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Bats Play Better Than Athleticism
by Jim Callis
CHICAGO—Like Bud Selig talking about competitive balance (but hopefully with more conviction), we've reminded you more than a few times that the 2004 draft lacks quality position players.
Teams were figuring they'd have to overdraft everyday players just to ensure they'd get a palatable one. In the interest of public service, we'll offer some advice.
Before worrying about home-to-first times and arm strength, make sure a hitter can do just that: hit.
That sounds obvious, but there's a line of thinking that physical tools can't be taught while hitting can. In many cases, that belief results in a wasted draft pick.
We examined BA's Best Tools lists in our 1991-2000 Draft Previews, comparing the groups of top pure hitters, top power hitters, fastest baserunners and top athletes to one another. The results of our quick-and-dirty study indicate that it's best to bet on bats.
Lofty Numbers For Pure Hitters
All 10 of the best pure college hitters reached the majors, and eight of them currently hold starting jobs (Michael Tucker, Todd Walker, Todd Helton, Mark Kotsay, Lance Berkman, Pat Burrell, Eric Munson, Chase Utley). Throw in Mark Smith and Brooks Kieschnick, and they've combined for roughly 41 full seasons of .284/.364/.481 production with an average of 20 homers and 76 RBIs.
The second-most productive college group was the sluggers. Only Eddie Pearson and Danny Peoples washed out, and Jose Cruz, Matthew LeCroy, Burrell and Munson are playing regularly. With Joe Vitiello, Kieschnick, Brian Buchanan and Xavier Nady also contributing, this bunch has generated 18 seasons' worth of .252/.334/.452 with 23 homers and 76 RBIs.
The college athletes nearly matched the power hitters, thanks mainly to Darin Erstad, J.D. Drew and Brad Wilkerson, who not coincidentally were among the most advanced hitters in their draft classes. Concerns about Mike Kelly's swing proved to be well-founded, and Todd Dunn and Dante Powell saw only cups of coffee in the majors. Keith Reed and Tyrell Godwin may yet make it but won't be stars, while Michael Moore and Chad Green have failed. All told, the athletes have turned in 17 seasons averaging .277/.355/.446 with 17 homers, 63 RBIs and 16 steals.
The college speedsters went nowhere in a hurry. Jason Tyner is the best they have to offer, though Bobby Hill could surpass him. Terrell Lowery, Powell and Nicholson played briefly in the big leagues, but does anyone remember Marquis Riley, Darrell Nicholas or Jeff Parsons? Green and Godwin also were part of this group, which has provided a scant three seasons of .260/.316/.337 with four homers, 38 RBIs and 20 steals.
Florida State shortstop Stephen Drew, J.D.'s brother, is the most advanced college hitter this year—and was the leading candidate in the week before the draft to go No. 1 overall. As both the best power hitter and athlete in the college crop, Princeton outfielder B.J. Syzmanski also should be a fairly safe choice. But be wary of Georgia Tech second baseman Eric Patterson, Corey's brother and the fastest college prospect. He tries to hit for power rather than focusing on the speed game that suits him, and that could be his undoing.
Prep Hitters Just As Promising
Pure prep hitters Dmitri Young, Preston Wilson, Trot Nixon, Eric Chavez and Sean Burroughs are big league regulars, while Ben Grieve and promising Adrian Gonzalez have served in part-time roles this season. They've provided 30 full seasons of .278/.354/.474 with 21 homers and 79 RBIs—outdoing every group except for their college counterparts. Only Jaime Jones, Brett Caradonna and B.J. Garbe have fallen short.
The high school power hitters have had a similar rate of production, .273/.361/.469 with 21 homers and 80 RBIs, albeit over 19 seasons. Only Cliff Floyd and Derrek Lee are still everyday players. Grieve has had a decent career, and Jason Stokes is still packed with promise. The other six were disappointments, however, as Nate Rolison, Darnell McDonald and Ben Diggins have totaled 33 major league at-bats, while Chad Roper, A.J. Zapp and Josh Hamilton may never have one.
In a reverse of the college trend, the high school speedsters fared much better than the athletes. That's mainly because the burners included Shannon Stewart and Corey Patterson, whose bats were nearly as impressive as their physical skills. Thanks mainly to Stewart and Patterson, the fastest prep baserunners have combined for 11 seasons of .286/.345/.433 with 12 homers, 57 RBIs and 22 steals. David Krynzel still could be Milwaukee's center fielder of the future. McKay Christensen and Reggie Taylor have had forgettable careers, but they were more memorable than Basil Shabazz, Matt Brunson, Vernon Maxwell, Godwin and Faison.
The prep athletes have to hang their hat on Rocco Baldelli. Taylor is their second-best big leaguer, with Josh Booty and Drew Henson—two of the biggest busts in draft history—and McDonald as his only competition. Shabazz, Shea Morenz, Charles Peterson, Maxwell and Garbe couldn't hit in the minors, and the group has yielded just three seasons of .266/.309/.396 with 10 homers, 53 RBIs and 17 steals.
Sikeston (Mo.) High shortstop Blake DeWitt (best pure hitter in the 2004 prep class) and Jacksonville Wolfson High third baseman Billy Butler (best power hitter) may face position changes. Yet their offensive ability and history indicate that they could outperform more highly regarded Connally High (Austin) outfielder Greg Golson, who's the top high school athlete but will need mechanical adjustments to his swing. The fastest prepster is Puerto Rican outfielder Adrian Ortiz, whose slap-hitting approach makes him a risk.