Padres Narrow Choice To Three
By Jim Callis
Long Beach State righthander Jered Weaver has been nearly automatic this spring.
UC Santa Barbara second baseman Chris Malec's two-out grand slam in the eighth inning April 30 is all that separated Weaver from 15 victories in 15 starts.
At the time, Weaver's pending selection as the No. 1 pick in the June 7-8 draft seemed nearly automatic as well. He helped christen Petco Park with a 15-strikeout one-hitter over eight innings against UCLA in front of Padres general manager Kevin Towers.
Towers, whose club owns the top choice in the draft, raved about Weaver's performance and said it would be difficult for anyone to surpass him. Weaver since has done nothing but dominate college hitters every Friday night. He's the safest pick in the draft and he'll help a major league club quicker than anyone available.
Nevertheless, the Padres don't have blinders on. Three weeks before the draft, they were considering Rice righthander Jeff Niemann and Florida State shortstop Stephen Drew as possible alternatives.
"We're down to three people," San Diego scouting director Bill Gayton said, "and there are guys on there other than Jered Weaver."
Weaver still is the favorite. Despite the best college stat line in recent memory (14-0, 1.27, 171 strikeouts and 75 baserunners in 113 innings), however, he doesn't have the highest ceiling. He has great command of good stuff (91-92 mph fastball that tops out at 95, average breaking pitches, solid changeup), but he's not the second coming of Mark Prior.
Niemann overmatched hitters in similar fashion a year ago, tying an NCAA Division I record by going 17-0 as he helped the Owls win the College World Series. After arthroscopic elbow surgery during the offseason and a groin strain in mid-April, he hasn’t been 100 percent this spring. While his long-term health isn't a concern, he missed a month with the groin problem, making it hard for clubs to get a read on him.
Niemann returned May 15 by fanning four of the six Nevada hitters he faced with a 92-97 mph fastball and a slider that hit 87 mph. He wasn’t quite as sharp three days later in relief against Baylor, but he still pitched at 91-95 and broke off nasty breaking stuff. Rice planned to keep him on a short leash in his next two scheduled starts, so he won't really be turned loose until NCAA regional play the weekend before the draft.
While Niemann's long-term health isn't a concern, the club that picks him will want to see him at his best before investing a multimillion-dollar bonus.
"I would think you'd want to see glimpses of what he was a year ago," said a scouting director with an early pick. "You would want him to step up. If he continues to do what he did against Baylor, he's going to make it interesting for the clubs up here at the top."
Drew is even more of an enigma. He's the best position player in the draft, a gifted hitter with plus speed. He likely would move to second base or center field with the Padres, who have rookie Khalil Greene at shortstop. But scouts question Drew's heart and desire—the same concerns about his older brother J.D. with the Braves.
"Drew can be whatever he wants to be," a National League crosschecker said. "But I don't know what he wants to be. Does he want to be a star? You hope the light goes on, but he's a head-scratcher."Money Not A Major Factor
San Diego has the top pick for the fifth time, tying the Mets for the most in draft history. The Padres didn't have overwhelming success with the previous four, selecting Mike Ivie (1970), Dave Roberts (1972), Bill Almon (1974) and Andy Benes (1988).
Those four received a total of $465,000 in bonuses, a paltry sum compared to the $3.7 million bonus and $5.8 million big league contract Delmon Young received from the Devil Rays as the first choice a year ago. While the Padres had to pinch pennies in recent years, their No. 1 choice coincides nicely with opening of their new ballpark.
The new stadium has added money and flexibility for the Padres, and they may need it. Scott Boras, who's known for prolonged and sometimes contentious negotiations, will advise both Weaver and Drew. (Niemann opted for IMG.)
Weaver reportedly is looking to top the $10.5 million contract the Cubs gave Prior as the No. 2 pick in 2001. The Padres are unlikely to go that high, but say they won't let money scare them away from the player they want.
"Scott represents a lot of good players," Gayton said. "There's no guarantee it's ever going to be easy with any agent. But we won't allow an agent to dictate our selection. Teams often make mistakes by walking away from players, where for slightly more money they might have been able to sign them."
Said Towers: "We never have and never will let an agent play a big part in letting a guy slide. We're not in a position where we have to cut a deal. We'll take the best guy available. In the past, I've gotten deals done with Scott."
Unlike most teams selecting No. 1, the Padres aren't in full rebuilding mode. They were in the thick of the National League West and wild-card races. In the last 15 drafts, only three top picks went to clubs in similar situations.
The Orioles led the American League East by five games when they took Ben McDonald in 1989. The 1995 Angels (AL West) and 2001 Twins (AL Central) had smaller leads when they took Darin Erstad and Joe Mauer. None of the players contributed to a pennant race, and only Minnesota advanced to the postseason.
"I brought that up with Stephen Drew when I talked with him last night," Towers said. "When you talk to a potential number one pick, you try to sell your organization. I hope on the day of the draft, we're in first place and get to pick the number one player in the country. That doesn't happen too often."
Weaver might be tempting because he's so close to being ready to help a big league club, but the odds still are long that he'd significantly help the Padres' playoff push this summer. Gayton said he's going to take the player who will help San Diego the most in the long run.
"The short term does play in to it, but the big picture is really for me what's important," Gayton said. "Ultimately, with this selection, I hope this person is here longer than I am. I want someone reliable to help us for years to come."Checking The Trends
First-round bonuses have declined in each of the last two drafts, the first decreases since Baseball America began tracking them in 1989. They dipped from a record $2.154 million in 2001 to $2.107 million in 2002, then plunged to $1.766 million last year.
That figure could drop again and certainly won't rise sharply in 2004. For the fifth straight draft, the commissioner's office will recommend bonus amounts for each pick in the first 10 rounds. While Major League Baseball can't officially sanction teams that don't abide by the recommendations, clubs have toed the line and agents have learned there's often little room for negotiation.
The hard line on bonuses hasn't affected signings. For the first time in draft history, every pick in the first two rounds signed last year. Just 16 of the 307 picks in the first 10 rounds failed to come to terms, bettering the previous low of 24 in 2000.
Another trend that should continue is the emphasis on college players. They're cheaper and involve less projection than high schoolers, though a BA study last year concluded that both groups produce a similar percentage of quality major leaguers.
Eighteen of the 30 first-rounders came from colleges a year ago—the most since a record 22 out of 28 was set in 1992—and that total should be similar in 2004. Collegians accounted for 68 percent of the choices in the first 10 rounds in 2003, up from 61 percent in 2002 and 54 percent in 2000.
There will be one significant change from a year ago, when a record-tying 20 hitters went in the first round. Scouts have bemoaned the lack of position players all spring, and that hasn't changed as the draft neared. Georgia prep shortstop Chris Nelson's successful return from Tommy John surgery was a rare dose of good news and put him in position to be the first high school player drafted, as high as No. 4 by the Devil Rays.
The first round will be dominated by pitchers, however, with the record of 20 established in 1999 and tied in 2001 in jeopardy. Even high school righthanders, considered the riskiest first-round demographic, are somewhat in vogue.
Maryland's Nick Adenhart may have elbow problems, but five other prep righties (Texas' Homer Bailey, Maine's Mark Rogers, Florida's Eric Hurley, California's Philip Hughes, Rhode Island's Jay Rainville) project to go in the top 30 picks. Just two did so in 2003.
Despite all the attractive pitching available, most scouting directors are unenthused about the overall draft crop.
"There's depth but not enormous quality," an NL scouting director said. "Everyone knows this is a year for pitching. You'll get a decent guy, but will you get that difference-maker? I don't know about that. Some will surprise you in the long run, but at this moment in time you're not jumping up and down."