Sleeth, Stauffer live up to lofty draft expectations
Edited by John Manuel June 5, 2003
Kyle Sleeth’s bags were packed. He was ready to go home.
For the last three years, home was Winston-Salem, N.C., the campus of WakeForest. Sleeth had come east to go to college because that’s what pitchers with talent from Colorado usually do. The two big Division I schools in his home state don’t field baseball teams, so this Colorado Buffaloes fan chose a different shade of gold and black and became a Demon Deacon.
It was time for a change, though. Sleeth had helped the Deacons earn regional bids his first two seasons and carry a No. 7 preseason ranking into 2003, but that time had passed. WakeForest was slumping toward a 29-24 finish, losing six of its last seven games to wind up just 8-15 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
There would be no postseason to distract Sleeth from the draft. He just was going to have to deal with it.
So as rain washed away his last home regular season start at Wake—scattering the sizeable scouting contingent that included Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie as well as several crosscheckers—Sleeth obliged the local media with an interview session in a small storage room under the Hooks Field stands. It might have gone on longer (Sleeth doesn’t mind the media) but the ballpark’s flags were wet, and the grounds crew needed the room back to dry them out.
“The draft’s a crapshoot, and for the most part I’ve kept it off my mind,” he said. “Once I get on the mound, I can get into my competitive mode. But as soon as we’re done, I’m going to go be with my family back in Colorado.
“It might be hard to find a catcher (to practice with) there, but it will be good to be home. Wherever I go after that, I’ll be happy. This is what I’ve been wanting to do all my life: play pro baseball.”
Sleeth made one more ACC start, a 9-8 loss to Georgia Tech in the ACC tournament in which he went the distance, threw 129 pitches and gave up just three earned runs. The loss dropped Sleeth, who had a 24-3 career record entering the season, to 7-3, 2.81 for 2003.
Good thing his bags were packed. The Deacons lost their next game to end their season, and Sleeth returned to Colorodo with nothing but the draft in his sights.
At least Tim Stauffer, three hours to the north, could keep playing. The Richmond righthander led the Spiders to another Atlantic-10 Conference championship, throwing a shutout against Massachusetts in the league’s best-of-three title series. Like Sleeth, Stauffer had the draft on his mind during the season but had managed to keep it at bay, even when he had general managers and scouting directors in the stands watching his every move.
So instead of being at home for a week with nothing but the draft to look forward to, Stauffer joined his teammates in a regional at Stanford. Excited to throw on the same Sunken Diamond mound once occupied by big leaguers from Jason Young and Jeff Austin to Mike Mussina and Jack McDowell, Stauffer got one more chance to impress scouts and keep them at bay at the same time.
Stauffer’s last college start didn’t quite work out either, as a potent UC Riverside lineup proved too much for him in a 9-5 loss. Stauffer gave up 11 hits and five runs (two earned) over eight innings while striking out eight and credited the Riverside hitters. But UC Riverside coach Jack Smitheran was impressed: “You could see how good he was, and it was clear he’s going to be a big leaguer.”
The Spiders hung in and won two more games in the regional before succumbing to the host Cardinal in the championship game. That left Stauffer with one last college duty: a wakeup call the next morning for the flight back to Richmond. Finally, the draft wasn’t a distraction anymore. It was about to become reality.
“I really couldn’t sleep on the plane, maybe a half-hour,” Stauffer said. “That’s the first time that I really thought about the draft, because the season was over and the draft was the very next day. It was a long flight.
“I just went over some things in my mind, imagining what it would be like if one team took me or another.”
Both Stauffer and Sleeth had followed the draft all spring, and now they could admit it. Sleeth acknowledged sneaking a peek at Stauffer’s stats every now and then on the Web. “Just to see what he’s doing,” Sleeth said.
They had come into the spring as the nation’s top two pitching prospects. Halfway through the season, clubs outside the first 10 picks realized there was no way either one would last long in the first round and stopped scouting them, concentrating resources elsewhere. Because of their close geographical proximity to each other, crosscheckers would often scout both players on the same trip.
Sleeth and Stauffer had another link. The Orioles had drafted both of them out of high school in 2000—Sleeth in the 18th round, Stauffer in the 36th. Three years later, their fates were intertwined as they made starts throughout the year, moving themselves up and down the lists of the teams at the top of the draft. Scouts reached a consensus on the top players available for 2003; Sleeth and Stauffer remained near the top, just behind California high school outfielder Delmon Young and Southern second baseman Rickie Weeks.
Sleeth is the hard thrower with a fastball in the mid-90s and a winning streak that reached 26 starts. Stauffer is the craftsman with the fastball that evokes Greg Maddux and the mid-80s cutter that carved up aluminum bats and made scouts dream of splinters.
Which would go first depended less on their performance and more on the teams that picked. Young went first, to the Devil Rays, who have a thing for high school outfielders. Weeks’ quick wrists and amazing bat speed were too much for the Brewers to ignore, and they snapped him up with the second overall selection.
That left the Tigers holding the key for both players. The Padres, picking next, had publicly expressed their preference for a college pitcher and heavily scouted both players. Both pitchers said they knew if they didn’t go to Detroit, they’d go to San Diego.
Scouting directors often travel in packs, and Greg Smith of the Tigers knew that he and Padres counterpart Bill Gayton were on the trail of the same players. Gayton also knew Smith might make his decision for him.
Smith likes both pitchers and saw both frequently. Smith and Gayton were on hand—Smith with assistant general manager Al Avila in tow, Gayton with GM Kevin Towers—for Stauffer’s worst start of the year. A week before Sleeth’s last home start, Stauffer give up seven runs in the first inning and eight runs (six earned) overall in six innings in a 10-0 loss at North Carolina.
That didn’t scare either man off Stauffer, however. “You don’t let one day dictate your choice,” Smith said. “You factor it in, but you can’t let one be any more important than the rest of them.”
Stauffer already had that sense. He shrugged off the loss, making no mention at the time of a blister on his ring finger that bothered him throughout the season’s second half. “The seams on these balls are just really high,” he said after the draft. “I hope the balls in the pros have lower seams. It just makes the ball seem smaller and it’s easier for me to throw. These seams on the balls we use in college just rip my finger up pretty good.”
The Tigers knew about his blister, but it’s not what prompted them to pick Sleeth with the third pick, leaving San Diego to snap up Stauffer at four. “We got the player we wanted,” Gayton told reporters.
So did the Tigers.
“It was a situation for us where we liked both pitchers. We knew both were possibilities for us going into the year, so we were able to spend a lot of time on both guys,” Smith said. “They’re similar pitchers, but they are different in a lot of ways. Kyle’s got a quality arm with an above-average fastball, and for me he’s got a little more upside. He’s got a quality arm with an above-average fastball.
“I like Tim quite a bit, but we thought Kyle, with a little bit bigger body, might be more durable. He’s a four-pitch guy like Tim is, and his pitches can be helped. He was more efficient this year, and we like his curveball, his slider and his changeup.”
Smith also pointed to intangibles, things about Sleeth he didn’t measure with his radar gun. He respected how Sleeth handled the pressure of being under the gaze of scouts every pitch, and how he dealt with WakeForest’s rough season.
Sleeth acknowledged the pressure of the team’s struggles affected him. He won his first six decisions of the year, stretching his Division I winning streak to a record-tying 26, dating back to March 2001. His only loss in that span had come against Cuba with Team USA in August 2002, and he would have a chance to break the record at FloridaState.
It wasn’t his worst start, but Sleeth gave up 11 hits and seven runs over 72/3 innings to take the loss, ending the streak. “Once it got to 26, I think I put too much pressure on myself,” he said after the start. “It was FloridaState, and the team really needed the win.
“It was a very different year for me, because the last two years we’ve been a streaky team, but most of the streaks have been good. That hasn’t happened this year.”
Smith said scouts take that into account, especially when so much is at stake financially and the two franchises making the picks have the two worst records in the major leagues. Coincidentally, the Tigers and Padres were also playing an interleague series during the draft.
“Both of these guys are going to struggle in pro ball; they’re going to have bad days,” Smith said. “One of the things we have to do when we kind of crystal ball this is try to know that, on his worst day, what will Kyle still bring to the table? What will Tim bring to the table on his worst day?
“I was at FloridaState when his streak was broken, and his demeanor, his competitiveness, his maturity that night—they all impressed me.”
The Padres were similarly impressed with Sleeth. The club’s area scout in North Carolina, Mike Rikard, had been an assistant coach at WakeForest during Sleeth’s recruitment and knows him and his family well. He saw Sleeth’s fastball reaching the high 90s in 2002 during his 14-win season, and though the 96’s and 97’s weren’t showing up on the radar gun this year, he wasn’t overly concerned.
“He’s been awesome at times, like at North Carolina or at Georgia Tech,” Rikard said. “They might still be playing at Tech if not for a wild pitch or passed ball.”
But part of a scout’s job is to find players’ weaknesses. Padres scouts wanted to see their pick establish the fastball against college hitters, and Stauffer did that with more regularity in 2003. Perhaps it was the competition; the A-10 isn’t the ACC, and Stauffer said he noticed a dropoff in talent from his freshman season, spent in the Colonial Athletic Association, to the A-10 for his last two years.
Stauffer took advantage by dominating with his fastball, according to the Padres’ area scout for Virginia, Tripp Keister.
“Had a great start against La Salle,” Keister said. “It was just bitterly cold up here, and you could almost see in his eyes, he was thinking, ‘I’m getting out of here.’
“He didn’t waste any time. He was efficient and had quick innings. He pitched with his fastball, and because he can locate it, I really think he’ll get a lot of ground balls against pro hitters.”
Sleeth’s fastball has more velocity; in his start against North Carolina that Rikard noted as one of his best, his first heater registered 94 mph, as did his last over eight innings of work. But Keister says Stauffer’s fastball shouldn’t be sold short.
“He has natural movement, and he can hump it up to 93 or 94 when he needs to right now,” Keister said. “He pitches at 91, his cutter can get up to 88, and that’s a nasty pitch. You dream a little less with Tim compared to Kyle, but you can see Tim, if he gets stronger and throws more fastballs as a pro, really building up his velocity. I really believe he’ll throw harder in the future.”
The club in each player’s future was still unknown as both players settled in to listen to the draft on the Web. Stauffer, who turned 21 the day before the draft, decided to put off celebrating too hard. He went out with friends that night, then went to another friend’s apartment the morning of the draft to listen in with other Spiders players.
Sleeth decided to listen to the draft at home with his family and girlfriend, Sarah Pickar. He tried to sleep as late as he could, knowing the draft started at 11 a.m. Colorado time, but by 9:30, he was up and pacing around the house with too much nervous energy. “I just needed something to do, so I went downstairs and played some pool with Sarah,” he said.
Both players knew which teams were interested, thanks to interviews with scouts and questionnaires they had filled out over the years. “That stuff can be a hassle, but it’s a good hassle to have,” Sleeth said. “It means they want you.”
So neither expected to wait long. Sleeth would be the one with the shorter wait, as the Tigers announced his name and draft number at No. 3. A minute later, Stauffer went to the Padres at No. 4. Instead of being picked about 500 players after Sleeth, as he had been out of high school, Stauffer was the very next player.
And both of them were glad it was over.
“It wasn’t a weight off my shoulders, but it was just a feeling of all the hard work paying off,” Sleeth said. “The general manager, Dave Dombrowski, called me after the draft to welcome me to the organization and we did a press conference.
“All the Detroit guys asked me wasn’t even about baseball. They wanted to know about the line in the (WakeForest) media guide where I wrote that my all-time favorite athletic event was watching the Colorado Avalanche beat the Detroit Red Wings in the (NHL’s) Western Conference finals.
“They all wanted to know if I was going to become a Wings fan and said I’ve got to drop the Avs, but I can’t do that.”
Stauffer was ecstatic. The upstate New York native had a whole plane flight to think about his possible destinations, and San Diego had been at the top of the list.
“I thought it was 50-50 going into the draft between Detroit and San Diego. I was leaning to San Diego,” he said. “I like the thought of the area of San Diego and Southern California. It’s a different part of the country than where I’ve been.”
The next step comes in signing the players, but neither should be a protracted negotiation. Sleeth has IMG to advise him, while Stauffer tabbed Ron Shapiro, father of Cleveland Indians GM Mark Shapiro. Both pitchers said some down time would be fine with them, but they both would like to get innings in short-season ball this summer before instructional league in the fall.
After a pressure-filled spring full of games, draft lists, team interviews and a lot of waiting around, Kyle Sleeth and Tim Stauffer are ready for pro ball. Time to pack those bags again.