2005 Early Draft Preview: Overview
By John Manuel
The recent signings of Rice righthanders Philip Humber and Jeff Niemann happened just as most organizations were completing their first intensive scouting meetings for the 2005 draft.
The signings were reminders of a 2004 draft that had legitimate talent at the top, but was thin in other areas. It was a draft with plenty of interesting arms but no clear front-runner, no clear No. 1 prospect, no one that clubs simply could not pass up. That top pick Matt Bush was a compromise choice underscores the difficulty teams had juggling talent and signability concerns. In the end, two first-rounders remain unsigned while another, Rice righty Wade Townsend, has been thrown back into the pool for this year’s proceedings. In other words, 2004 was a rather chaotic draft.
According to scouting directors, the 2005 draft class doesn’t need a boost from Townsend’s presence. By all accounts, it’s a deep class that scouts are looking forward to sifting through, even if they aren’t looking forward to paying the players at the top the multimillion-dollar, major league contracts that Justin Verlander, Humber and Niemann received as the second, third and fourth selections in 2004.
The college class has depth, variety and balance, and looks stronger than the high school class this year, though the top two prospects are prep hitters, Justin Upton and Cameron Maybin.
Scouts have seen Upton play against premium competition for years now, and he’s finally draft-eligible. Upton’s older brother B.J. was the No. 2 overall pick in 2002 out of Greenbrier Christian Academy in Chesapeake, Va. Justin attends Great Bridge High, which produced two first-rounders in 1997 (the Twins’ Michael Cuddyer and the Red Sox’ John Curtice). Justin’s tools are similar to those of his older brother, who reached the major leagues after less than two years in the minors, though Justin is faster and physically stronger than B.J. at the same age.
While B.J. Upton’s defense at shortstop was shaky in the high minors and major leagues and has caused skepticism about his ability to remain at the position, those questions started earlier for Justin Upton. His throwing motion produces erratic, inaccurate throws at short too often for many scouts, who say his tools profile better in center field. There, his 6.3-second speed over 60 yards and natural instincts could make him a premium defender.
“There’s no question that the Uptons are unprecedented in terms of that kind of talent in a family going so close together in the draft,” said Royals scouting director Daric Ladnier, whose club selects second overall.
Ladnier’s Royals have special insight into the Uptons, as their father Manny was a bird-dog scout for the organization until four years ago, when the Royals dropped their associate scouts in a cost-cutting move. However, they may not get the chance to draft Upton. The Diamondbacks pick first overall for the first time in their history, and while they have used their first pick on a high school player only once under scouting director Mike Rizzo—in 2002, with prep shortstop Sergio Santos—Upton is a special case.
“The industry has a level of comfort with him that you don’t often find with high school players,” Rizzo said.
“He’s got a major track record,” added one scouting director. “He’s going to hit. We’ve all seen him for awhile with all the teams he’s played on, from Team USA on down. Everyone has seen him against very good competition, and you’ve seen him in enough events that your scouts in different parts of the country all have seen him. His track record is as long or longer than most college players.”
The same cannot be said of Maybin, a North Carolina high school player and the draft’s No. 2 player. His plane ride to the Winter Meetings in December (to accept BA’s Youth Player of the Year Award) was his first. Maybin typifies many of the high school hitters in the ’05 class in that he has offensive upside and athleticism, but isn’t as polished as past prep hitters, such as Prince Fielder and Jeremy Hermida (2002), Delmon Young and Ian Stewart (2003), or Chris Nelson and Blake DeWitt (2004).
Nor is polish the watchword of the high school pitching available in the 2005 draft. A year ago, Texas fireballer Homer Bailey and Maine anomaly Mark Rogers stood head and shoulders above the prep pitching pack with power stuff and command. No high school pitcher has emerged to lead this year’s class, yet that hasn’t tempered everyone’s enthusiasm about the high school talent.
“The 2005 high school draft (class) has a chance to be one of the better ones in recent memory,” another scouting director said. “This class is deep in position players and athletes. Overall, I’d say the talent level is above-average with a number of impact position players. Also, there are a number of potential power-arm pitchers that could easily step up to first- to third-round status.”
College Variety Show
The consensus is that the college crop is stronger this year. What sets it apart is its depth and variety.
Want a power-hitting corner player? Take your pick. Nebraska’s Alex Gordon, trying to duplicate Cornhusker outfielder Darin Erstad’s feat from a decade ago as the No. 1 overall pick, is a lefthanded masher with the tools to play third base. Teams that don’t like Gordon might prefer Virginia’s Ryan Zimmerman, a surehanded defender at third who starred for Team USA last summer, pushing Gordon to first base. Or look to first base, where the premium choices include Mississippi’s lefthanded-hitting Stephen Head and Stanford’s righthanded-hitting John Mayberry Jr., who already has been picked in the first round (Mariners, 2002).
College shortstops are often considered safe picks; this draft offers two premium choices. Long Beach State’s Troy Tulowitzki earned the nod on Team USA, but Georgia Tech’s Tyler Greene starred in the Cape Cod League, where he was the top position-player prospect. A third college shortstop, Texas A&M’s Cliff Pennington, is also projected to go in the first round.
“This might not be the year to pick in the top five,” an AL scouting director said. “There’s not an elite guy. But from 20 to 30 or 35 even, there’s a chance you’ll be able to draft a college player you feel pretty good about. From the five spot to 25, there is a lot of the same caliber of players with some upside, and in a variety of positions.”
While the depth and quality of position players means the first round probably won’t be as pitcher-heavy as 2004—when 19 of the 30 first-rounders were pitchers—college arms also appear to be a strength, particularly among righthanders. Hard-throwing Luke Hochevar of Tennessee and Mike Pelfrey of Wichita State, both Team USA alumni, are the frontrunners to be the first pitchers drafted, college or high school.
Scouts admit the draft’s biggest weakness, at least at the outset, appears to be lefthanded pitching. The top available southpaws appear to be Vanderbilt’s Ryan Mullins and Cal State Fullerton’s Ricky Romero, along with Georgia prep product Miers Quigley.
“It’s thinner, and because of that, you’ll see lefthanded pitchers overdrafted because everyone needs lefties,” an NL scouting director said. “And if they are overdrafted, that means they’ll be overcompensated, too.”
The Boras Factor
The hardest throwers in the draft are Baylor’s Mark McCormick and Georgia Tech’s Jason Neighborgall, who could go anywhere from the first round to the fifth, depending on how they perform this spring.
Along with Hochevar and Pelfrey, they are advised by agent Scott Boras, as is Greene. Scouting directors are wary that Boras’ number of elite prospects in the draft is back up after his influence waned, and they acknowledge his presence is a factor. His two most prominent clients in the 2004 draft, Long Beach State righthander Jered Weaver (Angels, 12th overall) and Florida State shortstop Stephen Drew (Diamondbacks, 15th) remained unsigned through late January.
Boras isn’t the only agent who has dictated where players get drafted, of course. He pioneered the maneuver, however, and others have followed. The result? “Just because you pick second,” Ladnier said, “it doesn’t mean you’re going to get the second-best player. This is the highest draft pick in the history of our organization, and in theory, we’re supposed to get an impact player, a potential all-star. But a lot of times, you’re at the mercy of the draft.”
In this draft class, though, the talent and depth may be significant enough that even players selected more because of signability than talent could turn out to be impact players.