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Draft remains imperfect science

Special to

June 7

"This draft is brutal. There is no Mark Prior, Joe Mauer or B.J. Upton. The best players are mid-first-round picks in a good year. We counted eight or 10 kids who would normally be first rounders." -- One AL GM.

The baseball draft itself is so unpredictable, sometimes so illogical, that perhaps Monday's lottery will turn out to be a bonanza for teams like the Tigers, Mets and Devil Rays who so need to stock their inventories with talent. Then again, maybe it is a year so weak that, as several general managers have opined, this is 2000 all over again, when Adrian Gonzalez, Adam Johnson, Luis Montanez, Mike Stodolka and Justin Wayne were the first five selections. Wayne, Rocco Baldelli and Chase Utley are the only players of the 30 selected in the first round that year who are in the big leagues in this their fifth professional seasons.

Top six picks
The top six picks in each draft during the '90s:

1990: Chipper Jones, ss, Braves; Tony Clark, of, Tigers; Mike Lieberthal, c, Phillies; Alex Fernandez, rhp, White Sox; Kurt Miller, rhp, Pirates; Marc Newfield, 1b, Mariners.

1991: Brien Taylor, lhp, Yankeees; Mike Kelly, of, Braves; David McCarty, 1b, Twins; Dmitri Young, 1b, Cardinals; Kenny Henderson, rhp, Brewers*; John Burke, rhp, Astros*.

1992: Phil Nevin, 3b, Astros; Paul Shuey, rhp, Indians; B.J. Wallace, lhp, Expos; Jeffrey Hammonds, of Orioles; Chad Mottola of, Reds; Derek Jeter, ss, Yankees.

1993: Alex Rodriguez, ss, Mariners; Darren Dreifort, rhp, Dodgers; Brian Anderson, lhp, Angels; Wayne Gomes, rhp, Phillies; Jeff Granger, lhp, Royals; Steve Soderstrom, rhp, Giants.

1994: Paul Wilson, rhp, Mets; Ben Grieve, of, A's; Dustin Hermanson, rhp, Padres; Antone Williamson, Brewers; Josh Booty, ss, Marlins; McKay Christenson, of, Angels.

1995: Darin Erstad, of, Angels; Ben Davis, c, Padres; Jose Cruz, Jr., of, Mariners; Kerry Wood, rhp, Cubs; Ariel Prieto, rhp, A's; Jaime Jones, of, Marlins.

1996: Kris Benson, rhp, Pirates; Travis Lee, 1b, Twins*; Braden Looper, rhp, Cardinals; Billy Koch, rhp Blue Jays; John Patterson, rhp, Expos*; Seth Greisinger, rhp, Tigers.

1997: Matt Anderson, rhp, Tigers; J.D. Drew, of, Phillies*; Troy Glaus, 3b, Angels; Jason Grilli, rhp, Giants; Vernon Wells, of, Blue Jays; Geoff Goetz, lhp, Mets.

1998: Pat Burrell, of, Phillies; Mark Mulder, lhp, A's; Corey Patterson, of, Cubs; Jeff Austin, rhp, Royals; J.D. Drew, of, Cardinals; Ryan Mills, lhp, Twins.

1999: Josh Hamilton, of, Devil Rays; Josh Beckett, rhp, Marlins; Eric Munson, dh, Tigers; Corey Myers, ss, Diamondbacks; B.J. Garbe, of, Twins; Josh Girdley, lhp, Expos.

* did not sign

Right down to the hours before the draft, the order at the top was confused. Scott Boras gambled on his belief that some team will pay anything if he tells them his player is special, so Stephen Drew dropped from the No. 1 pick to the 15th, where the Diamondbacks will have to deal with comparisons to Honus Wagner. Also dropping was Jered Weaver to 12th and the Angels, a break for Boras, since Anaheim owner Artie Moreno has proven to be this year's Tom Hicks; Vladimir Guerrero is great, but Bartolo Colon apparently ate his $51 million. Their scouting director told people two hours two hours before the draft that he was going with local high school right-hander Phil Hughes was ordered by ownership to take Weaver.

That the Padres cut a $3.15 million deal with San Diego shortstop Matt Bush was a testament to the notion that money is more important than playing. Other than the fall of Drew and Weaver, the most notable developments were:

  • The three Rice aces going in the first eight picks, Philip Humber to the Mets at No. 3, Jeff Niemann to Tampa Bay at No. 4 and Wade Townsend to the Orioles at No. 8.

  • Two high school pitchers went in the first 15 picks, Orr's Island, Maine product Mark Rogers to the Brewers at No. 5, Homer Bailey of LaGrange, Texas to the Reds at No. 7.

  • The Moneyball A's took South Carolina catcher Landon Powell -- Jason Varitek, Jr. -- and Fresno State outfielder Richie Robnett in the first round, and still got two of Billy Beane's favorites -- Stanford outfielder Danny Putnam and Texas reliever Huston Street in the sandwich round.

    Boras' gamble by establishing his private market -- which was parroted by IMG asking for a major league contract for Niemann -- will be interesting to watch. The fact remains that teams not only realize how unpredictable this draft remains, but also understand that unproven players aren't worth a certain amount just because the agent says he's worth it.

    "The problem," says one AL GM, "is that agents want the same money for this year's top picks as truly exceptional talents -- Prior, Upton and Mauer. But not only is there a huge dropoff after the first eight or so players, but there are serious questions about every one of those top eight players."

    "This is a good year not to have multiple first- and sandwich-round picks," says another AL GM. "The Twins have six of the first 40-something picks. Because of the artificial slot figures agents work off, they'd probably be better off putting a lot of what they'll have to spend on talent for their major league team." Which is what the majority of major leaguers want, because they don't understand why unproven players get millions that come out of the major leaguers' pockets. Let Prior get his reward in the majors. As for those poor souls like California high school pitcher Matt Harrington -- who turned down $4 million as the eighth pick in 2000, turned down $1 million the next year as a second-rounder and at last sighting was working in a Best Buy -- teams are realizing that if an 18- or 21-year-old and his agent believe this is the most important contract of his life, then the club has drafted the wrong player. Then there's the best high school pitcher from last year's draft, Jeff Allison of Peabody, Mass., who is currently out of baseball and had to give back most of the $1.85 million bonus he blew.

    But before you accept comparisons of Stephen Drew to Jose Vidro or Weaver to Prior, look at recent history. Of the 60 picks used by the first six selections in the baseball draft of the '90s, Chipper Jones, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Darin Erstad, Troy Glaus, Kerry Wood, Mark Mulder, Vernon Wells and Pat Burrell are very good major league players. Josh Beckett and Corey Patterson may be. Phil Nevin took four teams to become a regular. Thirteen of the top six picks in the '90s never made The Show, and five didn't sign. And in '96, when loopholes made Travis Lee, Matt White, John Patterson and Bobby Seay free agents and the Devil Rays and Diamondbacks gave the quartet $31 million, what they got was a utility first baseman and three pitchers with a combined 5-7 major league record. Thus far, the tab on Seay, Patterson and White is $4.2 million per win.

    Four pitchers were the first pick in the draft in the 1990s. One never made the majors, one is in the minors and none have winning major league records and the list would look even worse if Bobby Cox hadn't gone with his gut and turned away the "once-in-a-lifetime" Todd Van Poppel.

    Is there a greater predictability for players selected in the first round? Of course. But Eric Gagne went undrafted. Marcus Giles didn't get drafted until the 53rd round, Mike Piazza the 62nd round. Look at last year's All-Star team:

    Round Pitchers Position players
    1 9 12
    2 2 1
    3 2 3
    4 0 2
    5 0 2
    6 1 1
    7 0 1
    8 1 0
    9 1 0
    10 0 2
    14 1 0
    20 0 1
    21 2 0
    22 1 0
    24 0 1
    25 0 1
    48 1 0
    53 0 1
    Undrafted Latin 1 8
    Undrafted Japan 1 2
    Undrafted 1 0
    Independent 1 0
    Free Agent 0 1

    Much of the discussion these days centers around the dreaded "Moneyball," which most people who shred the Oakland philosophy don't completely understand.

    "Some people think we draft only college players using laptops," says Billy Beane. "We've taken high school players in the first round, like Eric Chavez, and there have been years (like 2002, in the case of Georgia high school outfielder Jeremy Hermedia) that there was a high school bat we would have selected if someone hadn't banged him in front of us. But we have to have some cost predictability."

    The 2002 draft featured in "Moneyball" (and an upcoming Michael Lewis followup book), in which Oakland had seven of the first 39 picks, was controversial because the A's had to spread out their allotted money and did it with college players, some of whom were drafted because of their signability. Two years later, center fielder Nick Swisher is described by one veteran Pacific Coast League manager as "the best prospect in our league, with the possible exception of (right-handed pitcher) Joe Blanton," who was Oakland's second first-round pick that year. The 39th pick, third baseman Mark Teahan, is in Triple-A and playing so well he may be called up imminently to fill in for Chavez. The third-round pick, left-handed pitcher Bill Murphy, was traded for Mark Redman. The fourth-rounder, catcher John Baker, is hitting .340 in Double-A.

    There is considerable fear and loathing over what many see as "The Moneyball Group," which now has spread to Toronto with J.P. Ricciardi, Los Angeles with Paul DePodesta and Boston with Theo Epstein.

    "When we took over, we needed to restock the organization quickly and do it with college players," says Ricciardi, whose first-round picks, infielders Russ Adams from North Carolina and Aaron Hill from LSU, are in Triple-A and Double-A, respectively, and unquestioned major league prospects. "People forget I am a scout, first and foremost. I look forward to the day when we've come far enough as an organization that we draft a high school player in the first round."

    For the record, DePodesta's Dodgers drafted a high school pitcher in the first round -- left-hander Scott Elbert of Seneca, Mo., followed by Virginia Commonwealth right-hander Justin Orenduff with the sandwich pick.

    "Like everything else in baseball, the draft is gray," says DePodesta, who has taken over an organization whose scouting director Logan White has predominantly selected high school players. "We're essentially on the same page, looking for the same kind of players."

    "There is no one way of doing anything," says Epstein, who is also trying to re-stock what was a thin Red Sox organization. "We are looking for pitchers who control and pound the strike zone. We look for hitters with a certain kind of approach. We took a high school outfielder (Mickey Hall, who hit for the cycle in the Sally League Thursday) in the second round last year. (Director of amateur scouting) David Chadd did a great job drafting two years ago."

    The Red Sox did not have a first-round selection in 2002, but their second-rounder, left-handed pitcher Jon Lester, is their top pitching prospect, while UC-Riverside righty Chris Smith is performing well in Double-A, 35th-round Juco (and Honduran) right-hander Jose Vaquedano is tearing up the Sally League, eighth-round high school outfielder Brandon Moss is hitting .370 in that same league and Vermont high school lefty Tyler Pelland was good enough to be traded for Scott Williamson. Except for Hall, Boston went college in the early rounds last season, with success, and lefty Abe Alvarez is pitching very well at Double-A Portland of the Eastern League.

    When Twins GM Terry Ryan was the club's scouting director, they were predominantly college-oriented; in 1989, they took Chuck Knoblauch, Denny Neagle and Scott Erickson with three of their first four selections. The Marlins have what is a very talented rotation of high school pitchers, each taken somewhere between the second overall pick to the 13th round; this year, they are looking to select a college pitcher with the 29th pick. (Oh yes, the Marlins did take Josh Beckett with the second overall pick in '98, seven places in front of Barry Zito; Beckett has been paid more than Zito in their six pro years but Zito is 64-32, Beckett 21-21.) Cleveland has taken college and high school players in its rebuilding, as Indians GM Mark Shapiro says, "there is no one way to do anything."

    Indeed. Check out these numbers:

    In the 1988-99 drafts, the percentage of first-round picks who even made the majors:
    Drafted Made majors Percentage
    College pitchers 106 66 62
    High school pitchers 65 28 43
    College position players 78 51 65
    High school position players 87 52 60

    One club's study shows that from 1993 to 2001, $191 million was spent on first-round high school players, and $123.4 million of those dollars have never seen the big leagues. From 1991 through 2001, 49 percent of No. 1 picks out of high school made the majors, and of those 24 percent were regulars.

    Money is a huge factor in the draft order, and often that means teams check agents and try to do pre-draft deals. The Giants felt that the cost of first-round players has so exceeded value that they intentionally signed free-agent Michael Tucker before the Royals could neglect to offer him arbitration just so the Royals could have San Francisco's first-round pick, and $1 million bonus. "We felt the money could be better spent on major league talent," says one Giants official, "not some minor league promise."

    But there are a lot of promises made. When the agent for a high school pitcher who signed a football scholarship as a quarterback was asked what it would take to buy the youngster out of football, the answer was "enough so that if he hurt his arm, he'd have enough money so he'd never have to work another day in his life." "Hope the football works," replied the scout.

    As long as there's college, that's fine. Matt Harrington didn't have a college alternative when he turned down $4 million, then $1 million, for the minimum wage at Best Buy.

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