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May 20, 2008

Future Shock

The Rays' Conundrum at 1:1

by Kevin Goldstein

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When talking to scouts, scouting directors, and team officials in anticipation of next month's draft, one question always comes up: are the Rays really going to take Florida State catcher Buster Posey with the first pick in the draft? The answer, of course, is maybe. The Rays' once-wide net has gotten a bit narrower, and while Posey is certainly still in it, so are some other players, the most prominent being Georgia high school shortstop Tim Beckham. The bigger question is, would taking Posey at number one overall really be the best idea?

The Case For

Scouts Like Everything About Him: Posey has a big, athletic build at six-foot-two and 200 pounds, and he's among the most athletic catchers available in the draft in the last decade. A converted shortstop, he moves very well behind the plate and projects to become even better with experience. Add in a plus arm (he's also served as the team's closer) and Posey has true Gold Glove potential. Offensively he has a fantastic feel for the strike zone, above-average bat speed, gap-to-plus power, and he runs well for his size and position. His makeup is outstanding, his effort consistent, and his baseball intelligence is high.

You Can't Argue With The Numbers: Posey has had an incredible junior year for the Seminoles. Recently named the ACC Player of the Year, Posey enters the postseason with a batting line of .471/.571/.858. Of his 96 hits in 204 at-bats, 41 have gone for extra bases, including 17 home runs. He's drawn 45 walks against just 18 strikeouts, stolen five bases, and thrown out more the half of attempted basestealers from behind the plate.

Who Else Are You Going To Take? In a draft that lacks that one monster elite talent, one can make the case for many players being the top in the draft, including Posey. "There are a lot of great players in this draft," lamented one scouting director. "But, there is no Justin Upton; there is no David Price. You could argue for any number of players to go first overall, and you could make a pretty good case with any of them."

The Rays' Priorities Are Changing: With the fourth-best record in the major leagues, the transformation of the team from bottom feeder to true contender is ahead of schedule. With a number of young arms coming up soon, the Rays are lining up to be a perennial contender in a division that had been dominated by the Red Sox and Yankees for over a decade. So the Rays have a window of opportunity fast approaching, and it's the kind of window that many teams take decades to get to. Buster Posey is generally seen as a player who could move quickly through a minor league system, and therefore move through that window quickly, where high school pick like Tim Beckham is not. "Look, you could almost drop Posey in the big leagues tomorrow, and he'd be fine," quipped one scouting director.

The Case Against

Scouts Like Everything About Him, But They Don't Love Everything About Him: ... especially offensively. The question really boils down to what people see as Posey's ultimate projection. One scouting director who has been following Posey for years put it best: "if they hit a total home run with Posey, he's a .275-.285 hitter with 15 home runs, good defense, and great makeup," said the evaluator. "That's a six-hole hitter on a championship team, and while that's a great player, is that really the first pick in the draft?" That's really the big question with taking Posey at 1:1--with the first pick in the first round, teams generally expect their draftees to have impact, middle-of-the-order potential, or the possibility of serving as a future ace. While Posey is a very safe bet, he is not generally seen as having that kind of ceiling.

Can You Argue With The Numbers? Statistics at Florida State need to be taken with a grain of salt, as Dick Howser Stadium is one of the friendliest hitter's parks in major college baseball. Players in the past like Tim Thomas, Shane Robinson, John-Ford Griffin, and many others have put up huge numbers for the Seminoles thanks to a friendly park and a weak out-of-conference schedule. To Posey's credit, he's gotten the job done away from his own version of the friendly confines as well. According to the folks at collegesplits.com, who provide such numbers to several major league teams as part of their draft preparation, Posey is hitting over .450 both at home and on the road, although 11 of his home runs have come in Tallahassee.

Who Else Are You Going To Take? How About Not A Catcher? Despite some well-worn warnings against picking them, the general track record for catchers selected in the first round is actually pretty good. It's not outstanding, but it's not embarrassing, either. That said, Posey at 1:1 is not your average first-round pick, nor should he be compared to the entire field of catchers picked in the first. At 1:1, Posey is an elite pick, and will cost somewhere between three and five times the average first-round pick. For a better comparison, how have similar, elite-level catchers done? Let's take a look at college catchers drafted among the first six picks in the draft:

2007: Orioles, Matt Wieters, Georgia Tech, fifth overall
2005: Mariners, Jeff Clement, University of Southern California, third overall
1999: Tigers, Eric Munson, University of Southern California, third overall
1977: Cardinals, Terry Kennedy, Florida State University, sixth overall
1975: Angels, Danny Godwin, Southern University, first overall
1972: Phillies, John Stearns, University of Colorado, second overall
1968: Yankees, Thurman Munson, Kent State University, fourth overall

While Wieters and Clement are at the very beginning of what still look like promising careers, of the five players for whom we can judge, we see one star (Thurman Munson), one good career (Kennedy), one short career (Stearns), one part-time player (Eric Munson), and one bust (Godwin). In all fairness, any measurement of draft effectiveness shows that teams and scouts have been getting better at this, and more recent picks tend to have a better success rate, but that's still a list that causes some concern.

The Rays' Priorities Shouldn't Enter Into It: The general feeling among teams is that you do not draft for need in the first round--even moreso when you have the first pick in the draft. You simply draft the best talent available. Is Posey that? Again, that's highly debatable, but few see him as having the same ceiling as Tim Beckham. "It's not my pick, and I'm not sure myself of what the right thing to do there is," commented one scouting director. "But personally, I'd have a really hard time walking away from the two-way shortstop like that who is more risky, but has a better chance of being a big-time star as well." As a consistently awful team in the past, the Rays have continuously picked near the top over the last few years, and they've done an incredible job finding potential star after potential star, which is the primary reason that the future of the franchise looks so bright. So it is somewhat confusing to see them considering going the safe route with a player like Posey.

So What's the Right Thing to Do?

There is no good answer here. It's impossible to end this piece with a strong opinion and say that the Rays are about to author a stroke of genius or commit franchise suicide. It's just not that simple; in the draft, it never is. Even more frustrating is that after the team makes their selection three weeks from now, it will take somewhere between five or ten years for us to know if Tampa Bay really made the right decision.

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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