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Twins Finally Take Advantage of Leadoff Spot

By Jim Callis

June 7, 2001

CHICAGO–The Twins owned the No. 1 pick in the 2001 draft, which could be interpreted as either a blessing or a curse.

The last time Minnesota led off the draft, it chose Tim Belcher in 1983 but couldn't sign him. The Twins also couldn't get first-rounders Jason Varitek (1993) and Travis Lee (1996) under contract.

Just last year, they let supplemental first-rounder Aaron Heilman and second-rounder Taggert Bozied get away. They wanted to draft high school righthander Matt Harrington with the No. 2 overall pick, but concerns about his bonus demands led to a predraft deal with Cal State Fullerton righty Adam Johnson. On pure talent, Johnson deserved to go about 10 choices later, though he has blossomed into the franchise's top prospect.

This year, the Twins made the best of their situation. Unable to establish with certainty what it would take to sign Southern California righthander Mark Prior, the consensus top prospect, they played it safe and took Cretin-Derham Hall catcher Joe Mauer.

Cretin-Derham is in St. Paul, just eight miles from the Metrodome in Minneapolis.

"I followed Kent Hrbek and Kirby Puckett and all those guys," Mauer said. "This is kind of a fairy tale."

But Mauer, whose older brother Jake also was drafted by the Twins, wasn't picked because he's a hometown favorite. He was the top high school prospect in the nation, a rare catcher who's athletic and is a potential five-tool player.

"He's a legitimate No.1 pick," Twins scouting director Mike Radcliff said. "I know a number of teams thought he may be the best guy in the draft. We had four guys we thought were legitimate No. 1 picks. We were fortunate in that regard.

"But let's be honest. We've had trouble signing players in our recent history. We are who we are. We have limited resources and we have to deal with it. Joe was the best fit."

Mauer won't cost as much as Prior, but he won't come cheaply either. Like 2000 Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke, he has a Cretin-Derham pedigree and a Florida State football scholarship. Some recruiting experts rank Mauer as the top passer in the country, though he's expected to give up football if he signs a deal, probably in the neighborhood of $5 million.

"He wants to be a baseball player. We want him to be a Twin," Radcliff said. "I think we'll be able to finish it off. It's not a done deal yet. We couldn't get anything finalized with any of the four guys."

Besides Prior and Mauer, the Twins also considered Georgia Tech third baseman Mark Teixeira and Middle Tennessee State righthander Dewon Brazelton for the top choice. Minnesota contacted all four players on the day of the draft to see if a predraft agreement might be reached, but ultimately had to make its decision without a deal in place.

Radcliff said the Twins went to great lengths to determine if they could sign Prior, whose camp hasn't divulged a bonus request but reportedly is looking for something in the range of Drew Henson's deal with the Yankees. They Yankees gave Henson, a Michigan quarterback projected as a possible No. 1 pick in the 2002 NFL draft, a $17 million contract when he left football behind this spring.

"We did everything we could," Radcliff said. "We had hours of conversation with them and we watched every game he pitched all spring. I don't know what else we could have done. No one had really any idea where that one would end up."

Cubs Confident With Prior

The Cubs also aren't certain what Prior will cost, but they decided they couldn't pass him up. Chicago's John Stockstill, running his first draft as scouting director, said his club determined in March to take Prior, if available. They learned on the morning of the draft that he would be.

"We feel we will sign him," Stockstill said. "I have been in contact with them since December and we have a good relationship. They are probably going to want a lot of money, but in the end we believe we'll sign him."

Prior, who headed to the College World Series with the Trojans after the draft, is advised by John Boggs, who negotiated a $3 million predraft deal for 2000's No. 1 overall pick, high school first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. Boggs has cited Henson's contract as well as $8 million and $7 million deals signed by Pat Burrell and J.D. Drew as 1998 first-rounders.

Prior has mentioned little about money publicly, saying only that he wants to be treated fairly. Cubs general manager Andy MacPhail said the club hasn't discussed money with Boggs or the Priors, and that the club will be open-minded about a major league contract.

All spring Prior has overmatched hitters with his 94-97 mph fastball and sharp curveball. He also has size (6-foot-5, 220 pounds), control, mound presence and work ethic. Some scouts have called Prior the best college pitching prospect ever, while Stockstill stopped just short of doing so.

"There are pitchers who had better stuff, maybe a better curveball or threw 99 rather than 96-97," Stockstill said. "But Mark's a very good pitcher. He has the best college command I've seen in the last 10 years."

Some say Prior could move to the majors immediately after signing, which would make him the 19th player in the draft era to do so–and possibly the first to play a significant role in a pennant race. But Stockstill said the Cubs won't push him that quickly, and Prior also downplayed the idea.

"If people give me the opportunity, I'll take it by the horns," Prior said. "But looking at the reality of it, I'm 20. Taking a 20-year-old and putting him in a Cubs uniform in Wrigley Field, against Mark McGwire or whoever, that's tough for me to even dream about."

Ability Outweighs Signability

For the first time since 1995, the five highest-rated prospects went in the first five picks. The Devil Rays, who had trouble meeting payroll in May, took Brazelton with the No. 3 selection. He outpitched Prior when they teammates on Team USA last summer, has a similar fastball and the best changeup in college baseball.

Choosing fourth, the Phillies opted for Gavin Floyd, considered the class of a deep crop of high school righthanders. Floyd is a product of Baltimore's Mount St. Joseph High, the same school that produced Teixeira.

Scott Boras, Teixeira's adviser, reportedly warned both Tampa Bay and Philadelphia that his client wouldn't sign with either club. The Rangers, whose major league-high 6.10 ERA underscored their crying need for pitching, couldn't resist taking Teixeira.

"We thought there was a chance he might get to us," Rangers first-year scouting director Tim Hallgren said. "Everyone said, 'You've got to take a pitcher,' but when it got to us the pitchers remaining didn't match up to him. We were always looking for the best available talent with the fifth pick."

A switch-hitting slugger cast as a more athletic Burrell, Teixeira was the top overall prospect at the outset of the season. A broken ankle sidelined him for three months, and Prior moved ahead in his absence. Like Prior, Teixeira is believed to be nearly big league-ready and seeking an eight-figure contract.

Contradicting rumors that Texas already had agreed on the parameters of a deal, Hallgren said the club had not talked money with Boras. Teixeira's bonus demands aren't as much of a concern for the Rangers and deep-pocketed owner Tom Hicks, who lavished a record $252 million contract upon Boras client Alex Rodriguez last offseason.

Overall, signability played a far less significant role than it did in 2000, when 10 of the first 11 picks were based on whether the player would accept a predraft deal. Radcliff, whose Twins set the tone this year, says it's nice to see the best players go to the teams picking at the top of the draft.

"All of us agree that the way the draft is set up, it behooves everyone if the selections go the way they went this time," Radcliff said. "There was a pretty good consensus that the five or six top guys went first."

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