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Draft Notebook

Surprise! Talent Matters Again In 2001

By Jim Callis

May 26, 2001

CHICAGO–For a magazine whose cover blared "Fix The Draft" last issue, we’re about to deliver some stunning news: The first five picks in the draft June 5 will likely be–you’re just not going to believe this–the best five players available.

Southern California righthander Mark Prior, Georgia Tech third baseman Mark Teixeira, Minnesota high school catcher Joe Mauer, Maryland high school righthander Gavin Floyd and Middle Tennessee State righthander Dewon Brazelton won’t go in the exact order their skills alone would dictate. Still, the draft hasn’t unfolded this way since Darin Erstad, Ben Davis, Jose Cruz Jr., Kerry Wood and Ariel Prieto led off the 1995 draft.

Since then, we’ve witnessed charades such as 1997, when two of the top prospects went in the top five and the other three all went 19th or lower, and 2000, when 10 of the first 11 picks were determined by the player’s willingness to sign a predraft deal.

The spiraling cost of bonuses still concerns teams. Last year’s No. 12 overall pick, Stanford outfielder/quarterback Joe Borchard, got a record $5.3 million from the White Sox, and many of the choices that followed received healthy raises over what their counterparts in the same slots got in 1999.

The commissioner’s office held its second annual negotiating seminar for scouting directors in May, in hopes of helping teams toe the line on spending. Club officials went out of their way last year to proclaim that none of the players in the draft was comparable to Josh Hamilton, Josh Beckett and Eric Munson, the top three picks from 1999–all of whom either set a bonus record or signed a major league contract.

No one is disparaging or avoiding the available talent this year. Some scouts consider Prior the best college pitcher of all time. Teixeira has more to offer than any recent slugger. Mauer is a rare potential five-tool catcher, as well as the national football player of the year. Floyd, who comes from the same high school that produced Teixeira, headlines an exceptional group of prep righthanders. Brazelton has two dominant pitches and, like Prior and Teixeira, won’t require much time in the minors.

"The better guys, the upper echelon, are more high profile," said an official from a team with an early selection who requested anonymity so his comments wouldn’t be used against him in negotiations. "The top three or four guys have high ceilings. When you have a Mark Prior and a Mark Teixeira coming out of college in the same year, there was no one like that last year. Maybe Joe Borchard, but he’s not up there with Teixeira."

Changes Coming

With a lockout brewing when the Basic Agreement expires after the World Series, the current season isn’t unfolding in a manner that will help the owners argue that small-revenue teams can’t compete. The Padres, Phillies and Twins, all last-place teams in 2000, were leading their divisions in late May.

As part of the negotiations, owners want to overhaul the draft. The proposals include adding international players to the pool of talent, restricting the draft eligibility of junior college and college players, establishing a universal signing deadline, allowing teams to trade picks, and eliminating compensation picks for the loss of major league free agents.

While the draft rules may be radically different in 2002, the owners’ contention that the worst teams can’t afford the best players also will lose force this summer. Unlike last year, when the Marlins signed Adrian Gonzalez to a predraft deal for $3 million, the Twins won’t make signability the highest priority with the No. 1 overall pick. The Devil Rays, who pick third, won’t be entirely cost-conscious in spite of their problems meeting payroll in May.

But at least one general manager isn’t ready to proclaim that the draft is working in 2001.

"If a Mark Prior doesn’t go with the first pick, then the draft isn’t doing what it was designed to do," he said. "I guess it’s possible they might not consider him the best talent, I’d grant that to them, but I’d have a hard time buying that. If you ask me, the draft is totally screwed up if he’s not the No. 1 pick."

It doesn’t appear that Prior will be the No. 1 pick. By late May, the Twins had narrowed their choices to four players and were focusing on two. They had targeted Prior and Mauer, preferring Prior, while also considering Teixeira and Brazelton.

Minnesota owner Carl Pohlad, whose net worth was estimated at $1.8 billion last fall, can afford to sign whomever he wants. Twins attendance was up 61 percent so far this year, giving the club more money to play with, and several scouting directors believe Prior could step into the big leagues almost immediately as a No. 3 starter, bolstering Minnesota’s surprising playoff run.

Yet Pohlad runs his franchise as if his primary goal is to be Exhibit A for why teams that don’t spend can’t win. For that reason, few industry insiders expect him to pony up the money to sign Prior. Twins scouting director Mike Radcliff hasn’t ruled Prior out, but he also doesn’t sound as if he expects Pohlad to hand him a blank check.

"It isn’t just us or our owners," Radcliff said. "It’s our industry. That October 31 deadline is approaching. I don’t think just because we’re winning a few games, we’re going to be able to do something a lot different than we’ve done in the past."

Ragged Track Record

The Twins have had more trouble signing premium draft picks than any franchise. The last time they had the No. 1 pick was in 1983, when they failed to sign righthander Tim Belcher. They couldn’t come to terms with Travis Lee, the No. 2 overall choice in 1996, and last year couldn’t sign supplemental first-rounder Aaron Heilman or second-rounder Taggert Bozied.

Minnesota has never given a major league contract to an amateur, and Prior is expected to want one. His exact desires are unknown, but rumors abound that it may take a package worth as much as $15 million to land him.

John Boggs, who is also the agent for Adrian Gonzalez, will advise Prior in his negotiations. Boggs laughed when asked if a $3 million predraft deal would work again this year.

"In this year’s draft, Mark has been proclaimed as a guy the team at No. 1 wants, the team at No. 2 would like to have, and so on down the line," Boggs said. "So it’s a different situation. This situation is so unique because from day one, scouts were almost chuckling from the talent they were seeing on the mound. In my years around the game, I’ve never seen such a consensus on a player’s makeup and ability. Mark has had pressure on him week after week, and yet continues to perform to a high degree."

Boggs wouldn’t offer specifics or comment on the rumors. He did say, "You have to look at the best and what the best received and when they received it and where we are now." He cited the guaranteed $8 million and $7 million deals Pat Burrell and J.D. Drew signed as 1998 first-rounders, as well as the $17 million contract the Yankees gave Drew Henson to get him to give up football this spring.

If the Twins find Prior too expensive, Mauer becomes a logical choice. Some consider him the top passer in this year’s football recruiting class and he has a scholarship from Florida State, but that could actually work in the Twins’ favor. He wants to play baseball, and his football prowess would allow Minnesota to take advantage of a rule allowing teams to spread bonus payments for two-sport stars over a five years.

Mauer would be a local favorite because he’s a product of St. Paul’s Cretin-Derham Hall High, just eight miles from the Metrodome. Only twice before has a homestate player been taken first in the draft. The White Sox failed to sign Danny Goodwin out of Peoria, Ill., in 1971, and the Rangers grabbed David Clyde out of Houston two years later.

Aside from being able to defer part of Mauer’s bonus or take advantage of his popularity, what’s important for the Twins is that he’s a legitimate No. 1 pick. He may not breathe the same rarified air as Prior, but he isn’t a reach.

Mauer won’t come cheaply, either. He’s aware of Henson’s contract and may command in the neighborhood of $5 million. Signing him would allow Pohlad to change the perception that he’s not interested in winning, yet he wouldn’t have to spend two or three times as much on Prior. And for one year at least, the Twins would spark a trend where even small-revenue teams won’t be afraid to pursue the most talented players.

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