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Yankees' conservative drafts cost them Johnson

by Jim Callis
August 26, 2004

CHICAGO—It's a scenario that other teams loathe. A wealthy owner spends lavishly on major league free agents and amateur draft picks, fortifying his club for the present while also building a foundation for the future. Not to mention driving up the market price.

It's happening right now. But the culprit isn't the usual suspect, George Steinbrenner.

Arte Moreno's Angels grabbed Vladimir Guerrero, Bartolo Colon, Kelvim Escobar and Jose Guillen last winter, then continued to gorge themselves this summer with Mark Trumbo, Nick Adenhart and Bobby Cassevah. Still to come: Jered Weaver, the top-rated prospect in the draft who fell to Anaheim at No. 12 because 11 teams were afraid of his eight-figure price tag.

The Yankees' financial aggression hasn't carried into the draft. They seemingly have been more concerned with propping up Steinbrenner-favored affiliates in short-season Staten Island and high Class A Tampa than with finding high-ceiling big leaguers.

On the rare occasions when the Yankees have pursued premium talent, they haven't closed the deal. New York let a pair of 2004 first-rounders, righthander Philip Humber (Mets, No. 3) and lefty David Purcey (Blue Jays, No. 16), slip away after taking Humber in the 29th round out of high school and Purcey in the 17th round as a college sophomore.

In the same 2003 draft when they lost out on Purcey, the Yankees failed to meet the seven-figure price tag of 20th-round righty Daniel Bard. He'll be a 2006 first-rounder after three years at North Carolina.

The Yankees' poor draft record in recent years drew the ire of Steinbrenner, who reassigned scouting director Lin Garrett to international duties in July and replaced him with former vice president of player development and scouting Damon Oppenheimer.

That bodes for a bolder draft approach, but the Yankees' conservatism already has cost them. They didn't have the prospects to entice the Diamondbacks to trade Randy Johnson (whom, incidentally, Oppenheimer caught at Southern California). With a couple of pitchers the caliber of Humber, Purcey and Bard, it's hard to believe New York couldn't have acquired Johnson.

Of course, had New York not used a soft-sell approach on its 1998 supplemental first-rounder, it wouldn't have such a dire need for pitching. Mark Prior wearing Yankees pinstripes is another sight rival teams are glad they don't have to behold.

Third Base A Charm

As the Angels make the surprising decision to make Trumbo a full-time third baseman, history is on their side. They've done well with pitching prospects who found a home at the hot corner.

Troy Glaus' strong arm made him an intriguing two-way prospect when he was at Carlsbad (Calif.) High. By the time he was a senior in 1994, the prodigious power in his bat made it clear that his future was as a hitter.

Glaus didn't sign as second-round pick of the Padres and went on to star at UCLA before the Angels made him the No. 3 overall pick in 1997. He won the American League home run crown in 2000 and the World Series MVP award two years later.

Anaheim has a Glaus clone on the way in Dallas McPherson, one of the minors' top power prospects. McPherson has hit .318/.385/.686 with 38 homers and 119 RBIs between Double-A and Triple-A this year, and he could help the Angels' playoff push by subbing for the injured Glaus in September.

A second-round pick in the Angels' banner 2001 draft that also netted Casey Kotchman and Jeff Mathis, McPherson entered his draft year regarded more highly as a pitcher. Playing in the Cape Cod League in the summer of 2000, he hit just .195 with wood bats but showed a low-90s fastball that touched 95 mph and a good slider on the mound.

But McPherson's performance reversed in his final season at The Citadel. He went just 4-5, 6.65 on the mound while batting .347 with 11 homers, and the Angels decided to keep him in the lineup on a daily basis.

Can Upton Stick At Short?

B.J. Upton was the top prospect in the minors until the Devil Rays promoted him to the majors on Aug. 1. He had little trouble adjusting offensively, batting .304/.351/.493 with two homers and five RBIs in his first 18 games with Tampa Bay.

He also has continued to struggle defensively. Upton made 91 errors in 211 minor league games at shortstop, and he kicked five balls in his first 11 big league contests there before playing a game in left field. The Devil Rays are also planning to give him playing time at third base.

Players usually grow out of making errors as they add experience and benefit from the smoother major league infields. But one scout who watched Upton questioned whether he'll be able to make the necessary adjustments.

"Upton stops and goes a lot at shortstop," the scout said. "He doesn't read balls well. Alfonso Soriano did that when he played shortstop, and it just makes me wonder whether Upton can become a real good shortstop.

"It stems largely from poor footwork. Shortstop is one position where you can't get away with that, because there's no margin for error. Some kids overcome it by learning to relax. Maybe he will. He's fun to watch, but I'm wondering about him."

You can reach Jim Callis by sending e-mail to jimcallis@baseballamerica.com.

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