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2005 Draft: Arizona Eyes Upton At No. 1

By Jim Callis
May 20, 2005

If the Diamondbacks get their way, they’ll land the top player on their draft boards in both 2004 and 2005. Arizona owns the No. 1 overall selection this year, so scouting director Mike Rizzo knows he can get the player he wants when the draft begins June 7. At the same time, he’s still trying to sign his 2004 first-rounder, former Florida State shortstop Stephen Drew. The Diamondbacks, who rated Drew as the best player in last year’s draft, had until the end of May to make that deal happen.

Arizona had narrowed its focus to four players three weeks before the draft: Virginia high school shortstop Justin Upton and three college righthanders: St. John’s Craig Hansen, Tennessee’s Luke Hochevar and Wichita State’s Mike Pelfrey. Baseball America rates Upton as the best prospect in the draft, while Pelfrey and Hochevar are the top college pitchers, and Hansen figures to reach the majors faster than anyone in the 2005 crop.

All four players have ties to Drew. Upton plays the same position, though several scouts say he and Drew both may have to move off shortstop. Drew’s agent is Scott Boras, who’s also advising the three pitchers Arizona has targeted.

Rizzo says that the No. 1 choice won’t be connected to what happens with Drew, who was playing in the independent Atlantic League. “I’ve always taken the best player available, and we’re still going to do that,” says Rizzo, who’s running his sixth draft for Arizona and never has picked higher than 15th. “If we sign Drew and we think Upton is the best guy on our list, we’ll still take him. The number one pick will be independent of Stephen Drew.”

The consensus is that the Diamondbacks will settle on Upton, making him and his brother B.J. (No. 2 overall to the Devil Rays in 2002) the highest-drafted siblings in draft history. The main question with Justin, as with B.J., is whether he can throw accurately enough to remain a shortstop. Several scouts say Upton could reach the majors quickly as a center fielder, projecting him as a righthanded power hitter with top-of-the-line speed and Andruw Jones-caliber defense.

Hansen generally isn’t rated as high as the other candidates, but he could be attractive for a couple of reasons. If the Diamondbacks sign Drew to a major league contract, they could save money because Hansen would command less than Upton, Pelfrey and Hochevar. Arizona had the National League’s third-best record six weeks into the season, and Hansen might plug a hole in a leaky bullpen. Rizzo, however, says if the Diamondbacks do take Hansen, it will be because they think he’s the best long-term fit.

“We’re not just going to take Hansen because he’s quick to the big leagues and we’re in the race,” he says. “How we’re playing now won’t affect who we pick. That may add to his allure, but that won’t be the reason.”

The Boras Factor

There’s more uncertainty than usual surrounding the top picks because Boras represents nine possible first-round choices. In addition to Drew and former Long Beach State righthander Jered Weaver (the Angels’ unsigned 2004 first-rounder), he’s also advising Hansen, Hochevar, Pelfrey, Georgia Tech shortstop Tyler Greene, Baylor righty Mark McCormick, Utah high school lefty Mark Pawelek and Texas catcher Taylor Teagarden.

Many teams are wary of dealing with Boras, whose players rarely sign quickly and usually smash the commissioner’s office’s recommended bonuses for their slots. “My recommendation is to run from his guys like the plague,” one National League scouting director says. After Pawelek chose Boras as his adviser, the pack of scouts following his starts dwindled to one for his next outing.

Boras maintains his stable of 2005 draft prospects is more signable than teams suspect. He e-mailed scouting directors to that effect, and says this year’s group isn’t looking to exceed what he calls “industry norms.” But clubs are skeptical of how he defines that term. Weaver and Drew have yet to accept financial packages that are bigger than any given to other players in the 2004 draft.

Weaver was BA’s top-rated prospect and Drew the top-rated position player last year, but concerns over their bonus demands caused them to slide to the 12th and 15th picks. The Angels and Diamondbacks won’t discuss the specifics of their offers, but industry sources say Weaver has turned down both a $5.25 million major league contract and a straight $4 million bonus. Drew has declined a big league deal that includes a $5.5 million guarantee and could total $7.5 million with easily attainable incentives.

Though Boras says, “Never say never,” he has indicated that he believes Weaver and Drew will re-enter the 2005 draft. If that happens, there’s no telling where they would be picked and no indication that a club will match the deals they turned down. It also could cause his other clients to slide.

“He needs to get Weaver and Drew signed, or it kills his guys for this year,” the NL scouting director says. “What’s he going to do, stockpile them like cordwood? If Weaver and Drew don’t get done, you’re going to feel good about taking Pelfrey and Hochevar?”

Says an American League counterpart: “They’re going to sign. Scott’s not dumb. He may say he thinks they’re going to re-enter the draft, but I can almost guarantee they’re going to sign. They have to. He’s going to go to the last minute to get the last penny. That’s just Negotiating 101 with Scott Boras.”

Rizzo says he remains optimistic Drew will sign with the Diamondbacks, who thought he was the best prospect in the 2004 draft.

“I felt like I could sign the guy,” says Rizzo, who worked out seven-figure bonuses for Boras clients Casey Daigle and Mike Gosling when Arizona drafted them. “We’ve put our best foot forward. I like having the opportunity to take the best player in the 2004 draft, even if we don’t sign him, rather than just taking the 15th-best player at No. 15.”

Even if Weaver and Drew come to terms before the 2005 draft, most of Boras’ players are expected to drop further than their ability would dictate.

“Pelfrey and Hochevar are still going to go close to where they should because they’re top guys,” the AL scouting director says. “With the rest of his crew, Scott will impact where they go.”

Royals Say They Won’t Go Cheap

The Royals, who own the No. 2 choice and show no signs of being close to a turnaround like the Diamondbacks have experienced, have paid below-slot bonuses to their last two top picks, outfielder Chris Lubanski ($400,000 less in 2003) and slugger Billy Butler ($250,000 less last year). MLB’s slot recommendation for their selection this year is $3.5 million, well past the franchise record of $2.7 million (Jeff Austin, 1998), igniting rumors Kansas City will overdraft a player to save more cash.

Royals scouting director Deric Ladnier heard so many times that he had worked out such a deal with Texas A&M shortstop Cliff Pennington that he called Pennington’s adviser to find out how much money he was supposed to be paying Pennington. But he and other club officials insist they aren’t going to compromise a pick that’s vital to the organization’s rebuilding.

“I’m not under any direction to do that,” Ladnier says. “We target guys as players we want, and we might sign them for less because of the perception of where they were going to go. We didn’t pass over other players on our board to get Lubanski and Butler.”

Kansas City is considering Upton, Nebraska third baseman Alex Gordon and North Carolina prep outfielder Cameron Maybin, the first three players on BA’s Top 200 Prospects list. Pelfrey and Hochevar also are in the mix, though Boras clients may be stretching the Royals’ budget too far.

Picking third, the Mariners are hoping Upton or Gordon falls to them, with Long Beach State shortstop Troy Tulowitzki as their backup plan. The Nationals are locking in on Virginia third baseman Ryan Zimmerman at No. 4, while there’s little indication what the close-to-the-vest Brewers will do at No. 5. An advanced college pitcher like Pelfrey or Hochevar would make a lot of sense, and if they’re too expensive Maybin could be another option.

The commissioner’s office has accomplished its goal of holding bonuses in check, as last year’s first-round average ($1,807,000) was less than 1999’s ($1,810,000). Even if Weaver and Drew drive that number closer to $2 million, that still will be less than 2001 (a record $2,154,000) and 2002 ($2,107,000).

MLB’s next goal is to cut down on the number of major league contracts given to draftees. Since the commissioner’s office started recommending bonuses for picks in the first 10 rounds in 2000, 15 players have gotten big league deals—four more than the total for the previous 35 drafts. MLB may not be as successful on this front, as the top picks have come to expect major league contracts, and Upton, Gordon, Pelfrey and Hochevar—not to mention Weaver and Drew—figure to command them this year.