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NL Central teams are college fans
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06/03/2003 10:04 PM ET 
NL Central teams are college fans
Four teams take collegiate players with top picks
Vote now for the 2003 All-Star game
Ryan Wagner was the top pick of the Reds and projects to be a closer.
In recent years, the National League Central has been home to organizations that more often than not have stayed off the beaten path when it came to the annual amateur draft. The NL Central, with small market/limited budget restrictions, was where you usually had a good chance to see high school players taken in the first round with high-profile collegians often headed elsewhere.

This time, however, the preps took a back seat to the collegians as four NL Central teams selected college players and the two other clubs selected high-ceiling high school prodigies with outstanding hitting credentials. This year, the high schoolers seemed to be more of the exception rather than the rule in the NL Central.

There were still plenty of high school players and players with modest resumes selected as teams scoured the countryside in search of talent. But generally the preps went later as the early round selections were dominated by college picks as teams seemed to set their sights farther along the talent learning curve.

Here's a team-by-team look at how NL Central teams fared during the first day of the draft:

Chicago: The Cubs didn't go as heavy as their division brethren on the collegians, but three of the Cubs' first seven picks were left-handed pitchers, including two collegians. The Cubs also took two catchers and two outfielders during the early rounds, with Palm Harbor, Fla., teen Ryan Harvey their top pick (sixth overall).

"Our scouts describe him as a Jay Buhner-type body," Cubs scouting director John Stockstill said of center fielder Harvey. "He's very athletic. He had a knee problem in the fall, but up until that time, he was a plus runner."

Harvey, 18, has a lot of "raw power," Stockstill said of the 6-foot-5, 215-pounder. Baseball America ranked him second among high school players in terms of best five-tool talent and second in their best power hitter category.

The Cubs have been a bit thin organization-wise in the catching department but they took steps to bolster that situation by taking Michigan's Jacob Fox in the third round (73rd overall) and Florida State's Anthony Richie (103rd) with their next pick. Both are considered above-average prospects with fine defensive skills. Richie is more of the long ball threat.

High school lefty Darin Downs, a 6-foot-3, 176-pounder with a 12-to-6 curve and good change-up, compares physically to Oakland's Barry Zito. But Downs, the 133rd pick of the draft, has also signed with the University of South Carolina and the Cubs will need to sign him before he reports to class or risk losing him. The Cubs took another college lefty, Sean Marshall of Virginia Commonwealth, with the 163rd pick and Santa Ana College southpaw Matt Lincoln with the 223rd selection.

Cincinnati: When Ryan Wagner was born, his father wanted to name him Nolan Ryan Wagner after his favorite pitcher. Mom and Dad eventually compromised and the baby was named Ryan. He may not have the Hall of Famer's name but Wagner has Major League stuff with a 92-mile-an-hour sinking fastball and a power slurve. Projected as a future closer, Wagner was rated the tenth best pitcher in this year's draft by Baseball America.

Wagner is on pace to break a 39-year-old NCAA record by averaging 16.8 strikeouts per nine innings. Scouts have raved about his slider, which he throws more than half the time. Wagner also possesses a lively split-fingered fastball that regularly exceeds 90 mph.

"I think he and Kyle Sleeth have the two best arms in the draft," said Leland Maddox, Cincinnati's assistant general manager and director of scouting, adding that the Reds graded Wagner's slider as the best breaking pitch among any draft-eligible player.

Cincinnati ended a five-year streak of drafting a high school player in the first round. The last college player the Reds chose in the first round was infielder Brandon Larson from Louisiana State University. However, it marked the fourth time in the last five years that the Reds made a pitcher their first-round pick. They drafted left-handers Ty Howington and Jeremy Sowers in 1999 and 2001, respectively, and right-hander Chris Gruler last year. Shortstop David Espinosa, chosen first in 2000, was the only position player the Reds took No. 1 in that span. This time the Reds used 14 of their first 18 picks on collegians. Among the more notable Cincinnati selections in that group are Princeton right-hander Thomas Pauly (51st overall), Ohio University lefty Marc Cornell (141), Arizona right-hander Richard Gardner (171), St. Mary's right-hander Jose Guevara (201) and Southern right-hander Damian Ursin (231). All possess fastballs of at least 90 miles an hour and have above-average potential.

Houston: The Astros' farm system has been very productive in recent years, so much so the cupboard in the high minors isn't nearly as well stocked as it was three years ago, when the likes of Roy Oswalt, Wade Miller, Tim Redding, Morgan Ensberg and Jason Lane were waiting their turn at Triple-A New Orleans.

The Astros, who did not have a first-round pick this year after signing Type A free agent Jeff Kent, took Cal-Lutheran right-hander Jason Hirsh with the 59th selection and used nine of their first 13 picks on collegians.

Hirsh, a 6-foot-8, 250-pound junior who was recently named first team to both the All-Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference team and the American Baseball Coaches Association Division III All-West Region team this spring, is expected to move quickly through the system.

"He's got a power fastball and a power curveball," Astros Director of Scouting David Lakey said. "His fastball is anywhere from 90-97 (miles per hour) and his slider is anywhere from 80-85. He's one of those guys who seems to throw better in the later innings. He gets stronger as the game goes on."

Hirsh was 9-1 with a 3.68 ERA for the Kingsmen this year. He appeared in 15 games (12 starts) and threw six complete games. He allowed 41 earned runs over 100 1/3 innings with 22 walks and 126 strikeouts.

The Astros grabbed Atlanta (Ga.) High School outfielder Drew Stubbs with their second pick (89th overall), a high-ceiling athlete who hit .429 and stole 22 bases this season, but then resumed their drafting of college talent with eight of their next nine choices, including Eastern Kentucky center fielder Joshua Anderson (119th overall), Loyola Marymount left-hander Joshua Muecke (149), Rice center fielder Jeffrey Jorgensen (209), Maine right-hander Michael Collar (239), Michigan third baseman Brock Koman (269), Alabama right fielder Beau Hearod (299), Darton College right-hander Nicholas Green (329) and Louisiana Tech shortstop Christopher Robinson (359).

The Astros selected Jon Davis, a 6-5 right-hander from Eupora (Miss.) High School with the 179th selection. Davis, who has an outstanding curveball and above-average fastball, has signed to play quarterback at the University of Alabama.

Milwaukee: Once Tampa Bay took Delmon Young, the Brewers' choice was a no-brainer. Milwaukee, with four picks in the top 100, took Rickie Weeks, a five-tool prospect out of Southern University many feel might be the best player in this year's draft, with the second choice.

The 20-year-old hit .493 this season for the Jaguars while winning his second consecutive NCAA batting title. He hit a record .473 over his NCAA Division I career and stole 65 bases in 66 attempts. Weeks has played three positions since beginning college -- second base, shortstop and center field.

"We felt this was a 'no lose' situation with these two young players," Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin said. "We're real ecstatic about getting Rickie -- a multiple tool player."

The Brewers see Weeks as a second baseman, possibly part of a future tandem with Huntsville shortstop J.J. Hardy.

Weeks isn't the only Milwaukee draftee who figures to be on the fast track up the organizational ladder. The Brewers selected San Diego State outfielder Anthony Gwynn, son of Aztecs coach and former San Diego Padre great Tony Gwynn, with the 39th choice. Like his father, Anthony Gwynn has a picture-perfect stroke and uses the whole field but is only an average runner.

The Brewers used their next five picks on players who may not be as close to reaching the majors as Weeks and Gwynn but who are considered to be future Major Leaguers with above-average potential. Broward (Fla.) Community College catcher Louis Palmisano (69th overall) is the best of the bunch and high school outfielder Charlie Fermaint (99), catcher Bryan Opdyke (129th), and right-hander Robert Wooley (159th) have outstanding tools.

Cal right-hander Brian Montalbo (189th) throws a decent slider and change-up to complement his curveball and above-average fastball. Montalbo would have gone higher had he exhibited better command but the Brewers love his raw ability.

Pittsburgh: Like a lot of small market teams the Pirates used most of their early round draft picks on pitching.

Paul Maholm, a gifted left-hander from Mississippi State, went to the Pirates with the eighth pick. It was the sixth time in a row and seventh time in the last eight years the Pirates used their top pick on a pitcher.

Maholm has the resume to merit his lofty selection. The 20-year-old was 9-2 with a 2.76 ERA and 101 strikeouts in 107 2/3 innings as a junior in 2003. He was named to the first-team All-SEC squad and was ranked by Baseball America as the third-closest college pitcher to being ready for the Major Leagues. Maholm was also ranked by Baseball America as the ninth best pitcher available and the 17th best overall prospect in the draft. In his three seasons at Mississippi State, The 6-foot-3, 214-pound Maholm was 27-10 with a 3.55 ERA in 46 games (44 starts). In 312 total college innings, he fanned 273 and walked 105.

"Paul was a very accomplished and successful pitcher at Mississippi State," Pirates GM Dave Littlefield said. "We are pleased to have the opportunity to select him."

Other pitchers picked by the Pirates Tuesday included Triton College left-hander Thomas Gorzelanny (45th overall), high school right-handers Kyle Pearson (105), Russell Johnson (195) and Jacob Cuffman (405) along with Pacific University right-hander Sergio Silva (225), Lethbridge Community College right-hander Dustin Molleken (435) and Rice University right-hander Steven Herce (495).

The Pirates used the 75th choice to take high school catcher Steven Lerud and the 135th pick on infielder Craig Stansberry, a teammate of Herce's at Rice.

St. Louis: The Cardinals were one of the few teams who used both of their top two picks on high school players but the two they chose have solid credentials.

Catcher Daric Barton, a left-handed hitter from Marina High School in Huntington Beach, Calif., went to St. Louis 28th overall. In 78 at-bats for Marina, Barton batted .372 with 10 home runs and 78 RBIs. He also tallied eight stolen bases.

While the Redbirds have typically favored college players -- and especially college pitchers -- in the early rounds of recent drafts, they apparently could not resist Barton's power potential.

In the second round (65th overall) the Cards took Tennessee high school right-hander Stuart Pomeranz, a 6-foot-7, 220-pound specimen. Pomeranz's numbers are ridiculous: 9-0 with two saves and a 0.11 ERA in 12 games. Pomeranz struck out 118 and walked only nine in 63 innings and has allowed just 15 hits. High school or not, the tools were simply too much for the Cardinals to pass on this kid.

After those two St. Louis looked to the college ranks for 10 of its next 11 picks, including such talents as Georgia Southern right-hander Dennis Dove (95th), Delaware right-hander Mark Michael (125), Franklin Pierce College right-hander Matthew Weagle (185), Lewis & Clark State shortstop Brendan Ryan (215), Central Arizona catcher Matthew Pagnozzi (245), Seminole right-hander Justin Garza (275), Oklahoma lefty Thomas Blair (305), Crichton College right-hander Nathan Kopszywa (335), Southern Nevada outfielder Calvin Beamon (365) and Brigham Young third baseman Kainoa Obrey.

Sixteen of the 20 players selected by St. Louis were collegians.

Jim Molony is a writer for based in Houston. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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