Draft Dish: May 9

Orioles lefthander Adam Loewen, the fourth overall pick in 2002, set a record for the largest signing bonus ever by a draft-and-follow’"a player who is drafted but doesn’t sign, goes to junior college and signs prior to the next year’s draft’"that seems likely to never be broken.

His landmark $4.02 million major league contract, which included a $3.2 million bonus, should stand forever after Major League Baseball amended its draft rules last year and added a universal signing date of Aug. 15. The date gives clubs a little more than two months to sign draft picks, and the rigid deadline eliminates the draft-and-follow process. Once Aug. 15 rolls around, teams lose the rights to players not yet under contract.

That makes this year’s crop of draft-and-follows the last one, and fittingly, it’s an impressive class with two headliners.

Players are drafted to play corner infield spots based on their bats and ability to hit for power. Florida’™s Matt LaPorta was near the top of this list last year but struggled with a strained oblique muscle and never came too close to signing with the Red Sox as their 14th-round pick. Healthy as a senior, LaPorta was back to the form he showed in 2005, when he led the nation in home runs and powered Florida to the College World Series. Players are listed at their projected pro positions, rather than where they play currently.
Rank Player, School Projection
1. Josh Vitters, 3b, Cypress (Calif.) HS First
2. Matt LaPorta, 1b, Florida First
3. Beau Mills, 3b/1b, Lewis-Clark State (Idaho) First
4. Matt Dominguez, 3b, Chatsworth (Calif.) HS First
5. Mike Moustakas, 3b/c, Chatsworth (Calif.) HS First
6. Matt Mangini, 3b, Oklahoma State First
7. Todd Frazier, 3b, Rutgers First
8. Kevin Ahrens, 3b, Memorial HS, Houston First/Supp.
9. Bradley Suttle, 3b, Texas Second
10. Matt West, 3b, Bellaire (Texas) HS Second

In BA’s final talent rankings for last year’s draft, righthander Jordan Walden ranked 25th, while righty Matt Latos checked in at No. 44. They ranked second and fifth among high school righthanders in the class, after Walden had entered his senior season ranked No. 1 in the entire high school class, thanks to a fastball that reached the high 90s in the summer of 2005.

Walden was never quite that good last spring, topping out at 96 mph as he battled a groin injury. Latos showed a similar arm, topping out at 97 with two potential plus breaking balls, but his lack of consistency’"with his pitches and maturity’"made him far from a sure bet in the eyes of most clubs.

Both prep pitchers fell in the draft and wound up as draft-and-follows. Latos, who went to Broward (Fla.) Community College, was a Padres 11th-rounder, while Walden was an Angels 12th-rounder who ended up at Grayson County (Texas) CC.

Both have pitched well enough to look for significant signing bonuses this year from those clubs, and Padres general manager Kevin Towers hasn’t been shy about talking up Latos. He told the San Diego Union-Tribune about seeing Latos throw 94-98 mph in a seven-inning outing, then said the club had made him a “fair” offer but that the two sides were “a ways apart.”

“We think he’s kind of a high-profile guy,” Towers also told the paper in a separate interview. “It’s tough to find 98 mph arms around.”

Scouts in Florida have had a hard time deciding how closely to follow Latos, similar to the problem they had with Pedro Beato last year. Everyone heard Beato was bringing the best heat in the state for St. Petersburg (Fla.) Junior College, but they figured the Mets would sign him as a 17th-round draft-and-follow. But Beato wanted more than the Mets were willing to spend’"the club was hesitant to buck MLB’s slotting recommendation, which pegged him as a second- or third-round talent’"and he wound up back in the draft. The Orioles took him 32nd overall, and he signed for $1 million, which was more than the Mets offered and MLB had recommended.

So scouts wonder about investing the time to evaluate the likes of Latos and Walden when they may not be on the market. Most still think it’s worth the effort, according to one Texas area scout who saw Walden in high school, despite it being somewhat taboo.

“When you first get into scouting, you realize there’s this unspoken rule (not to scout players under control to other teams), but after a couple of years you see it and hear it happening,” the scout said. “Your due diligence is you have a responsibility to know your area. You should know all your guys, no matter their situation.

“But the impression I’m getting is, if they’re under control and they decided not to sign in that one week (before the draft), that scouts that gets all the info’"the medical (background) and some kind of history going into the draft’"you are in position to take him. All of a sudden you put that all together in one week . . . If they don’t get signed I’m running hard after them.

“It’s like flirting with a married woman. You just don’t do it’"you wait until the divorce is over and then make your move.”

If the Padres fail to sign Latos or if the Angels miss out on Walden, scouts will be falling over each other to make their moves. In Florida, one area scout termed the juco class as, “Latos and then that’s about it.”

“He was always good, the arm action was never beautiful but he still has the fastball velocity, and the breaking ball is going to get outs,” the scout continued. “He’s shown a little better composure this year. He had a situation early in the year where last year he would have flown off the handle, but he handled it OK.”

For our final positional ranking prior to the Top 200 overall prospects, which will be released in our upcoming issue, we complete our trip around the diamond with a rundown of the top 10 draft eligible middle and corner infielders. This year’s crop of pure middle infielders is thin and high school-heavy, as the college crop of prospects that are projected to remain in the middle of the field as professionals is as thin as any draft this decade. Players are listed at their projected pro positions, rather than where they play currently.
Rank Player, School Projection
1. Nick Noonan, 2b, Parker HS, San Diego Supp./Second
2. Ryan Dent, 2b, Wilson HS, Long Beach Supp./Second
3. Zach Cozart, ss, Mississippi Second
4. Justin Jackson, ss, Roberson HS, Asheville, N.C. Second
5. Peter Kozma, ss, Owasso (Okla.) HS Second
6. Drew Cumberland, ss, Pace HS, Milton, Fla. Second
7. Josh Horton, ss, North Carolina Second/Third
8. Danny Worth, ss, Pepperdine Second/Third
9. Tony Thomas, 2b, Florida State Second/Third
10. Christian Colon, 2b, Canyon HS, Anaheim Second/Third

Texas’ class is quite a bit better, led by a loaded San Jacinto Junior College staff that includes nine pitchers who can hit 90 mph or better. None of them is as high-profile as Walden, however, and even the Grayson roster features several pro-quality arms. While working with a smoother motion than he displayed at Mansfield (Texas) High, Walden stood out with seven victories, a 1.49 ERA and 70 strikeouts.

“He’s been sitting 92-93 and touching 95 every time out,” Grayson coach Dusty Hart said. “He’s really working on his secondary pitches and he’s not just throwing. He commands the zone with his fastball and slider now, and his slider is much improved. We’re also making him use his changeup. It still has a long ways to go, but it’s a plus pitch at times.”

Braves, Brewers Eye Nevada

The Braves and the Brewers are the two other organizations most concerned about signing impact junior college players, though their players are not in the usual juco hotbeds of California, Florida or Texas.

California and Florida jucos generally are acknowledged as being below-average in draft-and-follows this year, though California has some interesting players who aren’t under control, such as righthander Leroy Hunt (Sacramento City College) and corner infielder Matt Clark (Riverside Community College). Nevada’s junior college ranks were attracting more attention than usual, thanks in part to righthander Colby Shreve, a Las Vegas prep product who wasn’t drafted last year and so is not under control at the Community College of Southern Nevada.

That gives scouts an excuse to check out one of the two significant Brewers draft-and-follow picks: righthander Chad Robinson, a 12th-rounder last year. Robinson emerged early in his career as one of Nevada’s top preps, hitting 94 mph as a sophomore, but needed labrum surgery as a junior. He finished last spring strong, touching 92 mph while limiting his breaking balls to reduce stress on his arm.

The 6-foot-5, 200-pound Robinson wasn’t dominating like some of his Southern Nevada teammates in a wood-bat league, but he was 1-2, 3.15 with 38 strikeouts in 34 innings. More important, his fastball was back to its peak velocity, with coach Tim Chambers reporting it has touched 94-95 mph while sitting in the low 90s.

His rival for the top draft-and-follow in the state, 6-foot-3, 225-pound Cole Rohrbough, has put up better numbers at Western Nevada Community College. He was 7-3, 1.63, with 92 strikeouts in 66 innings.

Rohrbough, a 22nd-round pick of the Braves last spring, doesn’t throw as hard as consistently as Robinson, but he’s lefthanded, and his fastball sits in the 88-93 mph range and touches 94. His spike curveball, a plus pitch, grades as a better secondary pitch than Robinson’s changeup, and he’s shown flashes of a decent change himself. Rohrbough, a sophomore, also could opt to pass on pro ball for one more year and attend Arizona State.

The Braves and Brewers also have premium players in the Gulf Coast region. The Brewers have one of the nation’s fastest runners under control in Delgado (La.) Community College’s Lee Haydel, a top-of-the-scale runner who covers 60 yards in 6.35 seconds. Haydel has added size and strength this year on his 6-foot-1, 190-pound frame, and has shown more power at the plate after a slap-and-dash approach that discouraged some scouts while he was at Riverside Academy in Coushatta, La. While he’s still somewhat raw at the plate, Haydel has shown improvement (particularly against breaking balls), has center-field ability and solid-average arm strength.

The Braves drafted righthander Jordan Brown one round ahead of Rohrbough last year, and his size might be his biggest downside. The Louisiana State signee is just 6-foot, 195 pounds, but he has shown a 90-94 mph fastball at Meridian (Miss.) Junior College, and the pitch has good sink. He has also shown a power breaking ball and a changeup.

Contributing: Jim Callis, Alan Matthews.