Handicapping the First Round
By Allan Simpson
The Devil Rays have the No. 1 pick in this year's draft and have narrowed the choice to second baseman Rickie Weeks and outfielder Delmon Young for now.
But will signability considerations be the overriding factor for the financially-strapped Devil Rays? That's just one of many questions yet to be answered as the draft draws near.
Will lefthanders Adam Loewen and Nick Markakis, the two most talented draft-and-follows in years and certain first-round talents, sign with the Orioles and Reds or re-enter this year's pool?
Will the teams that emphasize plate discipline and favor college players with proven track records make a pronounced statement and pass on tools-oriented and/or high-risk, high-reward high school talent?
Is Ohio righthander Marc Cornell, whose fastball touched 98 mph this spring, healthy enough for a team to risk a first-round pick?
Will first-round bonuses take another hit, after declining almost 10 percent in 2002?
These questions have only served to complicate this year's draft proceedings, but here's how Baseball America sees the first round taking shape:
1. DEVIL RAYS. Tampa Bay's camp was split down the middle over whether to take Weeks or Young. Weeks, the NCAA career batting leader and a five-tool talent, would join shortstop B.J. Upton (last year's No. 2 overall pick) to form a potential all-star double-play combination. Young has been the best hitter at his age for years and put on a massive power display at a Tropicana Field in front of Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella. The stalemate will likely be resolved by which player's price tag is most amenable to Devil Rays ownership's bottom line. Outfielder Ryan Harvey, a local product, also is in the team's mix but he's viewed only as an insurance policy if Weeks' or Young's demands are out of the Devil Rays reach. Industry sentiment has the Rays settling on Young.
2. BREWERS. If the Orioles are unable to sign Loewen, their first-round pick a year ago, his line of suitors will begin with the Brewers. Loewen's price tag has been rumored as high as $6 million, but Milwaukee needs power arms and there isn't a pitcher on the board with a higher upside than the 6-foot-6 lefthander. Brewers general manager Doug Melvin and assistant GM Gord Ash have Canadian roots and would like to add the highest-drafted Canadian ever, even if they have to wait out Loewen all summer. In the unlikely event that Loewen signs with Baltimore, the Brewers would consider Weeks or possibly righthander Tim Stauffer.
3. TIGERS. The struggling Tigers are desperate for immediate help and would be best served by taking a college pitcher like Loewen, Stauffer or righthander Kyle Sleeth. But if Weeks is on the board, the Tigers wouldn't pass on the best five-tool talent in the draft.
4. PADRES. San Diego almost certainly will take a college pitcher, with the only debate being whether it's Stauffer or Sleeth. Stauffer, the draft's most polished pitcher, would help the Padres sooner, but GM Kevin Towers witnessed his poorest outing of the year. San Diego almost certainly will draft Tony Gwynn's son Anthony in the second round, if he's still available; and sign last year's second-round pick Michael Johnson, if Clemson is eliminated from NCAA regional play before the draft.
5/30. ROYALS. The Royals have targeted a position player with the fifth pick, and will not hesitate to select the multi-talented Harvey. Kansas City's penchant for raw high school talent will also lead it to consider third baseman Miguel Vega, righthander/shortstop Adam Jones or outfielder Tim Battle with the 30th pick, compensation from the Braves for the loss of free agent Paul Byrd.
6. CUBS. After taking arguably the best college pitchers in the last two drafts (Mark Prior and Bobby Brownlie), the Cubs zeroed in on Sleeth and Stauffer. But Tulane first baseman Michael Aubrey's all-around hitting ability won over GM Jim Hendry.
7. ORIOLES. Besides Loewen, the Orioles failed to sign Sleeth and Stauffer out of high school in 2000. They won't hesitate to take another stab at Sleeth if he's available, but also have followed righthander Jeff Allison and outfielder Chris Lubanski closely. If the Orioles should eat up a sizeable chunk of their budget by signing Loewen by the May 27 closed period, they could look to a cheaper, more budget-conscious pick in this spot, like outfielder Brad Snyder.
8. PIRATES. Scouting director Ed Creech prefers high school players and locked in early on lefthander Andrew Miller. When he faltered, the focus shifted to Allison, the most dominant amateur pitcher in the country this spring. GM Dave Littlefield likes lefthander Paul Maholm and may push Creech to take a college pitcher who can contribute quicker.
9. RANGERS. Prevailing sentiment has the Rangers taking college pitching, with Maholm and righthander Brad Sullivan likely targets. But scouting director Grady Fuson will deviate from his normal college-first approach if the right high school player is available. Outfielder Lastings Milledge could be that player; he may have better all-around tools than any high school player in the country.
10. ROCKIES. The Rockies would dearly like Sleeth, a Colorado native, to slip through to them but that possibility is remote. Instead, they'll focus on a bat with Aubrey, Lubanski and third baseman Ian Stewart on their short list.
11/18. INDIANS. Allison, Lubanski and lefthander John Danks are at the top of Cleveland's wish list. If, as expected, the Indians go with a hitter first they'd be more inclined to look at a pitcher 18th, a compensation pick from the Phillies for the loss of free agent Jim Thome. If Cincinnati fails to sign Markakis before the draft, the Indians wouldn't hesitate to take him. Miller is another possibility in that spot.
12. METS. The Mets have the same three players on their board that the Indians do--Allison, Lubanski and Danks. They would also consider Cornell if he gets a clean bill of health.
13. BLUE JAYS. Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi is a disciple of the new emphasis on plate discipline and is fixated with third baseman Brian Snyder, a consensus second- or third-rounder who starred last summer in the Cape Cod League. If Ricciardi can be talked into taking a more conventional first-rounder, shortstop Aaron Hill would be a solid compromise. But college pitching is the team's biggest priority with Maholm the preferred target. Sullivan and Markakis are other candidates.
14. REDS. Cincinnati's approach to the draft is almost always muddled, and this year is no different. The Reds wanted to sign Markakis, a 23rd-rounder last year whose stock soared this spring, but his price tag makes that unlikely. If they don't sign Markakis, they're prepared to pay market value in this spot and consider players like Milledge, Sullivan, third baseman Eric Duncan or righthander Ryan Wagner. On the chance they do sign Markakis, which was expected to cost them upwards of $2 million, then they'd almost certainly be forced to take a budget-conscious pick with righthander Jason Hirsh a primary candidate.
15. WHITE SOX. The White Sox have targeted college position players in this spot with outfielders Brian Anderson, Brad Snyder and Gwynn, and catcher Mitch Maier drawing their closest scrutiny.
16. MARLINS. Florida prefers riskier high school talent and has focused on Allison, Danks, Lubanski, Milledge and Miller. The first four on that list are likely to be snapped up, leaving Miller to the Marlins.
17. RED SOX. The new Red Sox regime has joined the list of teams looking almost exclusively at college players and emphasizing plate discipline. That puts Brian Snyder in their mix, along with Hill, Maier, outfielder Shane Costa and third baseman Conor Jackson. But they've also shown a keen interest in Houston Cougars righthanders Sullivan and Wagner.
19/29. DIAMONDBACKS. The Diamondbacks prefer a college player with the 19th pick (compensation from Seattle for Greg Colbrunn) and a high school selection with the 29th. In an ideal world, they would take Arizona products Anderson and Brandon Wood with the two selections. But chances are good that Anderson will be gone at 19 and they may be forced to jump on Wood with that selection to guarantee his selection. Hill, Sullivan and outfielders Carlos Quentin are compromise possibilities at 19, and righthander Dennis Dove at 29.
20. EXPOS. Montreal's unique ownership structure may force the Expos to spring an unconventional pick like Hirsh, Battle or lefthander James Houser. But if Cornell is healthy and still on the board, the Expos are prepared to make a serious run at him.
21. TWINS. This draft is loaded with premium lefthanded-hitting high school players like Duncan, Stewart, third baseman Matt Moses and outfielder Ryan Sweeney. The Twins were hot on the trail of all of them.
22. GIANTS. San Francisco lost its normal first-round pick (26th) to Oakland for signing Ray Durham, but gained the Astros' selection for free agent Jeff Kent, improving their overall position by four spots. The Giants rarely go by the book in making their first selection, but righthanded pitching is a top priority. They were one of only a couple of teams tracking righthander Craig Whitaker closely in the first round, but also paid close attention to Cornell, Dove, Jared Hughes and Scott Baker.
23. ANGELS. The Angels have had a longstanding interest in Hill, a player they drafted out of high school. On the chance he goes to the Blue Jays or Diamondbacks and is off the board, the Angels will look to Jackson or Wood.
24. DODGERS. The Dodgers favor high school players as much as any organization in the game. Milledge was at the top of their list all spring, but they prepared for his being unavailable by bearing down on Battle, Miller, Moses, Stewart, Sweeney and lefthander Chuck Tiffany. The Dodgers have a track record of taking Iowa players, and Sweeney is expected to be the best player on their short list still available.
25/26. ATHLETICS. The A's unique emphasis on statistics has drawn them to college position players like Costa, Jackson, Maier, Quentin and the Snyders--Brad and Brian--with at least one of their back-to-back picks. They'll also consider lefthander Abe Alvarez if Wagner and Sullivan are gone.
27. YANKEES. A lefthanded bat tops New York's wish list with Duncan, Moses, first baseman Vincent Sinisi and outfielder David Murphy in their sights. The Yankees typically take a conservative approach in the draft but may gamble on Sinisi, whose signability is clouded by several factors. His talent warrants going in the top half of the first round.
28. CARDINALS. St. Louis has paid close attention to Stewart and righthander Ian Kennedy, teammates at California's La Quinta High, but is expected to settle on a safer college player like Alvarez or Murphy.
Here's how BA assesses the four teams that don't have first-round picks (NOTE: The order would be adjusted upward by one pick for the Mariners, Astros and Phillies if the Orioles sign Loewen).
35. BRAVES. Atlanta surrendered the last pick in the first round for signing free agent Paul Byrd but gained four selections as compensation for losing Tom Glavine and Mike Remlinger. The Braves traditionally stay close to home with their early-round selections and have set their sights on a pair of prep righthanders: North Carolina's Daniel Bard and Georgia's Jimmy Barthmaier. They would also snap up Markakis in the unlikely event he should slide out of the first round. Overall, the Braves primary target is lefthanded pitching, with Alvarez and Ryan Feierbend high on that list.
38. MARINERS. A year after failing to sign first-round pick John Mayberry Jr. (now at Stanford), the Mariners sacrificed their first-round pick this year for signing journeyman Greg Colbrunn. Seattle is typically tough to read but was in on Battle and Jones, two raw high school talents. A safer pick in this spot would be Maier.
60. ASTROS. Houston forfeited its first-round pick for signing Kent, but has sat on outfielder Drew Stubbs, a local talent with tools nearly the equal of any player in the draft. Righthander David Aardsma, the Rice closer who projected as a sure first-rounder earlier in the year, also could be available after his stock plummeted. Righthander Beau Vaughan is another option.
86. PHILLIES. Philadelphia forfeited its first two picks for signing Thome and David Bell, but are certain to jump on a potential first-round talent who slides for performance or signability reasons.