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By Jim Callis

May 25, 2005

In six more days, we'll finally know the answer to whether Jered Weaver will sign with the Angels and Stephen Drew will become a Diamondback. If a deal isn't done by May 31, the current Camden Riversharks teammates have to re-enter the 2005 draft. In case you haven't seen the latest news in our predraft blog, the Orange County Register has reported that agent Scott Boras has dropped Weaver's asking price to $6 million. The Angels, who declined comment, last offered a $4 million bonus or a $5.25 million big league contract. Weaver hasn't pitched in nearly a year and has yet to take the mound for Camden. He probably can hurt his cause a lot more than he can help it when he pitches for the Riversharks, which may be why Boras is trying to makes something happen now.

    If the Royals were to draft Nebraska third baseman Alex Gordon with the No. 2 overall pick, what would happen to Billy Butler? Would Butler move to outfield or first base? The Royals are getting tremendous years from two of their first-base prospects, Justin Huber and Kila Kaaihue. Is Gordon that good to move Butler from third base?

    Dave York
    Wilmore, Ky.

Butler is the Royals' top prospect, and he's tearing up the high Class A California League this year by hitting .366/.455/.657 with 12 homers and 38 RBIs in 45 games. While the Cal League is a hitter's best friend, Butler is just 19.

While Butler is a masher, he's not a third baseman. He has some arm strength, but he lacks the range, agility and footwork to play adequately at the hot corner. He has 15 errors in 35 games this year, and Kansas City knew when it drafted him that he'd probably wind up at first base. The Royals simply are trying to maximize his value by seeing if he can handle third base during the early stages of his career, but scouts say it won't work. He probably doesn't run well enough to play left field. His ceiling is higher than those of Huber and Kaaihue, and if Butler needs to push them off first base, so be it.

Teams don't draft based on need in the first round, especially at the top of the draft. If the Royals believe Gordon is the best player available at No. 2, they won't let Butler's presence affect their decision. When the Devil Rays picked first in 2003, they had a ton of outfield talent and little else, but that still didn't stop them from taking another outfielder in Delmon Young.

The big question with Kansas City's pick isn't the position but the cost. Rumors continue to persist that the Royals don't want to pay the market rate at No. 2, which is roughly a $3.5 million bonus and probably will include a major league contract. Kansas City officials say they'll take the best player, and assuming Virginia high school shortstop Justin Upton goes No. 1 to Arizona, that would leave the Royals choosing between Gordon and North Carolina high school outfielder Cameron Maybin (who probably wouldn't command that big league deal). If they go cheap, the names most mentioned have been Texas A&M shortstop Cliff Pennington and three outfields: Trevor Crowe (Arizona), John Drennen (California high schooler) and Jacoby Ellsbury (Oregon State).

    How about an update on Massachusetts righthander Matt Torra? Is he the fastest-rising player in the draft?

    Chris Barbarotta
    Pittsfield, Mass.

Torra has more positive momentum than any player in the draft right now, and we just moved him up a few more spots on our Draft Tracker yesterday. He was just so-so last spring at Massachusetts and last summer in the Cape Cod League, and projected as a fourth- to seventh-rounder at best. Now it looks like he'll go in the middle of the first round. If teams steer clear of Scott Boras clients Mike Pelfrey, Luke Hochevar and Craig Hansen, Torra could be the first college righthander drafted.

The Atlantic 10 Conference pitcher of the year, Torra is a strong 6-foot-3, 225-pound righthander. He has a consistent 92-94 mph fastball and can carry that velocity deep into games. He also has a plus curveball and a changeup that should be average. The biggest concern scouts have with him are some high pitch counts he has put up this spring, but his season is over now so there's no more danger of that. Torra went 6-3, 1.14 (an ERA that currently ranks second in NCAA Division I) with a 111-16 strikeout-walk ratio and a .172 opponent average with no homers in 95 innings.

    As I write this, Vero Beach center fielder Matt Kemp hit five home runs in three games over the weekend. For the season, he now has nine homers in 97at-bats. Is Kemp for real? How do his potential and tools rate among the top outfield prospects in the minors? What else does he need to do to be mentioned in the same sentence with the Jeff Francoeurs of the prospect world?

    Nate Purcell
    Orange County, Calif.

Vero Beach is one of the more homer-happy parks in the high Class A Florida State League, but Kemp is a real prospect. He was more of a basketball prospect in high school, but he lacked the grades to get an NCAA Division I scholarship and signed for $130,000 as a sixth-round pick in 2003. The best athlete in a Dodgers system loaded with athletes, Kemp hit 18 homers in his first full season last year and has kicked his power up another notch in 2005.

From a pure tools standpoint, Kemp takes a backseat to few minor leaguers. He has a great body (6-foot-4, 215 pounds), tons of bat speed and raw power, average arm strength and average speed once he gets going. To make the jump to elite prospect, he needs to show more consistency. Kemp has played baseball full-time for less than two years, and it shows. He's still raw when it comes to controlling the strike zone (30 whiffs, six walks in 2005), which inhibits his ability to hit for average (.258), and his defense could stand some improvement as well.

May 18, 2005

We've nearly completed our Draft Preview issue, so subscribers should receive that next week. We're starting to blow out our draft coverage on our website as well, so be sure to check in each day to see the latest news and hundreds of scouting reports. We've started our Friday afternoon draft chats, and Allan Simpson will take your questions in the next edition of that. I've also become a regular chatter at ESPN.com, usually Wednesdays at 3 p.m. Eastern, and I fielded several draft queries this afternoon. Just 20 more days until we find out who goes No. 1.

    Who do you see as the five players eligible for the 2005 draft who are the closest to being ready to play in the majors and their upside? Also, who do you think the Yankees will be looking at with the 17th pick?

    Mitchell Cohen
    East Brunswick, N.J.

The candidates to reach the majors the quickest usually include some highly polished prospects with relatively lower ceilings, but that's not the case this year. The most obvious are the two best college position players (Nebraska third baseman Alex Gordon, Long Beach State shortstop Troy Tulowitzki) and the three best college pitchers (Wichita State's Mike Pelfrey, Tennessee's Luke Hochevar, St. John's Craig Hansen).

Because he's a reliever with two power pitches, Hansen likely will make it to the big leagues first. Gordon would be second on my list. The third would actually be a high schooler, Virginia shortstop Justin Upton, assuming he moves to center field so his defense won't be an issue. The truly elite prep prospects tend to rocket through the minors, with Justin's older brother B.J. being a recent example.

Continuing our theme of discussing the rapid development of college relievers in the last two Ask BAs, I'll also point out two more who could move fast: Texas' J. Brent Cox and North Carolina State's Joey Devine. They aren't in the same prospect caliber as the other guys mentioned here, but both could go in the supplemental first round.

As for the Yankees, despite all the speculation that they will spend the money to sign the best Scott Boras client who falls to them and/or take a college player to get a quick return because their farm system is so thin, we're just not hearing that from baseball insiders. While New York would love for Hansen to fall to them (as would the Red Sox), that's not going to happen. Word is that the Yankees are focusing primarily on high school players such as Texas outfielder Jay Bruce (who probably will go ahead of them), Florida righthander Chris Volstad and Virginia catcher Brandon Snyder.

    If Tampa Bay has a chance to draft Cameron Maybin at No. 8, do you think they should pass him up to go after a pitcher. I like the thought of Scott Kazmir and Jeff Niemann eventually teaming with Luke Hochevar or Mike Pelfrey. But an outfield of Maybin, B.J. Upton and Delmon Young sounds pretty good, too, and seems less risky.

    Mike Marinaro
    Tampa

Teams rarely draft for need in the first round, especially with the early picks, and that strategy makes sense. Most first-rounders aren't going to be ready for three or more years, and what appears to be a position of strength now may turn out to be an area of need later.

However, for a team that never has won and is so far away from contending, I don't think it makes sense to continue to stockpile the position where it's loaded with talent. The Devil Rays already don't have room for all their outfielders. Their three best long-term big leaguers are Carl Crawford in left field, the injured Rocco Baldelli in center and Aubrey Huff in right. If Jorge Cantu is for real at second base, then Upton may have to move to the outfield. The most dangerous hitter in the minors is another Tampa Bay outfielder, Young. The fastest player in the minors is yet another Tampa Bay outfielder, Joey Gathright, who could start in center for more than a few clubs. (Don't get me started on the wisdom of playing Alex Sanchez and Damon Hollins.) Other prospects such as Elijah Dukes, Jason Pridie and Jonny Gomes have little chance of finding an opening in the Devil Rays outfield.

With that logjam, I wouldn't take Maybin when I had so many other holes to plug. But we have heard that the Devil Rays do have some interest in the North Carolina high school product, as well as two other toolsy prep outfielders, Andrew McCutchen (Florida) and Jay Bruce (Texas). There's also talk that they'll go with a college player who can help them quickly. They don't seem like a team that would pay the price for a Scott Boras client like Hochevar or Pelfrey, though either would be a nice fit. The college names being associated with Tampa Bay right now are Long Beach State shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (on the off chance he falls to No. 8), Southern California catcher Jeff Clement and former Rice righthander Wade Townsend.

    I'd like to inquire about the top two pitching prospects in the Tigers organization. First, the early success of Justin Verlander has been very encouraging. Is it possible, after years of disappointments (Mike Drumright, Seth Greisinger, Matt Wheatland, Kenny Baugh, etc.) that Detroit finally has hit the jackpot on a first-round pitcher? Second, what's the status of Kyle Sleeth? When can we expect to see him on the mound?

    Derek Drogowski
    Redford, Mich.

I'll admit that when the Tigers took Verlander with the No. 2 overall pick last June, I thought they overdrafted him a little. He had as good an arm as anyone in the 2004 draft, capable of delivering mid-90s fastballs and knee-buckling curveballs, but he didn't dominate mid-level college competition like someone with that stuff should.

Verlander, who signed a $4.5 million big league contract in October, is making his pro debut in high Class A and has exceeded all expectations so far. Through seven starts, he has gone 5-1, 1.43 with a 55-13 strikeout-walk ratio in 44 innings. Opponents are batting .191 with one homer against him. Tigers pitching coach Bob Cluck calmed down Verlander's delivery during spring training, and he has been able to make better use of his electric arsenal. If he continues to put it all together, he could be a future No. 1 starter.

Sleeth, meanwhile, has yet to pitch this season because of soreness in his forearm. The third overall choice in 2003, he hit the wall hard in Double-A last summer and was set to return there before being sidelined. He's still in extended spring training with no exact timetable for returning to game action.

May 11, 2005

Shortly after we discussed college closers reaching the majors rapidly in the last edition of Ask BA, another took the express route to the big leagues. Boston righthander Cla Meredith became the second 2004 draftee to ascend to the majors, joining fellow college reliever Huston Street of Oakland.

Though he set a Virginia Commonwealth record with a career 2.52 ERA and had one of the best strikeout-walk ratios (84-12 in 67 innings) in NCAA Division I last year, Meredith was relatively unheralded and lasted until the sixth round last June. But he blew through the minors, going 2-2, 0.76 with 27 saves in 42 games (including 13 scoreless outings in Double-A and Triple-A this year). In 48 innings, he had a 48-9 K-BB ratio while holding opponents to a .184 average and no homers.

Meredith gave up a homer to Richie Sexson in his big league debut and also struggled in his next outing. But once he settles down, he has the stuff to be a very effective reliever for the Red Sox. He has plus-plus sink on his 87-90 mph fastball, which he throws from a very low three-quarters angle that's difficult for righthanders to pick up. His slider is close to an average pitch, but he lives off his sinker, which makes him a groundball machine.

Rick Bergstrom (Tualatin, Ore.) emailed with two more reasons he thinks college relievers advance so quickly. He thinks it's easier to crack a big league bullpen versus a rotation or a lineup, and that if a reliever struggles, it's easier to find playing time for him than a faltering starting pitcher or position player. I agree on both counts.

    With Mike Piazza winding down and both Jason Phillips and Vance Wilson traded, what help can the Mets get at the catcher position from their system?

    Trish Henderson
    Saratoga, Wyo.

Not much. Piazza is near the end of the line and his backup, Ramon Castro, isn't likely going to be his successor. Neither is anyone in the Mets system, for that matter.

New York's top catching prospect, Jesus Flores, has yet to make his full-season debut. After hitting .319/.368/.532 in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League last year, he broke his thumb in an exhibition game. He's 20 and at least three or four years away from the majors.

Mike Jacobs was the Mets' minor league player of the year in 2003, when he hit .329/.376/.548 in Double-A, but he missed almost all of 2004 after needing shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum and remove a cyst. He was questionable as a catcher to begin with, because he had below-average catch-and-throw skills before he got hurt, and he has spent most of this year as a first baseman/DH in Double-A. He can't catch regularly in the big leagues.

Joe Hietpas is a very good defender behind the plate, as is 2004 fourth-round pick Aaron Hathaway, but the Mets' catcher of the future probably isn't in the organization right now. They could address the position with the ninth overall choice in the 2005 draft, but the only catcher who merits going that high is Southern California's Jeff Clement—and some scouts wonder if he'll stay behind the plate in the long term. After that, the Mets don't pick again until No. 121.

    What has become of Rockies shortstop Chris Nelson? I noticed he was struggling early, but now I don't even see his name listed on the low Class A Asheville roster. Is he injured?

    Matt Coyle
    Arvada, Colo.

Nelson, the ninth overall pick last June, has had problems with cramping in both hamstrings. He opened the season by going 2-for-18 in five games at Asheville, sat out two weeks and then came back to go 0-for-2 in one game before going back on the disabled list. He's apparently healthy now, but the Rockies want him to put in a couple of weeks in extended spring training just to make sure.

Colorado did the same thing at the start of the season with its top prospect, third baseman Ian Stewart. Stewart, who also had hamstring problems, didn't join high Class A Modesto until May 1.

    Any word on Maize (Kan.) High catcher Brent Milleville? He recently was selected to play in the All-American Baseball Game and seems to be having a great season. Preseason rankings had him going in the third round. Any update?

    John Elder
    Nashville

We're starting to crank our draft coverage into high gear, and we'll start our megacoverage online next week as we near completion of our annual Draft Preview.

Milleville is one of the top high school catchers available and the best prep prospect in Kansas, but it's uncertain where he'll go in the draft because he has committed to Stanford. If he's signable, he could go in the third round based on his talent, but if he's not he might not get drafted at all.

Milleville has a big, strong 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame. He has power in his bat, some arm strength and good athleticism for his size and position. Some scouts question his receiving skills and wonder if he'll have to move to first base down the road. But enough teams like him behind the plate that he should go pretty high if he's willing to turn pro.

May 4, 2005

The question about the brother combinations with the most big league potential in the last Ask BA drew plenty of responses. A lot of you wanted to know why I didn't include Brian and Marcus Giles. They've already reached their potential and are established big league stars, so I didn't think they qualified. My focus was on combos where one or both brothers haven't established themselves.

I left the Weavers out of the top five, not because Jered is unsigned (after all, I included Stephen Drew) but because I don't have much faith in Jeff. Jeff is an average to mediocre pitcher who's on the decline, and despite what his agent may say, Jered isn't the second coming of Mark Prior.

Other brother duos mentioned included the Blalocks (it's hard not to like Hank, but I'm not nearly as bullish on Jake), the Nixes (Laynce and Jayson have much to prove after sliding last year) and the Izturises (I need to see more before I believe in Cesar and Maicer's bats).

For the second straight week, I'll be in the 3 p.m. Eastern chat slot at ESPN.com. If I don't get to your question here, catch me there.

    Sean Gallagher didn't make your Cubs Top 10 Prospects list after 2004, but I'm wondering where you would put him now after his blistering start at low Class A Peoria. Not only was he part of a combined no-hitter, but he followed up two starts later with six more no-hit innings. In five starts, he has yet to give up an earned run. Considering he was in high school classes at this time last year, are we seeing the start of a stellar career or is this just someone who is riding a really hot streak?

    Dustin Wilson
    Bloomington, Ill.

Gallagher not only didn't make our Cubs Top 10, but he also didn't make our Top 30 in the 2005 Prospect Handbook. That was more a function of being young and well down on the pitching depth chart of a Cubs system deep in arms than a lack of talent. Gallagher showed a good curveball and an 88-92 mph fastball in his pro debut. He's not very projectable because he already carries 210 pounds on his 6-foot-1 frame, but he already has solid stuff and advanced pitchability for a teenager. Chicago was able to draft him in the 12th round out of a Fort Lauderdale high school last June because he was considered a tough sign if he didn't go in the first three rounds.

Gallagher has been lights out in each of his five starts this year, surrending a total of just six runs (all unearned) while posting a 37-6 strikeout-walk ratio and .103 opponent average in 29 innings. On the basis of five low Class A starts, I wouldn't put him in the Top 10 if we revised it right now, especially in a strong system. But the Cubs did think he had the potential to be a real sleeper from their 2004 draft, and he's not doing anything to change their minds. He projects as a middle-of-the-rotation starter, and it's safe to assume he's pitching his way into the 2006 Prospect Handbook at the very least.

    I know that minor league relievers generally aren't regarded as interesting prospects, as even the closers rarely turn into productive big leaguers. Because minor league players are generally more advanced than college players, you'd expect that to apply even more so to college relievers. But how do you explain the recent success of college closers such as David Bush, Chad Cordero, Huston Street and Ryan Wagner. It seems like too many to be a statistical blip. What's different about the college environment from the minor leagues? Also, why do the college closers make it to the majors so much more quickly than the college starters? And do you see this trend influencing the drafting of college closers in coming years?

    Grant Driedger
    Grunthal, Manitoba

Outside of the talent level, the big difference between the minors and college is the goals of the teams. In the minors, winning is secondary to development, while the reverse is true in the college game. For that reason, most of the best pitching prospects in the pros are used as starters to give them as many as innings as possible, expediting their path to the big leagues. Most big league closers, from the elite guys like Eric Gagne and Mariano Rivera on down, were minor league starters.

In college, where winning is more important, teams are more likely to use some of their best arms to finish games. This trend actually started in the mid-1980s in the Southeastern Conference. Georgia's Cris Carpenter and Auburn's Gregg Olson were dominant college closers who became first-round picks and reached the majors quickly. Wichita State's Darren Dreifort is a prominent example from the early 1990s.

Sometimes a team will convert a college closer into a starter, like the Blue Jays did with Bush, but often the premier closers are left in relief after turning pro. They tend to shoot through the minors because fewer pitches are required to thrive in the bullpen than are needed in the rotation. These pitchers have fewer refinements to make and make the majors more quickly.

Teams have noticed the recent success of college relievers. They haven't commanded bonuses quite as high as the top starting pitching prospects, and they've been able to make a quick impact. That's a win-win situation for clubs, and makes college relievers attractive. In this year's draft, look for St. John's Craig Hansen, Texas' J. Brent Cox (Street's former understudy) and North Carolina State's Joey Devine to go in the first couple of rounds.

    Baylor is looking for a fourth starter to emerge but already has a very good weekend rotation in Trey Taylor, Mark McCormick and Cory Van Allen to go with solid relievers Abe Woody, Ryan LaMotta and the emerging Jeff Mandel. How do the Bears' weekend starters and their relievers compare on a national basis?

    Dan Jensen
    Claremore, Okla.

National writer Will Kimmey is our college expert, so I'll turn this question over to him:

Baylor's arms rank among the nation's best. The Bears' 3.04 team ERA is the 11th-best in NCAA Division I, and they've needed it because their offense ranks just 219th in scoring at 5.2 runs per game.

With a mid-90s fastball and an improved hard curveball, McCormick (6-2, 2.74) has a first-round arm and has really improved his command since a rough March start at Arizona State. Van Allen (6-3, 3.90) will be a high pick next year after going in the third round to the Dodgers out of high school in 2003. He has plus stuff for a lefthander and good command. Taylor's (4-4, 3.27) stuff has slipped since he was a Rockies second-round pick in 2001, but he's the Friday starter as a crafty senior lefty who locates everything in his repertoire well.

The bullpen features dual closers with Woody (6-3, 2.41, eight saves) and LaMotta (5-0, 1.76, four saves). LaMotta's ERA and 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings rank among the Division I leaders. A strike-thrower with an 88-91 mph fastball and a plus changeup, he's regarded as a better prospect than Woody, a sinker-slider specialist. Mandel, who has really come on this spring after barely pitching as a freshman in 2004, had a recent streak of 25 consecutive scoreless innings.

Long Beach State leads the nation with a 2.06 ERA thanks to an impressive trio of starters (Cesar Ramos, Marco Estrada and Jared Hughes) that each boast Big West Conference ERAs under 2.00. Senior relievers Neil Jamison and Brian Anderson have yielded four runs (two earned) all year. Given that its offense averages but 4.6 runs (256th among 283 ranked teams), the onus on the pitching to perform at a near-perfect level is even greater than at Baylor. This is the staff I'd pick, though I know that Long Beach's Blair Field might be the best pitcher's park in the nation.

A couple of more staffs worth mentioning are Texas and Oregon State. The Longhorns' rotation (underclassmen Kyle McCulloch, Adrian Alaniz and Randy Boone) and power bullpen (J. Brent Cox, Buck Cody, Clayton Stewart) have combined for a 2.67 ERA, third nationally. A stunning rotation (Dallas Buck, Anton Maxwell, Jonah Nickerson) and two key bullpen arms (Nate Fogle, Kevin Gunderson) are a big reason for Oregon State's 32-8 record and seventh-best ERA (2.95). Nebraska (2.41), North Carolina (2.81) and Vanderbilt (3.26) also have strong pitching depth.

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