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Who's No. 1?

Less than two weeks before the draft, it still depends on who you ask

By Jim Callis
May 24, 2002

CHICAGO–For the second straight year, ability should trump signability when major league teams kick off the annual first-year player draft on June 4.

But unlike in 2001, when Mark Prior, Mark Teixeira, Joe Mauer, Gavin Floyd and Dewon Brazelton formed a clearly defined top five–and went in the first five picks–no such consensus exists for 2002.

Who’s the best player available? Depends on who you ask.

bullington
B.J. Upton
Photo: Robert Gurganus
It might be shortstop B.J. Upton of Greenbrier Christian Academy in Chesapeake, Va. He needs to get stronger, but he could be the next Derek Jeter.

Or it might be lefthander Scott Kazmir of Houston’s Cypress Falls High. His explosive fastball and slider are dominating pitches, and his curveball and changeup ain’t bad either. Did we mention that he’s lefthanded? But he also happens to be 6 feet tall, raising questions about his durability. And some scouts think he’s the second-best pitcher on his team, behind two-way star Clint Everts.

Or it might be Ball State righthander Bryan Bullington, who has surpassed Rutgers righty Bobby Brownlie as the No. 1 prospect in college baseball. Bullington’s ceiling might not be quite as high as some of the high school players who will dominate the top of draft, but he’s a surer bet because there’s less projection involved. He’s 6-foot-5, already has two big league pitches and impeccable control.

Or it might be lefthander Adam Loewen from Fraser Valley Christian High, all the way up in Surrey, B.C. Loewen, who will shatter the record for the highest Canadian pick in draft history, is 6-foot-6 and has three above-average pitches, including a low-90s fastball. But he hasn’t pitched as well this spring as he did last summer, which may or may not be solely attributable to weather.

Or it might be Jason Neighborgall of Riverside High in Durham, N.C. His stuff not only compares favorably to Josh Beckett’s at the same stage, but it’s actually slightly better. However, he didn’t pitch in 2001 because of a strained back and has had command issues this spring. Furthermore, the two scariest phrases for a scouting director are "he’s a high school righthander" and "he’s advised by Scott Boras," and both are true of Neighborgall. (More on the latter in a minute.)

"Guys have been going up and down all year long," says Rockies special-assignment scout Terry Wetzel, the former Royals scouting director. "Guys really haven’t separated themselves. There’s no Mark Prior or Josh Beckett here. They just haven’t shown it time in and time out."

The teams picking early in the draft wish their options were clearer and better. Reds scouting director Kasey McKeon, who holds the third overall selection, says, "There aren’t a lot of premium guys up top, which is unfortunate when you pick up top." The Orioles’ Tony DeMacio, who will pick right behind McKeon, agrees: "You might get the same guy at 19 that you get at 1. Last year was a better draft."

That’s not to say that this draft is bereft of talent. Upton is far superior to any shortstop prospect a year ago. Neighborgall’s stuff borders on outrageous, and few crops can offer a trio of high school lefthanders of the caliber of Kazmir, Loewen and Cole Hamels of San Diego’s Rancho Bernardo High. It might be lacking in quality compared to 2001, but the quantity is fine.

"This is a good draft depth-wise," Devil Rays scouting director Dan Jennings says. "I don’t think there’s a single person who has separated himself from the group at the top, but it has good depth. Except for college position players, which is just bad."

Both the Pirates and Devil Rays, who will pick 1-2, had narrowed their list of candidates down to five in mid-May. Ed Creech, in his first year as Pittsburgh’s scouting director after stints with the Expos, Cardinals and Dodgers, is focusing on the task at hand rather than dreaming of last year.

"As much as we could sit there and bemoan that there are no Mark Priors out there," Creech says, "we’ve still got to play the cards we’re dealt. We’ll take the best player who’s out there."

Creech wouldn’t identify the Pirates’ finalists, but they’re thought to include Bullington, Kazmir, Loewen and Upton. When told that several clubs believe Pittsburgh is leaning toward Bullington over Upton, Creech chuckles and says, "I’d say that there are a lot of astute people out there."

Both Bullington and Upton would be attractive to the Pirates for reasons beyond their talent. Despite opening PNC Park a year ago, Pittsburgh is still a smaller-revenue franchise that won’t find it easy to ante up a straight cash bonus in the neighborhood of $4 million for the No. 1 pick. Last year, the club paid $2.4 million to sign eighth overall choice John VanBenschoten.

It would be easier for the Pirates to spread payments to either Bullington or Upton over a period of years. They could give Bullington a major league contract because he should be ready for Pittsburgh before he would exhaust his four options. Because of Upton’s football prowess as a high school quarterback, Major League Baseball rules pertaining to two-sport athletes would allow his bonus to be stretched over five years.

Creech acknowledges that such a scenario might be attractive, but says that it won’t affect the Pirates’ decision.

"We’re basically going ahead with the best player," Creech says. "A deal would be convenient, but that’s not always the best way to go. Would we like it to happen? Yes. But are we going out of our way to make it happen? No."

The Devil Rays don’t have much money to play with either. Last year they initially offered No. 3 overall pick Dewon Brazelton a contract that would pay him just $250,000 up front, which Brazelton dismissed as "chump change." He eventually signed in late August, getting a five-year major league deal worth $4.8 million, including a $4.2 million bonus spread over the full five years.

Jennings won’t divulge who Tampa Bay is zeroing in on, though the group is believed to consist of the four names associated with Pittsburgh, plus outfielder Jeremy Hermida of suburban Atlanta’s Wheeler High. Like Creech, Jennings says he’ll focus on talent before determining what it will take to sign the No. 2 choice.

"A deal would be an option," Jennings says, "but that’s an unknown until you settle on a player, talk to the adviser and know what dollar figure they’re asking for. It certainly would be a vehicle we would consider, but it’s not an absolute."

The Reds weren’t able to land Jeremy Sowers after drafting him 20th overall in 2001. Taking Sowers was a calculated decision, because he was considered extremely unsignable and the Reds had been borrowing money from future signing budgets ever since spending $2.1 million to buy outfielder Alejandro Diaz in 1999. McKeon says Cincinnati will take the best player available–other teams believe the Reds prefer Kazmir or Brentwood, Calif., righthander Chris Gruler–and doesn’t expect any difficulty signing him.

The Orioles do have money and shouldn’t have trouble coming to terms with the fourth pick, projected as either Upton of Hermida. But the Expos are a huge wild card at No. 5 for several reasons.

Major League Baseball didn’t assume control of the club and transfer its former ownership to the Marlins until February, and scouting director Dana Brown wasn’t hired until early March. At that point most teams had been out hunting for talent for several weeks. Because the Jeffrey Loria regime took everything that wasn’t nailed down to Florida, Brown had no scouting reports, let alone radar guns, and had to hire a full staff from scratch.

He says the Expos have gotten into gear and will be fully prepared come June. He also maintains that money won’t be an overriding factor in Montreal’s selection.

"We’re going to take the best player available who can make a great impact at the big league level," says Brown, who was a regional crosschecker with the Pirates last year. "I haven’t heard anything different from that. (GM)Omar Minaya says to get the best guys available and we’ll deal with the other stuff later. He says he doesn’t care who it is, we’ll take him."

The Expos would prefer to get a college starter, but if Bullington is gone as expected, the options become muddled. Virginia Tech lefthander Joe Saunders appeared to be an early candidate, but he now seems headed toward the middle of the first round. Brownlie would have been an obvious choice if he hadn’t been in a slump since early March.

The official report out of Rutgers is that Brownlie has been hampered by biceps tendinitis, though word is circulating among scouts that he might have shoulder trouble. Even if his health were resolved before the draft, would a franchise in limbo seriously consider taking a pitcher who will be advised by Boras and reportedly was floating an $8 million asking price earlier this spring?

Several members of Boras’ stable of 2002 draft prospects are seeing their stock drop as the draft approaches. The same thing happened in 2000, when signability was all the rage and 10 of the first 11 picks agreed to bonus parameters before they were selected. This time, however, Boras’ players are sliding more on merit.

"A lot of Scott’s guys are falling, and it’s not because of their representation," one scouting director says. "They haven’t seized the opportunity. They haven’t gotten it done."

Eight players associated with Boras looked like first-round picks at the outset of the year, but only Stanford righthander Jeremy Guthrie is a lock to achieve that status in June. Neighborgall may want Beckett money–he got a $7 million big league contract at the No. 2 pick in 1999–and his control and history of back trouble make teams skittish of giving it to him.

Brownlie and Neighborgall still have a good chance of going in the top 30 picks, as do Clemson third baseman Jeff Baker (an average year hasn't quieted questions about his swing) and Southern California righthander Anthony Reyes (early-season elbow tendinitis). But high schoolers Mark McCormick (Clear Lake Shores, Texas) and Mike Pelfrey (Wichita) and Miami’s Kiki Bengochea all have pitched their way out of the first round

Except for Guthrie, who should go to the Rockies at No. 9 or the Rangers at No. 10, none of these players has a clear destination, which could make for some scrambling–as well as some possible coups if they turn it around–after the first 20 selections. Factor in the general uncertainty surrounding the entire crop, and it’s extremely difficult to project the 2002 draft two weeks before it was set to begin.

"I can assure you of this," Braves scouting director Roy Clark says. "Every year we go through the same thing. We talk about the talent crop, this and that and whatever. But I guarantee you, after the first day there will be 30 scouting directors telling 30 general managers what a great draft they’ve had."

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