I'm back from the College World Series, which ranks among the most competitive of the 19 I've seen (including the last 18 in a row). Oregon State may not have had the most pure talent of any team in Omaha, but the Beavers executed better than any club out there and that's why they're the national champions.
Best wishes to Peter Gammons and his family as Peter recovers from a brain aneurysm. Peter has a genuine enthusiasm for all levels of baseball, and the All-Star Game won't seem the same this year without being able to ask him about which Futures Game performers he's excited about seeing and which Cape Cod League players have caught his eye. Get well, Peter.
I like the way J.P. Howell competes, which helped him survive Kansas City's inexplicable decision to rush him to the majors last summer. But as far as lefty pitching prospects go, there's no comparision between him and Olsen. Howell projects as a fourth starter at best, while Olsen could be a No. 2. Olsen throws 5-6 mph harder than Howell, and his slider has more upside than Howell's curveball.
However, the Devil Rays never turned down a Gathright-for-Olsen deal this offseason. They had several discussions with the Marlins about Gathright, and Tampa Bay floated the idea of swapping him for Olsen or Josh Johnson. But Florida never made that offer, and decided in the end to sort through its plethora of pitching prospects in spring training. That was the smart move, because while the Marlins need a center fielder, it's not like that would be the final piece to their puzzle.
Also, Gathright is much more valuable in fantasy baseball than real baseball. He's one of the fastest players in the game and a true stolen-base threat, but he doesn't offer much else right now. For all his speed, he takes some iffy routes in center field and is a shaky defender. Offensively, his slap approach means he has no power and has to be on base a lot to be valuable.
At the time of the trade, Gathright was hitting .201/.305/.240, bringing his major league career totals to .245/.312/.291. He's already 25, so he's probably not that far away from the peak of his abilities. He still could blossom into a solid regular, if he can put up numbers more along the lines of the .316 average and .390 on-base percentage he posted in the minors, and if he'll work to improve defensively.
From the Devil Rays' perspective, Gathright wasn't going to play regularly once Rocco Baldelli returned to the lineup, and they're loaded with outfielders for the present and the future. Tampa Bay could have tried to deal Gathright earlier, when his market value was higher. But if the Rays waited longer, his stock could have plummeted further. Howell isn't Olsen, but he also could turn out better than any member of Tampa Bay's rotation with the exception of Scott Kazmir. And on the basis of his fine curveball, Howell should be at least an effective reliever for the long term.
When Hochevar went No. 1 overall in the June draft to the Royals, the assumption was that the parameters of a deal were already in place. After the saga of last Labor Day weekend—Hochevar switched agents and accepted a $2.98 million bonus from the Dodgers (who had made him a supplemental first-round pick), then returned to Boras and reneged on the agreement, accusing the team of trying to coerce him into signing a bad deal—it figured that he couldn’t afford to hold out for another year. And at the same time, Kansas City would look more foolish than usual if it couldn't sign the top pick.
But a month later, 24 of the 30 first-rounders have signed and that group doesn't include Hochevar. The Kansas City Star reported this morning that the Royals' initial offer was in excess of $4 million, and that the team planned to raise that in the near future.
There are a number of reasons the negotiations could be lagging. There was some thought Kansas City might play hardball with Hochevar because he had less leverage than previous No. 1 overall choices, but that doesn't appear to be the case. Major League Baseball likes the bigger draft deals to be consummated later in the summer so they don't affect other negotiations, but the only other player in the first 10 picks who hasn't come to terms is Andrew Miller (No. 6, Tigers), who will command a megacontract anyway. It's also possible that Boras could be waiting to see what Miller signs for in hopes of getting Hochevar more money. Boras' clients often sign later than most other draft picks.
Hochevar's situation led to one of the funnier newspaper corrections I've ever seen posted. In a story the day after the draft, the Los Angeles Times quoted Hochevar: "Scott had a plan in this, and his master plan definitely worked. It was tough through it—you go through it and you fight it—but when it all comes down to it, Scott has a plan for you, and he definitely worked a miracle in my case."
The Times subsequently reported that they had misquoted Hochevar, who had referred to God and not his agent.
Hochevar deserves credit for overcoming a long layoff to show the stuff worthy of going No. 1 in the draft. Pitching in the independent American Association, he looked like he did early in his junior season at Tennessee. But his rhetoric is ridiculous.
First, I doubt seriously that God cares much about whether he signed for $2.98 million with the Dodgers or $4 million or more with the Royals. And second, Hochevar needs to stop acting like Los Angeles mistreated him.
"I learned a great deal of lessons (from my negotiations)," Hochevar said after the Royals took him. "I learned what people I can trust, (one of) which is Scott Boras. In the negotiations with the Dodgers, the scouting director (Logan White) felt I was not worthy to be paid with the top pitchers in the draft."
For the record, the $2.98 million bonus would have been the fifth-highest in the 2005 draft. The only pitcher who received a higher bonus was the Mets' Mike Pelfrey ($3.55 million, as part of a $5.25 million major league contract). The Red Sox' Craig Hansen got a $4 million dollar big league deal with a $1.3 million bonus.
Kershaw rated as a better prospect than Elbert did at the time of their drafts. At the same stage of their careers, we tabbed Kershaw as the best high school prospect in the nation and No. 6 overall, while Elbert was the fourth-best prep prospect and No. 12 overall. Here are the scouting reports we ran on both:
The consensus top high school lefthander in the nation entering the season, Elbert struck out 17 in his first start and never looked back. His fastball has sat at 90-93 mph all spring and features plenty of sink, as does his changeup. He has scrapped his curveball in favor of a slider, which has reached the mid-80s. He's polished for a prep pitcher and could pass Vanderbilt's Jeremy Sowers to become the first southpaw drafted, with several teams picking in the top 10 interested in him. A Missouri recruit, Elbert has an athletic frame at 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds. He's also among the state leaders in home runs this spring and was the state's top running back as a junior. He ran for a state-best 2,449 yards and scored 36 touchdowns in 2002, carrying Seneca to the state Class 3 semifinals, but gave up football last fall to focus on baseball.
The draft's best high school prospect, Kershaw projected as only a second- or third-round pick before blossoming as a senior. He had gotten exposure as a member of the USA Baseball national junior team and had a solid fastball for a lefthander at 88-92 mph. Now he has grown into his strong, athletic 6-foot-4, 210-pound frame, and his stuff has taken a leap. He has pitched at 90-96 mph all spring while continuing to pound the bottom of the strike zone. His curveball has improved even more than his fastball and now ranks a legitimate second plus pitch. He also has done a better job of repeating his delivery, giving him more control and command. Kershaw has dominated every time out, striking out 18 in Highland Park's district opener and breaking the school's career record for victories by earning No. 32 in his next outing. The only blip came when he strained an oblique muscle in his regular-season finale, knocking him out of the first round of the playoffs. The injury won't affect his draft status—he could go as high as No. 6 overall to the Tigers—and he was expected to return to action in the second round of the playoffs.
As you can see they were quite similar. Kershaw had a little more size and a little more stuff, while Elbert was slightly more polished and slightly more athletic. Based on our reports, Kershaw would have rated an edge over Elbert in their draft years.
Their ceilings are comparable. If I could pick just one right now, I'd take Elbert because he's proven himself at a higher level. His stuff and health have held up in two-plus years in pro ball, and he's currently dominating in high Class A. He has a 5-5, 2.49 record in 16 games (14 starts) at Vero Beach, with a 93-38 K-BB ratio in 80 innings. Florida State League hitters are batting just .194 with four homers against him.