2006 Early Draft Preview

There are no Delmon Youngs or Justin Uptons in this year’™s high school class. There are also few marquee high school selections from three years ago who went unsigned then and might have resurfaced to beef up this year’™s college crop.

As a result, the 2006 draft is shaping up with few potential headline players, one in which the high-end talent has been more difficult to identify or quantify than in most years.

“There are really no dominant players in the first round,” Nationals scouting director Dana Brown said. “But from rounds two to six, there appears to be a lot of depth.”

Blue Jays scouting director Jon Lalonde has a similar take on this year’™s draft, which is scheduled for June 6-7.

“It appears to be an average draft class,” Lalonde says. “I think there is some quality depth to the group that might offset what appears to be a lack of sure-fire, high-level talent. I’™m hoping some players will step up their games this spring to separate themselves.”

While it does appear to be an average draft by most accounts, at least one AL scouting director says he is discouraged by the quality this year’™s draft offers.

“I would rate the ‘™06 draft class as definitely below average,” he said. “The depth and diversity of the first round is not very good. There are very few players with high ceilings, and very few you will feel comfortable selecting and spending the requisite amount of dollars you must pay in the first round.”

For all the uncertainty that exists, the one area of strength that is obvious to every major league scouting director contacted by Baseball America is pitching. Twenty-one of the top 30 prospects are pitchers. Of the 21, 19 are righthanders.

“Righthanded pitching tends to dominate any draft and that is the case again,” Brown says. “It’™s more pronounced at the college level, but there are more lefthanders in high school.”

“The depth and strength of the ‘™06 class is clearly pitching,” an AL scouting director said. “It’™s a nice mix of arms/pitchability and projection’"both right and lefthanders. The position players have yet to jump up. Nobody has elevated to the elite status of a Delmon Young or the Uptons.”

Signability Matters

It’™s anticipated that the first round this year will contain between 18 and 21 college players, a remarkable number considering that major league teams did a better job of signing the elite high school players in 2003 than in any year in draft history. Normally, players who failed to sign as high school seniors bolster the college crop each year.

Not only did every player in the first two rounds sign in 2003 for the only time in draft history, but just 14 players in the first 10 rounds went unsigned that year, another draft record. Of that 14, just six remain in school and eligible for this year’™s draft’"the skimpiest leftovers ever.

Indians scouting director John Mirabelli says there are two chief reasons why so few premium draft picks are going unsigned these days, besides the exponential increase in signing bonuses in the last decade.

“First, the amount of information that is available not only to the players, but to everyone involved in the decision-making process–families, coaches, agents/advisors, to major league teams through their area scouts–is much greater than it was in the past,” Mirabelli said. “Everyone has done an excellent job of educating those involved.

“Secondly, there is a much greater understanding and awareness of the de facto slotting system we operate in, and consequently the expectations on both sides seem to be communicated a lot more effectively.”

Lalonde directly attributes the high success rate of signing players in 2003 to this greater awareness.

“The lack of elite college position players in this draft class can be traced all the way back to the 2003 draft when so many players did sign,” Lalonde said. “I do think that, in general, players are becoming more educated on what signing bonus parameters are and therefore are able to give scouts a more accurate idea as to their financial expectations.”

Times Change

This year’™s draft pool is in stark contrast to 1985, generally regarded as the strongest draft ever. The genesis for that mother lode of talent was the 1982 draft, when high school players like Barry Bonds, Will Clark, Pete Incaviglia, Randy Johnson, Barry Larkin, Rafael Palmeiro, B.J. Surhoff, Walt Weiss and Bobby Witt went unsigned after being drafted in the first 10 rounds. All were redrafted three years later as elite college first-rounders (with the exception of Johnson, a second-rounder), with most going on to lengthy, sometimes Hall of Fame-caliber careers.

“With signing bonuses as they are today, it’™s become a lot more important to determine signability before the draft,” an NL scouting director said. “That has dictated, more than anything else, what is happening in the draft.”

The two highest unsigned picks from 2003, North Carolina lefthander Andrew Miller and Texas outfielder Drew Stubbs, not surprisingly rank at the head of this year’™s draft class. Both were drafted in the third round three years ago’"Miller by the Devil Rays, Stubbs by the Astros’"and have done nothing to hurt their draft standing.

But the other four college players drafted in the first 10 rounds three years ago likely won’™t be drafted any higher than they were in 2003. They include Baylor lefthander Cory VanAllen (Dodgers, third round), Florida third baseman Brandon McArthur (Twins, fifth), Stetson lefthander Nathan Nery (Orioles, eighth) and Clemson first baseman Andy D’™Alessio (Reds, 10th).

“Obviously, the fact that, as an industry, we are identifying and signing the best high school players is a big factor,” an AL scouting director said, “but I think it must also be recognized that some of the players who have ended up being top college drafts as juniors weren’™t even drafted as high school players.”

Among this year’™s top 25 college prospects, eight weren’™t drafted out of high school. Nine more were picked in the 20th round, or later. Among the top 100 college players, 44 have never gotten a sniff in the draft.

Missouri’™s Max Scherzer and Cal Poly’™s Gary Daley are typical of this year’™s college pitching crop.

Though he flashed 94 as a Missouri high school senior, Scherzer worked mostly in the 80s and became a draft afterthought, going in the 43rd round. With a fastball that has reached 99 mph in college, his stock has skyrocketed. So has Daley’™s. He was hardly scouted in high school because of a fastball that was consistently in the mid-80s. But the interest in Daley has increased dramatically as his fastball has gained 10 mph in velocity.

Prep Pitching Also Excels

Pitching also is the strength of the high school draft class. Texas righthander Jordan Walden has the No. 1 prep ranking heading into the 2006 season, but there is little separation between him and a handful of other prep righthanders like Dellin Betances, Kyle Drabek, Jeremy Jeffress, Matt Latos and Chris Tillman’"any of whom could take over the top spot from the 6-foot-4 Walden, who moved to the head of the class when his fastball hit 99 mph last summer.

“There are some interesting high school guys this year, but no automatics at this point,” an NL scouting director said.

The weakest demographic in this year’™s draft is high school position players. Florida third baseman Chris Marrero is the only player considered a lock to go in the first round.

But a lot can happen between now and June.

“I have come to realize there is no subjective sense to measuring any draft’™s strengths or weaknesses,” one of the AL scouting directors said. “Every draft pool is different and very random. This year is no different.”

Nationals’™ Bounty

Unlike last year, when the Nationals had one pick in the first three rounds, Washington has three picks in the first round this year. No team will be as handsomely rewarded for the loss of free agents this offseason’"particularly since the losses were journeymen righthanders Hector Carrasco and Esteban Loaiza, both Type B free agents. The Nationals get the 15th pick (their own), along with the 22nd (Athletics, for Loaiza) and the 26th (Angels, for Carrasco).

“It was like getting an early Christmas gift when I learned we’™d get two extra first-round picks,” Brown said. “We’™ll still take the best players available, but in a perfect world, I’™d be happy if I could get a good college starter with the first pick, a good high school starter with the second and a good college reliever with the third.”

In a draft loaded with pitching, Brown may get his wish’"especially when it comes to drafting a college reliever in the first round. Since he became scouting director of the transplanted Expos in 2002, he has used his first-round pick twice on a college reliever, including all-star closer Chad Cordero in 2003.

“Some of the college relievers could go quick this year,” Brown said. “I like college relievers because they’™re experienced but haven’™t been overworked.”

Three pitchers who have worked almost exclusively as relievers in their first two years in college that Brown will be sure to have an eye on in the first round are UC Irvine’™s Blair Erickson, Arizona’™s Mark Melancon and Miami’™s Chris Perez.

With multiple first-round picks, Brown obviously will approach this year’™s draft differently than last year, when the Nationals took third baseman Ryan Zimmerman with the fourth overall pick and didn’™t select again until the fourth round. Brown says he’™ll deploy his scouting staff differently to get a handle on the larger pool of players that will need to be scrutinized.

“Because of the importance of the draft this year, we’™ll let our pro guys see a lot more of the players that will go in the first round,” Brown said. “I like to get them involved anyway because they are not attached to certain players like our area scouts are, and they are more likely to give me an unbiased opinion.”

Even if an owner hasn’™t been found for the Major League Baseball-operated Nationals by June, Brown says he’™ll have no problem with a signing budget that will provide for three first-round picks.

“Major League Baseball has always stepped up to the plate with our drafts in the past,” Brown said, “because it realizes the future of this franchise is through the draft.”