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April 29, 2007

Future Shock

Early Options in the 2007 Draft

by Kevin Goldstein

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This Year's Pedroia?

In a year where college hitters are few and far between, many players who aren't evaluated as first-round talents could move into seven-figure bonus territory, as teams looking for older talent will be left with little to choose from. "If you look at the teams picking from 15-30, you'll see a lot of teams that traditionally pick college heavy," said one scouting director. "Those teams are definitely going to move some borderline college talent into the first round, even though they might not belong there based solely on their scouting reports."

One such player is Georgia Tech center fielder Danny Payne. Currently leading the Yellow Jackets in batting at .383, Payne has the patience that numbers analysts adore, leading major colleges with 46 walks, good for an on-base percentage that is north of .500. He also serves as the team's part-time closer, striking out 17 in 12.1 innings which pitching primarily off his fastball.

At the same time, he's your classic college "stats over tools" type of player. Depending on who you talk to, Payne is one to three inches below his listed height of five-foot-eleven, has limited power and only average speed, and his on-the-field performance is bolstered by an infectious, all-out effort. "It's impossible to not like him," said one scout based in the southeast. "But it's hard to really figure out what he's going to be."

While on the phone with a prominent agent last week, the first round of June's amateur draft came up. He suddenly sighed and said, "I don't know... I just get the feeling this whole thing is about to blow up." One week later, the implosion has started, as some disappointing performances, some late-season surprises, and the ever-present Boras factor is wreaking havoc.

On the level of pure talent, there have been more downs than up, leading to crowded draft boards without a lot of separation. "I know there was a lot of early sentiment about this being a great draft, but it's not going to play out that way," said one scouting director. "There's some depth in the high school ranks but everything else is below average." The scouting director continued by noting that teams are looking at far more players in early slots than in previous years. "There are not a lot of star guys, (so) it's going to be like 2004, when you didn't know who was going where until the picks start flying off the board," he continued. "It's one of those years where the difference between a mid-first round pick and the 50th pick just isn't that great. It's getting a little wild and wooly."

The best way to deal with the latest information is to put in into context of the actual draft order, though things get confusing quickly.

1. Tampa Bay Devil Rays

At least things start off easily, and the consensus is that the Devil Rays will select Vanderbilt left-hander David Price with the number one overall pick. It's a simple decision, really. He entered the year as the best prospect in the draft; he's pitched as well, if not better than expectations, and improved throughout the year. After another dominating 13-strikeout performance on Friday against Florida, the six-foot-five power lefty has punched out 135 in 90.1 innings while playing one of the tougher schedules in the country, giving up 61 hits, 22 walks and only one home run. While Tampa Bay is still playing it close to the chest and sending scouts to look at other elite players, it's mostly just for their own protection in negotiations, and in case something goes wrong at the end.

"I can't see them taking anyone else," said one observer. "Unless Price gets hurt, gets arrested, or converts to throwing all knuckleballs, he's going number one."

2. Kansas City Royals

And this is where the confusion begins. Going into the season, the Royals' choices seemed to be between the top college hitter, Georgia Tech's Matt Wieters, and North Carolina State righty Andrew Brackman. However, both have disappointed. For Wieters, it's more a case of not living up to expectations--his numbers are merely very good as opposed to dominant, and his effort is bothering some evaluators as well. "He doesn't play with a lot of energy," said one scouting director. "I like to see easy, but there's also kind of a minimum amount of effort I want to see as well." Meanwhile, Brackman, a 6-foot-11 righthander with power stuff, has proven to be a little too raw for some, and a second-half swoon is hurting his stock. "The fastball is good, he throws strikes and has a solid delivery for his size," said another scouting director. "But he's giving up a lot of hits off his curveball; he needs to get a true power slider or something off his fastball. He has a lot of development time ahead of him--he's not going to move quickly."

Complicating matters for both players is their selection of Scott Boras to represent them. Teams anticipate lofty signing bonus expectations for players whose talent and/or performance may not merit it. "If you line them up, they stack up favorably with anyone," said another scouting director. "But with Boras, you have to be convinced that they are going to be impact, otherwise why would you pay the exorbitant prices?" Another scouting director agreed. "I would like to have them," he added. "But only at my price."

That leaves room for New Jersey high school righty Rick Porcello, who currently looks like the Royals' preferred pick. Like Price, Porcello entered the year as the top arm among his class, and while his year in the cold of the Northeast didn't start until Easter, he's been impressive, pumping mid-90s heat while flashing an impressive spike curveball and a changeup surprisingly advanced for someone his age. Add in smooth mechanics, above-average command, and a projectable (albeit skinny) six-foot-five frame, and Porcello is the total package. "When is the last time we had a high school right-hander who was a legitimate 1-1 talent?" asked one scouting director. "The last one I can think of is Josh Beckett, and for me Porcello is ahead of where Beckett was in high school." Like Weiters and Brackman, Porcello is being advised by Scott Boras, and while he'll likely look for a Beckett-like deal, the Royals might be more apt to feel he's worth it.

While Porcello is in the lead, another Boras client has the ability to work his way into the mix. Former University of Missouri right-hander Max Scherzer remains unsigned as Arizona's first round pick last year. Like another formerly unsigned Boras client, Luke Hochevar, he's signed with independent Fort Worth to show off for scouts, with his debut scheduled for May 2. A pure power arm with a mid-90s fastball/mid-80s slider mix, Scherzer could rocket onto draft boards in the same manner Hochevar did last year before he signed with the Royals as the number one overall pick. "Everyone is going to be there," said one scouting director. "We're certainly going to scout him like we mean it," he continued with a laugh. Another discussed how the opportunity is nearly perfect for Scherzer, considering this year's weak crop. "He has an electric arm, there are no college righties in this draft, and Boras knows it," he said.

Other players have been rumored to be in the Royals mix, but all look like long shots at this point. Here are four names in order of likelihood to be selected at two, though all of them are up against the odds at going there:

  • Ross Detwiler. The tall, skinny Missouri State left-hander put himself on the map with a dominant season debut and has been steady all year, sporting a 2.42 ERA in 10 starts with 80 strikeouts in 67 innings. He's a safe and solid pick, but doesn't match up with what one normally expects in a number two overall pick.
  • Madison Bumgarner. A bit of a reach at two, Bumgarner is the top high school southpaw available. At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, the North Carolina native has a better body and more athleticism than Detwiler, but his arm angle is a concern for at least one scouting director. "He's got 'now' stuff, but that low three-quarters slot is a bit of a concern for me," he said. "He's at 92-96, but that angle makes his breaking ball sweepy and slurvy--it's hard to get a power breaker from that angle and to raise his slot is risky."
  • Josh Vitters. We'll get to him in a moment.
  • Kevin Ahrens. This rumor was passed on by more than one party, and while most admit to hearing it, nobody believes it. In his defense, the Texas high school shortstop (and future pro third baseman) has first-round talent, but would only go second overall in a high-discount environment. "He's got a nice combination of tools and polish, and on the right day I could see how you could get giddy about him," said one scouting director. "Still, that would seem awfully, awfully steep to me. He's more in that 15-25 group for me."

3. Chicago Cubs

At least things get easier here. The worst-kept secret in the game is that the Cubs (and especially scouting director Tim Wilken) are enamored with Vitters, the consensus top high school hitter, and possibly the top hitter at any level. Like Porcello, Vitters has lived up to expectations, if not exceeded them. Pushing 6-foot-4, the right-handed hitter has everything scouts look for offensively, with bat speed, power, and hand-eye coordination all grading out as well above-average. His size has already moved him to third base, and some think the outfield might be his final destination, but the bat will play anywhere. "He's the best high school hitter without question for me," said one west coast scout, "but he's not especially smooth now defensively, and he's just going to get bigger."

4. Pittsburgh Pirates

Last year the Pirates selected fourth, and didn't get the hitter they wanted, settling for University of Houston righthander Brad Lincoln when the Devil Rays selected Evan Longoria with the pick before theirs. Adding injury to insult, Lincoln will miss all of 2007 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Once again, the Pirates pick fourth, and once again, they're likely not going to get the hitter they want, as the Pirates covet Vitters as much as the Cubs do. With Vitters gone, there is no other hitter, other than Wieters, who is worth the fourth pick in the draft, and Pittsburgh is likely not interested in playing a game of bonus chicken with Scott Boras. The logical pick here might be Detwiler.

5. Baltimore Orioles

Like the Pirates, Baltimore and Boras are more than likely to not play well together. Owner Peter Angelos prefers to sign off on players that can move quickly, and Clemson southpaw Daniel Moskos is looming large on their radar. In an earlier draft notebook, scouts wondered how the former closer would do in a starting role with his three-pitch mix, and they're getting the answer early as he now is leading off the Tigers' weekend rotation. With 6.1 shutout innings of Georgia Tech on Friday, he's doing nothing but helping his own cause.

It's difficult to assess anything after that with six weeks to go, though two interesting names are being attached to the Nationals at six and the Brewers at seven. The Nationals are said to be hot and heavy on Canadian prep righthander Phillippe Aumont. Orginally hoping to nab him with their second pick in the draft at number 31 overall, Aumont has been spending time in Florida, putting on a show for scouts that has seen his draft stock move into the stratosphere. Aumont's size (six-foot-seven) and arm strength (he touched 98 mph a couple of weeks ago) is unmatched among high school arms, though he's a bit raw. "He's very big, he's up to 96-97 mph with plus life," praised one scouting director. "The sky is really the limit with him--I can see why teams are excited about him."

An even more interesting name has been bandied about in Milwaukee. Scouts visiting Chatsworth High in southern California to see sure-fire first round pick Matt Dominguez have walked away even more impressed, at least offensively, with the bat of Mike Moustakas, who is on pace to rewrite parts of the California prep record book with an enormous power surge. Seen by most as a mid first-round pick like his teammate, Milwaukee is reportedly trying to figure out what the bonus expectations will be for Moustakas, who is being advised by "family friend" Scott Boras. By going seventh, Milwaukee is hoping that with a slot price roughly in the $2.25 million range would be enough to get it done.

It's difficult to find a team that would be willing to overpay for Wieters and Brackman until the end of the first round, making them possibly the Stephen Drew and Jered Weaver of the 2007 draft, not that Drew and Weaver (or the Diamondbacks and the Angels) are complaining about that outcome.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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