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In two of the last three games I’ve coached in my oldest son’s fifth/sixth grade summer league in the Chicago suburbs, I’ve had the opposing coach tell me my team was occupying the wrong dugout. You’d think youth league coaches would have better things to worry about, not to mention that their players arrived first and chose which dugout they wanted. But these guys were convinced that the home team has to be in the third-base dugout. My stance was that it really doesn’t matter and that there’s no such rule.

Just to make sure I wasn’t insane, I used the ever-handy Baseball America Directory to see which dugout the 30 big league clubs used. Final score: First Base 17, Third Base 13. Both Chicago teams occupy the third-base dugouts, so maybe that’s where this misperception started.

Now that I’ve answered my own question, let’s get to some of yours.

    With the draft, is it a better financial strategy in the long run to take a better player and pay out more money initially than to take a lesser player and pay him less (but still very good) money? The Diamondbacks have perhaps the top-rated farm system, in part because they are willing to draft and sign players who slide because of signability concerns. Stephen Drew was the top-rated position player in the 2004 draft, but he fell to Arizona at No. 15. Conversely, the Padres spent the No. 1 pick that year on Matt Bush and signed him for $3.15 million, about $2.5 million less than Drew would have cost. But I bet they are going to end up eating all of that $3.15 million, though they thought they were getting a better deal at the time. Does it really pay off for teams to pass on talented players with signability questions?

    Ian Leyda
    Pittsburgh

To answer this question, let’s examine the first rounds of the 2001-04 drafts. Based on the Major League Baseball-recommended bonuses for each slot, as well as the progressions of the bonuses throughout the first round, below is a list of players whose bonuses were at least 10 percent lower than would have been expected. I didn’t include college seniors such as Khalil Greene and Landon Powell because they had reduced bargaining power, or Tim Stauffer, whose bonus was reduced when a previously unknown shoulder injury was discovered. In some cases, the team will claim that they drafted the player purely on talent, but if the club took a discount, the player made the list.

2001: Chris Smith (Orioles, No. 7), Kenny Baugh (Tigers, No. 11), Kris Honel (White Sox, No. 16), Mike Fontenot (Orioles, No. 19), Jason Bulger (Diamondbacks, No. 22), John-Ford Griffin (Yankees, No. 23), Justin Pope (Cardinals, No. 29).
2002: Chris Gruler (Reds, No. 3), Jeff Francis (Rockies, No. 9), Drew Meyer (Rangers, No. 10), Derick Grigsby (Astros, No. 29).
2003: Chris Lubanski (Royals, No. 5), Nick Markakis (Orioles, No. 7), Ryan Wagner (Reds, No. 14), Daric Barton (Cardinals, No. 28), Mitch Maier (Royals, No. 30).
2004: Matt Bush (Padres, No. 1), Mark Rogers (Brewers, No. 5), Billy Butler (Royals, No. 14), Kyle Waldrop (Twins, No. 25).

Those 20 players who came cheaper than expected signed for an average of $1.6 million. Based on what we know to this point, just five of them stand out as potential regulars on a quality big league team: Francis, Markakis, Barton, Rogers and Butler. Rogers has a great arm and a track record of inconsistency, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for now.

Here are the players whose bonuses or major league contracts were at least 10 percent higher than would have been expected:

2001: Mark Prior (Cubs, No. 2), Mark Teixeira (Rangers, No. 5), Dan Denham (Indians, No. 17).
2002: B.J. Upton (Devil Rays, No. 2), Adam Loewen (Orioles, No. 4), Scott Kazmir (Devil Rays, No. 15), Cole Hamels (Phillies, No. 17), Denard Span (Twins, No. 20), Bobby Brownlie (Cubs, No. 21), Jeremy Guthrie (Indians, No. 22), Jeff Francoeur (Braves, No. 23).
2003: Lastings Milledge (Mets, No. 11), Jeff Allison (Marlins, No. 16).
2004: Jered Weaver (Angels, No. 12), Stephen Drew (Diamondbacks, No. 15).

Those 15 players received an average guarantee of $3.84 million, so they were much pricier than the bargain group. But 10 of them project as potential quality players in the major leagues, with Denham, Span, Brownlie, Guthrie and Allison as the only disappointments. And even Span has a chance to win a job in the near future, though I’m not a big fan of speedsters who don’t bring anything else to the table offensively.

Of the $32.1 million spent on the cheaper first-round picks, $23.9 million (74 percent) went to players who look like they’ll provide little or no return. By contrast, though $57.6 million was invested in the pricier first-round choices, just $11.9 million (21 percent) appears like it will go to waste.

With the No. 1 overall pick in 2004, the Padres made a late decision that Drew wasn’t worth his bonus demands and opted to reach for the inexpensive Bush. Drew is now in the majors and looks like a future superstar, while Bush is stuck in low Class A and has yet to make anyone believe in his bat.

Two years earlier, the Reds owned the No. 3 choice and narrowed it down to Kazmir and Gruler. Kazmir was the consensus better prospect, but he came with a higher price tag and Cincinnati used him to leverage Gruler into signing for $2.5 million. Ironically, Kazmir wound up signing for less ($2.15 million) with the Mets at No. 15. Now he’s an all-star, while Gruler is stuck in Rookie ball trying to overcome persistent arm problems.

The moral of this story is obvious: You get what you pay for.

    What's your take on Cubs lefthander Rich Hill? The guy dominates in Triple-A but hasn't gotten it done in Chicago. Is he just the next in a long line of Quadruple-A players (Roosevelt Brown, Gary Scott, etc.) for the Cubs? Or is there a chance the kid is going to get it figured out and be a productive pitcher? Is he really doing anything different or approaching things differently between the two levels?

    Dusty Wilson
    Bloomington, Ill.

It would be hard to find a pitcher with more divergent Triple-A and major league performances over the last two years than Hill. He has been two entirely different pitchers in Iowa and Chicago.

Triple-A: 12-2, 2.61, 158 IP, 213 K, 34 BB, .201, 14 HR
Majors: 0-6, 9.21, 43 IP, 32 K, 32 BB, .284, 8 HR

Obviously, the biggest difference has been command and control. Hill’s K-BB ratio shrinks from 6.3 to Triple-A to 1.0 in the majors, while his walks per nine innings rise from 1.9 to 6.7.

Hill was plagued by an inability to locate his pitches for the first three years of his pro career after he signed as a fourth-round pick out of Michigan in 2002. He always has had a plus-plus curveball to go with a 90-91 mph fastball, but he averaged 6.3 walks per nine innings from 2002-04 before suddenly turning the corner in 2005. Hill pointed to improved mental focus, and he also improved his delivery.

There aren’t many 6-foot-5 lefthanders with two quality pitches. Perhaps Hill falls into the trap that claims a lot of young pitchers, where they don’t trust their stuff when they reach the majors and think they have to throw harder or paint the corners more in order to succeed against better competition. Hill can overmatch hitters with his curveball, but he has to get ahead in the count to set them up.

Can he do it? Hill’s inconsistent track record and the depth of his struggles in the majors give me pause. He has the pure stuff to be a good starter in the major leagues, but it won’t surprise me if he becomes a lefty specialist who relies on his curveball.

    Can you tell me a little bit about White Sox first-base prospect Chris Carter? After clearly being overmatched in the low Class A Sally League, he's destroying Rookie-level Pioneer League pitching, hitting .336 with 10 homers in 107 at-bats. Is he the real deal? With the dearth of position players below Triple-A in the organization, is he a potential Top 10 Prospect when you update the White Sox list this offseason?

    Tom Purcell
    New York

The White Sox knew Carter was raw when they made him a 15th-round pick out of a Las Vegas high school in 2005, but they couldn’™t resist his size (6-foot-4, 210 pounds) or power potential. He has lived up to that assessment thus far in pro ball, debuting by hitting .283 with 10 homers and 64 strikeouts in 65 games at Rookie-level Bristol last year. He batted just .130 with one homer and 17 whiffs in 13 games in the SAL earlier this year, but has gotten back on track at Great Falls, though he does have 27 strikeouts in 29 contests.

Carter is just 19, so it’s not surprising he struggled in low Class A and it’s not a kiss of death that he has to repeat Rookie ball. He does have some arm strength but probably will be limited to playing first base, meaning his bat will have to carry him. He has one of the higher ceilings in the White Sox system, but until he accomplishes anything in full-season ball, it will too early to label Carter as one of Chicago’s Top 10 Prospects.

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