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Teams anxiously dip into San Diego’s deep talent pool

By John Maffei

SAN DIEGO—Matt Wheatland was listening to the draft on the Internet, waiting for his best friend Scott Heard to be taken.

Wheatland, a righthander, and Heard, a lefthanded-hitting catcher, were teammates this season on Rancho Bernardo High’s San Diego County championship team, which is also ranked No. 1 nationally by Baseball America. Wheatland was projected as a first-round pick, but Heard was supposed to go in the top four choices.

"I was waiting to hear Scott’s name when I heard them announce my ID number," Wheatland said.

The Tigers took Wheatland with the eighth pick in the draft. Heard lasted until the 25th selection overall, when the Rangers selected him.

High school teammates had gone in the first round just twice since the draft began in 1965: Mike Ondina (White Sox) and Jerry Manuel (Tigers) out of Rancho Cordova (Calif.) High in 1972, and Michael Cuddyer (Twins) and John Curtice (Red Sox) out of Great Bridge High in Chesapeake, Va., in 1997.

Wheatland and Heard were part of a bumper crop from the San Diego area this year, as five players from San Diego County were taken in the first round. First baseman Adrian Gonzalez of Chula Vista’s Eastlake High was the No. 1 overall pick, by the Marlins. Righthander Adam Johnson of Cal State Fullerton, who attended Torrey Pines High, was taken second overall by the Twins, and outfielder Shaun Boyd of Vista High went 13th overall to the Cardinals.

"Look at all the kids from San Diego," said Tigers general manager Randy Smith, a former Padres executive. "That quite a statement. Very impressive."

"You look in the paper, follow the good players, and you want to do better than the other guys," Gonzalez said. "The competition is incredible."

This draft only adds to San Diego’s draft history. San Diego had four natives taken in the first round in 1995—outfielder Jaime Jones of Rancho Bernardo High, righthander Mark Redman of Escondido High by way of Oklahoma, shortstop Ryan Jaroncyk of Orange Glen High, and righthander Chad Hutchinson of Torrey Pines High.

Overall this year, 20 players from San Diego County were taken in the first 20 rounds.

"That shows how good the talent is in San Diego," Wheatland said. "We all compete against each other. We all want to do better than the other guys. And that pushes us to greatness."

Power Arms And Bats

Heard has worn the tag of greatest since his freshman season. He was tremendous in his first two seasons, hobbled by injuries as a junior and flashed tremendous defensive skills this season.

And while he fell in the draft, he wasn’t at all disappointed with being picked by the Rangers.

"My family is moving to Texas in the next few weeks," said Heard, who has signed with the University of Texas. "My folks are building a home in The Woodlands (just outside Houston), so they’re pretty excited.

"Honestly, this couldn’t have gone better. I was a first-round pick, I’m going to get enough money so that I’m set for life so I can relax and play ball, and I get to go home with my family.

"The only thing that could have made the day better was if Matt and I were taken by the same team. But we’re both in the American League, so if we make it, we’ll be able to visit and hang out."

Wheatland and Heard said they want to get out and play as quickly as possible after their June 15 graduation.

Johnson, who went to the Twins in the 23rd round out of high school, also wants to start his pro career as soon as possible. But he was stunned to be taken by Minnesota this time.

"I talked to them two or three weeks ago, and they said they were going in a different direction," Johnson said. "Then I got a call about 9 a.m. (the draft started at 10 a.m. local time), and they were asking if we could work out a deal.

"They’ve been following me for a long time. They know me. It’s nice to be going to a place where you know you’re wanted."

The hard-throwing righthander was 7-4, 2.72 at Cal State Fullerton this season. In 119 innings, he walked just 28 and struck out 166. Opponents hit .194 against the Titans’ all-time strikeout leader, who closed as a freshman and could close again as a pro.

"Going to college definitely helped me," Johnson said. "I matured physically. Scouts were able to see what I could do against college players, see I was a player rather than a project."

Vista’s Boyd might be a project only because teams weren’t sure where he fit defensively. A shortstop as a junior, he moved to right field as a senior and is projected as a second baseman or even a center fielder as a pro.

"I made the switch to the outfield to help the team, but it certainly didn’t hurt me like everyone said," Boyd said. "I had no idea I’d go as high as I did. I thought I’d be the luckiest guy in the world to sneak in at the end of the first round. To go 13th is unreal."

Boyd, a righthanded hitter, batted .580-13-30 this season with 11 doubles, four triples and 31 stolen bases in 33 attempts. He had two hits in three at-bats against Wheatland in the county title game.

"The competition in San Diego is the greatest," Boyd said. "It’s a big part of all our success. We grow up competing against each other, and we all respect each other."

River Runs Deep

San Diego’s talent ran much deeper than the first round. The Angels took catcher Jared Abruzzo of El Capitan High in the second round and Southern California catcher Beau Craig in the sixth round. Craig, a draft-eligible sophomore, turned down the Padres two years ago as a third-round pick out of Grossmont High.

Boyd’s teammate at Vista, righthander Wes Littleton, went in the seventh round to the Expos. Two more Rancho Bernardo players also went on the first day: outfielder David Giorgis in the eighth round to the Padres and outfielder Haas Pratt to the Red Sox in the 18th.

The Padres stayed local with three other picks, taking Ramona High righthander J.K. Scott in the ninth round, El Capitan second baseman Kevin Nulton in the 10th and El Capitan first baseman Andrew Jensen in the 19th.

"Getting drafted by the Padres is awesome," said Scott, whom the Padres clocked at 93 mph. "I’ve talked to my brother (Brian, who plays Double-A ball for the Diamondbacks) and visited him, so I have an idea what pro ball is all about. I want to sign and get out playing."

While Scott was pleased, there were some disappointments. Pratt slid in the draft thanks to a firm commitment to Miami. Infielder Chad Corona of Santa Fe Christian High in nearby Solana Beach slipped to the 16th round, where the Cubs drafted him.

Perhaps most disappointed was Anthony Gwynn of Poway High, the son of Padres outfielder and future Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn. Like Corona, Gwynn has committed to San Diego State and finally went with the last pick of the 33rd round to the Braves.

"Anthony’s upset, but that’s good," Tony Gwynn said. "I told him people think he’s going to school (where the baseball field is named after his famous father). I told him to use this as motivation."

After all, Tony Gwynn wasn’t drafted out of high school, and things worked out pretty well for him.

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