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06/07/07 9:30 PM ET

Jays grab prep infielder with top pick

Selection of Houston's Ahrens continues club's new strategy

TORONTO -- The Blue Jays have no question that Kevin Ahrens can handle a wood bat. The prep star needed just one swing to convince Toronto of that last fall, when he belted a mammoth home run during a showcase event at Blair Field, the home of the Long Beach State baseball team in California.

"It's cavernous," said Blue Jays director of scouting Jon Lalonde, describing the dimensions at the 69-year-old ballpark. "He hit an absolute missile out of there, which college kids barely do with aluminum bats. This kid did it with wood in game competition."

Now, Ahrens will have the opportunity to show his skills with the lumber in the professional ranks for Toronto, which used the 16th overall pick during Thursday's First-Year Player Draft on the 18-year-old shortstop. Five picks later, the Jays selected catcher J.P. Arencibia out of the University of Tennessee, kicking off a busy first day for the members of Toronto's front office.

Lalonde said that both Ahrens and Arencibia were primary targets for the Blue Jays, who owned 10 picks in the opening five rounds of this year's Draft. Each athlete is praised for his offensive ability, but they are both similarly criticized when it comes to where they play in the field. In the end, though, Toronto was happy both players' names were still on the board when the time to pick rolled around.

"We liked both of those players a lot," said Lalonde. "We hoped they both could be factors for us -- that we wouldn't have our pockets picked, so to speak. We thought they were both good players and we got them in good spots."

The Blue Jays scouted Ahrens -- a graduate of Memorial High School in Houston, Texas -- similarly to how they pursued high school outfielder Travis Snider, who was selected 14th overall by Toronto in last year's Draft. Snider became the highest prep selection under Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi's tenure since Brian Grant was taken with the 206th pick in the '02 Draft.

Selecting Snider showed that Toronto was willing to look beyond the collegiate class in the early rounds, steering away from a clear trend during Ricciardi's previous Drafts. Like Snider, Toronto believes that Ahrens boasts advanced offensive ability for his age, and that was a main reason that the Jays felt he was worthy of being taken in the opening round.

"You try to come up with a short list of [players] who are the premier high school talents, and he was right there," Lalonde said. "We scouted him hard all spring. I saw him play four or five games. All of our staff saw him play multiple times. We were at his house. We've talked to him and met his family. You want to make sure you do your homework on this type of investment and this type of player."

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During his senior season at Memorial High, the 6-foot-2, 180-pound Ahrens hit .426 with 10 home runs and 41 RBIs as a switch-hitter. He spent most of his time at shortstop, but he made a summertime switch to third base, where the Jays feel he may project better down the road. Ahrens, who has a strong arm, would like to show that he has the ability to improve his range at short, though.

"I haven't had much experience playing third base," Ahrens said. "I'm comfortable doing that, converting myself into a third baseman in the future, but I want to try and prove I can play shortstop in pro ball. I want to improve on my defensive abilities, my speed, my footwork, my first step."

Lalonde said that Toronto would like to sign Ahrens as quickly as possible so that the young infielder can begin his Minor League career this season. Ahrens committed to Texas A&M University prior to the Draft, but being taken in the first round appears to be enough for him to reconsider his options.

"A first-round pick is pretty hard to not be able to sign," Ahrens said. "I've always dreamed about playing pro ball, and this decision about playing pro ball is kind of hard to miss. Right now, I'm leaning toward signing with the Toronto Blue Jays instead of going to Texas A&M."

Arencibia faced a similar choice in 2004, when the Mariners selected him in the 17th round of the First-Year Player Draft out of Westminster High School in Miami, Fla. -- the same school New York's Alex Rodriguez attended. Arencibia, who tied A-Rod's high school record with 17 home runs in '04, opted against heading straight to professional ball.

The catcher instead went to Tennessee, where he finished his career ranked third in school history in total bases (381), fourth in RBIs (165) and tied for fifth in home runs (33). Last season, Arencibia was slowed by a gluteal strain and missed an early portion of last season, but he rebounded well, finishing with a .330 average, eight home runs and 42 RBIs in 52 games as a junior.

"This is a young man whose season kind of got off to a slow start because of an injury," Lalonde said. "If he had the year we expected, I don't think he gets to [pick No. 16], let alone 21. So I think this is one of those situations where maybe you get some value, you get a little bit of a bargain, based on the fact that he didn't quite have the year he wanted."

The 6-foot-1 Arencibia, who has spent the past two years as a member of the USA National Team, has also been criticized for his work behind the plate. He believes that his performance while playing with the injury last year created some of that thinking. Lalonde said that the Jays have every intention of grooming Arencibia as a catcher, and the 22-year-old is looking forward to proving that's not a mistake.

"People saw me playing hurt," Arencibia said. "I admit I didn't play that well, but I've always been a guy who's been a very solid catcher. ... You almost just have to ignore [what people say], because at the end of the day, I look myself in the mirror and I know what I'm capable of doing."

Here's a look at Toronto's 10 selections on Day 1 of the Draft:

Round 1: Kevin Ahrens, SS, Memorial HS
Ahrens is widely considered the top hitting high schooler coming out of Texas this year. He played shortstop in high school in Houston, but he might project better as a third baseman down the road. Ahrens has a plus arm in the field and decent power potential at the plate.

Round 1: J.P. Arencibia, C, U. of Tennessee
Arencibia has been criticized for his defense, but the Blue Jays are intent on keeping the Florida native behind the plate. Toronto believes that with improved footwork, Arencibia can become an good offensive catcher in the future. He has a strong arm and a good swing.

Sandwich round: Brett Cecil, LHP, U. of Maryland
Cecil, 20, reached between 89-92 mph on his fastball, but the reliever's best pitch is a strong slider, which is especially tough on left-handed hitters. Last season with Maryland, the 6-foot-2 hurler went 5-6 with a 3.32 ERA and eight saves for the Terrapins.

Sandwich round: Justin Jackson, SS, T.C. Roberson HS
The son of former Astros infielder Chuck Jackson, the 6-foot-2 shortstop has the tools to become a solid player. In his last high school season in Asheville, N.C., Jackson, 18, hit .520 with 12 home runs, 39 RBIs and 21 stolen bases.

Sandwich round: Trystan Magnuson, RHP, U. of Louisville
Born in Vancouver, B.C., Magnuson is an imposing figure on the mound at 6-foot-7. Last year with Louisville, the 22-year-old right-hander went 3-1 with a 1.03 ERA and 52 strikeouts in 53 innings. Magnuson also limited batters to a .165 average.

Round 2: John Tolisano, SS, Estero (Fla.) HS
The 18-year-old switch-hitter played shortstop in high school, but he might project better as a second baseman. Tolisano added some bulk last season, which added some pop to his swing. The 6-foot, 190-pounder hit .518 with eight homers, 42 RBIs and 19 stolen bases.

Round 2: Eric Eiland, OF, Lamar HS
Eiland was hampered some by a hamstring injury this past year in Houston, but his offensive skills convinced the Jays to use one of their five compensations picks on him. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound lefty has great bat speed and was sought by Texas A&M.

Round 3: Alan Farina, RHP, Clemson University
Farina, 20, spent time as a middle reliever for Clemson, but he could have a future as a starter. In 24 games, the righty went 6-3 with a 3.79 ERA and 70 strikeouts over 54 2/3 innings. Farina hits between 89-94 mph with his fastball and throws three additional pitches.

Round 4: Brad Mills, LHP, U. of Arizona
Toronto drafted Mills in the 22nd round during last year's Draft, but the lefty opted to return to Arizona. In 16 games, including 14 starts, Mills went 9-4 with a 4.41 ERA and 89 strikeouts in 87 2/3 innings. Mills hits 90-91 mph on his fastball, and boasts a strong curve.

Round 5: Marc Rzepcynski, LHP, UC Riverside
Last year with UC Riverside, the left-hander went 6-2 with a 2.72 ERA in 12 outings, including 11 starts. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Rzepcynski -- a grad of Servite High School in Yorba Linda, Calif. -- tallied 84 strikeouts over 72 2/3 innings.

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.