Midseason Top 50 Prospects
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Bush In Hand Worth Two Boras Clients
By Jim Callis
A month before the June 7 draft, the Padres narrowed their candidates for the No. 1 overall pick to three collegians: shortstop Stephen Drew (Florida State) and righthanders Jeff Niemann (Rice) and Jered Weaver (Long Beach State). With six days to go, San Diego general manager Kevin Towers said his club was leaning heavily toward Drew.
The teams picking immediately behind the Padres began to plan accordingly. As late as June 4, Drew still appeared to be San Diego's choice.
Then several clubs' draft boards were thrown into chaos after owner John Moore and Towers met and decided that the cost of signing Drew exceeded their impression of his worth. Drew reportedly wants a package starting at the $3.6 million bonus and $4.79 million guaranteed big league contract Rickie Weeks got as the No. 2 overall pick last year.
Local Mission Bay High shortstop Matt Bush was at home watching the Padres play the Brewers on television that evening when he decided to take matters into his own hands. He placed a call to area scout Tim McWilliam.
"I knew the Padres had never made a final decision," Bush said. "They were looking at Stephen Drew at the time, but I was still in the mix. I've always been a Padres fan, and I really wanted to be a Padre. I called Tim and told him I wanted to be a Padre."
McWilliam called Gayton but couldn't reach him in San Diego's war room. McWilliam eventually got through to West Coast crosschecker Chris Gwynn, who relayed Bush's interest to Gayton. Suddenly, the feeling was mutual.
"I've been in the business for a long time, and this is the first time this has happened in the first round," Gayton said. "It's unique, but this is what you hope for. You want players who want to be a part of your organization."
The next day, a large Padres contingent took a break from draft planning and ventured to San Diego State to watch Bush play in the California Interscholastic Federation Division III championship game against crosstown rival St. Augustine High. Bush went 4-for-5, setting a state record with 214 career hits, and threw a complete-game four-hitter in a 13-4 victory.
"Probably Saturday we knew this was going to go down," Gayton said. "We had been in the draft room for over a week when we went out to SDSU to see that game. We had been trying to fly under the radar, and I guess we did a pretty good job until that day. I know that night was the first night in a while that I slept well."
On June 6, the day before the draft, the Padres and Bush's advisers, Greg Genske and Kenny Felder (a former Brewers first-round pick) of Moorad Sports Management, hammered out the parameters of a $3.15 million bonus agreement. The deal, which was officially announced June 9, represents the lowest for a No. 1 overall pick since 2000, when San Diego area high schooler Adrian Gonzalez signed for $3 million with the Marlins. Delmon Young got a $3.7 million bonus as part of a $5.8 million big league contract from the Devil Rays as the top choice in 2003.
The Padres insist that it's a misperception that their choice was based primarily on finances. They don't deny that money always enters into decisions at the top of the draft, but they viewed Bush as the best high school prospect in the draft. The bottom line was that they thought he was a better value at $3.15 million then any of their other targets would be wherever their final price tags ended up.
Weaver, who like Drew is advised by Scott Boras, reportedly wants an eight-figure deal similar to what Mark Prior got from the Cubs as the No. 2 choice in 2001. Niemann is expected to command a bonus in the $3 million-$4 million range.
"From the information that we had gathered, from their advisers, at least what their expectations were, we didn't see the value in there," Towers said. "We saw more value in Matt Bush, and that's the direction we decided to go."
Had San Diego not chosen Bush, he likely would have gone to either the Indians or the Reds as the sixth or seventh pick. A pure shortstop, he had the best defensive skills and the most arm strength (he has been clocked up to 96 mph on the mound) of any position player available. Though at 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds he's the smallest No. 1 pick ever, he's athletic and San Diego likes his offensive potential.
Bush became the first No. 1 overall choice selected by his hometown team since the Twins tabbed St. Paul catcher Joe Mauer in 2001. That was also the last time that the club making that pick was in first place in its division at the time of the draft.
Uncertainty At The Top
The unexpected availability of Drew two days before the draft forced other teams with early choices to rethink their plans. Both the Tigers and Mets, who picked second and third, considered him seriously. Had either Detroit or New York made a last-minute shift to Drew, clubs all over the top of the first round would have been scrambling.
"This is one of the strangest years ever," an American League scouting director said after learning the Padres would go with Bush rather than Drew. "There's so much uncertainty at the top, and it's never like that. I think it's really because it's one of the worst drafts for talent in the last 20-30 years. When it all shakes out six, eight, 10 years from now, I think it's going to be very well below average."
"I've never seen a year like this," Tigers scouting director Greg Smith said, "where up at the top it's this competitive or uncertain, whatever you want to call it. The crystal ball is not clear."
Smith opted for Old Dominion righthander Justin Verlander, who had the best fastball among the draft's college pitcher, over La Grange (Texas) High righty Homer Bailey, who had the best heater in the prep ranks. The Mets followed by taking Rice righthander Philip Humber.
At No. 4, Devil Rays scouts initially preferred Redan High (Decatur, Ga.) shortstop Chris Nelson. But new owner Stuart Sternberg and manager Lou Piniella believed Tampa Bay has a greater need for pitching, and they got their way. After recovering from offseason arthroscopic elbow surgery and battling a strained groin for much of the spring, Niemann pitched well in the NCAA playoffs the weekend before the draft, earning him the Rays' nod over Bailey.
The Brewers followed by making Mount Ararat High (Orr's Island, Maine) righty Mark Rogers the first high school pitcher chosen. Then the Indians took Vanderbilt lefthander Jeremy Sowers, Cincinnati's unsigned first-round pick from 2001, leaving the Reds with Bailey.
On the day of the draft, the Orioles were expected to take Nelson, who has more offensive upside than Bush. Word then circulated that Baltimore was making a move toward Drew until owner Peter Angelos reportedly insisted that his club take a college pitcher.
The O's went for Rice righthander Wade Townsend, making him, Humber and Niemann the highest drafted trio of teammates ever. Michigan (1979) and Fresno State (1989) are the only other colleges to produce three first-rounders in one draft.
The Rockies quickly snapped up Nelson with the next pick, and the Rangers completed the top 10 with hard-throwing New Orleans righthander Thomas Diamond.
Weaver, Drew Find Teams
As the draft began, there was no clear destination for Weaver or Drew, Baseball America's top-rated pitcher and hitter in the 2004 crop. Weaver's bonus demands turned off several teams. In addition to financial concerns, Drew also continued to be dogged by questions about his desire.
"When you're dealing with Boras, if his player is head and shoulders above everyone else, you have no problem dealing with him," a National League scouting director said. "But Jered Weaver is not Mark Prior. He's a good competitor and he has great command, but he's not a No. 1 starter in the big leagues right now. You'd rather spend that money elsewhere."
The Angels decided to spend their money on Weaver at No. 12. New owner Arturo Moreno wasn't shy about shelling out $145.75 million to sign free agents such as Vladimir Guerrero and Bartolo Colon this offseason, but Anaheim had focused solely on high school players in the days leading up to the draft.
New Angels scouting director Eddie Bane said he didn't know until two minutes before the draft that he'd definitely get the opportunity to choose Weaver, and admitted that Bailey would have been tough to pass up had he lasted that long.
"We did our homework," Bane said. "We started when Jered first got to Long Beach. I watched him in intrasquad games back in January. All our guys had seen him. We didn't back off because of reports in the paper. We do our stuff privately. We were prepared if he was there at 12 to take him."
Arizona selected Drew three picks later at No. 15, making his family the first to produce three first-round choices. Brothers J.D. (Phillies, 1997; Cardinals, 1998) and Tim (Indians, 1997) are both now in the Braves organization, J.D. in the majors and Tim in Triple-A.
The Diamondbacks had zeroed in on college lefthanders before Drew fell to them. He ranked second on their draft board, trailing only Weaver, and scouting director Mike Rizzo said Arizona couldn't pass him up.
"We understand why Stephen Drew was there at the 15th pick in the country, but I wasn't afraid of it," Rizzo said. "This guy doesn't come around every year. I don't think there's a guy with Stephen Drew ability in every draft."
After a record 20 hitters were selected in 2003's first round, 19 of the top 30 choices this year were pitchers, one short of the mark set in 1999 and tied in 2001. Thirty-three of the top 50 selections were pitchers.
Seventeen first-rounders came from colleges, down from 18 a year ago, which was the most since the record of 22 out of 28 was established in 1992. Collegians accounted for 70 percent of the choices in the first 10 rounds, up from 68 percent in 2003 and 61 percent in 2002.