The Rays still have a month to determine who they'll take with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft. The hottest rumor du jour is that they're leaning toward Florida State catcher Buster Posey. A former shortstop, Posey is very athletic for his position and solid across the board. But he doesn't have a single outstanding tool, which would make him a curious choice at the top of the draft.
For most of the year, the consensus top four prospects have been Vanderbilt third baseman Pedro Alvarez, Georgia high school shortstop Tim Beckham, Missouri righthander Aaron Crow and San Diego lefthander Brian Matusz. None of them is flawless, and none has separated himself from the pack, like Vandy lefty David Price did a year ago. Nevertheless, they all have more of a standout tool than Posey does.
Posey, who's having a superb .462/.565/.828 season with 13 homers through 45 games, has made a better impression on Tampa Bay. He also would fill their biggest organizational need, and he probably would cost less, too.
MLB generated more than $6 billion in revenue last season, and early indications are that baseball will surpass that figure in 2008. The numbers of teams that are truly dependent on the goodwill of the commissioner, which can result in the awarding of discretionary funds or future All-Star Games, isn't anywhere close to the number of the teams that continue to adhere to slotting. MLB can't significantly punish clubs that break from the ranks, yet most of them toe the line. In 2007, the Nationals, Orioles, Rangers, Red Sox, Tigers and Yankees aggressively signed draftees, while the other 24 teams, for the most part, acceded to MLB's wishes.
Slotting has dramatically slowed the growth of bonuses in this decade, but it also has made the draft easier for agents and clubs to manipulate. Given their choice, all 30 of the scouting directors would prefer to take the best players available with their picks and pay what it takes to sign them. As several of them have told me, they don't get judged on their ability to hold firm on slot bonuses. Their jobs depend on finding talent.
I think the main reason so many teams buy into slotting is that it's a convenient excuse for their owners to spend less money, with the ready-made excuse that they're doing it for the good of the game. Major league salaries continue to spiral upward with no end in sight, but owners can exert some control over the draft by just saying no. Smaller-revenue clubs can compete with larger-revenue teams for the top amateur talent, which costs a fraction of the price of the elite players on the major league free-agent market, yet they choose not to. No wonder the rich keep getting richer via the draft.
Martin, a third baseman at Chipola (Fla.) JC, was a steal for the Dodgers as a 17th-round pick in 2002. If Mesoraco develops close to as quickly and as well as Martin did, he'll make the Reds happy. He'll also buck the trend of high school first-round catchers falling by the wayside.
Since I started working full-time for Baseball America in 1989, 17 prep catchers have signed out of the first round, and just three have become all-stars behind the plate. Not coincidentally, Joe Mauer was the No. 1 overall choice in the 2001 draft, while Mike Lieberthal went No. 3 in 1990. The other all-star was Jason Kendall, the 23rd pick in 1992.
A lofty pick offers no guarantee, though, because Ben Davis and Tyler Houston were No. 2 overall selections. Daric Barton, Houston, Paul Konerko, Neil Walker and Jayson Werth wound up changing positions, while Ramon Castro, Ryan Christianson, Davis, Scott Heard and Mark Johnson were busts.
The most recent high school first-round backstops aren't any more encouraging. Brandon Snyder has moved from behind the plate. Scouts believe that Hank Conger and Max Sapp may have to do the same, and Conger hasn't been able to stay healthy while Sapp hasn't had much success as a hitter.
Mesoraco has yet to light up pro ball, either. He batted .219/.270/.310 with one homer in 40 games in his debut last summer in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, and he has spent all of this season in extended spring training.
The track record of college first-round catchers isn't much better. Fourteen college backstops have signed out of the first round of the last 19 drafts, and of that group, only Charles Johnson, Jason Varitek and Dan Wilson have become all-star catchers. Brent Mayne had a long career, though it wasn't especially productive (a .680 career OPS in 1,279 games).
Eric Christopherson, Jon Farrell, Mitch Maier, Eric Munson, David Parrish, Alan Zinter were disappointments, while Landon Powell hasn't been able to stay healthy. With Kenji Johjima signed through 2011, Jeff Clement will have to help the Mariners as a first baseman/DH. The jury is still out on 2007 picks J.P. Arencibia and Matt Wieters, though Wieters looks like a possible superstar.
And while we're on the subject of highly-drafted catchers . . .
When the Giants took Williams with the 43rd overall pick last June, I assumed they were trying to save money after having to expand their budget to sign three first-rounders. But they gave him a full-slot bonus of $708,750, meaning that his selection was all about talent.
Williams was one of the best defensive catchers in the 2007 draft, regularly recording pop times of 1.8-1.9 seconds on throws to second base. However, scouts had huge questions about his bat. He didn't crack the college Mendoza Line (.300) until his junior season. Williams batted .344 last spring, albeit with just four homers.
Williams hasn't allayed any of the concerns about his bat in pro ball, hitting just .202/.293/.306 with six homers in his first 59 pro games. I don't think he's ever going to hit enough to become a regular, but I can see him carving out a role as a backup thanks to his defensive ability.