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May 8, 2007

Wait 'Til Next Year

Career Path Choices

by Bryan Smith

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Send a scout to judge an outfielder, and he'll return with home-to-first times to judge the speed, a report on defense, and an opinion on the player's swing. Send him to judge a pitcher, and he'll compile velocity readings and judgments on curveballs and changeups. But send the scout to judge an outfielder that doubles as a pitcher, and you've sent him on an altogether different mission. Two-way players are a scouts' biggest challenge; for every Mark Kotsay-a two-way star properly assigned to a career with the bat-there is a John Van Benschoten. The NCAA's most dangerous slugger of the 2001 season, the Pirates were one of the few teams to see Van Benschoten as a pitcher and not a home run hitter. The Pirates wound up being very wrong, and Van Benschoten has been unhealthy and inconsistent for much of his career in the organization.

Each draft season, there are several players that excel both on the mound and at the plate, leaving scouts with decisions that don't just impact their organizations, but also the careers of the players involved. These types of high school players are often the ones teams are willing to allow to attend college, so that someone else can sort it out for them-in 2006, five of the top eight ranked high school two-way players were not signed by a Major League organization, and will be re-evaluated and available for the 2009 draft. If it seems like teams dodge these decisions, it's because they do so whenever possible.

With the draft one month away, scouting departments have four more weeks to make the final decisions on two-way players across the nation. In honor of this dilemma, I thought it would be useful to grade the subsequent effectiveness of ten high-profile, two-way talents taken in the 2002-2005 drafts. It's impossible to know how a player would fare in the opposite career as to what was chosen, but that certainly makes it no less fun to play armchair scout and wonder, "What If?"

James Loney, 1B/LHP, Dodgers, First Round (2002)
As a pitcher: Loney gained some oomph in his senior spring, hitting the triple-digit strikeout total in his final season. Teams believed Loney's athleticism would help him round out the rest of his arsenal behind an easy, low 90s fastball.
As a position player: Loney's sweet left-handed swing was not thought to have enough power to play a corner position, but scouts forecasted high batting averages and good defense from the Texan.
The decision: Logan White opted to make Loney a first baseman, a decision that shocked many of his peers. If Loney can hit for enough power to stay in the Major Leagues, it will be seen as Logan White's first genius decision as scouting director.

Ben Fritz, RHP/C, Athletics, First Round (2002)
As a pitcher: In 2002, Fritz won Western Athletic Conference Pitcher of the Year honors for his nine-win, 3.25 ERA junior season. More impressive to scouts was Fritz' worm-burner arsenal, starting with a heavy fastball and plus cutter.
As a position player: A rare power-hitting catcher, Fritz had wowed scouts with his wood-bat work the previous summer. However, a .283 batting average as a junior made scouts wonder about how his long swing would play against top competition.
The decision: Fritz looks to be one of the failed Moneyball selections of 2002; his arm has never recovered from his huge junior-season workload. Fritz no longer has the velocity he once did, and his 5.83 ERA in Triple-A last season creates serious doubts about his future.

Nick Markakis, OF/LHP, Orioles, First Round (2003)
As a pitcher: Markakis was the most dominant pitcher on the junior college circuit in 2003, going 12-0 with 148 strikeouts in 90 innings. The southpaw had inconsistent velocity, but his arm action and breaking ball were both considered pluses.
As a position player: In the final month before the 2003 draft, Markakis suddenly looked better as a hitter than a pitcher; Markakis' power and big arm were seen as prototypical for a right fielder.
The decision: The Orioles were among the major leagues' worst-drafting teams in the ten years before this selection, but the decision to use Markakis in the outfield was a sign of improved scouting from the organization. Not many other teams read between the lines well enough to see more from Markakis' batting practice shows than from his dominant pitching outings.

Adam Jones, SS/RHP, Mariners, First Round (2003)
As a pitcher: Jones was among the draft's hardest throwers in 2003, showing more consistent mid-90s velocity than any other prep pitcher in California. However, like many young flamethrowers, he was extremely raw, showing no semblance of a changeup and an inconsistent curveball.
As a position player: Jones' good speed and big arm at shortstop provided enough great plays to fill a highlight reel, and while an inconsistent hitter, Jones had hints of power in his swing as a teenager.
The decision: Most organizations thought Jones would be better off refining his game for three seasons at San Diego State. A year after failing to sign their first-round pick (John Mayberry), the Mariners took a big risk in drafting Jones and making him a position player, and his offensive progress in four seasons is a testament to the organization's faith in him.

Matt Bush, SS/RHP, Padres, First Round (2004)
As a pitcher: Bush lacked projection as a pitcher due to a 5'10" frame, but he had been flashing mid-90s velocity for years--he was likely southern California's best pitcher his final two seasons.
As a position player: Bush's speed and 80 arm made him a Gold Glove-caliber defender at shortstop. A contact hitter with a level swing, Bush didn't project to provide any power, but some scouts thought he could hit .300 consistently.
The decision: The Padres scouting department wanted Stephen Drew, but budget concerns and perceived public relations value left them with Matt Bush. The shortstop has been a disaster since day one-he ranks as one of the worst top overall picks of all-time... unless the Padres can salvage some value from him as a pitcher.

Chuck Lofgren, LHP/OF, Indians, Fourth Round (2004)
As a pitcher: Lofgren is the perfect example of why scouts love athletic pitchers-Lofgren had good command from repeating his delivery and produced plus natural arm action. There were kinks to be ironed out, but the athleticism created good projection.
As a position player: Baseball America's draft report on him read: "...Some even thought he was the surest bet of all the high school players in this year's draft to hit in the big leagues, and said he could hit 35-40 homers a year." Lofgren had length to his swing and a disappointing senior season, but his batting practice shows were the most impressive in the draft.
The decision: The Indians completely defied logic making Lofgren a pitcher-most organizations thought he was years away from being necessarily refined on the mound. After the Indians cleaned up his delivery and made adjustments to his breaking ball, Lofgren's natural athleticism propelled him to big-time prospect status in 2006.

Mark Trumbo, 1B/RHP, Angels, 18th round (2004)
As a pitcher: Trumbo was Baseball America's 21st-ranked pitching prospect in the 2004 draft, but ties to USC kept many organizations away on draft day. Teams had Trumbo bookmarked as the top pitcher in the 2007 draft class-he was a mature pitcher with a 6'5" frame and a 95 mph fastball.
As a position player: Always thought of as a pitcher, organizations used Trumbo's play at first base as a sign of his baseball intelligence in their scouting reports, though his plus power also drew some notice.
The decision: The Angels shocked other organizations by paying Trumbo $1.425 million to forego USC to play first base for them, but Angels' brass had seen Trumbo hit balls 500 feet in their home stadium in pre-draft workouts. Trumbo has proven to be an all-or-nothing hitter in two seasons at Low-A, and at some point, a return to the mound might not be out of the question.

Paul Kelly, SS/RHP, Twins, Second Round (2005)
As a pitcher: Kelly was a late bloomer in high school, and as a result, teams almost let him slip away to TCU. A small right-hander, Kelly had special arm action, touching 95 mph while flashing a deceptive slider by his senior season.
As a position player: In addition to a plus arm, Kelly had a host of other tools he used afield-his speed and lateral movement provided good defense at shortstop. At the plate, Kelly showed an impressive, compact swing with gap power.
The decision: The Twins drafted Kelly as a shortstop, and his first season in the Midwest League was impressive, even if the power wasn't particularly evident. Health has been the biggest issue for him, dating back to his high school days, but injuries are a far more affordable problem for position players than pitchers.

Kris Harvey, OF/RHP, Marlins, Second Round (2005)
As a pitcher: Three years at Clemson did little to refine Harvey from the raw high school pitcher he had been in 2002. The son of the former major league closer Bryan Harvey, Harvey had mid 90s velocity and a high 80s slider to go along with a career ERA of 5.34 with the Tigers.
As a position player: Harvey had better results with the bat, clubbing 24 home runs in his junior season. He struck out often and walked infrequently, but his power was among the best in college baseball.
The decision: The Marlins opted for results over projection, making Harvey an outfielder upon drafting him. Harvey's .183 Isolated Power in 2006 shows his ability to club a fastball; his .245 batting average is a sign of his inability to make consistent contact with breaking balls.

Mike Costanzo, 3B/RHP, Phillies, Second Round (2005)
As a pitcher: Costanzo entered Coastal Carolina as a raw flamethrower, but in his junior season the right-hander became one of the nation's most dangerous closers. He pitched in 37 games as a junior, throwing a plus slider that drew the interest of a lot of organizations.
As a position player: It was Costanzo's resume as a hitter that won him back-to-back Big South Player of the Year honors. As a sophomore, Costanzo hit 44 extra-base hits in 231 at-bats, and as a junior, he was the nation's Three True Outcomes star with 16 home runs, 68 walks, and 65 strikeouts in 66 games.
The decision: The Phillies first pick in the 2005 draft, they hoped Costanzo's big left-handed power would be the finishing touch on a powerful Phillie infield. However, until Costanzo can make contact at a passable rate, he won't be anything more than an annual contestant in minor league home run derbies.

After looking at the ten most prominent two-way plays drafted between 2002-2005, it appears there have been four criteria in that span that has pushed clubs towards picking a certain position:

  • Light-tower power displays often were enough to draw the attention of teams away from impressive velocities, as in the case of Trumbo, Harvey and Costanzo.
  • Despite impressive power, athleticism and savviness on the mound won out for organizations after the disappointing final amateur seasons by Fritz and Lofgren.
  • Teams preferred toolsy shortstops over short, hard-throwing right-handers, as seen by the decisions made in the cases of Jones, Bush, and Kelly.
  • Finally, pretty left-handed swings wooed teams away from developing hard-throwing southpaws in the cases of Loney and Markakis.

Using this knowledge, we can make guesses on what positions the nation's top two-way talents for the 2007 draft will be playing in July.

Michael Main, RHP/OF, Deland High School (Florida)
As a pitcher: Main is one of the draft's hardest throwers, and despite an inconsistent summer in 2006, he has been in the mid-90s this spring. He's shown signs of a good curveball, and has been overpowering Florida hitters for four years. Once considered the draft's top talent, Main has always been thought of as a pitcher.
As a position player: The theme of speed continues, as Main is also among the draft's fastest runners. Baseball America's Alan Matthews quoted a scout timing Main at four seconds from home to first, and his speed doubles as an asset in center field. Unsurprisingly, Main also has shown an 80 arm from the outfield. Main has a good, level swing, and profiles as a leadoff hitter.
Suggested decision: Scouts will weigh the likelihood of Main improving his curveball against his having any power with a wooden bat. Given his longstanding reputation as a pitcher, his occasional high 90s fastball, and any organization's faith in teaching the curve, Main will likely be focusing on pitching one month from today.

Sean Doolittle, LHP/1B, University of Virginia
As a pitcher: Doolittle posted an ERA below 2.00 en route to winning the ACC Player of the Year award as a sophomore, pitching in the low 90s and showing scouts two average offerings a year ago. He has not been the same this season-his fastball is now in the high 80s, and his breaking ball has lost bite.
As a position player: Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin told me last summer that Doolittle was the best defensive first baseman he had ever seen at the college level, and scouts believe he could play the position effectively in the Majors today. He's a smart hitter with a good left-handed swing, but he completely lacks leverage, and thus power.
Suggested decision: There isn't a consensus yet, but teams likely will draft Doolittle in hopes of developing the next Mark Grace. If the breaking ball was closer to a plus pitch that decision could waver, but his junior season inconsistency leaves first base as the correct, safe choice.

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

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