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Talent takes center stage
RALEIGH, North Carolina -- After years and years of growing talk about signability, to the point that it dominated most discussions about the draft, something strange has happened.
Talent matters again. Signability is a secondary concern.
The spring leading up to the 1999 draft, which will be held June 2-3, has been about the evolution of talent more than anything else. No single player or group of players has dominated. No J.D. Drew story has grabbed all the attention, and we've seen precious little controversy about money and agents.
That's even though this likely will be the year that every first-round pick gets at least $1 million to sign. A conservative guess at the signing bonus for the first pick is in the $4 million range. The trend toward multi-year big league contracts such as Pat Burrell, Drew and Chad Hutchinson signed last year, which many thought would become more prevalent, probably won't get off the ground.
Overall, it's been as quiet and calm a draft atmosphere as has existed in years. Part of the explanation lies in how the talent pool has developed for this draft. The states that traditionally produce the most talent haven't been as fruitful, especially California. In addition, the most talented group of players is high school pitchers, always the last bunch to mature in the spring.
"I thought the overall talent level this spring wasn't going to be as deep as it has been the past couple of years," said Phillies scouting director Mike Arbuckle, whose team holds the No. 12 pick. "It filled in real well late, though. The Northwest and the Northeast regions have really been strong. We've seen a lot of college pitchers slipping late, though."
If college pitching has slipped, it still isn't as weak as this year's crop of college position players. It's as weak as the high school pitchers are strong.
"Two things about this spring really stand out for me: high school pitching and college position players," said Tigers scouting director Greg Smith, whose team has the No. 3 pick. There is a difference between the two, though. The high school pitching is really pretty good.
"The college position players are very, very limited. You could see the few college players out there get overdrafted just because teams don't want to lose their chance to grab one."
The Devil Rays have the first pick. Scouting director Dan Jennings and his staff have handled the process with the same thoroughness with which they handled the expansion draft.
"We started out with a list of about 15 players early in the spring," Jennings said. "We narrowed that down pretty quickly to six or seven with all our personnel out, and have cut it down to the three or four range since then. I've seen those three to four players at least a couple of times each."
Jennings steadfastly declines to mention names, but it is clear that the three primary candidates are righthander Josh Beckett of Spring (Texas) High; outfielder Josh Hamilton of Athens Drive High in Raleigh, N.C.; and Southern California catcher Eric Munson.
Beckett is one of the most acclaimed high school pitchers ever, with a 94-96-mph fastball and biting curveball. He has done nothing this spring to discourage comparisons to past Texas schoolboy heroes Nolan Ryan, David Clyde and Kerry Wood. But history says a high school righthander has never been selected with the No. 1 pick, and the Devil Rays have given no indication they're going to change history.
Munson9s prospects dipped after he broke his right hand early in the season when he was crossed up on a pitch. A lefthanded hitter with impact bat potential, Munson's catching ability has been questioned, though he returned to action in mid-May and showed no ill effects from his injury.
Hamilton shocked scouts early by hitting 95 mph off the mound, velocity that can get a 6-foot-4 lefthander drafted in the first half of the first round. But Hamilton's strength and heart lie in the field, where his power at the plate exceeds his power on the mound.
Arbuckle, who had the first pick last year (taking Burrell) and the second pick in 1997 (taking Drew), has this advice: "When you have the No. 1 pick, make sure you feel good in your own gut about who you're going to pick. Weigh the opinions of all the people who see the players perform, but in the end pick the guy who you really want."
Jennings responds to that with a laugh, "That's good advice, but I'd be a dummy not to listen to some of the people we9ve had out all spring looking at these players."
The three players the Devil Rays are looking at are pretty even, and Jennings is sure to be getting advice to pick each of the three. Munson likely will be the quickest and surest bet to get to the big leagues, and he has first base as an option if he can't increase his quickness and mobility behind the plate. It's hard to pass on a player who could potentially catch and hit cleanup in your big league lineup.
It's also tough not to pick a guy who could become a true No. 1 starter. Beckett is physically mature, his raw ability ranks with any high school pitcher ever, and he's never been injured. Hamilton combines all-around athletic ability with an outstanding work ethic and makeup, and he has a chance to be an impact player both at the plate and in the field. He has no apparent shortcomings on or off the field.
That's why it looks like Jennings, a blue-collar guy with a down-home drawl and old-fashioned values, will go with his gut and select Hamilton.
The 1999 draft may be remembered as the year of the compensation pick. Some 21 picks have been added after the first round, as well as three more picks after the second round, all to teams that lost free agents last winter.
The most important aspect of this in the context of the overall draft is which teams have gained extra picks. Baltimore (with seven), San Diego (six) and Kansas City (four) combine for nearly one-third of the first round and supplemental first-round selections. All three teams are expected to lean toward young players, especially projectable pitchers.
The effect for other teams will be that college pitchers, the haven of the more conservative-drafting teams, will slide lower than normally would be expected.
After Hamilton goes first, Beckett and Munson should be claimed with the next two picks, followed by Moses Lake (Wash.) High outfielder B.J. Garbe and Northeast Louisiana righthander Ben Sheets. Then things could unravel quickly.
In addition to the compensation picks, watch for three things that will determine how the rest of the first round unfolds. First, what will the unpredictable Expos (picking at No. 6) and Pirates (picking at No. 8) do?
The Expos, as everyone knows, have a limited budget and may have to cut a predraft deal with a lower-rated player, as they did in 1998. The sixth pick would be expected to draw a signing bonus in the neighborhood of $2.2 million to $2.4 million, so a 25 percent discount would be a significant savings for the franchise.
The Pirates always have had a slightly different approach to the draft than most clubs, and new scouting director Mickey White is known as an independent thinker. The Pirates are considering three raw-but-athletic outfielders: two-sport high school stars Carl Crawford and Vince Faison, and Providence's Keith Reed. Few teams have those players ranked that high, so that would cause other players to slide.
Another important factor will be how quickly teams dig into the deep vein of high school pitching. Just three high school pitchers went in the first round last year. This year it will be a surprise if seven aren't gone by the first 20 picks.
All of the teams from 10th to 15th are looking strongly at high school pitching. Three of those scouting directors have said they will pick a high school pitcher, but they haven't figured out which is their favorite yet.
On the flip side of that is the final factor that will turn the first round: How many teams will succumb to the temptation to overdraft the rare college position prospects?
Only Munson and the late-developing Reed are considered consensus first-round picks. But shortstops Bobby Hill of Miami, Brian Roberts of South Carolina and Vaughn Schill of Duke each have at least some first-round support, and one could go as early as No. 16 to the Rockies.
The losers in all this could be the college pitchers, whose relative values and draft positions will slip. A group of talented righthanders including Wichita State's Ben Christensen, Mississippi State's Matt Ginter, Washington's Jeff Heaverlo, Texas-Pan American's Omar Ortiz, Clemson's Mike Paradis and Bradley's Rob Purvis could slide into the low first round or beyond after hearing first-round talk all spring.
And that's it. Talent, team needs, the availability of talent will determine how the draft falls. After years of dominating ballpark conversations and news columns, discussion of signing bonuses has been almost nonexistent this spring.
Scouting directors are resigned to paying big money to their premium picks, though it doesn't make them happy. Agents have been low-key in their chatter, concentrating on rounding up clients in an increasingly competitive market.
This doesn't mean we won't have holdouts and acrimonious negotiations. With every first-round pick getting seven figures, the place to find bitterness will be in the second through fourth rounds. Every player and his family there probably thought at one point about the first round and the really big money. Many scouting directors talk about how this is the part of the draft where they really waste money.
But more than anything else, we can talk about players and draft approaches this year and leave the money for teams and agents to deal with. Enjoy it while it lasts.
(For additional draft preview information and analysis, pick up the latest edition of Baseball America and check out Baseball America's website at www.baseballamerica.com)
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