The First Round – A Year Later
While it’s too early to draw conclusions from the 2004 draft, we now have enough data to at least check in on the status of last year’s first-round (including supplemental, or “sandwich”) picks. This is mostly a status report, with a few gratuitous snarks thrown in the general direction of the Royals’ organization, just for the fun of it.
Today, we’ll take you through the first 20 selections, and tomorrow, the next 21, which include 11 compensatory picks for teams that lost free agents in the winter of 2003-04.
- Matt Bush, SS, Padres – Bush, a local high school product, wasn’t projected to go this high until the Padres were able to make a pre-draft deal with him. He immediately rewarded the Padres by picking up assault and underaged-drinking charges. Having settled his legal matters, Bush is now playing for low-A Ft. Wayne in the Midwest League. While he was named to the league All-Star team, he certainly didn’t earn that honor with his bat, hitting just .225/.282/.277 there so far, actually regressing as the season has gone on. He’s also committed a whopping 35 errors at shortstop.
- Justin Verlander, SP, Tigers – Verlander is the third member of the first round to make it to the major leagues and has made two starts for the Tigers so far. He’s drawn raves for his fastball and has dominated minor-league competition, but still needs to work on his command, particularly on his off-speed stuff. He’s recently been diagnosed with a little muscle fatigue in his shoulder and has been shut down for two weeks at Double-A Erie, where he’s 2-0 with a 0.28 ERA in seven starts, with 32 strikeouts and seven walks in 32 2/3 innings.
- Phillip Humber, SP, Mets – Humber, the first of three starting pitchers from Rice to go in the first round, didn’t sign until January. He debuted at high-A Port St. Lucie this spring and went 2-6 with a 4.99 ERA and a 65-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 70 1/3 innings before getting promoted to Double-A Binghamton. Unfortunately, he tore a ligament in his pitching elbow and was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery in July. Humber will be out for the next 12 months.
- Jeff Niemann, SP, Devil Rays – Niemann was the second of the Rice trio to be drafted. He too didn’t sign until January, and his debut was delayed further by a thigh injury this spring. He made five starts for high-A Visalia before a shoulder injury sidelined him in mid-May, and only returned in early August. At one point he was ticketed for a fast-track promotion to the majors by September at the latest, but that doesn’t appear likely now. If his shoulder holds up, the Devil Rays will probably send him to the Arizona Fall League.
- Mark Rogers, SP, Brewers – The first high-school pitcher taken in the draft, Rogers quickly came to terms with the Brewers. He’s been bothered a little by a blister on his pitching hand this spring at low-A West Virginia (Sally League). His stats are just mediocre so far there–1-7 with a 4.70 ERA and a 83/49 K/BB over 76 2/3 innings. He’s just 19, so he’ll be on the slow track with the Brewers.
- Jeremy Sowers, SP, Indians – Sowers, another college pitcher, signed in late August with the Tribe and didn’t make his professional debut until this spring. He’s already rocketing through the Indians’ farm system, having made the high-A Carolina League All-Star team, posting a 2.78 ERA and a 75/19 K/BB in 13 starts. He’s since been promoted to Double-A Akron, where he has continued his solid work: He has a 4-1 record, 2.44 ERA and an astounding 46/7 K/BB ratio in 55 1/3 innings. There’s a temptation to want Sowers to get promoted to the majors quickly, but given the experience that the Indians had with Jeremy Guthrie, they make take extra pains to be careful with him.
- Homer Bailey, SP, Reds – Another high-school pitcher, which is a bit of a surprise, given the Reds’ lack of success with high-school pitchers in the past (Chris Gruler and Ty Howington, for example). Through 22 games for low-A Dayton of the Midwest League, Bailey is 4-4, 4.61, with a 94/49 K/BB in 80 innings. Seventeen of his appearances have been starts, in accordance with Cincinnati’s policy of careful workload monitoring and tandem pitching system in the low minors. Bailey has all the trappings of being a guy who will take a year at each minor-league level before he makes it to the majors.
- Wade Townsend, SP, Orioles – There’s a story going around the Baltimore area that the O’s were all set to draft Chris Nelson when owner Peter Angelos came in 20 minutes before the draft and insisted that they take a college pitcher. The theory being that not only was it a good draft for college pitchers, but that the pitcher in question, Townsend, would come cheaper. Most of you know the story from here: Townsend was drafted and signed by the Devil Rays this year after re-entering the draft. A sore neck slowed Townsend’s debut once he signed, but he’s now toiling for low-A Hudson Valley, having pitched just 14 1/3 innings so far.
- Chris Nelson, SS, Rockies – Nelson, drafted out of high school as a shortstop, was slowed a little by biceps tendinitis last year, but still posted good numbers at Rookie-level Casper in 38 games. He’s at low-A Asheville this year, but a hamstring injury suffered in spring training basically killed his first two months there. He’s worked his way up to hitting .254/.317/.358 in 61 games. Don’t be surprised if he begins 2006 still in Asheville. One slight concern: the Rockies used their first-round pick this year on a college shortstop, Troy Tulowitzki.
- Thomas Diamond, SP, Rangers – Diamond, drafted from the University of New Orleans, dominated both the Northwest and Midwest Leagues after signing in June last year. He continued that dominance in the high-A California League with Bakersfield this spring, going 8-0 with a 1.99 ERA and a 101/31 K/BB in 81 1/3 innings. He was promoted to Double-A Frisco in June, and after a couple of rough initial starts he’s started to pick up the pace again, striking out nearly a batter per inning. Look for him to be in the Rangers’ major-league camp next spring.
- Neil Walker, C, Pirates – Walker was a local high-school product who signed pretty quickly with the Pirates after they drafted him, but don’t assume he was picked because of how easy it was to sign him. He was the highest rated catcher in the draft, and he’s holding his own as a 19-year old at low-A Hickory, hitting .291/.329/.449, leading the team in plate appearances. So far he’s holding up well under his first full professional season. Because of his age and the other catchers in their system, the Bucs have the luxury of promoting Walker slowly, so don’t expect more than a one-level jump next season.
- Jered Weaver, SP, Angels – Given where you’re reading this column, we’ll assume that you know about the lengthy holdouts of Weaver and Stephen Drew, both Scott Boras clients. Neither player came close to what they were seeking before their 11th-hour signings. It appears that Weaver’s holdout didn’t stifle his career development very much, and it’s arguable that the extra layoff was good for him, given the workload he carried in college. After a rough first couple of outings, he blew away the high-A California League before getting promoted to Double-A Arkansas, where he’s had three starts so far.
- Bill Bray, RP, Nationals – The Nationals went back to the well with Bray, a lefty reliever from William & Mary, hoping to repeat the success they had in drafting a college reliever as they did with Chad Cordero. Bray struggled upon making his professional debut last year, but he’s more than overcome that slow start this year, rocketing up to Triple-A New Orleans after just a very brief stay at Double-A. In 13 games at New Orleans, Bray has a 2.84 ERA and a 14/6 K/B. He might be up with the big-league club in September, and his long-term future is as a lefty compliment to Cordero.
- Billy Butler, 3B/OF, Royals – Butler was originally drafted as a third baseman, but has already been moved to left field. With Alex Gordon in the pipeline, if Butler moves positions again, it won’t be back to third base. The good news is that whatever flaws he has in the field have been compensated by a white-hot bat. He just got promoted to Double-A Wichita after crushing the California League to the tune of .348/.419/.636, with 25 homers in 92 games. When he eventually makes it to the big leagues, the Royals might even give him better treatment than the usual “Flavor of the Fortnight” treatment they’ve given to their raft of corner outfielders, such as Matt Diaz, over the last two years.
- Stephen Drew, SS, Diamondbacks – Drew has quickly demonstrated that he’s worth the wait. He needed just 38 games to blow through the California League, hitting .389/.486/.738 there. He’s off to a decent start at Double-A Tennessee and could very well get a September call-up. It would be a minor upset if he didn’t break camp next spring with the D’backs.
- David Purcey, SP, Blue Jays – Purcey was the first of two college pitchers taken by the Jays in the first round. He recently was promoted to Double-A New Hampshire after going 5-4 with a 3.63 ERA and 116 strikeouts over 94 1/3 innings with high-A Dunedin. He still needs to work on his control, however; he walked 56 batters at Dunedin and has 10 walks in 18 innings so far at New Hampshire.
- Scott Elbert, SP, Dodgers – The Dodgers surprised a few observers when they took Elbert, a high-school lefty, with their first pick, following the hiring of Paul DePodesta as their GM. Elbert had a choppy professional debut in 2004 but has come around a bit at low-A Columbus this year, where he is 6-5 with a 3.13 ERA and 91 strikeouts in 92 innings. Unfortunately, he has also walked 46 batters in that span. Given his youth, the Dodgers can afford to take their time moving him up the ladder.
- Josh Fields, 3B, White Sox – Fields immediately drew comparisons to fellow White Sox prospect Joe Borchard upon his selection. Not only were both college quarterbacks, but plate discipline figures to be an issue for both in the future. Fields is hitting .251/.339/.410 with 14 homers in 390 at-bats for Double-A Birmingham so far this season. Joe Crede is turning in yet another mediocre low-OBP season for the White Sox, so they might feel inclined to rush Fields next spring.
- Chris Lambert, SP, Cardinals – Lambert, drafted out of Boston College, blew through the high-A Florida State League early this season, going 7-1 with a 2.63 ERA and a 46/15 K/BB in 54 2/3 innings. His transition to Double-A hasn’t been nearly as promising, but that’s typical of the jump to this level. In 13 starts he has a 5.13 ERA and 39 walks in 66 2/3 innings.
- Trevor Plouffe, SS, Twins – Plouffe has hit for more power at low-A Beloit than he did last year in rookie ball, but with the trade-off of not hitting for average. He’s currently hitting .231/.301/.359 with 12 homers. He also has committed 29 errors in 106 games, so there’s plenty of developmental work left to be done; he just turned 19 in June, so there’s plenty of time.
More from the ’04 draft on Tuesday…