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Having The No. 1 Pick Is A Mixed Bag
By John Manuel
Mike Rizzo, it’s your turn.
The Diamondbacks, for the first time in their brief history, will have the first pick in the 2005 draft. Rizzo, their scouting director since September 1999, will orchestrate the club’s approach to the pick.
“I’m fired up about it,” Rizzo said. “I hope it doesn’t happen again for a while, but I’m fired up about it.”
Two of his peers who have had the same dubious honor recently don’t share the same enthusiasm for having the top slot.
Twins scouting director Mike Radcliff had to prepare for drafting first overall once, in 2001. Hindsight reveals that happened to be an amazing draft, particularly at the top. The first round already has produced 14 big leaguers, and the first five picks—Joe Mauer, Mark Prior, Dewon Brazelton, Gavin Floyd and Mark Teixeira—all have seen big league time.
Radcliff says the Twins knew going into the year that 2001 would be a good year to pick high. He still says having the No. 1 pick was a nightmare.
“There’s no good year to be the team that picks number one,” said Radcliff, the dean of scouting directors, having held the post with the Twins for the last 12 years. “There’s so much more attention on the pick. There is way more pressure. We were horrible; that’s why we were picking number one.
“Instead of concentrating on your whole draft and trying to get four guys that will make it to the big leagues, so much attention gets put on that top guy.”
Padres scouting director Bill Gayton found that out last year, when his club chose first. Like Radcliff, that meant seeing fewer players than usual, perhaps, but seeing the top players more often. Uniquely for Gayton, the Padres didn’t pick again until the third round, so if a player couldn’t go first overall, he’d have to last until pick 72 for San Diego to get another shot.
The Diamondbacks are different in that, because they lost Richie Sexson to free agency, they pick again at No. 31 overall with the first pick of the sandwich round. Rizzo will narrow his choices for No. 1, but also will be looking hard at players for the 31st spot as well.
“We try to scout all the players,” Rizzo said. “You never know who will be staring you in the face in the draft; we never expected Stephen Drew to fall to us at number 15 last year.”
Radcliff had a list of potential top picks set in a November 2000 memo to general manager Terry Ryan. He remembers meeting with Prior and his father Jerry on Jan. 3, 2001, to discuss the process. He remembers seeing Georgia Tech’s Teixeira get hurt, an ankle injury that sidelined him for six weeks. And he remembers seeing Mauer repeatedly. With so few players worthy of going first, Radcliff could narrow his focus.
Like Radcliff, Gayton started narrowing down the list of potential No. 1 picks many months before the draft actually happened. But then his plans got scrambled.
The 2004 class offered few locks, and the top talents all came with red flags. Long Beach State righthander Jered Weaver and Florida State shortstop Stephen Drew retained agent Scott Boras as their adviser. While Gayton has dealt with Boras many times—from his first first-round pick, when he was an area scout with the Athletics (Scott Hemond, 1986, $125,000 bonus) to recent top picks such as Tagg Bozied, Matt Harrington and Xavier Nady—this time, he and the Padres decided against going the Boras route. But Rice righthander Jeff Niemann, whom Gayton liked all along, had injury issues.
“I always used to say that I either wanted to draft at the top or at the bottom of the first round,” Gayton said. “Now I really believe the top is overvalued. The system’s flawed.”
Gayton and the Padres decided the going rate for a No. 1 overall pick—a major league contract worth at least $5 million guaranteed—was too steep for the pool of players available. In the end, the Padres compromised with local prep shortstop Matt Bush, a consensus first-round talent, but not a top-pick talent. He got $3.15 million to sign, and the Padres used the savings elsewhere in the player-procurement budget.
“I’ve told Matt—I have the kind of relationship with him to say this—that he was not the number one player in the country,” Gayton said. “In the same way, 30 guys will get picked in the first round, but there aren’t 30 first-rounders most years.”
Gayton admits the parameters are different for him this year, when the Padres draft 18th overall. He can scout college relievers hard. The pool of players is larger. And he believes he has more control over the pick.
“The agents that want to try to push their players to me at 1/18 can kiss my ass if they’re the same guys who told me their guy ‘wasn’t a fit’ for us at 1/1 last year,” he said. “You can’t walk away from 1/1, but it’s different at 1/18.
“If I’m unfortunate enough to have the No. 1 pick again, I’m just trying to make a better selection than I did last time. To date, the best first-round pick I’ve made as scouting director has been Khalil Greene (13th overall in 2002). So my goal every year is to improve on that, to make a better pick. Hopefully, I’ve learned from my mistakes in the past and improved.”
Gayton now gets to watch Rizzo take on the challenge of the No. 1 pick. He’s still got a draft to run, of course. But the dynamics are completely different when your team has the top pick, as Rizzo is about to find out.
• Speaking of the 2001 draft, Radcliff had good news to report on Mauer, who had a knee injury prematurely end his strong rookie year. Mauer was hitting .308-6-17 with a .570 slugging percentage and had thrown out seven of the first 18 basestealers he’d faced (39 percent). Mauer injured his left knee chasing a foul pop in the season’s second game and ended up playing 35 games, missing time after having surgery to remove part of his meniscus and due to swelling and pain that recurred in the knee during rehabilitation. The meniscus is cartilage that essentially acts as a shock absorber in the knee.
Radcliff said Mauer was showing that he was ready to absorb the grind of a full season of catching in games with other Twins major and minor leaguers who had arrived early to the club’s spring-training complex in Fort Myers, Fla.
“He says he’s 100 percent, and we’re keeping our fingers crossed,” Radcliff said. “He’s catching the equivalent of nine-inning games down there now and has been for a month. He’s looked very good.”
Radcliff acknowledges studies in the sabermetric community that have produced a theory that Mauer is too tall to be an everyday catcher, and that his knee injury exacerbates the difficulties of being 6-foot-4, 220 pounds and squatting hundreds of times a day, every day, for eight months from March to October. Sandy Alomar Jr., at 6-foot-5, has had by far the most significant career by a tall catcher.
Radcliff says the Twins believe history here is not a predictor of future performance, however. The Twins are confident his bat will play if Mauer has to move, but as Radcliff put it, that’s a decision they hope they don’t have to make for a while.
“We heard some of that coming into the draft,” he said. “We had some concern from the start that he was bigger than the normal catcher. But Joe Mauer is not normal, from his mind to his tools to his heart.”
• Rizzo said the Diamondbacks were hopeful they would get Drew under contract by spring training. Rizzo declined to set a deadline for when Arizona and the former Florida State shortstop needed to agree to terms, but instead used the phrase “common sense timetable.”
“There are two players still unsigned,” Rizzo said. “If you want to call that the market being set, you could say that. If there’s a deal to be made, it fits for both sides to have it done in time so Stephen can begin spring training with us.”
• The Diamondbacks ended two holdouts in January, agreeing to contracts with fifth-round pick Cesar Nicholas and 11th-rounder Darryl Lawhorn. Nicholas, a 6-foot-4, 233-pound first baseman out of Vanderbilt, hit .336-15-70 as a senior, after having won the Cape Cod League’s home run derby during its all-star festivities in 2003. Lawhorn, whose twin brother Trevor signed with the Reds as a ninth-round pick, was an All-Freshman choice in 2002, but his production slipped in each of his last two seasons at East Carolina. An elbow injury that required postseason surgery hampered him during a .298-10-45 campaign. Then he injured his foot in the first game of regional play in the spring, and the Diamondbacks waited until he was healthy to sign him. Lawhorn also has bounced around defensively, but Arizona will try him at second base.