You've heard of Bryce Harper, because he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated last summer and has been covered extensively by MLB.com for the past 12 months. You might not be as familiar with Manny Machado, Jameson Taillon, Matt Harvey or Anthony Ranaudo, but they matter because the First-Year Player Draft matters. Oh, it can be unpredictable and frustrating, but it is about running a business, making evaluations and investments and judgment.
In 2004, Kevin Towers wanted to select either Stephen Drew or Jered Weaver with the first pick. His owner did not want to pay the price or deal with Scott Boras, so Towers was convinced to select the local kid -- a shortstop named Matt Bush whom most everyone in the industry thought had serious off-field issues, which proved to be true. Eventually, Towers was dismissed -- by the man who was then Bush's agent and is now the Padres owner, Jeff Moorad.
In 2001, Mark Prior was labeled the second coming of Tom Seaver or Roger Clemens. The Twins had the first pick, the Cubs the second, and as the Draft approached, it was clear Minnesota was going to take Joe Mauer. The Twins were, of course, a small-market team, but Terry Ryan, one of the sport's most honorable and talented evaluators, confided that not only did he prefer Mauer to Prior, but said, "Joe Mauer may be one of the best players I've ever scouted, and not because he's from St. Paul, [Minn]."
It turned out Prior had a flawed delivery, pitched 657 innings in his Major League career and won 42 games. Last month, Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, "When his career is over, Joe Mauer may be regarded as the greatest catcher who ever played." Oh yes. With the third pick, the previous Tampa Bay ownership wanted to save money, so the Rays took a pitcher named Dewon Brazelton; two picks later, Texas ponied up for Mark Teixeira.
The Draft is why the Pirates haven't had a meaningful team since Barry Bonds left. Six out of eight years from 2000-08, the Pirates took a low-ceiling, easy-to-sign pitcher. In '02, with the first pick, they passed on B.J. Upton and took Bryan Bullington. In '07, they had the fourth pick and selected left-hander Daniel Moskos, passing on Matt Wieters, for one. Moskos has won 19 games in four Minor League seasons and is currently at Double-A Altoona, no fixed address. While 2006 pick Brad Lincoln will soon be in Pittsburgh after overcoming physical problems, the fact remains that those six first-round pitchers are a combined 49-60, which is why almost everyone from the previous administration is working elsewhere.
In 2005, the since-dismissed Mariners regime took Jeff Clement in the first round, passing on Ryan Zimmerman and Troy Tulowitzki.
Monday's Draft is essentially a three-player showcase -- Harper, Machado, Taillon. "After that," said one National League general manager, "there's virtually no difference between the fourth and 44th picks. So in many ways, it's really a scouts' Draft. If your scouts are really good, you will be fine, except that it will be expensive."
The Indians, for instance, have the fifth pick because of their run of bad luck, yet they see no one of impact.
"This would be a great year to be able to trade picks," said another GM. "You could deal a first-rounder for a veteran Major League pitcher. Or the Indians could trade down, deal the fifth pick, get, say, the 20th and 35th, and feel better about Monday."
Most teams project the 2011 crop to be far superior to '10, so a team like Cleveland could not sign its pick and get the same (in this case the sixth) pick next June.
Last June, the Pirates were second-guessed for taking Boston College catcher Tony Sanchez with the fourth pick, because the gurus didn't rate Sanchez as a prime draftee. Sanchez now is hitting .318 in the Florida State League. He catches like a Molina. Then, general manager Neal Huntington went above slot in later rounds to sign six high school arms, so if Sanchez is a .250 average/20 homer, Gold Glove receiver (i.e., an All-Star) and three arms make it, then it will have been a great Draft for a team that has been one of the biggest investors the past two years in the Draft and the international market.
Baseball has worked hard to implement a slot system, although it did not negotiate one in the labor negotiations in 2002 and thus has essentially told teams what they should spend. It hasn't worked because of clubs like the Tigers, Yankees and Red Sox, who refuse to accept that the Commissioner's Office has the best interest of its franchises at heart.
The Astros have played within the bounds of the slotting system, and it's hurt them at times. In 2007, they wouldn't go above the slot system and sign their third-round pick (Derek Dietrich), fourth-rounder (Brett Eibner) and eighth-rounder (Chad Bettis). All will be selected Monday in the first two rounds, and the Astros may have to spend big dollars in the free-agent market in the coming offseasons to compensate for what is thought to be a weak farm system.
One of the biggest flaws in the slotting system is that it doesn't allow baseball to compete with football and basketball for athletes. The teams that are willing to go above slot have been reaping the benefits. Many of Boston's best prospects, for example, were above-slot signs; pitcher Casey Kelly, third baseman Will Middlebrooks and outfielders Ryan Kalish and Brandon Jacobs were prized football prospects the Red Sox signed because they did not adhere to the slotting system.
One of the common complaints about the Draft is that there are very few skilled or tooled college players. Why? First, clubs are doing a good job signing high school talent, thus there are few high-profile and skilled college athletes. Second, because of Title IX and the NCAA's general disinterest in college baseball, there are really no scholarship players. They have 10 1/2 scholarships for a 30-man team, which has basically eliminated poor and minority athletes. It is a serious problem for the sport.
Before getting to this Draft, here are some fundamental answers to questions:
Is catcher the toughest Draft position to project?
The 35-year history of the Draft is lined with monumental mistakes selecting catchers. In the '70s, Danny Ray Goodwin twice was the first pick in the Draft ('71 and '75), and ended up with a .236 average and 13 homers in 707 Major League plate appearances. In 1966, the Mets took catcher Steve Chilcott with the first pick, right in front of Reggie Jackson; Whitey Herzog said Chilcott could have been very good, but he hurt his shoulder in Double-A, never made The Show and Jackson went on to Cooperstown. In 1970, the Padres selected Mike Ivie with the first pick, and he went on to an inglorious career.
From 1995-2007, there were 15 catchers selected in the first round. Mauer is one of the best players of his generation. Hank Conger, taken by the Angels in 2006, is a top Triple-A prospect. Five of the others are out of baseball, including Ben Davis, the second overall pick in '95, while Clement is playing first base in Pittsburgh. Actually, Clement is hardly alone, as Jayson Werth, Daric Barton, Neil Walker and Mitch Maier were all drafted as catchers and are currently playing other positions. Russell Martin, on the other hand, was drafted as a shortstop-third baseman and converted -- as did Victor Martinez.
Now, Wieters and San Francisco's Buster Posey may go on to stardom, and Jason Varitek has been an All-Star. If one takes the 30 catchers who have started the most games behind the plate this season, five were drafted out of college (Wieters, Varitek, Chris Snyder, Kurt Suzuki and Nick Hundley), 14 were signed out of high school, nine were signed as international non-drafted free agents and two went undrafted and were signed as free agents.
"The college coaches are under so much pressure to win that they won't develop catchers," said one general manager. "They call every pitch in every game, and when the kids sign, they often are lost. Not only are they struggling to learn to hit professional pitching, play every day and get used to the speed of the pro game, but they have to learn to call games and handle pitchers. Sometimes it takes years for them to get it all down."
How much of a gamble is it to take high-profile high school pitchers in the first 12 picks?
"Sure, there's a Josh Beckett [picked second in the country behind Josh Hamilton in 1999], but high school arms are a big gamble," said one NL GM. From 1999-2007, there were 25 high school pitchers taken in the first 12 picks of those nine Drafts. Five never made it, although Arizona's Jarrod Parker and Philadelphia's Phillippe Aumont (originally selected by Seattle) were chosen in '07 and are considered very good prospects. Ten are out of the game.
High school pitchers do not have the risk of being overused in college, but often take time. Zack Greinke was a first-round pick in 2002 and won the American League Cy Young Award in '09, but he had moments of self-doubt, and in parts of his first four Major League seasons, was 21-35 with a 7.32 ERA. Roy Halladay is the winningest pitcher in the Major Leagues beginning with the 2001 season, but in 2000, he was sent back to the Minors with a 10.64 ERA -- which colleague Joe Sheehan points out is the highest ERA of any pitcher with a minimum of 50 innings in the history of the game.
Clayton Kershaw was a Dodgers first-round pick, and is en route to stardom. John Danks, Gavin Floyd, Brett Myers and Homer Bailey were first-round high school picks.
Jayson Stark this week did a poll on the most valued young pitchers in the Majors. I have tweaked it, as I refuse to exclude the winningest pitcher in the AL since he became a full-time starter last Aug. 20 (Clay Buchholz), but this is how it breaks down:
College first-rounders: David Price, Tim Lincecum, Matt Garza, Ricky Romero, Buchholz (sandwich pick out of junior college).
High school first-rounders: Kershaw, Rick Porcello, Matt Cain, Phil Hughes, Greinke.
Tommy Hanson was a 22nd-round pick out of junior college; Jon Lester and Brett Anderson were high school second-rounders; Josh Johnson was a high school fourth-rounder; and Felix Hernandez and Ubaldo Jimenez were international free agents.
In the last decade, several teams have taken college relievers with first-round picks. How successful a strategy is this?
Back in 1988, the Orioles surprised many by selecting Auburn's Gregg Olson with the fourth pick in the Draft as a reliever, and he was immediately a good Major League closer, saving 160 games from 1989-93. The Tigers took Rice reliever Matt Anderson with the first pick in the entire 1997 Draft. Anderson threw pitches 102 mph, but he was easy to pick up, hurt his shoulder when he joined an octopus-throwing contest outside Tiger Stadium and finished with 26 saves and a 5.19 ERA.
Here are the mixed results of college relievers selected in the first round:
2003: Cincinnati took Ryan Wagner, who blew out. Montreal took Chad Cordero, who was an All-Star, got hurt and is now back in the bigs with Seattle. San Francisco took David Aardsma, who has settled in with the Mariners -- his fifth team.
2005: Boston took Craig Hansen and Atlanta took Joey Devine.
2007: Colorado took Casey Weathers.
2008: Detroit took Ryan Perry, Seattle took Josh Fields, Arizona took Dan Schlereth and the Cubs took Andrew Cashner. Perry is a successful setup man for the Tigers, and Cashner is now in the Cubs' bullpen, after being groomed as a starter. The Cubs used the lesson taught by Gerry Hunsicker when he was general manager of the Astros and had both Billy Wagner and Brad Lidge groomed as starters before being moved back into the bullpen.
Where do the best players come from?
A look at the rounds in which the 72 players from the 2009 All-Star Game were selected.
No. of players
21 and up
Harper is the story of Monday's Draft. He is the age of a high school junior and could break Teixeira's position-player signing bonus record of $9.5 million. He will probably end up in the outfield, where one GM said, "I have him penciled in for 500 home runs," and may give the Nationals two straight Drafts with franchise players. Ironically, the Draft will be going on the same day Stephen Strasburg makes his Major League debut.
Machado is a highly skilled shortstop from Miami whose bat projects to him being a big-time player, even if he grows out of shortstop. Taillon is 6-foot-7, 230 pounds, throws in the high 90s and is envisioned in the Clemens/Beckett/Kerry Wood mold. The Pirates are deciding between Machado and Taillon, which leaves the other for the Orioles.
After that, everything is hazy. There was talk Friday night that the Royals were investigating University of Miami catcher Yasmani Grandal, although they have been linked to left-handed pitcher Chris Sale.
"This is the 2010 Draft -- Sale is a slight, low three-quarters lefty who projects as a very good left-handed reliever," said one GM. "Good, but ..." Mississippi State lefty Drew Pomeranz is at the top of the board.
There are two college right-handed horses, North Carolina's Harvey and LSU's Ranaudo. Harvey, who beat California in the NCAA Regionals on Friday night, seems to be headed to the Mets with the seventh pick, although the Indians and D-backs are in front of them. Ranaudo was considered the best college pitching prospect going into the season, but had arm problems; he came back and threw very well in the SEC Tournament, which renewed interest. Boras will have no problem sending him back to school for 2011 or sending him to an independent league, so Ranaudo may fall to a team willing to ante up above slot, such as Boston at 20.
There are some high reward high school bats, like Seattle outfielder Josh Sale and Los Angeles outfielder Austin Wilson. Besides Grandal, two catchers have moved up fast, University of Minnesota's Mike Kvasnicka and Indiana high school athlete Justin O'Connor; the latter could go as high as the 10th pick to Oakland.
The Padres at No. 9 are expected to pick between Ball State second baseman and hitter Kolbrin Vitek -- who may move to center field -- and Texas-Arlington outfielder Michael Choice. Cal State Fullerton shortstop Christian Colon is viewed as a sure thing. Middle Tennessee outfielder Bryce Brentz, Arkansas third baseman Zack Cox and Fullerton center fielder Gary Brown are all expected to be first-rounders. Arkansas' Eibner could go in the first round as a pitcher or an outfielder, and there are several college pitchers like Deck McGuire of Georgia Tech, Alex Wimmers of Ohio State, James Paxton in the Northern League (ex-Kentucky left-hander) and Asher Wojciechowski of the Citadel, who may go in the first 35 picks.
Then there's Clemson quarterback Kyle Parker, also a power-hitting outfielder. Parker has three years of eligibility left in football, and if he signs, Tigers coach Dabo Swinney has little else to plug in where Parker last season threw 20 touchdown passes and won a bowl game. But if the money is there, Parker may play baseball, although teams have been told that he will decide long before the Aug. 15 signing deadline because his family doesn't want the Clemson program left hanging.
There is another intriguing football-baseball player in Charlotte named Ty Linton. He is 6-foot-3, 220 pounds and has signed to play linebacker at North Carolina, but he is a rare right-handed power bat and indications are that he prefers baseball if the money is there.
While the consensus among GMs and scouting directors is that this is a weak Draft, they also say there is depth in high school pitching, starting with Taillon, Atlanta's Cam Bedrosian (who has Cy Young genes) and Cleveland's Stetson Allie, who has been clocked at 98 mph.
"There's a lot of risk in those high school arms," said one GM. "But there's also more upside than in some of those safe college pitchers, who at best, will be back-end starters."
It all matters. If there's another Johnson in the fourth round, he may save someone's job or win a division someday. If there's a Buchholz and Lester after the first round, they may set up a rotation for five years.
And if Harper and Strasburg are what they seem to be, Washington will no longer be first in war and peace and last in jobs and the National League, instead being the heated rivals of the Phillies, Mets, Braves and Marlins.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.