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Rockies have quantity of quality picks

Rockies have quantity of quality draft picks

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DENVER -- Any assessment of the Colorado Rockies would conclude that they need good players, and that sums up the club's First-Year Player Draft philosophy.

The Rockies will pick seventh overall on Tuesday. Early speculation is that they will pick Colorado native and University of Tennessee right-handed pitcher Luke Hochevar, although they'll have to gauge the difficulty in signing him in time to get him into the Minor League system before the summer ends.

Outfielder Cameron Maybin of T.C. Roberson High School in Arden, N.C., could intrigue the Rockies if he falls below earlier projections and is available on June 7, the first day of the draft.

But whether the club picks Hochevar, Maybin or someone else -- it operates under the "best player available" philosophy and took high school infielders Ian Stewart and Chris Nelson in the last two drafts -- the Rockies' thinking goes much deeper than the top pick.

In addition to their initial pick, the Rockies received two "sandwich" picks after the first round as compensation for third baseman Vinny Castilla signing as a free agent with Washington. The early draft position keeps them in line for more high-profile picks.

"The first pick gets a lot of attention, in part because the money is so big," Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd said. "Truthfully, when we look at the draft, [the number of high picks] is what we look at. We're in position to get some good players."

Scouting director Bill Schmidt said the compensatory picks, the 32nd and 52nd overall, as well as the team's second-round pick at No. 55, could be big for Colorado.

"There were a lot of Major League players signed out of high school that were selected in that part of the draft," Schmidt said. "Your chance of hitting on someone might be just as good as if you were picking in the middle of the first round."

The Rockies are at the beginning of fielding a draft-driven roster. Four of the five members of the starting rotation are Colorado draft picks. For many games, the catcher, three of the four infielders and both corner outfielders are draft products.

Of course, the struggling start reveals two truths: the club is young (the youngest in the Majors), and it still needs talent.

After the group of prospects learning on the job, there are few potential stars at the upper levels of the Minors.

Triple-A Colorado Springs first baseman Ryan Shealy is blocked by the presence of Todd Helton. There are stacks at third base (Stewart and Colorado Springs' Jeff Baker behind Rockies rookie Garrett Atkins) and in the outfield, but at other positions the best players are at lower levels. The most talented pitchers are young, also.

To fulfill the goal of "waves" of talent, the Rockies will have to continue to draft players talented enough to help in the Majors. It helps to find impact players, whether with prime picks such as first-round pitchers Jason Jennings (1999) and Jeff Francis (2002) or from the lower rounds such as shortstop Clint Barmes (10th round, 2000) and outfielder Brad Hawpe (11th round, 2002).

Being able to fill roster spots from within is key. Outfielder Cory Sullivan (seventh round, 2001) is a prime example of a young player earning minimum salary instead of a free-agent veteran earning more dollars for the same role.

Toward building depth, the Rockies aren't terribly position-conscious in the draft.

"I've always tried to draft the best player available when we make our selection," Schmidt said. "If he's a third baseman, he's a third baseman. But things have a way of working themselves out. We'll keep trying to get the best player or pitcher we can."

The perceived willingness of a player to sign soon will be a factor in Colorado's draft.

Colorado can point to the success of Francis, who signed a $1.85 million bonus days after the draft and was sent to short-season Class A Tri-City, as reason to avoid the protracted holdout.

Recent high picks who didn't sign immediately were right hander Matt Harrington, who was drafted in 2000; right hander Jason Young, a sandwich pick in 2000 who didn't sign immediately; and Baker, who fell to the fourth round in 2002 because of his salary requirements. The pan-out rate has not been what Colorado seeks.

Harrington never signed. Young has battled injuries and has been slow to make mechanical adjustments. Baker played briefly with Colorado at the start of this season, but he lost time at the beginning by not signing and has lost much time since with injury.

Hochevar's perceived signability is a factor because he is being advised by agent Scott Boras, who has been known to engineer slow negotiations. Players often go with him because they usually receive what they're seeking. Boras advised Young, whose $2.75 million bonus is a club record, and Baker, who signed a Major League contract.

The Rockies have never avoided a player simply because he is represented by Boras, and negotiations with Boras clients have progressed without acrimony. Schmidt said the identity of the agent is less important than what the Rockies determine in their background research and interviews with the player and his family.

Colorado just wants to see all its research in action, either at Rookie-level Casper or Tri-City.

"We don't necessarily like to get into a summer of negotiations," O'Dowd said. "We've found that doesn't work well for us. We're better getting guys out and getting them acclimated to our system."

Last three No. 1 picks: Francis, LHP: After earning 2004 Minor League Player of the Year honors from Baseball America and USA Today, Francis made his Major League debut last season and is a member of Colorado's current starting rotation.

Stewart, 3B Stewart batted .318 and hit 40 home runs in his first 188 Minor League games (2003-04). A hamstring injury during Spring Training has slowed him considerably. Through June 1, he was hitting .212 with three home runs ad 16 RBIs at Class A Modesto.

Nelson, SS Nelson took some time to sign, but batted .347 in 38 games at Rookie-level Casper. However, this year he has been slowed by a hamstring problem, and has spent the past few weeks at extended Spring Training. He'll be returned to Class A Asheville, where he was 2-for-20 with a triple and three RBIs in six games before being rested.

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

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