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With the 2006 draft countdown now under the two month mark, things remain highly unresolved, though some separation among the top players has begun to take hold. Instead of focusing on players, let’s instead take a look at what some of the teams are talking about when it comes to overall draft strategy and possible trends come June.

  • One distraction that’s being played by teams in the middle concerns a prediction game with the following question: Name eight players that you can guarantee will not be there when we pick. Right now, coming up with eight is impossible, which shows just how unpredictable this draft has become beyond the top five or six players. There are another ten players that one could nominate, but for each of them there is some scenario that can be envisioned that causes a drop. “It’s the kind of draft where you wish we could trade picks,” said one front-office executive. “You’d see tons of deals before June, because teams would want to get rid of the uncertainty.”
  • The overall talent for this year’s draft has some depth, but it’s filled with players who are easy to project as starters but difficult to project as stars. “I can sort all of my reports here and I have tons of 50s [as an OFP score, indicating average major leaguer], but literally only a handful of 55s,” said another team executive. “And for many of the 55s, I personally think those grades are too high.” A high-level scout indicates that this flattened talent pool will move high school players up on many draft boards. “There’s some high school guys who at least have the potential to be stars,” said the scout. “I think teams will bank on that projectability as opposed to giving seven figures to some college arm who isn’t going to be more than a back-end starter or a bat who isn’t going to be any more than average.”
  • Once again, the Boras factor will be in full effect this June, and it’s an interesting year for Boras candidates as two of the top pitchers being advised by him, Missouri’s Max Scherzer and Southern California’s Ian Kennedy, have been either hurt, or disappointing. While many teams have no problem drafting Boras clients, one scouting executive indicates that in the case of Kennedy, it could cause a precipitous drop. “I don’t mind taking a Boras guy at all,” said the exec. “But if I’m going to get into a protracted negotiation with him, it better be for a [Stephen] Drew or [Mike] Pelfrey–and not some guy who is good right now but isn’t going to be any more than a 4th starter in the end.”

As much as teams work on identifying the players they would consider with their first round pick, a good amount of work is put into trying to figure out how the selections ahead of one’s pick will pan out as well, in order to better define which players to focus on. Here’s how the first five picks may be panning out right now:

1. Kansas City: Nobody doubts that North Carolina lefthander Andrew Miller is the top talent in the draft, but rumors abound that the Royals may be looking elsewhere–not as a talent-based decision, but a cost-conscious one. One scouting director understood the Royals’ thinking. “If you look at last year’s draft, there are six, maybe seven players who’d be in the mix for No. 1 right now if they were in this class,” he said. “So is Miller worth the kind of money that the No. 1 guy gets? I’m not sure I’d rather have one of the other pitchers for half the price.” Another team executive disagrees. “He’s [Miller] such a proven commodity. We’ve seen him good for five years now–he’s easily worth it for me. If he fails, he’s still a No. 3 starter.” If the Royals for some reason stay away from Miller, Houston righthander Brad Lincoln would likely be the top candidate. However, one executive added that the biggest problem with not taking Miller is that the next best talent is still undefined. “The problem here is who’s your second choice? That’s a scary question still and we’re just eight weeks away.”

2. Colorado: Colorado would likely be more than happy to nab Miller if for some reason he drops to them, otherwise they are focusing on Lincoln, California’s Brandon Morrow, and Long Beach State infielder Evan Longoria. One scout discussed how it’s difficult to see Colorado taking a pitcher like Lincoln or Washington’s Tim Lincecum, who depend greatly on plus breaking pitches. “Morrow would be better for them because of the fastball and the splitter,” he said. “How good is Lincecum’s curveball if he’s throwing it in Coors? I don’t know.” Another saw Longoria at two as an overdraft. “He’s head and shoulders above everybody else on the collegiate level,” he said. “But he’s not going to be any more than a real good everyday player–if I thought he could play second base I’d be more enthused.”

3. Tampa Bay: The Devil Rays seem to be also focused on pitching, and will likely take whoever is left between Lincoln and Morrow, with Lincecum entering the picture if he continues to roll.

4. Pittsburgh: The Pirates are a bit of a wild card still, with few having a real good feel for who the Pirates are focusing on. One interesting theory has the Pirates taking Texas prep righty Kyle Drabek. “It’s a justifiable pick, because he’s arguably the top high school player out there,” said one executive. “But just as importantly, that team needs to get some fannies in the seats, and the son of a former star could be just the ticket.” Another scout saw Longoria as the clear choice for Pittsburgh. “It’s not the type of thing you normally think about with your top pick,” said the scout, “But he plays a position where the team has no obvious future candidate, and he could get there awfully quickly.”

5. Seattle: In many ways, Seattle is in a position where they just have to identify their top five players and see which one falls to them. They’ll likely go the college route and would be pleased with a scenario that dropped Longoria to them. If Longoria and the big three arms (Miller, Morrow, Lincoln) are all unavailable, hometown hero Lincecum could become the surprising favorite.

Dribs and Drabs

  • One player who continues to fall is Oregon State righthander Dallas Buck, who looked like a sure-fire first round pick in January, but is now being evaluated as somebody who could drop all the way to the third, as he’s yet to touch 90 mph all year. “The biggest thing with Buck is that we all saw him so good last year,” said one team executive. “He’s throwing 86-87 now with max effort, and his mechanics are the same. How does a guy lose 6-8 mph? It makes me wonder if there’s a health issue there.”
  • While Pepperdine catcher Chad Tracy has put himself into the first-round mix, one scout who recently saw him is unimpressed. “I like his bat, he could come into some power, and he’s a terrific kid,” said the scout. “But he can’t throw anybody out right now. He’s the example of the guy you grade out as a big leaguer, but he’s not going to be an impact guy.”
  • Teams desperate for some projectable power have been looking closely at New Jersey high school third baseman Billy Rowell, who now looks like he’ll go in the first round. At 6’5″ and over 200 pounds, Rowell is drawing some comparisons to a young Troy Glaus, and scouts are still buzzing over a 500+ foot home run he hit earlier in the season.
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