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Draft Holds to Form After Young Goes First
by Jim Callis
Devil Rays scouting director Cam Bonifay knew for several days that he wanted to choose Delmon Young with the No. 1 pick in the draft. After three days of meetings leading up to the draft, Devil Rays general manager Chuck LaMar came to the same conclusion.
Tampa Bay finalized its decision the night before the June 3 draft. But Young, a Camarillo (Calif.) High outfielder, didn’t learn his fate until he heard his name called on the Web draft broadcast. His father Larry knew beforehand but kept it a secret.
Young said he had thought the Devil Rays were going with Southern second baseman Rickie Weeks. He had the requisite Rays cap and T-shirt on hand for photo opportunities, but he also had Brewers paraphernalia on hand in case he lasted until the second pick.
Though the Devil Rays had lengthy discussions about Young, Weeks, and to a lesser extent Florida high school outfielder Ryan Harvey, LaMar said they kept coming back to Young.
“We thought he was one of the best players long before the draft,” LaMar said. “But we’re in a critical situation, having the No. 1 pick in the country and not winning as many games as we hoped. We made sure we asked all the questions to make sure we got the best player in the country. He was awfully high on our list for a while. We went through everything to see if anyone could unseat Delmon, and the answer was no.”
Few teams had any questions about Young, the most accomplished high school hitter in the draft. Already 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, he projects as a slugging right fielder. He set a U.S. junior national team record with 16 homers in 2002, when he topped all players at the World Junior Championship with nine homers and 18 RBIs in seven games.
“He is one of the finest power hitters our scouts have evaluated, not only this year but over the years,” Bonifay said. “He’s the kind of guy that you don’t get out of your seat and go buy a hot dog when you know he’s coming to the plate. You want to stay there and watch him hit. He lights up your eyes.”
The only negatives on Young were a couple of minor injuries this spring, neither of which is a long-term concern. He missed Camarillo’s first five games after spraining his right ankle in a pickup basketball game, and he didn’t pitch after coming down with shoulder tendinitis. His fastball had been clocked up to 95 mph in the past.
Three Picks Higher Than Dmitri
Young and his brother Dmitri, a Tigers outfielder, became the highest-drafted siblings ever. Dmitri, who went fourth overall to the Cardinals in 1991, also had been drafted by the Devil Rays. Tampa Bay selected him in the November 1997 expansion draft, then traded him to Cincinnati in a prearranged deal.
Because the Tigers were in San Diego to play the Padres, Dmitri was able to surprise his brother by arriving via limousine for the draft-day celebration. Delmon sounded relaxed and confident afterward, saying he wasn’t going to put pressure on himself and comparing his game to Vladimir Guerrero’s. He also said he hoped to reach Tampa Bay quickly.
“That gives me two years. I want to be there as quick as possible, like Andruw Jones, Ken Griffey Jr. and A-Rod,” Young said. “I’m trying to be just like them, to get to the big leagues as quick as possible and be dominant like they are.”
Young adds to the Devil Rays’ greatest—and some would say only—strength. Their two brightest big league players are outfielders Rocco Baldelli and Carl Crawford. They also have several outfield prospects in the minors. Another outfielder, Josh Hamilton, was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 draft but is on leave from the organization while trying to overcome personal problems.
Despite that depth and glaring weaknesses elsewhere, LaMar said Young’s position was not a consideration. The Devil Rays were determined to get the best player available.
“Moreso at No. 1 than even down in the first round. I don’t believe you draft for need and I never have,” LaMar said. “The landscape for a major league club can change dramatically in a given year. You have to take the guy you think is the best player rather than draft for need. The bat Delmon has is a good fit for anybody. Picking first, with the importance of the pick and the finances of the pick, you have to take the best player and not worry about his position.”
Finances are important to the Devil Rays, who opened 2003 with a major league-low $19.6 million payroll (the Royals ranked next lowest at $40.5 million) and haven’t paid an up-front bonus to a first-rounder since they gave Hamilton $3.96 million in 1999. Baldelli ($2.25 million, 2000) and B.J. Upton ($4.6 million, 2002) had their bonuses spread over five years thanks to a draft provision for two-sport athletes, while Dewon Brazelton (2001) signed a five-year major league contract worth $4.8 million.
Young isn’t a two-sport star, and only Todd Van Poppel (1990), Alex Rodriguez (1993), Josh Beckett (1999) and David Espinosa (2000) have been given big league contracts as high school draft picks. LaMar said it was too early to know how much it would cost to sign Young and how his bonus would be paid out. The Devil Rays are believed to have floated a $3.75 million offer, while Young and his adviser Arn Tellem are thought to be looking for Upton money.
Markakis Only Early Surprise
After Young, the top of the first round played out as expected. The Brewers took Weeks, whose career .473 average is the NCAA Division I record, and the Tigers and Padres snapped up the top college pitchers available, Wake Forest’s Kyle Sleeth and Richmond’s Tim Stauffer.
Picking fifth, the Royals went with Pennsylvania high school outfielder Chris Lubanski. One of the fastest players in the draft, Lubanski is a potential five-tool player who otherwise might have lasted until the 11th or 12th pick. He’s expected to sign quickly and for less than Major League Baseball’s recommended $2.5 million bonus for that slot.
Harvey, who put on an impressive power display at Tropicana Field for the Devil Rays a week earlier, could become Sammy Sosa’s successor in right field after going sixth to the Cubs. He’s a product of Dunedin (Fla.) High, as is Chicago GM Jim Hendry.
At No. 7, the Orioles were the wild card in the top 10 picks. They already signed a blue-chip talent a week before the draft, agreeing to a five-year, $4.02 million major league contract with Chipola (Fla.) Junior College lefthander Adam Loewen shortly before they would have lost his rights. Baltimore picked Loewen fourth overall in 2002, but negotiations bogged down and he became a draft-and-follow.
Looking to save money with this year’s first-rounder, the Orioles tried to get Tulane first baseman Michael Aubrey to accept a predraft deal. When he declined, they opted for Young Harris (Ga.) JC two-way star Nick Markakis.
A lefthander/outfielder, Markakis ranked right behind Loewen among draft-and-follows from 2002. Drafted twice by the Reds, most recently in the 23rd round last year, Markakis turned down $1.5 million from the Reds before this draft. He agreed to a $1.85 million bonus from the Orioles—$450,000 less than MLB’s recommendation.
While Baltimore’s decision to take Markakis wasn’t surprising, its choice for his future was. Most teams preferred him as a pitcher and some clubs were split, but the Orioles liked his bat more and will make him a full-time outfielder.
Markakis hit .455-17-74 as a freshman and .439-21-92 this spring, when he led national juco hitters in RBIs and pitchers in strikeouts per nine innings (14.9). He also impressed Baltimore at the plate during a workout the day before the draft.
“We think he’s going to develop into a fine power hitter,” Orioles scouting director Tony DeMacio said. “We’re not looking at him as a fallback-type player. We think he’s going to hit. He’s got a nice swing. He centers the ball consistently, and we like that as well.”
Indians, Mets Get Good Values
The Pirates (Mississippi State lefthander Paul Maholm), Rangers (Texas high school lefty John Danks) and Rockies (California prep third baseman Ian Stewart) closed out the top 10 by taking the players they were expected to choose. The Indians and Mets followed with two possible coups.
At No. 11, Cleveland selected Aubrey, the safest hitter in the draft. He’s a good bet to hit at least .300 with lots of doubles and at least 15-20 homers, thanks to his swing, approach and plate discipline. Using wood bats with Team USA last summer, he led the club in all three triple crown categories at .405-6-26 in 29 games. By contrast, Weeks hit .273-2-14.
“Michael is a very accomplished college hitter,” Indians scouting director John Mirabelli said. “I’ve compared him a lot to Sean Casey. He’s a hitter first, and we think that his power will follow.”
New York went for Florida high school outfielder Lastings Milledge, arguably the best five-tool package in the draft. He tied Young for the top hitter on the 2002 U.S. junior national team at .474, and his bat speed, foot speed and arm are all exceptional.
“He has the potential to hit for power and for average,” Mets assistant GM for scouting Gary LaRocque said. “We see him staying as a center fielder, not a position changer. And he runs exceptionally well. We see him as an offensive player with power to the gaps, an aggressive base runner and a player with passion for the game.”
Milledge’s place in the first half of the draft wasn’t as secure as Aubrey’s. Milledge struggled with wood bats last fall and against breaking pitches early this spring. He also was investigated for (though not formally charged with) improper conduct with a female minor, which concerned some clubs.
“I was kind of nervous,” Milledge said. “I wanted answers. I didn’t know who was going to pick me. I couldn’t find them. I was kind of down for two days. But this lit up my whole life.”
Milledge was the sixth high school player among the first 12 picks before, as predicted, the draft slanted heavily toward college players. Including Markakis, 18 of the 30 first-rounders came from colleges, the most since 21 of 28 did so in 1992. High schoolers accounted for just 32 percent of the picks in the first 10 rounds, down from 39 percent in 2002 and 46 percent in 2000.