Early Draft Preview

Too Tempting To Pass Up?

Draft class could help convince teams to bypass slotting

The strength of the draft varies from year to year. The 2005 draft, the best this decade, featured an outstanding group of high school outfielders and multitooled college position players. In 2006, college pitchers stood out among a weak crop. Last year, prepsters outclassed the college talent, especially with everyday players.

Scouts are enthused about the 2008 draft, which will begin on June 5 with the Rays making the first pick, because of the diverse talent available. The consensus is that there are more quality college bats—not in terms of athleticism but just sheer offensive firepower—than in any year in recent memory.

Vanderbilt third baseman Pedro Alvarez, South Carolina first baseman Justin Smoak and Miami first baseman Yonder Alonso headline that group. Alvarez is the consensus No. 1 overall prospect entering the season, while Smoak and Alonso project as the first first basemen to go in the top 10 picks since the Brewers drafted Prince Fielder seventh overall in 2002.

"There are more college hitters than normal, and that's been an absolute void the last few years," an American League front-office executive said. "There's good depth in college pitching—not a lot of tremendously high ceilings, but depth. And there always are good high school guys if you're willing to take them."

Four players clearly stand above the rest at this point: Alvarez, San Diego lefthander Brian Matusz, Missouri righthander Aaron Crow and Griffin (Ga.) High shortstop Tim Beckham. Alvarez is the best hitter for both power and average in the draft. Matusz is a tall, lean southpaw who could have three plus pitches, while Crow is a more compact righty with a deadly fastball-slider combination. None of the three should require much time in the minors.

Beckham is a five-tool athlete and sticks out even more because there's no comparable player in the college ranks. Holt High (Wentzville, Mo.) righthander Tim Melville has separated himself from the rest of the high school pitchers with his plus fastball, projectable body and advanced feel for his secondary pitches and command.

Slotting Could Crumble

MLB has recommended specific bonuses for every pick in the first five rounds since 2000, and last year it tried to exert more control than ever. Believing that improved compensation for unsigned picks and a universal signing deadline would give teams more leverage, MLB reduced the slots by 10 percent across the board. But in the end, a slew of well-above-slot deals were struck shortly before the Aug. 15 deadline.

The Nationals, Orioles, Red Sox, Tigers and Yankees aggressively went over slot, either for singular talents (such as the Orioles giving Matt Wieters a $6 million bonus that is the largest up-front payment in draft history) or for multiple players.

That didn't sit well with the clubs that adhered to slotting, especially after they received assurances from MLB throughout the summer that no teams were going to ignore the guidelines. A month later, Frank Coonelly, whose job as MLB's senior vice president of labor relations included being the watchdog for draft bonuses, took over as Pirates president and announced his team would go over slot as needed.

Clubs also have noticed that the Red Sox and Yankees have used their deep pockets to build two of the game's deepest farm systems. With dissatisfaction growing, several scouting directors predict the slotting recommendation system will fall apart this year.

"You look at some of these teams toeing the line, like the Pirates and the Astros, and their general managers and scouting directors are getting fired," another AL club official said. "Frank Coonelly comes into Pittsburgh and says he's going to take the best available player. More and more organizations are going to break from the pack and call their bluff."

Will Rays Take Alvarez?

Other early storylines for the 2008 draft include:

• The Rays are the first team to own the No. 1 overall pick in consecutive years. (Before 2005, the first selection in each draft alternated between the two leagues). Though Alvarez is the consensus best prospect, Tampa Bay already has a blue-chip third baseman in Evan Longoria, the No. 3 choice in 2006. Teams at the top of the draft usually adhere to a philosophy of taking the best player regardless of position, but Alvarez isn't light years ahead of Matusz, Crow and Melville, all of whom could be more tempting to the Rays.

• If Tampa Bay does select Alvarez, Vanderbilt will become the first school ever to produce consecutive No. 1 picks. A year ago, the Rays opted for Commodores lefty David Price.

• Two clubs with dismal major league outlooks, flagging farm systems and new scouting directors have top-five picks that are crucial to their futures. The Pirates (Greg Smith) choose at No. 2 a year after alienating their fans by passing on Wieters' price tag at No. 4. In year one of their post-Barry Bonds era, the Giants (John Barr) will select fifth.

• For the second straight year, ESPN will provide television coverage of the first round of the draft.