06/04/2004 1:20 AM ET
2004 draft long on arms
By Jonathan Mayo / MLB.com
All young baseball fans who wanted to know what a real college party was like should be sure not to miss the 2004 First-Year Player Draft on June 7-8.
|Long Beach State standout Jered Weaver is represented by agent Scott Boras. (Getty Images)
This year's selections, particularly in the early stages of the 50-round event, will most likely have a very strong college player bent.
That being said, it does appear as if the San Diego Padres will actually head to high school -- and a San Diego school at that -- for the No. 1 pick. It is now expected the Padres will select shortstop Matt Bush in the top spot.
After that aberration, however, expect college mania to take hold of the first round and beyond.
Is the continuation of this trend toward taking advanced college players -- call it the Moneyball phenomenon -- because more teams are seeing how successful it can be or is it because the draft pool is more heavily concentrated in college talent?
Many in the scouting industry feel strongly that it's much more the latter rather than the former.
"We have to play with the cards we're dealt," said Padres scouting director Bill "Chief" Gayton, who has the honor of making the first overall selection in this year's draft. "Those cards, and the investment, are dictated by the strengths of each individual draft.
"This year, it is college-heavy, college-pitching-heavy. There are very few position players in college and/or high school."
"The selections are going to be based on the function of what the strength of the draft is, not based on a trend toward college players," agreed Indians assistant general manager John Mirabelli. "When I read these draft reviews and what people should take in the draft, they never quantify it by saying you can only select from the pool of talent in that given year."
This given year is definitely long on college pitching, particularly from the right side. For that reason, no one should be shocked if a majority of the first-round picks came from university campuses, with most of those players making their living on the mound.
The Padres will get things going and, for a long time, it seemed like they would head to a college campus as well. After all, their first 26 picks in 2003 all were from the older set. In the early part of the season, it appeared that college guy was going to be Long Beach State's Jered Weaver. Jeff's brother has been absolutely dominant this season and while he might not have the upside of some other arms in the draft, he's generally believed to be very close to Major League-ready.
In recent weeks, however, other names crept into discussions about the top spot. Rice right-hander Jeff Niemann was scouted heavily when he returned from a groin injury. Florida State shortstop Stephen Drew figured into the position player search before the Padres decided on Bush.
The trio of Rice University pitchers -- Niemann, Wade Townsend and Philip Humber -- all could find their way into the early stages of the first round. Which order they go in will depend on what a team is looking for, though all three throw from the right side with fastballs in the low-to-mid 90s.
Old Dominion righty Justin Verlander might have the best upside among college pitchers, though he struggled a bit with his command down the stretch. Verlander may have the best arm in the draft, with the ability to throw a mid-to-upper 90s fastball deep into games. Looking for a lefty? Vandy southpaw Jeremy Sowers could be the first one off the board. He's not a flame-thrower, but more a guy who defines "pitchability." Like Weaver, however, he may
not be far from being Major League-ready.
In case you've lost count, that's a possibility of six college pitchers going in the top 10 or so picks of the draft. High school phenom Homer Bailey, a hard-throwing Texas product (if you're from Texas and a pitcher, you're obligated by law to throw hard), should break up the monopoly at some point in the early going.
All this talk of pitching shouldn't mean position players should be completely ignored. Drew is viewed as the most talented and advanced in this group. J.D.'s brother has an excellent combination of offensive thump and defensive acumen. Playing in the demanding ACC should mean he could move quickly, assuming he can be signed.
On the high school front, another shortstop should go early. Georgia prep star Chris Nelson has moved up charts after showing his mettle by returning from Tommy John surgery with a flourish. High school catcher Neil Walker has also worked his way into discussions of the first half of the first round.
"You're going to see some clubs try to grab the position players because there are so few of them," Gayton said. "You win with good pitching, but at the same time, if you don't have position players in your organization, you really feel the impact at some point."
Whatever the order, and however the college-high school balance may shift, there is a general consensus that this year's draft class is not littered with "can't miss" prospects.
"I think it's deep," said Mirabelli, whose Indians have the sixth overall pick. "I'm not sure how many impact, top-end guys there really are in this draft. I think there are a lot of good pitchers, both high school and college, a lot of good arms, a lot of Major League arms. I'm just not sure it's really rich at the very top end of the draft.
"You're scouting with what you're dealt," Gayton agreed. "This year, there's not Mark Prior, there's not Joe Mauer, there's not (Mark) Teixeira and some of the guys, for instance, from the 2001 draft, that were sitting on the top end. So it's been difficult."
Don't mistake these assessments as pessimism or ambivalence. Scouting directors live for this time of year. Their business, after all, is optimism as they hope to find the players that will help their organization win at the big league level in the future. They run around the country tirelessly trying to dot as many i's and cross as many t's as possible to ensure success in June. And they love every minute of it.
"You try to get your rest, whether it's sleeping in planes, or in the car when you're driving with someone. You try to eat right, to put yourself in postion to get the job done," one scouting director said. "There's such an adrealeine going (in the last few weeks). It's kind of like that last push, like the fourth quarter of a football game.
"We're down to the last look, the couple of guys you want to see the last time. You know what's at stake. You've worked all year long for this. Everybody's in the same boat. Everyone's getting a last look. Every director and every scout knows what's at stake, that one player can make a difference."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.