Matt LaPorta led NCAA Division I in home runs in 2005. This year, the Florida junior strained a muscle in his side sneezing, then aggravated the injury on a swing. He was hitting .247 with 14 homers and only one double.
Agoura High’s Jason Stoffel entered the season as perhaps the top righthander in California’s high school class. After a fast start, he faded, then missed two starts later in the year when he tripped and fell on a concrete patch while throwing a bullpen prior to a game.
Chris Marrero attracted scouts to see Monsignor Pace High in Miami as the top position player in the high school class, only to be outshined by his teammate, Adrian Cardenas. Marrero never got on a hot streak and failed to dominate his high school competition.
At least he stayed healthy. Missouri’s Max Scherzer, the top-rated college righthander entering the season, struggled to get on track after slamming his hand in a door early in the season, then coming back too quickly from the injury and developing tendonitis. As the draft approached, he’d thrown barely more than 50 innings.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is the class of the 2006 draft.
“There’s definitely quite a shortage,” a National League scouting director summed up. “It’s particularly true among the everyday players, especially at the college level. Without Florida’s talent, this would be just a rotten draft.”
Scouts often knock draft classes as a year goes on, and in a way that’s their job. They’re paid to see players’ strengths, but also their weaknesses. And in talking down a draft class, they also hope to keep signing bonuses from escalating 1990s rates, when bonuses went up at rates between 20 and 40 percent almost annually.
“I believe there are some solid players in this draft,” another NL scouting director said. “The problem is, you’re expected to pay the same rate you did the year before, even if the players aren’t as good as they were last year. So I believe there will be a number of predraft deals cut. Teams are going to have a list of players they can live with, and the guy who will sign for what they are willing to pay is who they’ll take.”
Where Are The Bats?
The biggest concern scouts have with the 2006 draft is the absence of polished hitting prospects. The top college batter, Long Beach State’s Evan Longoria, is considered a lesser talent than his former teammate, Rockies farmhand Troy Tulowitzki. Tulowitzki lasted until the seventh overall pick last June, and no one seems to think Longoria has any chance to last that long this year. Some scouts have pegged the 2006 draft as a redux of 2000, when signability convulsed the early rounds, and the only first-round pick who is a big league regular six years later is Philadelphia’s Chase Utley. Longoria compares well with Utley, though he’s a better defender and bats righthanded instead of left.
“It hasn’t been a normal year,” said Rockies scouting director Bill Schmidt, whose club picks second overall. “The way I look at it, though, big leaguers will come out of this draft. In 2000, we had Matt Harrington and Jason Young with the first two picks, but we still got eight big leaguers out of that draft (led by current regulars Garret Atkins, Clint Barmes and Brad Hawpe). It’s a natural thing to look at the top because that’s where the money is spent in a draft, but it really comes down to what you as an organization do with the rest of the draft in a year like this.
“It’s a snapshot in time, but if you look at it, there are no high school players like (Justin) Upton last year, and not the college position players either.”
After Longoria and Texas outfielder Drew Stubbs–whose hitting ability remains in question (see Page 30)–only Wake Forest’s Matt Antonelli was expected to be drafted in the first round. Last year, college position players occupied five of the first seven slots. The paucity of hitters leads many scouts to believe the record of 20 pitchers taken in the first round–set in 1999 and tied in 2001–will fall this year.
Even the consensus No. 1 talent, North Carolina lefthander Andrew Miller, had his detractors. The highest unsigned draft pick out of high school in the 2003 draft (Devil Rays, third round), Miller has plenty of traits that would make him a candidate to go No. 1 overall in any year. He’s a 6-foot-6 southpaw and has performed (he’s 24-8, 2.64 with 279 strikeouts in 267 innings for his career). Miller has thrown 95 mph and showed improved command (23 walks in 82 innings this year), but his velocity has more consistently resided in the 89-91 mph range.
Others point to Miller’s slender frame and wonder if he can repeat his delivery without putting too much stress on his arm over the course of a major league schedule. The Royals had scouted him aggressively, according to scouting director Daric Ladnier, and had narrowed their choices for the No. 1 overall pick to Miller, Washington’s Tim Lincecum and Houston’s Brad Lincoln. Several officials from other clubs speculated that the Royals would opt for Lincecum as a compromise choice if they could not reach a predraft framework for a contract they were willing to pay with Miller.
Ladnier said making a decision among the three pitchers would come down to a mix of factors: who can be the best major leaguer, who can get to the majors the fastest, and off-field factors such as signability and makeup. Ladnier insisted the Royals will take the player they want, however, and would not do a signability deal.
“It still irks me that people call Billy Butler a signability pick,” Ladnier said of the club’s 2004 first-rounder. “(Finances) are just a small part of what goes into the decision-making process. Miller has a lot going for him, but we’re not closing ourselves off to the other guys.”
Like Miller, the other pitchers at the top of most draft boards come with some concerns:
• Lincecum and Lincoln have the best present stuff, but neither stands taller than 6-foot-1. Lincoln’s changeup remains a distant third pitch, and many scouts believe Lincecum’s best value comes in the bullpen, where his resilient arm would be a weapon.
• Health concerns clouded the status of righthanders Mark Melancon (Arizona), who hadn’t pitched since April 7 because of a strained elbow ligament, and Brett Sinkbeil (Missouri State), who had missed nearly a month with an oblique muscle pull.
• Two prep pitchers with dominant stuff–righty Kyle Drabek (The Woodlands, Texas, HS) and lefty Kasey Kiker (Russell County HS, Phenix City, Ala.)–had their draft status clouded by off-field questions. Scouts were tight-lipped about both players’ indiscretions, yet few clubs would commit to saying they wanted to pick either player where their pure talent warrants.
• Several Scott Boras Corp. clients, such as Scherzer, Southern California’s Ian Kennedy and Cal Poly’s Gary Daley–all expected to be prominent picks when the season began–have had their struggles. Daley’s command struggles and 6.13 ERA have sent him tumbling, while Scherzer’s injury and Kennedy’s inconsistent velocity and lack of projection make their draft slots uncertain.
Three of the top arms were still under control to teams that drafted them in 2005. Another Boras client, righthander Luke Hochevar, dominates the list. Hochevar was the 40th overall pick to the Dodgers last June out of Tennessee, and after a long holdout, his case took a strange turn over Labor Day. Hochevar switched agents from Boras to Matt Sosnick and agreed to a $2.98 million deal. However, after getting in touch with Boras, Hochevar switched agents again and never signed the contract, pulling out of the deal.
The aftermath became acrimonious, and talks broke off. Hochevar joined other past Boras clients in joining a team in an independent league. In his case, it’s the Fort Worth Cats of the American Association, and Hochevar had looked good in two outings, one an exhibition and one a regular-season game. His fastball, slider and changeup all had flashed above-average potential, but the effects of his long layoff were evident in his lack of consistency.
“We’re cautiously optimistic that there’s an outside chance (to sign him),” Dodgers scouting director Logan White said. “I’ve seen his first two starts and I’ll go back and see him again. Then (GM) Ned (Colletti) and I will get our heads together and see what we can do.”
Righthanders Bryan Morris (Devil Rays) and Sean O’Sullivan (Angels) were both third-round picks out of high school who chose to be draft-and-follows. Both had pluses–pure, hard stuff for Morris and pitchability and poise for O’Sullivan–but both had been passed on the draft-and-follow list by righty Pedro Beato. The Dominican righthander moved to New York as a child and was a 17th-round pick by the Mets last season. The Mets don’t have a first-round pick but were expected to have to pay first-round money to sign Beato, who went to the city’s Xaverian High in 2005.
While the Mets won’t factor into the first round–and neither with the Athletics, who don’t pick until the 66th overall pick–White and the Dodgers could make an impact with extra picks. They pick seventh overall as well as 26th and 31st (from the Angels as compensation for the signing of Jeff Weaver), while the Red Sox have four picks between slots 27-44 after losing free agents Johnny Damon (Yankees) and Bill Mueller (Dodgers).