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A conflicted, dicey process



Special to ESPN.com

June 6

The 1983 draft began with the Twins' selecting Tim Belcher. Then the Reds grabbed shortstop Kurt Stillwell, the Rangers shortstop Jeff Kunkel, and so it unfurled.

Stan Hilton. Ah, the second pitcher by Oakland with the fifth pick. Jackie Davidson. Darrel Akerfelds. Ray Hayward. As they headed to the middle of the first round, in the Red Sox' draft room, scouting director Eddie Kasko began pulling folders. They had the 19th pick, and when Joel Davis went at 13, he laid the folder of the pitcher the Red Sox wanted on top.

"Montreal selects right-handed pitcher Rich Stoll, University of Michigan." Kasko took the folder and slammed it down onto a pile. A couple of curses were mumbled across the room. Joe Morgan, who cross-checked for them that spring, said, "I love that guy."

"That's the nature of the draft," said Kasko, ever reasoned. "We'll move on." Wayne Dotson. Brian Holman. He set up another stack of folders as two more pitchers went at 15 and 16. Erik Sonberg.

When the Dodgers selected Sonberg with the 18th pick, Kasko took the folder on top of his pile, opened and scanned it, paused, then leaned forward to the speaker phone.

"Boston selects Roger Clemens, right-handed pitcher, University of Texas."

With Stoll unavailable, the Red Sox got the 10th pitcher selected in that '83 draft, a pitcher who Morgan that day said "might be a closer" and turned out to be arguably the greatest right-hander in the history of the game.

The baseball draft is not like football's or, to a lesser degree, basketball's, in which players are selected for need. In baseball, needs are long-range. With the exception of relievers – Huston Street was selected last June and is already an impact contributor to the A's – most draftees are three to six-year projects. On Tuesday, teams will take relievers Craig Hansen (St. John's) and Joey Devine (N.C. State).

2000 draft
Adrian Gonzalez
Gonzalez
The first pick was first baseman Adrian Gonzalez by Florida; he is now a regular-in-waiting with Texas, after being used as a chip to win a World Series in the Ugueth Urbina deal. Of the 30 players selected in the first round, only Chase Utley is playing regularly. Or go back another year, to 1999: Josh Hamilton and Josh Beckett were The Sure Things at the top, and Beckett is now ascending. Barry Zito (No. 9) has a Cy Young, Ben Sheets (No. 10) and Brett Myers (No. 12) are front-line starters; Larry Bigbie and Alexis Rios are regulars; and every other player in the first round is hurt or forgotten, while a 13th-rounder named Albert Pujols is the game's premier hitter not named Bonds.

One can look back and wonder where the Rangers, Cubs or Astros would have gone had they selected Clemens in 1983. The baseball draft history is filled with those what-ifs. The Mets took Steve Chilcott over Reggie Jackson in 1966. The Rangers took David Clyde over Hall of Famers Robin Yount and Dave Winfield in 1973. With the fifth selection in the 1985 draft, the White Sox took catcher Kurt Brown, leaving Barry Bonds to the Pirates.

1992 draft
Let's see … Houston took Phil Nevin with the first pick, followed by Cleveland with Paul Shuey, Montreal with B.J. Wallace, Baltimore with Jeffrey Hammonds, Cincinnati with Chad Mottola, and the Yankees took Derek Jeter. Had the Astros not had a preference for a college player and the need to reach a pre-draft deal, would Jeter have landed in Houston? Would Derek Jeter be Derek Jeter had he been drafted by the Expos?

The idea of the draft is to give the weaker teams a shot at the best talent. But there is no slot money, so teams often have to pass on the best player and go for the best signable player (Pittsburgh selected Bryan Bullington over B.J. Upton in 2002; Tampa Bay passed on Mark Teixeira to take Dewon Brazelton in 2001). Despite attempts by the commissioner's office to control spending and effectively create a collusive slotting system, agents have been able to drive the market value into better bonuses for their players.

1996 draft
Travis Lee
Lee
Agent Scott Boras found a loophole in the system and four top first rounders were able to become free agents. Pitcher Matt White got $10.1 million from Tampa, Travis Lee $10 million from Arizona, John Patterson $6.1 million from Arizona and Bobby Seay $3 million from Tampa. Patterson is just now emerging as a potentially top major-league pitcher in Washington. Lee is what he is – a $1.5-2 million journeyman. White, no. Seay fringe. In the context of the draft, the biggest bonus ever paid was by the White Sox to Joe Borchard, on whom Chicago is still waiting.

Boras has no problem holding a player out for a year, as he did with J.D. Drew and Jason Varitek, and did – without any additional money but with a year off their careers – with Stephen Drew and Jered Weaver. But teams are hesitant to take Boras clients. "I don't want to wait a year before getting use of the player," says one NL GM, and one of his AL counterparts says, "as much as I respect Scott, you never really have his players, because they spend the entire big-league time working for arbitration and free agency."

That Borchard bonus may well be eclipsed this summer by what Arizona has to pay Justin Upton, B.J.'s younger and bigger brother, who's described as having Alex Rodriguez's hitting tools and Bo Jackson's speed. The Royals, picking second, have zeroed in on the top college player, Nebraska third baseman Alex Gordon.

After that, one can see the forces at work. The Mariners are thought to be sitting on Long Beach State's Troy Tulowitzki with the third pick, but they've wavered, with USC catcher Jeff Clement, Stanford 1B-OF John Mayberry Jr. and Cal St. Fullerton LHP Rickey Romero in their mix.

At pick No. 4, Washington faces the classic college/high school decision. After working out Beaumont, Texas, high school OF Jay Bruce, the consensus among the Nats' scouting folks was that Bruce is the best player in the draft after Upton. But they also believe Virginia third baseman Jeff Zimmerman is a potential Scott Rolen, who can come fast at a premium position. They'll go Zimmerman. Which would leave Milwaukee and Toronto Tulowitzki and Romero, respectively.

"Some day we may look back at this draft and say the best talents were the high school outfielders – Bruce, Cameron Maybin (Asheville, N.C.), Andrew McCutcheon (Ft. Meade, Fla.) and C.J. Henry (Oklahoma City)," says one GM. "But when you're spending $1.5 million to $2.5 million on a first-round pick, you have to have some certainty. Spending that kind of money on projectable tools or high school arms is not good business. In this draft, you're going to look back in 15 years and marvel at the high school pitchers taken from the second round down and wonder why there were only two or three (RH Chris Volstad of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.; RH Bryan Morris of Tulahoma, Tenn.; LH Mark Pawelek of Springville, Utah) taken in the first round."

There is the high school dilemma. And there is the Boras dilemma. Colorado has the seventh pick, and would really like to take Tennessee RHP Luke Hochevar, who is from Fowler, Colo. But he is a Boras guy, and may be willing to sit. And sit. And sit. Even if Weaver got nothing out of it. The Rockies also really like St. John's closer (although he could be a starter with three potential pitches) Hansen, another Boras client, although considered more signable. Or they could take Bruce.

One pitcher who held out after last summer's fiasco with Peter Angelos and the Orioles is Wade Townsend of Rice. He has been throwing in pickup games, and while he was considered a prime prospect, when he threw for both Chuck LaMarr of the Devil Rays and Omar Minaya of the Mets – who have the eighth and ninth picks – in Port St. Lucie, Fla., on Sunday, the word was that he could fall deep into the round if Minaya does not go with what he remembered from scouting Townsend in 2004.

The Pirates love the high school outfielders, but Dave Littlefield knows they need pitching, so he is conflicted whether, at No. 11, to take a prime college right-hander, like Matt Torra of UMass, where Littlefield went to school, instead; the Pirates took pitchers with first-round picks with no return thus far – Bullington, Bobby Bradley, Sean Burnett, John VanBenschoten and Paul Maholm. The Indians think Maybin and McCutcheon are potential impact players, but with the 14th pick, they'll choose between Arizona OF Trevor Crowe and Miami slugger Ryan Braun. "I could see McCutcheon, Maybin or even Bruce sliding down into the mid-20s, where Boston and Florida have multiple picks," says a GM.

And Boras clients Hochevar, Wichita State's Mike Pelfrey, Hansen, Georgia Tech SS Tyler Greene, Pawelek and Baylor RHP Mark McCormick? The Cubs have a good history with Boras. So do the Red Sox.

The best description of this draft is conflicted. "The best perspective is to look at your development program and hope that each year you get two good prospects out of the draft – maybe three when you have a lot of picks as we do (six of the first 57) and two out of your international scouting every year," says Red Sox development and international scouting assistant GM Craig Shipley. "Then you have a top-flight organization."

  Pitchers Pos. players Total
International 8 22 30
First round 11 15 26
Second round 3 5 8
Rounds 3-5 5 5 10
Rounds 6-10 8 7 15
Rounds 11-20 1 5 6
Round 21 and later 8 4 12
Undrafted 1 0 1
Where the 2003-04 All-Stars came from.

The accompanying chart breaks down 2003-'04 All-Stars. Immediately, one sees the importance of international players, including Pedro Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, Vladimir Guerrero and Miguel Tejada.

Then go back to the first round of the 1995 draft. Darin Erstad has been a cornerstone of the Angels, Todd Helton (who went to Colorado because the A's took a flier on Cuban refugee Ariel Prieto), Kerry Wood, Geoff Jenkins, Matt Morris, Mark Redman and Roy Halladay were excellent picks. But the high school crop, other than Wood and Halladay, produced two college quarterbacks (Corey Jenkins, Chad Hutchinson) and guys named Jaime Jones, Reggie Taylor, Ryan Jaronczyk and Juan Lebron. In second round the Royals took Carlos Beltran, which eventually became an economic issue of another kind.

Pitchers and catchers are the hardest to project. Pitchers have the injury factor. Velocity comes and goes. Of the top 12 starters by the beloved VORP on Baseball Prospectus as of Saturday morning, just three – Clemens, Halladay and Myers – were first-round selections; Kenny Rogers, Mike Hampton, Mark Buehrle and Roy Oswalt were taken from the 10th to 44th rounds. Three – Halladay, Myers and Erik Bedard – are with the teams that originally drafted them.

Fifteen years from now we may wonder how someone like McCutcheon was taken so low. Or possibly why Cuban SS Yuniel Escobar lasted so long. Or we'll remember that while Beckett was a second pick, Dontrelle Willis and A.J. Burnett were eighth rounders, and some kid out of the woods, who was taken in the 23rd round, ended up starting the All-Star Game. It is conflicted and unpredictable, yet it is a process vital to the long-term growth and health of every team.





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