Fifteen years ago, Trevor Crowe, Jacoby Ellsbury, Cliff Pennington and Craig Hansen wouldn't have been prime first round draft picks.
"Back then, you had to go for the high ceiling, tools, big guy," says one American League general manager. "But the view of the draft has changed. Major league value is viewed differently."
Crowe, Ellsbury and Pennington are projected as leadoff or No. 2 hitters. Hansen is a closer.
"There's no question in my mind that every one of them is a big leaguer barring injury," says another general manager. "Hey, even 10 years ago, I wouldn't have drafted a 5-11 guy who might not really have a position, like Crowe, or a little guy without power [Ellsbury and Pennington], or a reliever [Hansen]. Now, I'd be very happy with any one of the four."
When the draft begins on June 7, Chesapeake, Va., shortstop/center fielder Justin Upton, University of Nebraska third baseman Alex Gordon, Long Beach State shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and University of Virginia third baseman Ryan Zimmerman will, barring some unforeseen development, be the first four players selected, by, in order, Arizona, Kansas City, Seattle and Washington.
Craig Hansen, a closer at St. John's, could be a top-10 pick in the upcoming draft.
As the draft unravels, there will be a run on high school tools outfielders: Andrew McCutchen of Ft. Meade, Fla; Cameron Maybin of Asheville, N.C., a cousin of former North Carolina basketball player Rashad McCants; C.J. Henry of Oklahoma City; and Jay Bruce of Beaumont, Texas. There will also be the Scott Boras watch -- whether shortstop Stephen Drew and right-handed pitcher Jered Weaver go back into the pool, and whether or not Hansen (St. John's), Tennessee right-hander Luke Hochevar, Wichita State's Mike Pelfrey and Baylor's Mark McCormick fall because Boras represents them.
"We would all love Gordon or Upton or some big college horse of a college pitcher," says a GM, "but let's be realistic -- it's tough to win without a closer or a leadoff hitter who gets on base at a high percentage."
In 1988, the Orioles did draft a reliever, Gregg Olson, and he went right to the majors. But it wasn't until 2003 that there was a run on relievers in the first round -- Ryan Wagner (picked by Cincinnati), Chad Cordero (selected by Montreal) and David Aardsma (picked by San Francisco). Last year, Oakland selected University of Texas right-hander Huston Street and the Expos took William & Mary left-hander Bill Bray in the first round.
"Hansen has closer stuff, no doubt about it," says one scouting director, "and you can be almost certain the Mets will take him with the ninth pick. Is he Huston Street? No one's Huston Street, but Hansen's really good."
It would surprise few people if two other projected relievers -- Tulane lefty Brian Bogusevic and N.C. State righty Joey Devine -- went in the first round.
The unpredictability in giving $1.5 million-$3 million to high school pitchers, especially right-handers, is a risky proposition.
"This is a great draft for high school pitchers in the second through fifth rounds," says another scouting director. "But I'd be wary near the top of the first round unless it were the left-hander from Utah [Mark Pawelek], and he's a Boras guy."
The Cleveland staff believes the two best closers they have seen this season are Francisco Rodriguez and Scot Shields, who took over for the injured Rodriguez as the Angels' closer this past week.
Shields has closed flawlessly and through Sunday has 140 strikeouts in 130 innings pitched since the beginning of last season. Yhency Brazoban was brilliant when Eric Gagne was out for the Dodgers. Who might be next?
Here are three possibilities:
• Jesse Crain, Minnesota. It will be a while if he stays with the Twins, but the power sinkerballer allowed two earned runs in his first 18 appearances this season and could be a dymamic closer.
• Mike Gonzalez, Pittsburgh. He may well have the best stuff of any left-handed reliever in the game, dominates left-handed hitters and has 74 strikeouts in 60 2/3 innings since the start of last year.
• Andy Sisco, Kansas City. The Rule V pick out of the Cubs system is raw, but his ability is scary.
With the draft just about two weeks away, the two players that may be climbing the fastest are UMass right-hander Matt Torra and Crowe. Teams want arm strength college pitchers, and Torra throws 91-93 (mph) and has a good slider, changeup and body to run up innings. Torra, who was considered a fifth rounder in March, now may go as early as midway in the first round.
And those scouting directors who revile the "Moneyball" philosophy and love tools cringe at the thought of a 5-11 guy like Crowe with no defined position (because of a previous shoulder surgery) going high in the draft. But Crowe, an outfielder at Arizona, gets on base, hits, runs and plays with a noticeable attitude; hey, Paul Molitor didn't really have a position his last 10 years and he's now in the Hall of Fame. Pennington, a shortstop at Texas A&M, is a high-energy, slashing leadoff hitter.
Ellsbury, a center fielder at Oregon State, concerns some scouts.
"He's a good defender and he plays hard," says one scouting director. "He may well grow into being Johnny Damon. He's not going to be Jason Tyner [the Mets' first round pick in 1998 who never could hit], but there's some concern as he's struggled some down the stretch [of the college season]."
In 1989, tools ruled. Four of the first eight picks in the first round were part of the supergroup of tools players -- Jeff Jackson (Phillies), Donald Harris (Rangers), Paul Coleman (Cardinals) and Earl Cunningham (Cubs). Not one could really play. That allowed the White Sox to get Frank Thomas with the seventh pick, and down the line non-tools playersJeff Bagwell (4th round), Jim Thome (17th round), Brian Giles (17th round) and Jeff Kent (20th round) turned out to be stars in the majors.
And this isn't saying that Justin Upton (B.J. Upton's younger and bigger brother) doesn't have every tool, even if he ends up as a center fielder with the D-Backs.
"He may be the fastest player I've ever scouted," says Arizona player personnel director Mike Rizzo.
One GM compares Justin Upton to Bo Jackson, but with a far more advanced hitting approach. Another says he's Alex Rodriguez with Bo's speed.
Oh, it's all fun trying to project how the players in this year's draft will turn out. Tulowitski could become Bobby Crosby and Zimmerman could turn out to be very much like Scott Rolen. But Crowe, Hansen, Ellsbury and Pennington? They're players. You don't think the Cubs could use Hansen next year? And if you don't know why the Braves (.269), Indians (.270), Phillies (.287), Mets (.288), Angels (.288) and Astros (.293) have struggled to score runs, those numbers are their on-base percentages out of the leadoff spots. When teams can't get guys on base, they struggle to score runs.
Interleague good for the game
It's laughable for players and media to criticize interleague play. OK, there are some unnatural matchups, but next year Washington and Baltimore will be natural rivals. And for those who whined in Boston -- would you rather see a team that once played a mile away from Fenway and has 13 consecutive first-place finishes or three games with the Royals?
In the three biggest markets in the country, Mets-Yankees (in New York), Cubs-White Sox (in Chicago) and Dodgers-Angels (in Los Angeles) put baseball atop the news, played to more than 97 percent of capacity and did immeasurable good to the baseball business. Players may not care, but this is about fans, and the woofing fans in those three markets did on one another added spark and flavor to a season that has had too much off-field attention.
This and that
• The Cubs will not allow Carlos Zambrano to take anywhere near as much batting practice as he likes to take following the latest flareup to his right elbow.
• Arizona has two 2003 draft picks ready to step in -- first baseman Conor Jackson and right fielder Carlos Quentin, who are hitting in the high .300s at Triple-A Tucson.
• How does Bobby Cox do it? He is without two starting pitchers, Danny Kolb has allowed more than 18 baserunners per nine innings and when they played in Boston, the 7-8-9 hitters were his DH, left fielder and right fielder. Asked what he'll do at the end of games, Cox says, "I don't really know. It'll be day-to-day, matchup-to-matchup."
• Those in the Yankees organization believe that bringing up Robinson Cano and Chien-Ming Wang re-energized the club, along with Tino Martinez's takeoff. Wang has been very good, and GM Brian Cashman insists that Wang will be able to get his velocity up to 97 mph in hot weather.
Maybe the Yankees learned a lesson by trading Javier Vazquez, who is now throwing harder than Randy Johnson and pitching brilliantly since his first start of the season. Brad Halsey is also consistently sitting at 90 and pitching very well.
• The Mets have to be cautious with Pedro Martinez even if a flareup like his hip is considered minor. If you include the postseason, he threw more pitches than any other pitcher in either league in 2004.
• It's hard to believe that through Sunday, the Angels' team on-base percentage is .300. Unbelievable. Hence, they are 25th in the majors in runs scored.
• Under normal circumstances, Octavio Dotel would not have been disabled with calcification in his elbow. But the plague that has descended on the A's required they get as many healthy bodies on the roster as possible.