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Scouts cite unpredictability of '09 class

NEW YORK -- With his 100 mph fastball, Stephen Strasburg has
all but eliminated any mystery about who will be picked
first by the Washington Nationals in the baseball draft Tuesday
night.

Barring a big surprise, the suspense begins at No. 2.

"Oh, it's a terrific drop-off," Los Angeles Angels scouting
director Eddie Bane said. "You don't want to admit that, but this
guy, like everybody said, is a once-in-a-lifetime guy."

While Strasburg was striking out overmatched college hitters at
San Diego State, major league teams spent the spring sorting
through the best of the rest, including North Carolina slugger
Dustin Ackley, Missouri right-hander Kyle Gibson and high school
outfielder Donavan Tate.

New general manager Jack Zduriencik and the Seattle Mariners
pick second, followed by San Diego, Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

But once Strasburg comes off the board, it's a fickle class of
prospects that's drawn mixed reviews.

"I think it's a more unpredictable draft than any I've been
involved with," Rays scouting director R.J. Harrison said.
"Usually it gets down to about the middle of the first round where
you get the first 'oooh,' where they took that guy there. I think
the ooohs and aaahs could start earlier."

Tampa Bay had the top pick each of the past two years, but the
defending American League champion won't make its first selection Tuesday
until No. 30.

Teams such as the Padres, Pirates and Orioles will be looking to
snap up future stars who can help turn around their moribund franchises,
just as Tampa Bay did with a string of top-10 picks in the past
decade.

"It's an opportunity to infuse new talent into the
organization," said Mike Hill, general manager of the
penny-pinching Florida Marlins. "Obviously for a club like us,
it's very important."

And some of these kids aren't too far from the big leagues.

Gordon Beckham became the fourth member of last year's draft
class to reach the majors when he was called up by the Chicago
White Sox last week.

David Price (Tampa Bay), Rick Porcello (Detroit) and Matt Wieters (Baltimore) all were selected in
2007.

Maybe that's one reason the baseball draft seems to be gaining
more attention. Only a few years ago, the entire event was held in
virtual obscurity via conference call.

David Wright recalled hustling home from a high school exam and
listening on the Internet as the New York Mets made him the 38th
pick in 2001.

"Made it home just in time to hear my name called," Wright
said. "Something I'll never forget."

Now, the top prospects can watch on television as the baseball
draft goes prime time for the first time.

With commissioner Bud Selig announcing picks from the podium,
the first round will be broadcast live by MLB Network from its New
Jersey studios beginning at 6 p.m. ET.

The only thing missing is a green room stuffed with antsy
prospects wearing flashy suits.

"I've noticed that there's interest in the draft this year that
there never has been. And most of it's because of Stephen," Bane
said. "You've got a guy in there who throws 102 mph -- legitimately -- so I guess that has something to do with it."

Bane and the Angels have five of the first 48 selections, some
as compensation for losing free agents Mark Teixeira, Francisco
Rodriguez and Jon Garland.

The Nationals are the first team to own a pair of picks in the
top 10. They get the 10th choice as compensation for failing to
sign their selection at No. 9 last year, Missouri pitcher Aaron
Crow.

After pitching for the Fort Worth Cats in an independent minor
league, Crow is back in the draft pool and could be a high pick
again.

Right-hander Tanner Scheppers went a similar independent route.
He was drafted 48th overall by Pittsburgh last year after a
shoulder injury sidelined him at Fresno State, but the Pirates
didn't sign him.

"You have to draft a lot of pitching to come up with
pitching," said Logan White, Los Angeles Dodgers assistant general
manager of scouting. "You have to be willing to take the risk on a
pitcher, not be squeamish, and hope you project him right. But a
lot of people are squeamish because of the injury factor."

In addition to the Nationals and Angels (Nos. 24 and 25), three
other teams have multiple first-round picks: Seattle (Nos. 2 and 27);
Colorado (Nos. 11 and 32); and Arizona (Nos. 16 and 17).

The first night of the draft will consist of 111 picks,
completing the first three rounds and compensation slots. There
will be four minutes between first-round selections, then one minute
after that.

Rounds 4-50 will be held by conference call the following
two days.

"There's some good power arms. Good high school position
players," Rays executive vice president of baseball operations
Andrew Friedman said. "One of the weaker parts is probably college
position players. But there's a lot of depth really in high school
from the pitching and position player side."

Of course, signing these prospects can be more difficult than
choosing between them, and the current economy could cause teams to
shy away from players thought to be seeking the biggest bonuses.

Clubs have until Aug. 15 to sign their picks, otherwise they
lose their rights.

So the real challenge for Washington will be inking Strasburg,
because agent Scott Boras is sure to request a record contract --
perhaps worth approximately $50 million.

Ready to play ball?

"It's a big game of chicken," Bane said.