit the mother lode in 2000, drafting outfielder Grady Sizemore in the third round and pitcher Cliff Lee in the fourth. General manager Omar Minaya later sent both players to Cleveland with second baseman Brandon Phillips in the ill-fated Bartolo Colon trade, but that's another story. Bay, a British Columbia native, came awfully cheap in comparison. He was a senior at Gonzaga, a school known more for slam dunks than grand slams, when the Expos came calling. All it took was a vote of confidence from area scout Scott Goldby, a handshake and a $1,000 bonus. "I'd like to say we knew he was going to be Rookie of the Year and play in the big leagues for a long time, but I can't say that truthfully," said Fleming, then Montreal's scouting director. "I remember going to Vermont in the New York-Penn League to watch him play and calling Scott and saying, 'Hey, this guy is pretty good.'" Bay bounced from Montreal to the New York Mets to San Diego before landing in Pittsburgh, where he averaged 28 homers and 94 RBIs over a four-year span. It's safe to say that he's eclipsed Mike Redmond, Lenn Sakata and Bo Hart as the most accomplished Gonzaga Bulldog in the majors.
Nate McLouth (25th-round pick by Pirates in 2000)McLouth was the 2000 high school player of the year in Michigan, where he learned to cope with short seasons and snow flurries around the batting cage in April. As an undersized, left-handed hitter with a competitive demeanor and fine baseball instincts, he elicited comparisons to Lenny Dykstra (the pre-Incredible Hulk version). McLouth's commitment to the University of Michigan scared off several clubs. But the Pirates chose him in Round 25, then sent a parade of talent evaluators to Cincinnati to watch him play for the Midland Redskins summer league team. Scouting director Mickey White told each of his guys to spend time with McLouth and keep the courtship going. At the urging of scouts Duane Gustavson and Steve Fleming, Pittsburgh spent $400,000 to steer McLouth clear of Ann Arbor. "Our scouts were empowered," White said. "I think they had the sense that if they wanted a player, I was going to back them up. Not always for $400,000, but we gave our scouts the freedom to keep following players after the draft." With patience, time and opportunity, McLouth outlasted Tike Redman, Chris Duffy, Nyjer Morgan and several others to stake a full-time claim to the Pittsburgh center field job. With 13 homers, 47 runs scored and a 1.002 OPS, he's making a strong push for the All-Star team. Pittsburgh also selected Zach Duke in the 20th round and Ian Snell in the 26th round during White's regime. If the Pirates had fared as well with some of their subsequent first-round picks, they might not be working on a streak of 15 consecutive losing seasons.
Ryan Church (14th-round pick by Indians in 2000)Church played on the same University of Nevada team with future big leaguers Darrell Rasner, Chad Qualls and Joe Inglett. He won six games as a pitcher in his freshman year before going down with a major shoulder injury. When the coaching staff suggested a position switch leading up to his senior year, Church was all for it. "They were like, 'Hey, you're athletic. You want to play outfield?'" Church told the New York Daily News. "I was like, 'Sure. Why not?'" Church hit .382 with 14 homers, and the Indians plucked him in the 14th round. Paul Cogan, the signing scout, was the same guy who landed C.C. Sabathia, Jeremy Guthrie and Kevin Kouzmanoff and urged the Indians to select Tim Lincecum as a draft-eligible sophomore out of Washington. The Tribe just couldn't muster the funds to sign him. After four years in the Montreal-Washington organization, Church has overcome some concussion issues to emerge as a serious threat in the middle of manager Willie Randolph's order. His .928 OPS is ranked second among National League right fielders behind the Cardinals' Ryan Ludwick. Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.
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