Finding The Diamond Is Sometimes Rough
by Tracy Ringolsby
DENVER--Making final preparations for this year's draft, the word was that it was a down year for position players, particularly at the college level, with only five college position players projected to go in the top 30 picks.
Truth be told, this year's college crop is pretty standard.
It seems to be a down year because last year was so abnormal. There were 10 college position players taken in the first round last year, though only one among the first 10 picks: Southern second baseman Richie Weeks, who went second overall to the Brewers.
Well, it was the most college position players drafted in the first round since 10 also went back in 1981, but four of those were top 10 picks: Wichita State outfielder Joe Carter, No. 2 overall to the Cubs; Tennessee State outfielder Terry Blocker, No. 4 to the Mets; Arkansas outfielder Kevin McReynolds, No. 6 to the Padres; and San Diego State shortstop Bobby Meacham, No. 8 to the Cardinals.
Before last year, there had been as many as eight college players taken in the first round only once (1997), and seven just twice (2001 and 1995) since 1992.
It's not a coincidence. Thanks to the Athletics, the draft began a dramatic transformation in the early 1990s. The bonus structure changed significantly after then-A's general manager Sandy Alderson made righthander Todd Van Poppel the first high school player signed to a major league contract.
Suddenly teams began paying high school players in seven figures, and it was harder for the top high school prospects to push aside pro ball to attend college.
In 2000, there were just three college position players taken in the first round, none among the top 10. In fact, in the last five years there have been just five college position players taken among the first 10 picks in a draft: Weeks to the Brewers last year; South Carolina's Drew Myers, No. 10 to the Rangers in 2002; Georgia Tech's Mark Teixeira, No. 5 to the Rangers, and Tennessee's Chris Burke, No. 10 to the Astros, in 2001; and Southern California's Eric Munson, No. 3 to the Tigers in 1999.
It's not like all of those players were late bloomers. Munson was a second-round pick of the Braves (and a teammate of Eric Chavez) when he came out of Mount Carmel High in San Diego in 1996.
Teixeira was a ninth-round draft choice of the Red Sox (and merited a higher pick than that based on his talent) when he came out of Mount St. Joseph High in Severna Park, Md., in 1998. He turned down more than $1 million to attend Georgia Tech.
Not so much
It's difficult to imagine there was a less productive draft in the last two decades than the Indians' 1999 draft. Only one player out of that draft has made it to the big leagues so far--righthander Jason Davis, in the 21st round.
There are only 12 others still in pro ball. Only four of those are with the Indians, including Anthony Lunetta, who didn't sign with the Tribe when he was taken in the 42nd round that year but was redrafted by Cleveland in the ninth round in 2003 and did.
Among those who didn't sign with the Indians but did eventually decide to give pro ball a try was third baseman Jeff Baker, a fourth-round pick in 1999 who signed with the Rockies as a fourth-round pick in 2002, and pitcher Royce Ring, the Indians' 41st round pick in 1999 who signed with the White Sox as a first-rounder in 2002.
Expos area scout Stan Zielinski liked Kirk Rueter so much in the spring of 1991 that he talked Expos scouting director Gary Hughes out of seeing Rueter pitch for Murray State.
"He told me if I showed up they would know we were interested and it was shoot the price up," said Hughes. "Stan's the type of scout who could tell you exactly where his guy should be taken. If you'd take him earlier, he'd feel like you just shot up the signing price, and if you waited around, you'd lose the guy to someone else. He really knew his guys and who was interested in them."
Rueter was a guy Zielinski had that special feeling for, and he got Hughes to take him in the 18th round. Then came the challenge--signing Rueter.
"It was about a day trip for Stan to go drive from Chicago to Rueter's hometown (in Nashville, Ill.)," Hughes said. "He went down right after the draft and everybody agreed Kirk wanted to play pro ball and would sign, but his dad said he couldn't sign that day because it was going to be a big thing in the community. They were going to have a parade and a pot-luck dinner at the high school gym."
A week later, Zielinski returned only to find out the family wanted to delay another week because the new floor was still being installed in the gym, and it wouldn't be ready.
"Stan got home and called me and said, 'Forget the kid, he doesn't want to play,'" recalled Hughes. "I told him, 'Stan, you love the kid. Go back next week and sign him. He went back, and next thing Stan knew he was in the parade and a celebrity at the pot-luck.''