By Josh Boyd
It's the weekend before the draft, and scouting directors are locked in war rooms with their staffs of national crosscheckers, supervisors and scouts, attempting to sort out what figures to be a draft day full of surprises. The common theme throughout draft rooms across the league is still one of uncertainty.
"This is the year that scouting directors and scouts will earn their money," one crosschecker said. A scouting director said he's never seen a year where his scouts differed so much on the top players' overall future potential grade.
As teams concluded their first rounds of meetings, one scout walked away scratching his head: "You look on the board and nobody's really jumping out. The talent is really down around the country."
Said another scouting director: "It's less clear as we're getting closer to the draft, if that's possible. I thought it would start to take shape by now, but it hasn't."
With the Pirates set to announce the first pick in three days, there's little certainty involved in the first round. Several sources have confirmed that Pittsburgh has settled on Ball State righthander Bryan Bullington. After a poor performance in the Mid-American Conference tournament, Bullington redeemed himself in a workout for the Pirates. With the second pick, the Devil Rays are thought to be leaning toward Virginia high school shortstop B.J. Upton.
The Reds are split on whether to draft California high school righthander Chris Gruler or Texas prep lefty Scott Kazmir, both of whom will work out for the team over the weekend. GM Jim Bowden and scouting director Kasey McKeon are believed to prefer Kazmir, while other members of the organization are higher on Gruler. Kazmir is seeking a major league deal, which would allow the cash-strapped Reds to spread his bonus over a period of years. Gruler also threw a bullpen session in front of Tampa Bay GM Chuck Lamar, scouting director Dan Jennings and assistant GM Bart Braun last weekend.
The Orioles seemingly should be in position to draft the bat they covet, Atlanta high school outfielder Jeremy Hermida, though Canadian prep lefty Adam Loewen might be hard to pass up. Under this scenario, the Expos apparently would draft Kazmir's high school teammate, righthander Clint Everts, with the fifth pick. We'll have an updated projection for the entire first round available on Monday.
Possible First-Round Surprises
Some surprising names are popping up higher than expected on draft boards. Three players who suddenly are surfacing as possible first-round picks are Oklahoma high school first baseman Cory Shafer, James Madison lefthander Dan Meyer and Texas-San Antonio third baseman Mark Schramek. They aren't consensus first-rounders by any means, but there's at least one or two clubs who may be willing to take each of them that high. They all may be gone in the first 50 picks.
Our scouting reports on each, straight from our Draft Preview:
Shafer: Shafer has one of the best lefthanded power bats available in the draft, surpassed only by Florida's Prince Fielder and Iowa's Jeff Clement among high school players. Shafer generates his pop with a strong 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame and an aggressive and fluid stroke. His bat will have to carry him, and it should be able to. He's not a baseclogger but he's not much of a runner either, and he'll probably have to play first base.
Meyer: James Madison has two lefthanders who should go in the first five rounds, with the 6-foot-3, 190-pound Meyer pegged to go a round sooner than 6-foot-1, 185-pound Jared Doyle. Meyer is not as refined as Doyle but throws a little harder, up to 93 mph, and is stronger. He has two above-average pitches, his fastball and a split-finger. He has greater upside than Doyle but must smooth out his arm action and refine his changeup.
Schramek: Schramek, the Southland Conference's MVP and defensive player of the year, hit .416-11-49 during the regular season. He has a plus arm, but tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during last year's conference tournament. Scouts worry he might have to move across the diamond to first base as a pro.
One of the biggest surprises as the draft approaches was Matt Harrington's decision to decline a $1.2 million offer from the Padres that included a major league contract. He'll now enter the draft for the third time in as many years.
Considered the consensus best prospect in 2000 when he came out of high school, Harrington went seventh overall to the Rockies. Negotiations quickly turned acrimonious, as Baseball America has chronicled, and he turned down a $4 million bonus. Despite pitching only briefly with Team USA and in the independent Northern League between the 2000 and 2001 drafts, San Diego took him in the second round last year.
Harrington is now with Long Beach in the independent Western League. In his first appearance, he gave up six hits, two walks and four runs in five innings. He struck out four. His fastball was in the low 90s, but his breaking ball and command left a lot to be desired.
Several teams contacted by Baseball America don't think he'll get offered anywhere near a seven-figure bonus to sign this time around.
"He's not going to get drafted in a spot where it's going to warrant $1.2 million," one scouting director said. "He's either going to go to a team with extra picks, or he's going to go in the third or fourth round at best. He's not going in the first round. I don't know of a lot of teams that have scouted him."
Said another scouting director: "I don't see him going in the first three or four rounds. It will be somewhere after that, and he's go to have to bite the bullet. $1.2 million was three times more than anybody envisions he has a chance of getting this year."
Gutty Effort For Hamels
Rancho Bernardo (Calif.) High lefty Cole Hamels made his final start of the season on Thursday. Hamels touched 94 mph three times in the first inning in front of large contingents from the Angels and Padres scouting departments. While teams are taking a cautious approach with Hamels, who missed his junior season with a broken arm similar to the one that ended the careers of fellow lefties Tom Browning, Dave Dravecky and Tony Saunders, his talent is evident.
"He might be better than a lot of guys drafted ahead of him, but it's pretty risky," one scouting director said.
Hamels pitched Rancho Bernardo into the state Division I finals with a courageous complete-game victory. Despite missing school with an illness, Hamels battled without his best stuff. With dozens of scouts breathing down his back during his pregame bullpen, he lacked command of his curveball and bounced several in the dirt. But Hamels came out and threw a curveball for a strike on the first pitch of the game.
He projects to go in the upper half of the first round, perhaps as high as No. 8 overall to the Tigers.
Will You Be My Neighborgall?
Several Scott Boras-advised prospects are sliding down draft boards around the league. Jason Neighborgall is considered the best pitching prospect in the draft by some scouts, but his name is rarely mentioned as a candidate to go in the top half of the first round.
"He's a tough guy to take real high," one scouting director said. "He has the three strikes against him you don't like to see in a first-rounder. First, he's a high school righthander and you know their track record. Second, he didn't pitch at all last summer, so he missed over a year and a half. And third, you're talking about a Beckett price tag."
Several scouts have compared Neighborgall's stuff to last year's No. 4 pick, Gavin Floyd. Floyd signed with the Phillies for $4.2 million, while Josh Beckett landed a $7 million major league deal as the No. 3 choice in 1999. Neighborgall isn't as polished as Beckett, but his raw stuff might be better than Floyd's. And he has a legitimate Plan B as well.
"He's a premium guy who's going to Georgia Tech," the scouting director said. "That's the type of money it's going to take."
The top four draft-and-follow prospects signed with the teams that controlled their rights. The Brewers landed American River (Calif.) JC lefthander Manny Parra, the Tigers signed Connors State (Okla.) JC righthander Humberto Sanchez, the Indians landed Sacramento CC righty Sean Smith and the Cardinals grabbed Bellevue (Wash.) CC righty Blake Hawksworth. All four reportedly netted seven-figure bonuses.
Last year, McLennan (Texas) CC lefthander Sean Henn established a draft-and-follow bonus record last year when the Yankees gave him $1.7 million, setting the tone for this year. Northeast Texas CC righthander Derrick Grigsby, a possible late first-rounder, now rates as the top juco prospect available.
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