Royals Lack A Clear Choice For No. 1 Pick





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A 6-foot-6 North Carolina lefthander and the highest unsigned pick in the 2003 draft, Andrew Miller entered the year No. 1 on most draft boards. For the most part, he has lived up to that status, as one of the very few college prospects to show scouts consistent performance to go with high-end talent.

But he apparently hasn't done enough for Deric Ladnier.

The scouting director for the Royals, who holds the No. 1 overall pick, Ladnier said in early March that the organization had narrowed its pool of candidates to four: Miller and three righthanders, Tar Heels teammate Daniel Bard, Missouri's Max Scherzer and Southern California's Ian Kennedy. A month later, Ladnier said the Royals no longer are at that point.

"From my perspective, it's a much larger pool," Ladnier said. "Last year was a great year to pick at the top of the draft. This year is not a good year at all. I would compare it to 2004--that's exactly the way I feel about it. There is not one particular player or pitcher that's standing out right now and stepping forward to say, 'I want to be the guy.' "

The 2004 draft produced one of the most unlikely No. 1 picks ever in shortstop Matt Bush. The Padres held the No. 1 pick that year, and general manager Kevin Towers said his team had narrowed its choices to righthanders Jered Weaver (Long Beach State) and Jeff Niemann (Rice) and shortstop Stephen Drew (Florida State). However, ownership didn't want to pay what it would take to sign those players, and the Padres took Bush, a local high school product, and signed him to a $3.15 million deal. Since signing, Bush has struggled on the field (.216 average in 552 at-bats) and off it (an arrest for his role in a bar fight soon after signing).

Miller, a third-round pick out of high school by the Devil Rays, started to step forward in late March with two scintillating starts against Georgia Tech and Florida State. He allowed eight hits and two walks while striking out 22 in 14 innings, cementing his spot as the best bet of a 2006 college class deep in pitching but considered lacking in elite talent and mediocre throughout. Miller has added a two-seam fastball and a cutter this season, and he has significantly improved his control. He also has continued to touch the mid-90s with his four-seamer and to show a quality slider.

"I've been changing speeds on my fastball, to where I know I can be effective at 89-91 and then have the 94-95 when I need it," Miller said after blowing away Florida State. "But there are times when I'm throwing my two-seamer 82-84 in intersquads and it gets guys off-balance, keeps them from sitting on my harder fastball.

"I feel like I'm more of a polished pitcher, more than I've been given credit for. I've always felt like I was more than just a thrower."

Only California righthander Brandon Morrow, who has matched the 96-99 mph velocity he showed last summer in the Cape Cod League, has displayed similar stuff, projectability and results. The 6-foot-3, 185-pounder still needs work on his secondary pitches but has shown more consistent mechanics and improved control this spring.

However, not even Miller and Morrow earn universal accolades from scouting directors. Some knock their consistency and secondary pitches, and some believe they project better as closers than as frontline starters. Directors agree that this is an unfortunate year to select at the top of the draft.

"Everybody tells me this is a good year not to have an early pick," a National League scouting director said, "and I haven't seen anything myself to convince me otherwise."

Depth On The Mound

The college crop offers several pitching options, and perhaps a dozen or more could go in the first round. Washington's Tim Lincecum, Houston's Brad Lincoln, Missouri's Max Scherzer and Nebraska's Joba Chamberlain, all righthanders, have flashed quality stuff and the ability to throw strikes with it.

Lincecum in particular has improved both his pitching and his draft stock significantly over 2005, when he was a sophomore-eligible who dropped to the Indians in the 42nd round because of concerns about his size, delivery and signability. He's smoother and repeating his mechanics more consistently this spring, leading NCAA Division I with 97 strikeouts (versus 35 walks) in 62 innings thanks to a mid-90s fastball and a plus-plus curveball.

His stuff, rubber arm--one scout reported seeing Lincecum long-tossing the day after throwing more than 130 pitches in a start against Hawaii--stuff and smallish frame (6-foot, 165 pounds) had one scout comparing him to Scot Shields.

"Lincecum is throwing a lot easier this year," an American League scouting director said. "I saw him at 94-96 in the ninth inning. Don't be surprised if he cuts a deal with someone, goes high in the draft and is in a big league bullpen by August."

Bard was among a group of pitchers who entered the year as possible top 10 picks but have found their stock slipping. One crosschecker flatly stated Bard "has completely lost confidence" after he made three straight poor starts at the end of March. Bard was having difficulty finding the strike zone consistently.

Kennedy has retained his knack for pitching but has lost a bit off his fastball, which had average velocity to begin with. Oregon State righty Dallas Buck continues to battle a tired arm and his emotions on the mound. He has yet to show the consistent low-90s sinker he used in 2005, instead sitting at 86-88 mph.

Few Hitters Impress

The utter lack of impact college hitters augurs well for Bard, Kennedy and Buck, who still figure to go in the first round. There simply aren't any college position players making scouts giddy this spring.

Long Beach State's Evan Longoria is considered the safest bet among collegians, including Miller, because of his steady bat and athleticism. Longoria has played third base this spring after playing shortstop in the Cape Cod League and for part of 2005, when he filled in for Troy Tulowitzki, the No. 7 overall pick last June.

Longoria is seen as a better version of Aaron Hill, a player with five average tools and a similar defensive profile when he was picked 13th overall in 2003. "He's similar in that he does a lot of things well," a NL scouting director said, "but Longoria has more of an impact bat."

Texas outfielder Drew Stubbs, an Astros third-round pick in 2003, began the year rated as the top position player available but his bat worries scouts. Though he's loaded with tools, he also has struck out in 27 percent of his college at-bats. He draws comparisons to Rocco Baldelli, but also to notorious draft busts such as Mike Kelly (the No. 2 overall pick in 1991) and Chad Mottola (No. 5 in 1992).

"The college outfield crop is one of the worst in recent memory," one AL scouting director said. "No one knows what to make of Drew Stubbs. He's a great kid and a tremendous athlete, but can he hit enough to really be an everyday player? I've seen him in about 15 games over the years and he has had maybe only three hits. And he still might go in the top 10."

Few players have taken advantage of the stumbles of hitters such as Stubbs and Georgia Tech third baseman Wes Hodges, who hasn't proven he can consistently drive the ball despite his career-high .605 slugging percentage. One exception, Pepperdine's Chad Tracy, has propped up a woeful catching class. The son of Pirates manager Jim Tracy has impressed with his all-around ability, athleticism and baseball background.

Another standout, athletic Wake Forest third baseman Matt Antonelli, has shown solid tools to go with his winning makeup, but few scouts are completely sold on him as a certain first-round pick. That's also the case for other hitters that scouts want to like, such as versatile Miami outfielder Jon Jay or premium defensive catcher Brian Jeroloman of Florida.

"The high school position players aren't very good either," the NL scouting director said. "So you could see 23 or 24 pitchers likely to go in the first round, combined high school and college, and you'd see guys who are really second- or third-round talents in past years go in the first round this year."

There's still time for sluggers such as Florida first baseman Matt LaPorta, who has been plagued by an oblique strain, and California outfielders Brennan Boesch and Chris Errecart stiil could deliver on their power potential. But the closer it gets to June, the more inescapable the conclusion becomes: 2006 has no impact hitters to rival the quintet of Justin Upton, Alex Gordon, Jeff Clement, Ryan Zimmerman and Ryan Braun who kicked off the 2005 draft.

"I'm overly optimistic every year, and there are a lot of guys I'd really like to have," an AL scouting director said. "But it's all college pitching. There are two or three college position players I'd like to have. Where are the Alex Gordons and Ryan Zimmermans this year?"

DRAFT DISH

• Barton County (Kan.) CC sophomore Chad Lee has emerged as the top junior college prospect not under control to a major league club. Lee, who never has been drafted, is 6-foot-4 righthander with a 90-93 mph fastball and a decent curve. He missed part of 2005 after injuring his left knee and requiring surgery, though he returned to pitch in the MINK League during the summer.

• San Diego lefthander Nate Boman will redshirt this season after his velocity failed to bounce back following his surgery to repair a torn labrum in June. If healthy, he projected as a possible second- or third-round pick.

Contributing: Jim Callis.