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Climbing To The Rockies

June 7, 2004
By Barney Hutchinson

DENVER--The players fell in the correct order Monday, an eight-man list that allowed the Rockies to select high school shortstop Chris Nelson with the ninth-overall pick of the draft.

Nelson is a talented, five-tool player who gave up pitching when he underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow September 25, which is fully recovered.

Nelson drew interest from teams such as Tampa Bay drafting fourth overall but slipped to the Rockies as the first round unfolded. The Devil Rays picked Jeff Niemann. Baltimore, picking one slot ahead of the Rockies, went for Rice righthander Wade Townsend with the eighth-overall selection, clearing the way for the Rockies to take Nelson.

"We were surprised Chris Nelson was there," scouting director Bill Schmidt said. "We got information before the draft, an hour before he was going to another club. Baltimore told us they would draft him. Until Baltimore called out there player, it came as a complete surprise."

Nelson has plus tools across the board. He h is athletic and has good speed, is sound defensively, has recuperated his arms strength and projects to hit for average and power.

Nelson, who was judged the second-best position player entering the draft behind Florida State's Stephen Drew, leaped ahead of Drew, who slipped to the Diamondbacks with the 15th-overall pick because of bonus demands. Nelson was the second position player drafted, behind San Diego prep shortstop Matt Bush, who went No. 1 overall to the Padres.

Nelson hit .582 (39-for-67) with eight home runs, 36 RBIs and 25 steals as a senior at Redan High, in Stone Mountain, Ga., where he led his team to a 23-8 record and a state-playoff berth.

Nelson calls Miguel Tejada his baseball model at the major league level and reminds scouts of Gary Sheffield for the way he "cocks" his bat back toward the pitcher just before unleashing his swing.

"Our comparison is to a Barry Larkin type player," Schmidt said. "In that type of mold. First and foremost, we like his bat. In our opinion, he was the best high school hitter in the draft."

The 18-year-old was pleased with a workout in front of Rockies personnel Friday at Coors Field.

"When the ball gets up in the air, it's gone," Nelson said. "The grass was cut in a way I've never seen before. It was a great place.

"They dressed me up in a uniform with a jersey and hat. It was like a dream. I got to meet Preston Wilson. I just love the way he plays hard every day. I felt like a little kid."

Nelson signed with Georgia, but sounds as if he is ready to pursue a professional career.

"I'm pretty set on being a pro player," Nelson said. "I told the people in Georgia if I got drafted, I'll probably be playing with a minor league team somewhere."

Nelson will start his professional career in Casper, Wyo., playing for the Casper Rockies in the Rookie-level Pioneer League.

The ninth-overall pick last June, lefthander John Danks, signed for $2.1 million and Nelson can expect a signing bonus in the same neighborhood.

"He's an athlete," Schmidt said. "He can play in the middle of the diamond and play a premium position for us. We belief he can really swing the bat and become an offensive player for us."

The Rockies would have "settled" for a college pitcher had Nelson not been available. They targeted Thomas Diamond of New Orleans and Jeremy Sowers of Vanderbilt. Sowers went sixth overall to the Indians. Diamond was taken 10th overall by the Rangers.

Nelson was not cleared to play shortstop until mid-April. Scouts say his arm has fully recovered and his arm rates well above average.

"When I had to have surgery I thought I would have to play college ball all the way," he said. "Things went very well with the rehab."

The Rockies, who leaned heavily on pitching in previous drafts, took only one arm in their first six rounds: Auburn righthander Steven Register.

ROCKIES NOTES

The Rockies took North Carolina catcher Chris Iannetta, who has been compared to Joe Girardi--the original Rockies expansion draft choice back in 1992--in the third round.

Seth Smith, an outfielder taken in the second round, played quarterback at Mississippi behind Eli Manning but never took a snap last season. His baseball stock slipped after a .284-7-40 junior season that concluded in the regionals with losses to Oral Roberts and Washington.

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