Cubs eyeing athleticism in Draft

Cubs eyeing athleticism in Draft

Since Tim Wilken took over as the Cubs' scouting director in December 2005, the team has aimed at athletic players in the First-Year Player Draft. This year, Wilken has been working overtime to find the right guy.

Because the NCAA restructured the baseball schedule to start later, pro teams lost 15 days of prime scouting time. That may not sound like a lot, but to Wilken, it's huge. The change was made so northern schools, often hampered by bad weather, had a more competitive stance against the southern teams.

"Our plan of attack in that dead area between Jan. 15 and Feb. 22," Wilken said, "was to concentrate on junior college guys and high school guys if their season started in the Sunbelt states, which was basically Texas, Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida."

Scouts also checked when certain relievers were being used in Division I scrimmage games, and watched those in an effort to save some time and pinpoint which players to focus on.

The Cubs will draft 19th in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft, plus they have a sandwich pick at No. 41.

MLB.com will carry every pick of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft, which takes place June 5-6 at The Milk House at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla. Day 1 coverage begins at 2 p.m. ET with a simulcast of ESPN2's broadcast of the first round and compensation picks. The remaining rounds on Day 1 will be shown exclusively at MLB.com, with live analysis on site from MLB.com Draft guru Jonathan Mayo.

Several of the top amateur prospects are expected in attendance in Orlando for Day 1 of the Draft, and each of the 30 Major League clubs will be represented by front-office executives and baseball luminaries. Fans are welcome to attend Day 1 of the Draft, and admission to The Milk House is free with seating limited to a first-come, first-served basis.

Day 2 will get under way at 11:30 a.m. and continue through Round 50, if necessary. Every pick on Day 2 can be heard live at MLB.com.

Here's a glance at what the Cubs have in store as the First-Year Player Draft approaches:

In about 50 words
Scouting directors usually say they'll take the best player available. Wilken says: "We're going to take the best big leaguer left." He likes athletic players -- past No. 1's like Tyler Colvin and Josh Vitters are perfect examples. He's also excited about the possibilities with the 41st pick, which the Cubs will receive as compensation for loss of free agent Jason Kendall.

The scoop
"The quality of the Draft is better this year than last," Wilken said. "There may not be the high picks who will knock your socks off, but there is pretty good depth and length to it.

"Some people call [the Draft] a crap shoot. I don't," he said. "I think there's a reason why some are more successful than others."

First-round buzz
Wilken sees a lot of power-hitting first basemen and a fair amount of quality relievers in this year's Draft. Some reports have the Cubs interested in Zach Collier, a high school outfielder from Chino, Calif., while Baseball America projects they will take Casey Kelly, a shortstop and pitcher at Sarasota High School (Fla.). Kelly is a top quarterback prospect, who may attend the University of Tennessee to play football. Wilken won't comment on specific players.

"[Getting an outfielder] is not a huge priority, but that's probably the weakness of this Draft," Wilken said. "[The Draft] does have a wonderful balance to it, probably more so than I've ever seen."

That means there is a good quality of pitchers, both starters and relievers, catchers and infielders. Wilken has seen them all. During a "normal" stretch, he spent 10 days in 10 different hotels in 10 different states.

Shopping list
The Cubs, who have used 14 homegrown players on the Major League roster this season, have some promising youngsters in the Minors such as catcher Josh Donaldson, infielders Eric Patterson and Josh Lansford, and pitchers Donnie Veal and Jeff Samardzija. This is a good year to stockpile talent.

Trend watch
Wilken, in his third season as the Cubs scouting director, doesn't have a preference between college or high school players. He likes athletic kids -- he tabbed Reed Johnson in the 17th round in 1999. Since taking Kerry Wood in the first round in 1995, the Cubs have chosen six pitchers in the first round. Only Wood and Jon Garland, selected in 1997 and traded to the White Sox, and now with the Angels, are pitching in the big leagues.

Recent top picks
Mark Pawelek, the Cubs' No. 1 pick in 2005, has been slowed by injuries. The left-hander began the 2007 season with Class A Peoria, but broke his right (non-throwing) elbow last June after tripping over his Sony Playstation. He did pitch for Class A Boise, going 1-2 with a 9.24 ERA in eight games. He will open at Boise this year.

Colvin, the top pick in 2006, had an eventful 2007 season. He was a member of the gold-medal winning Team USA in the Baseball World Cup, and hit .263 in six games. He split last season between Class A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee, and combined to hit .299. He opened this year at Tennessee, but was slowed because of a sore oblique. A left-handed hitter, he did have a 4-for-4 game on May 12, hitting two doubles and two home runs. Colvin may play for the U.S. team in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

"I know he's going to break out sometime," Wilken said. "It's just a matter of time. He'll be fine."

Vitters, the No. 1 pick last year, played four games with Class A Peoria before injuring his left wrist on a swing. He began on a strong note, going 3-for-4 in his first game on April 18. Vitters was sent to extended Spring Training in Mesa, Ariz., to rehab.

Rising fast
Mark Holliman, a right-handed pitcher who was a third-round pick in 2005, opened last season at Double-A Tennessee, winning six of his first seven decisions. He had an 1.17 ERA over eight starts. On June 21, he threw a seven-inning no-hitter to beat Huntsville, 3-0. This year, Holliman started at Triple-A Iowa, and was 1-1 with a 5.16 ERA in five starts. He was bumped back to Tennessee in May to make room in Iowa's rotation for some of the starters sent down from the Major League team -- Kevin Hart and Sean Marshall. Holliman also had a few outings this spring with the big league team.

Cinderella story
If you think only high Draft picks become superstars, consider Cubs catcher Geovany Soto. He was an 11th-round selection in 2001, won the Pacific Coast League MVP award last season and is now the starting catcher for the Cubs, and leading the team in RBIs this year.

In The Show
Sean Gallagher, a fifth-round pick in 2004, now is in the Cubs rotation. He began last season at Double-A Tennessee, and was 7-2 with a 3.39 ERA in 11 starts, went 3-1 with a 2.66 ERA in eight starts at Iowa, and made eight appearances in relief with the big league club.

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