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Early judgments on '04 draft put A's on top

by Jim Callis
August 31, 2005

CHICAGO‹Our cover package this issue checks in on the Draft Class of 2004, in particular Athletics closer Huston Street, struggling No. 1 overall pick Matt Bush and former Rice teammates Philip Humber, Jeff Niemann and Wade Townsend.

If that's not enough and you need a progress report on each team's draft haul, you've come to the right place.

No club has gotten more out of a 2004 pick than the A's have with Street, who went 40th overall. Oakland's three other first-round picks have had mixed results, with catcher Landon Powell out all year following knee surgery, outfielder Danny Putnam rebounding after a lackluster 2004 debut and outfielder Richie Robnett playing just decently. But with an immediate impact player and promising later picks such as catcher Kurt Suzuki (second round), second baseman Kevin Melillo (fifth), lefthander Dallas Braden (24th) and righty Connor Robertson (31st), Oakland has had the best 2004 draft to this point.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Padres, who were set on taking Stephen Drew with the first pick three days before the draft, then switched gears with disastrous results. Bush hasn't lived up to expectations on (or initially off) the field since. San Diego's best hope for the future might be gargantuan first baseman Kyle Blanks‹and he's a 42nd-round draft-and-follow in a complex league.

Now that we've covered the best and the worst drafts, it's on to the other 28 teams.

Tier II: Looking Good

It took them nearly a year to sign their first-round picks, but the Angels and Diamondbacks couldn't be more pleased with Jered Weaver and Drew. Weaver, BA's top-rated prospect a year ago, had barely pitched in the interim yet was able to blow away high Class A hitters and hold his own after a swift promotion to Double-A. Los Angeles also has high hopes for Nick Adenhart (14th round), back on the mound already after Tommy John surgery knocked him out of the first round, and first baseman Mark Trumbo (18th).

Drew has followed the same path as Weaver, tearing up high Class A before moving onto Double-A, and could be Arizona's starting shortstop as soon as next year. Outfielder Jon Zeringue (second) has faltered at Double-A Tennessee, but sleeper first baseman Chris Carter (17th) continues to rake after joining him with the Smokies.

The Blue Jays already have promoted three pitchers to the high minors, Zach Jackson (supplemental first) to Triple-A and David Purcey (first) and Casey Janssen (fourth) to Double-A. Outfielder Adam Lind (third) may be the top position player in the Toronto system.

Tier III: Solid Beginnings

The Tigers hadn't really hit on a first-round pick since Jeff Weaver in 1998 when they took Justin Verlander No. 2 overall. Though he didn't dominate mid-level college competition as much as he should, Verlander has overmatched minor leaguers and has made two starts for Detroit.

One of the biggest reasons the Marlins have jumped back into the National League playoff picture is Jason Vargas (second), who pitched in Weaver's shadow at Long Beach State. Vargas, who won three of his first five big league starts, has surged past first-rounder and fellow lefty Taylor Tankersley.

The Devil Rays' Niemann has reached Double-A but hasn't been able to stay fully healthy, which cost him a shot at going No. 1 overall in 2004. Even if Niemann can't dodge injuries, no club can match the depth of Tampa Bay's promising draft class, which also includes shortstop Reid Brignac (second), righthander Wade Davis (third), lefty Jacob McGee (fifth), outfielders Ryan Royster (sixth) and Fernando Perez (seventh), first baseman Rhyne Hughes (eighth) and righties Matt Walker (10th) and Andy Sonnastine (13th).

The Rockies stole Chris Nelson with the ninth overall choice, but hamstring injuries have held him back in 2005. Colorado still has plenty to smile about: outfielder Seth Smith (second), shortstop Matt Macri (fifth) and righthander Jim Miller (eighth) have continued to progress; catcher Chris Iannetta (fourth) made the Futures Game; and first baseman Joe Koshansky (sixth) is challenging for the minor league home run title.

The Dodgers had three first-rounders: lefty Scott Elbert, who's back on track in a big way after a mediocre debut; sweet-swinging third baseman Blake DeWitt; and Double-A righty Justin Orenduff. Righthanders Blake Johnson (second) and Javy Guerra (fourth) and first baseman Cory Dunlap (third) have been solid as well.

Outfielder Billy Butler is one of the very few bright spots surrounding the Royals, quieting skeptics who thought he was overdrafted at 14th overall. Kansas City needlessly rushed lefty J.P. Howell (supplemental first) to the majors, but he has survived.

The Astros had one of baseball's worst farm systems before beginning to restock with their 2004 draft. Lefthander Troy Patton was a ninth-round coup, and outfielder Hunter Pence (second‹Houston's top pick) and shortstop Ben Zobrist (sixth) haven't stopped hitting since turning pro.

Tier IV: Average Thus Far

We tabbed the Twins as having the best 2004 draft in our Draft Report Cards last fall, but their crop of five first-rounders hasn't stood out as much this summer. Righthanders Kyle Waldrop and Jay Rainville are the best of the group, and righties Anthony Swarzak (second) and Eduardo Morlan (third) are picking up some of the slack.

The Rangers obviously need pitching, and both of their first-round righthanders, Thomas Diamond and Eric Hurley, are living up to expectations. Diamond has advanced to Double-A.

The White Sox have one of the game's top southpaws in Mark Buehrle and took four more in the first two rounds, most notably Gio Gonzalez (supplemental first) and Ray Liotta (second). Double-A third baseman Josh Fields (first) is starting to breath down Joe Crede's neck.

The Red Sox gave sidewinding sinkerballer Cla Meredith (sixth) a quick taste of the majors and would have been tempted to give Dustin Pedroia (second‹Boston's top pick) a shot at their second-base job if he hadn't hurt his wrist in Triple-A.

Righthander Grant Johnson, the Cubs' top pick (second round), didnŐt make his pro debut until June because of hamstring problems, but second baseman Eric Patterson (eighth) and righty Sean Gallagher (12th) terrorized the low Class A Midwest League without him.

The Indians knew they were getting a polished lefty in Jeremy Sowers with the sixth overall pick, and he has been just that, coasting all the way to Double-A. Another southpaw, 45th-rounder Tony Sipp, continues to be unhittable.

Hard-throwing Philip Hughes (first) has become the best prospect in the Yankees system, and fellow righty Christian Garcia (third) isn't far behind.

The Giants are taking steps toward reversing their reputation for not being able to develop hitters with outfielders Eddy Martinez-Esteve (second‹San Francisco's top pick), John Bowker (third) and Clay Timpner (fourth), plus Futures Game second baseman Kevin Frandsen (12th).

Lefty reliever Bill Bray nearly has completed Chad Cordero's trail from the first round to the Nationals, while shortstop Ian Desmond (third) is an electric defender and righthander Collin Balester (fourth) has been a revelation.

Tier V: Slow Out Of The Gates

Righthanders Mark Rogers (Brewers) and Homer Bailey (Reds) were the most coveted high school arms and went in the first seven picks, but both have gone through growing pains while Hughes has surpassed them. So has Cincinnati outfielder B.J. Szymanski (second), one of the draft's top athletes.

While the Braves didn't have a first-round pick, third baseman Eric Campbell (second) has made good on Jeff Kent comparisons to this point and James Parr (fourth) is the franchise's latest pitching prospect.

The Phillies knew athletic outfielder Greg Golson (first) would need some time to develop, and catcher Jason Jaramillo (second) and lefty J.A. Happ (third) should beat him to Philadelphia.

Most of the Pirates' early picks have struggled, but Neil Walker (first) is the exception and looks like the franchise's catcher of the future.

Without picks in the first two rounds, the Mariners spent $2.29 million on shortstop Matt Tuiasosopo (third), who has cooled since a blazing hot start last summer.

The Orioles failed to sign No. 8 overall pick Townsend and didn't have a second-rounder, yet partially redeemed themselves with outfielder Jeff Fiorentino (third), who already has appeared in Baltimore.

Having third overall choice Humber succumb to Tommy John surgery was a huge blow for the Mets, though righty Gaby Hernandez' (third) rapid development has lessened the sting.

The Cardinals went college-crazy, failing to sign a single high school player. Outside of righty Chris Lambert (first) and lefty Eric Haberer (third), most of St. Louis' early picks aren't distinguishing themselves in the lower minors.

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

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