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Princeton prospects shine, but hitting crop doesn't
by Jim Callis
CHICAGO—It has become an annual rite of spring, along with Opening Day and Tony Armas Jr. visiting the disabled list. Once again, scouts are bemoaning the lack of position players available for the draft.
In the first 34 drafts, just four times did pitchers outnumber hitters in the first round. Then it happened four straight years from 1999-2002.
Last year, several college outfielders (Brian Anderson, David Murphy, Brad Snyder) and high school infielders (Ian Stewart, Matt Moses, Brandon Wood, Eric Duncan) made a late push into the first round. Position players accounted for 20 of the 30 first-round picks.
Scouting directors have all but given up on hoping for a similar surge in 2004. Many of the most highly anticipated hitters, such as sluggers Jeff Larish (Arizona State) and Michael Taylor (Apopka, Fla., High) have taken a step backward. Two shortstops, Florida State's Stephen Drew and Mission Bay High's (San Diego) Matt Bush, are the only position players who are locks to go in the top 30 selections.
There will be more than two hitters chosen in the first round, of course. But this draft seems almost certain to top the first-round record of 20 pitchers, set in 1999 and matched in 2001.
"There aren't any position players," a National League scouting director says. "It's going to be tough to find even five to seven first-rounders. They're just so thin."
"Twenty-five pitchers," an American League counterpart says, "is a very real possibility."
There is one exception to the doom and gloom surrounding the 2004 hitting crop. Princeton outfielder B.J. Szymanski, who couldn't even crack our Top 100 College Prospects list entering the year, would be no worse than the third position player selected if the draft were held today.
Szymanski put himself on follow lists by ending 2003 with a homer off Tyler Lumsden (a possible first-rounder) when Clemson eliminated Princeton from NCAA regional play. Yet he still began 2004 more known for his football exploits as a wide receiver. He ranks ninth on the Tigers' all-time receiving list and led the Ivy League by averaging 18.7 yards per catch last fall.
It took Szymanski all of one swing to make scouts sit up and take notice this spring. They were on hand to see Old Dominion's Justin Verlander, then considered the favorite to go No. 1 overall. They left talking about Szymanski, who smashed the first pitch he saw, a 94-mph fastball, for a tape-measure homer.
"He is impressive, especially those physical skills," the AL scouting director says. "He was about 172 pounds last year, and the bat swung him. Now he's 6-foot-5, 205 pounds. He went from hitting the ball over the second baseman's head to hitting the ball over the fence in right-center and in left-center. He's a late-blooming, physical guy.
"The bat is there. He throws well enough and he runs like a deer. Yeah, he's not a classic center fielder, but he can really, really run."
Szymanski can run the 60-yard dash in 6.45 seconds, and he provides that coveted power from both sides of the plate. There are hitters and there are athletes available in the 2004 draft, but Szymanski may be the only blue-chipper in both categories.Tigers, Tigers Burning Bright
Just as astounding as Szymanski's rise is the fact that he might not be the only first-round pick on the Princeton roster. Righthander Ross Ohlendorf had shown a heavy mid-90s fastball in the past, but this year he has made significant strides with his slider and command. He also has outpitched potential first-rounders Verlander and Justin Orenduff (Virginia Commonwealth) in head-to-head matchups.
Stanford and Georgia Tech are accustomed to producing multiple first-round choices, but it's unheard of among the Ivy League institutes of higher learning. The eight Ivy schools have combined for a total of five first-rounders in 39 drafts, and no program has been responsible for more than one.
Brown shortstop Bill Almon was the first, as the Padres took him No. 1 overall in 1974 ahead of future stars such as Dale Murphy, Lance Parrish and Rick Sutcliffe. Harvard outfielder Mike Stenhouse went 26th five years later, though Athletics owner Charlie Finley was too cheap to sign him.
Yale righthander Ron Darling might have been the top pick in 1981, but he hired an agent, which was unusual at the time. He fell to the Rangers at No. 9, and they foolishly traded him to the Mets the following year for Lee Mazzilli.
Dartmouth lefty Mike Remlinger led NCAA Division I with 14.0 strikeouts per nine innings and upset Michigan in an NCAA regional, which got him drafted 16th by the Giants. The Cubs went for Penn outfielder Doug Glanville with the No. 12 pick in 1991—right ahead of Manny Ramirez and Cliff Floyd. Whoops.
All five Ivy first-rounders reached the majors, everyone but Stenhouse had a lengthy career, and Darling and Remlinger became all-stars.
Now Szymanski is in line to become the first Ivy Leaguer to crash the first round in 13 years. Scouts will continue to lament that he can't bring some more hitters with him.