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In one of the most muddled years ever, prep star Heard could be No. 1

By Jim Callis

CHICAGO–The same subjects keep cropping up as scouts bump into each other across America this spring. The good hotels with the cheapest rates. The best restaurants in out-of-the-way locales. Tales of expense-account wizardry.

And that no one can get a firm grasp on the most muddled draft in memory.

"I’ve never seen a year like this," says Terry Wetzel, who has been scouting since 1984 and became the Royals’ scouting director in 1997. "And a lot of veteran scouting directors will say the same thing."

By mid-May in a typical draft year, clubs have a good feel for how the first few picks are going to play out. A year ago, Raleigh, N.C., high school outfielder Josh Hamilton; Spring, Texas, high school righthander Josh Beckett; and Southern California catcher Eric Munson had established themselves as a cut above the rest of the draft crop. And in June, they went in that order to the Devil Rays, Marlins and Tigers.

This year, the consensus is that there’s no consensus. Scouts say that the gap in talent between the eventual top pick and a mid-first-rounder will be as small as it has ever been.

"It’s the most confusing top group in the 13 years I’ve been scouting," says Twins scouting director Mike Radcliff, who will make the second overall pick on June 5. "That’s not to say there won’t be a bounty of major leaguers down the line, but it’s a rather chaotic, confused mix of talent."

Heard Takes The Lead

Marlins general manager Dave Dombrowski says his team will put more work into determining who it will take with the No. 1 overall choice than it did last year, when it picked second and knew it would get either Hamilton or Beckett.

Florida will become the 10th team in draft history to pick in the top two in consecutive years, and the first since the Phillies took J.D. Drew second in 1997 and Pat Burrell first in 1998. By early May, the Marlins had whittled their field to six players, half of whom don’t fit the profile of a typical No. 1 selection:

  • Miami Gulliver Prep shortstop David Espinosa. The draft’s top-ranked infielder, he does fit the profile–and he’s a local product. But he is being advised by hardline agent Scott Boras and has a high price tag, which could cause him to slide.
  • San Diego Eastlake High first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. He ranked just 26th on BA’s preseason Top 100 High School Prospects list, but his stock has soared. He may not have the true top-of-the-line power a first baseman seemingly would need to go No. 1. He’s not even a consensus top 10 pick.
  • Palmdale (Calif.) High righthander Matt Harrington. In a poll of all 30 teams, Harrington probably would win out as the draft’s best prospect. The draft still has never yielded a high school righthander as the No. 1 pick, though.
  • San Diego Rancho Bernardo High catcher Scott Heard. No one doubts that Heard could win Gold Gloves behind the plate. But his .287 batting average this spring is downright frightening, considering that .400 is the Mendoza line for top high school prospects.
  • Hanover (Pa.) High lefthander Mark Phillips. With two potential big league strikeout pitches in his 93-94 mph fastball and his curveball, he has made up for not getting much national exposure last summer.
  • Pepperdine catcher Dane Sardinha. His story is similar to Heard’s. Defensively, Sardinha could start for several major league teams immediately. But he hit just .200 in the wood-bat Cape Cod League last summer and has struggled when he has faced big-time pitchers this spring.

As of May 23, Heard and Gonzalez appeared to be on the Marlins’ short list, with Heard expected to get the nod. Not incidentally, Heard has expressed his determination to be the No. 1 pick–meaning that he won’t make money as much of an issue.

Money, Money, Money

When it comes to the draft, money is always an issue. The first time that every first-rounder received a $100,000 bonus was in 1989. Ten years later, every first-rounder got at least $1 million except for Puerto Rican outfielder Alex Rios, who agreed to a prearranged deal with the Blue Jays as the 19th overall choice.

The Marlins haven’t said so publicly, but one agent says that the team told him they will establish contract parameters before the draft with whichever player they ultimately select. Other teams say that they’ve heard the same thing, with the expected payout believed to be in the neighborhood of $3 million.

Florida will have to negotiate against history. Hamilton got a $3.96 million bonus last year, a record for a draftee who didn’t gain free agency. The Marlins themselves shelled out a $3.625 million bonus as part of four-year, $7 million major league contract to sign Beckett.

Dombrowski won’t discuss particulars, but he will say that his team won’t give a contract like Beckett’s to the No. 1 pick in 2000.

"We gave Josh Beckett more than we anticipated last year, but we thought he was a special player with special circumstances," Dombrowski says. "Based on his ability and what the market was, we did what we had to do. Of course, that can always be used against you. But we don’t see that type of player this year."

Five of the 10 major league contracts given to draft picks have come in the previous two years, with Beckett and Munson (four years, $6.75 million) joining the club in 1999. Scouts say the player making the most noise about a big league pact this spring is California third baseman Xavier Nady, but a mildly disappointing season and concerns about his future position make it unlikely that he’ll receive one.

Both Radcliff and Minnesota GM Terry Ryan are quick to point out that despite a paltry major league payroll of $17 million, their club has tried not to scrimp on player-development costs. That said, Radcliff makes it clear the Twins don’t see anyone worthy of Beckett or Hamilton money when he says, "I’m not sure anyone in this draft would have been in the top 10 in last year’s draft, which was very average."

It’s clear that clubs sense an opportunity to halt the rapid growth of signing bonuses. Whether they’ll be able to do so is another matter. To help teams in their cause, the commissioner’s office held a negotiating seminar for scouting directors May 15.

The bulk of the day was dedicated to a negotiating workshop, and Major League Baseball officials also provided background and historical information on the draft for two hours. MLB executive vice president for baseball operations Sandy Alderson says the intent was to get people thinking about common assumptions and whether they were justified. For example, he challenges the notion that there’s an annual 15-20 percent inflation factor built into bonuses.

"Where is that written down?" Alderson asks. "Even the NASDAQ doesn’t always go up."

Alderson also points out that not all drafts are equal in quality or depth. On the notion that the 2000 crop lacks the top-end talent of recent drafts, he says, "To the extent that is the consensus, those circumstances need to be taken into account."

Shades Of 1992

If the Marlins do succeed in avoiding a Hamilton or Beckett deal, it will mark the first time since 1992 that the No. 1 pick received a smaller bonus than his counterpart from the year before. Of all the drafts in the 1990s, it’s 1992 that resembles this year’s situation most closely.

After the Yankees stunned the industry by giving 1991’s top choice, Brien Taylor, a $1.55 million bonus that nearly tripled the previous record, the Astros had no desire to spend that much money.

The consensus best talents were Stanford outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds and Michigan high school shortstop Derek Jeter, though their status was less clear-cut than the top players from other years. The Astros chose Cal State Fullerton third baseman Phil Nevin after both sides agreed to a prearranged $700,000 bonus.

As in 2000, four of the first five selections belonged to small-revenue teams. Two such clubs, the Indians and Expos, followed the Astros by taking North Carolina reliever Paul Shuey and Mississippi State lefthander B.J. Wallace, respectively. Shuey ($650,000) and Wallace ($550,000) signed almost immediately, an indication that terms had been worked out before the draft.

Both Hammonds ($975,000 from the Orioles as the No. 4 choice) and Jeter ($700,000 from the Yankees as the No. 6 pick) matched Nevin’s deal.

A similar situation could play out this June, as the Marlins, Twins, Royals and Expos own four of the first five choices. Only the Cubs, who select third, are financially prosperous. All in all, it should make for an interesting if uncertain draft.

"There’s some talent in this draft, some depth," Wetzel says. "Now we’ve all got to sort it out and decide who we want to take."

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