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Pirates make Bullington No. 1 pick

Kazmir, Boras clients fall in draft

By Jim Callis
June 5, 2002

CHICAGO–Five days before the June 4-5 first-year player draft began, the Pirates made their decision. Owners of the No. 1 overall pick, they had whittled their list of candidates down to three: Ball State righthander Bryan Bullington, Virginia high school shortstop B.J. Upton and Canadian prep lefthander Adam Loewen.

Bryan Bullington
Photo: Stan Denny
Bullington, tabbed as a future first-round pick since his freshman year, pushed his velocity to a consistent 92-94 mph and refined a hard slider as a junior this spring. He went 11-3, 2.84 with a 139-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 105 innings to capture his second straight Mid-American Conference pitcher of the year award.

While he didn’t pitch well in his final start for the Cardinals, he eased those concerns with an impressive workout performance in front of Pittsburgh general manager Dave Littlefield and scouting director Ed Creech. It also didn’t hurt that Bullington was a collegian, the preference of Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy.

Bullington was the Pirates’ man. They made courtesy calls to the teams picking directly behind them, the Devil Rays and Reds, to let them know of their intent.

The next step was to contact Bullington’s advisers at IMG to discuss bonus parameters before the draft. (While this technically is against Major League Baseball rules, virtually every team does this while MLB looks the other way.) Several sources confirm that the Pirates floated a $4 million deal.

When IMG declined and countered with $6 million–an increase rather than a decrease from the $5.15 million Minnesota high school catcher Joe Mauer received from the Twins as the No. 1 overall pick in 2001–all of a sudden the Pirates’ plans weren’t concrete any longer.

Pittsburgh made similar offers to Upton and Loewen, but was rebuffed in both cases. The Pirates also sounded out Texas high school lefthander Scott Kazmir, though they didn’t regard him as highly as some other teams did and didn’t mention a specific dollar figure. That led them back to Bullington.

On the afternoon of June 3, they decided to take him and let negotiations unfold as they may.

All of this made for some anxious waiting on the part of Bullington, who didn’t know for sure that he would go first until he heard his name called on MLB’s Internet broadcast of the draft.

"I heard it when everyone else did," Bullington said from him home in Fishers, Ind., where a group of 25 family members and friends celebrated his selection. "I had heard I was in their top three for the last couple of days, but that was it."

Postdraft reports indicated that Bullington’s side had lowered its expectations and negotiations weren’t expected to be acrimonious. He isn’t expected to command the same money as Mauer, who had the additional leverage of being a Florida State quarterback recruit.

Bullington said he hadn’t really thought about details such as bonus money or where he might hope to start his major league career. He described his emotions as a sense of relief.

"You build up to this over the last few days," he said. "Everything you think about, everything you talk about is the draft. I’m just glad that it happened."

Littlefield said that when the time came for a final decision, it came down to the fact that Bullington was the best player on Pittsburgh’s draft board. While the Pirates see tremendous upside, Littlefield also cautioned that Bullington isn’t the second coming of Mark Prior, the first college pitcher drafted in 2001. After going No. 2 to the Cubs, Prior started all of nine minor league games before being whisked to Wrigley Field.

The last time the Pirates had the No. 1 overall pick was in 1996, when they also selected a college pitcher. Clemson's Kris Benson was hyped nearly as much as Prior is these days, but he didn’t reach Pittsburgh until 1999 and has 21 victories in five-plus professional seasons.

"I think one of the downsides for Prior doing well is that expectations are raised for the next college pitcher in the draft," Littlefield said. "We won’t be swayed by how we handle things. We’ll just try to manage the expectations and inform people that Mark Prior is a very unique guy."

Kazmir Tumbles To Mets

After Bullington, the rest of the top 10 continued to unfold mostly as expected, though Kazmir's name was notably absent. The Devil Rays selected Upton, the top position player available, with the second pick.

Reds officials were evenly split on Kazmir and California prep righthander Chris Gruler, both of whom had bullpen sessions at Cinergy Field the previous weekend. Word quickly spread that Gruler’s workout was lackluster while Kazmir’s was spectacular. The assumption was that Cincinnati would go with Kazmir, who along with North Carolina high school righty Jason Neighborgall had one of the two best pure arms in the draft.

But the Reds never talked money with Kazmir, apparently using him to leverage Gruler into signing for a club-record $2.5 million bonus, an agreement announced shortly after teams finished drafting on June 4. That was little more than half of the $4.8 million Dewon Brazelton received from Tampa Bay as the No. 3 pick in the 2001 draft, which had more blue-chip talent than this one. It was a good deal for Gruler, who would have gotten less had the Reds not taken him and he had fallen to the seventh or eighth pick.

After the Reds passed on Kazmir, the next team that might have been willing to give him more money than MLB has recommended for its draft slot was the Rangers at No. 10. But their owner, Tom Hicks, has made a public announcement of belt-tightening. Texas passed on Kazmir as well as Scott Boras-advised college righthanders Jeremy Guthrie (Stanford) and Bobby Brownlie (Rutgers) to take South Carolina shortstop Drew Meyer, a much less costly pick.

With all-star shortstop and Boras client Alex Rodriguez in the second year of a much-criticized 10-year, $252 million contract, the Rangers will move Meyer to second base or center field in the future. The Rangers hope to sign him for a bonus in the $2.25 million range, approximately half of what Brownlie and Guthrie are seeking.

The next obvious possible destination for Kazmir was the Mets, who pounced on him at No. 15. That made Houston’s Cypress Falls the fourth high school ever to produce two first-round picks in a single draft, as righthander Clint Everts went fifth to the Expos.

Last year’s No. 15 pick, Gabe Gross, signed with the Blue Jays for $1.85 million. It may take twice as much to land Kazmir, but that didn’t deter New York.

"If he’s the best player there, you have to be prepared to select him," Mets director of amateur scouting Jack Bowen said. "We’re just as happy as could be that he was there for us to select."

Kazmir was a bit puzzled as to why he lasted so long but wasn’t chagrined.

"There are a lot of rumors going around, like I wanted $100 million or whatever," Kazmir said. "I don't know what it is. I'm just happy I'm with the Mets."

Other Top Names Slide As Well

While the next seven choices after Bullington were high school prospects, the remainder of the first round consisted of 12 players from college and one from junior college among the final 22 picks. The Angels and Padres, who both were linked with San Diego high school lefthander Cole Hamels throughout the spring, selected Virginia Tech lefthander Joe Saunders and Clemson shortstop Khalil Greene 12th and 13th, respectively.

Hamels was considered one of the draft’s top pitchers–at least one club ranked him as the best–but teams took a cautious approach because he broke the humerus bone in his pitching arm as a sophomore. Picking 17th, the Phillies decided his potential was too great to pass up.

"We weren’t sure he would be there," Philadelphia assistant GM Mike Arbuckle said. "I think he was in some people’s mix in front of us, and as of last night we were 50-50. We were very thorough. Our club physician looked at all the stuff and cleared him. We talked to him at length, and we talked to people we trusted with other clubs."

Kazmir wasn’t the only highly regarded prospect to slide because of perceived signability concerns. Brownlie, who was hampered by biceps tendinitis and didn’t pitch well for Rutgers down the stretch, lasted until the Cubs took him at No. 21, while Guthrie went one pick later to the Indians.

Before his struggles, Brownlie was considered the best overall prospect in the 2002 draft class. A year after getting Prior–albeit for the cost of a draft-record $10.5 million big league contract–Chicago may have pulled another coup. Brownlie ranked near the top of its draft board.

"We knew he had a chance to get to us a couple of weeks ago," Cubs scouting director John Stockstill said. "It seems signability played a big part with a lot of clubs. We started to realize it was a possibility. We’ve checked it out and there’s nothing serious with his arm."

Other Boras-advised players weren’t as fortunate as Brownlie and Guthrie. Jeff Baker, the Clemson third baseman at one point considered the top college position player in the draft, went in the fourth round to the Rockies. Neighborgall went to the Red Sox in the seventh round, and several others plummeted even further.

"It was interesting to see where some of the Boras guys fell," one scouting director said. "They really tumbled. The feeling I got from a lot of our scouts was that those guys didn’t show the ability of a premium guy, and it’s not worth going through the battle. His guys didn’t separate themselves."

Signability also was a factor for two of the better athletes in the 2002 crop. Georgia high school outfielder Jeff Francoeur, an all-America defensive back with a Clemson football scholarship in hand, faxed teams two days before the draft to notify them of a $4 million asking price.

When the Braves, picking 23rd, made a predraft offer below that, they were told a team selecting later in the draft had agreed to that amount. That club reportedly was the Red Sox, but Atlanta, which likes to stockpile homestate players, decided to take Francoeur anyway.

Missouri high school outfielder John Mayberry Jr., the son of former Astros first-round pick and Royals all-star John Mayberry, was considered by at least two clubs picking in the top 10. But he’s also committed to Stanford and told clubs he wanted $3 million. As a result, the Mariners were able to get him with the 28th selection.

Though many teams couldn’t settle their plans until just shortly before the draft kicked off, there weren’t many surprises in the first round. Tennessee high school righthander Matthew Cain (Giants, No. 25) and Maryland shortstop John McCurdy (Athletics, No. 26) received less predraft play than other first-rounders, but both were considered possible sandwich-round targets.

"I thought in a year that wasn’t very deep, all in all everybody was on the same page," Arbuckle said. "Our board got shot up fast, probably the fastest I’ve ever seen. Usually in the first round or two, somebody makes a pick that makes you say, ‘Wow!’ I didn’t see that as much, and I think it’s because of the lesser talent pool."

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