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06/02/06 8:00 AM ET

A's aim to make most of early selections

Oakland in unfamiliar territory of not holding plethora of picks

OAKLAND -- The A's didn't lose a high-profile free agent for the first time in several years this past offseason, and the result will be a relatively low profile for the club in this year's draft.

Thanks to the loss of three "Type A" free agents, for which they were compensated with additional draft picks, the A's had seven of the first 39 selections in 2003. In 2004, they had five of the first 49 picks and six picks before the third round. And in 2005, they had five of the first 101 and six before the cross-bay rival Giants made their first selection at 134.

This year, Oakland doesn't even have a first-round pick. The A's had to surrender that slot -- 21st overall -- to the Nationals as compensation for signing free-agent righty Esteban Loaiza.

"That was the hardest part of doing this deal," general manager Billy Beane admitted the day Loaiza was introduced to the Bay Area media. "Parting with a draft pick is torture to me."

The early rounds are particularly key to the A's because that's where teams typically find their future studs. Eric Chavez (1996), Barry Zito (1999), Nick Swisher (2002), Bobby Crosby (2001) and Huston Street (2004) of the current club were all top picks.

"We have to make sure we hit on our high picks," Beane says, "because that's where Major Leaguers come from."

There are exceptions, of course. Former A's ace Tim Hudson was a sixth-round pick in 1997, and New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza was drafted by the Dodgers in the 62nd round in 1988, only as a family favor.

But by and large, if a team's going to make hay in the draft, it's going to make hay right away, and the A's will have to listen to the names of 65 prospects get called before they make their first pick this year at 66th overall. They also have the 98th, 128th and 158th picks.

"It's a different kind of year for us," Beane says. "But the fact remains that because of the way we do business, this is probably a more crucial time for us than a lot of other clubs."

Beane won't comment on any specific players that his scouting department has been watching, and while it's no secret that he prefers college talent over prep prospects, the A's, after tabbing two college players with their first two picks in 2005, surprised some people last June by selecting three high-school pitchers before the fourth round.

"We'll go after a high school player with the right demographics," Beane says. "Do they go to school in a heavily populated area? Is the competition they face good? These are the questions we ask.

"But do we lean toward college kids? Sure. We like to get a return on our investment as quickly as possible."

Before jumping ahead, here is a look back at how Oakland's last three top picks are faring.

Cliff Pennington, SS, 2005, 21st pick overall: Drafted out of Texas A&M, Pennington, who likely will be a second baseman at the big-league level, was batting .150 with an on-base percentage of .245 through 33 games with Class A Stockton as of May 30.

Landon Powell, C, 2004, 24th pick overall: Powell, 24, tore a ligament in his left knee while working out after the 2004 season, and he needed surgery that forced him to miss all of 2005. Drafted out of the University of South Carolina, he was batting .274 with six homers, 20 RBIs and a .341 on-base percentage in 32 games at Stockton through May 30.

Brad Sullivan, RHP, 2003, 25th pick overall: Drafted out of the University of Houston, Sullivan went 8-11 with a 4.65 ERA in 27 starts at Class A Modesto in 2004, and he has missed large chunks of time since then with arm injuries. He was assigned to Stockton out of extended Spring Training on May 7 of this year, and through May 30, he'd made eight relief appearances and posted a 7.15 ERA. Over 11 1/3 innings, he'd walked 14 and allowed 13 hits.

Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.