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Draft decision panning out for Fowler

Draft decision panning out for Fowler

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It's the most wonderful time of the year for a multitude of people, but it's an unbelievably stressful time of year for many high school seniors, thousands of whom are dealing with the results from the first wave of college acceptances or rejections.

Students who applied to the school (or schools) of their dreams under the early-decision guidelines have been getting those famous "fat or thin" envelopes, or in this current era of technology, similar emails explaining their fate.

As a result, the year-long process of making one of the biggest decisions of their lives is just starting for high school seniors around the country.

It's a decision that is even more complex for that elite crop of students who are not only outstanding students but elite athletes as well. And it's a decision that a current top prospect recalls having to make all too well.

Colorado Rockies outfield prospect Dexter Fowler was a top student in Alpharetta, Ga., and that combined with his athletic prowess made him a popular guy on the college recruitment front.

His baseball skills earned him an offer from the University of Miami and his talent on the basketball court had several Ivy League schools, including Harvard University, come courting.

While many baseball prospects who take the college route admittedly go to "major in baseball," Fowler was a true scholar-athlete. That made his decision that much harder when the 2004 draft rolled around.

"I always wanted to go to the University of Miami, that was my dream school," said Fowler, whose academic interests lie in business management and marketing. "We went there for my recruiting trip and they gave me an awesome offer and I told my parents that's where I wanted to go."

Growing up, Fowler was a two-sport star rather than the usual three-sport package.

"No football," he said. "I was tempted to play wide receiver but my mom wouldn't let me. She said I had to focus on my grades."

Besides which, baseball was always his first love. Given the pie chart to slice up based on how much time he committed to each sport, he estimated that he focused 80 percent of his energy on the diamond, even though his older brother played basketball at Tennessee State.

So even when Harvard, Dartmouth and Princeton all came calling for basketball, it was flattering but not a likely scenario.

Had things continued along the usual scholastic route, in all likelihood Dexter Fowler would just be packing up his laptop and a few bags of laundry and heading north to Alpharetta for the Christmas break as a senior at Miami.

But having been named the state of Georgia's High School Player of the Year the night before the draft, there was talk that Fowler's name would be called in the first round. When 13 rounds came and went before the Rockies selected him, many gears had to be shifted as the negotiations began.

He dropped in the draft due to concerns about his signability and his seemingly unwavering commitment to be a Hurricane, but he and his family were more than willing to listen to what Colorado would do to counter that plan.

It took an entire summer before the two sides came to terms. When the Rockies dealt veteran outfielder Larry Walker to St. Louis in August, they were able to use the money they saved on his sizable contract and bring Fowler into the fold for a bonus that neared first-round money at just under $1 million.

Even then, it was not an easy decision.

"It was tough," Fowler recalled. "I had already talked to my [Miami] roommate and everything and it was kind of sad calling the coach and telling him. He was very supportive of me though."

Strictly a right-handed hitter in high school, one of the first things the Rockies did with him when he signed and headed to instructional league was convert him to a switch-hitter. His quick adjustment delighted them.

"He did an unbelievable job with it so quickly that we didn't have to waste a lot of time wondering if it would work," said Marc Gustafson, the Rockies' director of player development.

In 2005, he officially made his pro debut at Class A Short-Season Casper in the Pioneer League, hitting .273 with four homers, 23 RBIs and 18 steals in 62 games.

The next year he moved up to full-season action with the Asheville Tourists in the South Atlantic League. The youngest position player on the team at 20, he switch-hit home runs on Opening Day and finished the year with a .296 average in 99 games, adding eight homers, 46 RBIs, 31 doubles and 43 steals despite missing a month of action with a sprained ankle suffered while stealing a base.

Fowler also missed time in 2007 at Class A Advanced Modesto when he broke his hamate bone on June 17, as he crashed into the outfield wall in San Jose while making a diving catch. He was hitting .273 at the time, and .349 in June.

He's now penciled in as the starting center fielder for Double-A Tulsa in '08, putting him closer than ever to Coors Field.

But Fowler is still a work in progress, due more to a lack of at-bats than anything else. Fowler's tools rated among the best in the Cal League and he's still learning how to use them. His athleticism is perhaps the best in the entire organization. And the fact that his injuries have all come from his aggressive style of play, while frustrating, is not all bad.

"We love his approach," said Gustafson. "It's much easier to try to pull a guy back than to tell him to be more aggressive."

Fowler made up for some of his lost time this summer by heading to the Arizona Fall League as the Rockies' lone Class A entry. Gustafson and company were very happy to see him get 100-plus more at-bats and rank among the league leaders with 17 RBIs in 27 games. Gustafson suspects those much-needed plate appearances and reps will make a big difference down the line, and thinks it has set him up for his April destination of Tulsa.

The club projects him as a top-of-the-order hitter who will hit for average and even add a bit of power, though he may have to add a few pounds of muscle to his lanky frame, just shy of gangly at a listed 6-foot-5 and 175 pounds. And he has the speed and the defense to dazzle in center field at Coors Field.

Missed time notwithstanding, Gustafson believes that Fowler is ahead of where he would have been had he attended college, even for three years, and then been drafted in 2007.

"A huge plus from our perspective is that Dexter has been in our system for many years already," he explained. "We take a great deal of pride in the way we work and how we do things on and off the field and he is way ahead. Dexter projects to play at Double-A in 2008 which makes him close to the big leagues, whereas if he were coming out of college he might just be starting at short-season Tri-City [in the Northwest League] and going from there."

Fowler's makeup, maturity and intelligence have served him well during this time, as the Rockies front office -- especially the scouting department headed by Bill Schmidt -- suspected it would.

"Our scouting department does a lot of research in terms of upbringing and character," Gustafson said. "The talent has to be there but you also have to know the personnel."

Knowing that college players have already had the advantages of such things as being away from home, playing in front of large crowds, dealing with hectic travel schedules and time management, the scouts try to determine how quickly high school prospects will be able to make that adaptation.

"You bring in everything but ultimately you have to make the call," Gustafson said, "Will he be a big-league player?"

With Dexter Fowler, the answer in their minds has been an emphatic yes.

In the meantime, Fowler has taken advantage of his proximity to Atlanta by taking classes at Emory University -- which he hopes will not be the final extent of his higher education.

"I've taken some classes at Emory -- public speaking and lifelong classes like goal setting -- and I am definitely going to go back and get my degree," said Fowler, who had four years' worth of tuition cost at Miami factored into his contract when he signed. "I promised my parents, and it would be a waste not to."

Fowler admits that when he comes home during the winter and sees his high school friends enjoying the college life, he wonders a bit what he missed. But wondering and regretting are two completely different things.

"While I kind of miss the 'college life,' you can't beat playing baseball for a living every day, doing for a living what you want to do for fun," he said. "I've had a few 'what ifs,' wondering if I'd be bigger and stronger and all that if I'd gone to college, but no regrets."

Lisa Winston 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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