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Rangers take power hitter in first round

Rangers take power hitter in first round

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ARLINGTON -- Justin Smoak doesn't have much to live up to as the Rangers' first pick in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft.

The 6-foot-4 switch-hitting first baseman from the University of South Carolina is being compared to both Mark Teixeira and Chipper Jones. They are only two of the best switch-hitters in the game today, and it's amazing that Lance Berkman's name hasn't been thrown in there as well.

But that's the kind of expectations Smoak carries with him after the Rangers surprisingly found him available for the 11th overall pick in the Draft. Many pre-Draft projections had Smoak in the top five or 10 picks in the Draft.

"I don't think you want to compare anybody to two players like that," scouting director Ron Hopkins said. "That will all play out. But this is a good player. We said we were going to take the best player available and we did. He's a power bat from both sides of the plate. He's a good player, solid defender and a big bat. That's why we took him."

Smoak was part of a run of college-level offensive players who were the strength of the Draft. He was a little bit surprised that he lasted until the 11th pick but certainly wasn't complaining when he found out he was taken by the Rangers.

"It's awesome," Smoak said by phone from his home in Goose Creek, S.C. "To be a No. 1 pick is big, and to be the No. 1 pick of the Texas Rangers is an honor. I know they're counting on me as someone to be in the big leagues quickly. That's my goal and something I'm looking forward to doing."

Smoak is being compared to both Teixeira and Jones because of his position and because he is a switch-hitter, but he also brings some serious offensive credentials.

"I grew up idolizing Mark Teixeira and Chipper Jones, and I was a Braves fan since they are the closest thing to Goose Creek, South Carolina," Smoak said. "A lot of people say I act like Chipper, play like Chipper and hit like Chipper, but it's not something I try to do. I looked up to him, but I didn't pattern anything to be like him. I just go out and play."

Smoak, an All-American and semi-finalist for the Golden Spikes Award as the top player in the nation, hit .383 in 63 games and 235 at-bats with the Gamecocks this year, finishing with 23 home runs and 72 RBIs. He had a .505 on-base percentage and a .757 slugging percentage.

Smoak struggled last year in international competition while playing for Team USA but really impressed people in the highly competitive Cape Cod League in the summer of 2006. He led the league in home runs and was named both the Most Valuable Player and the league's top prospect.

He's also considered an above-average defensive player with Gold Glove potential. In a Draft laden with heavy-hitting first basemen, Smoak was considered the best combination of offense and defense.

"There were a number of good bats -- college bats -- that went in the first round," Hopkins said. "A lot of good bats, and he was one of them. We were happy to get him. He's a big kid who is only going to get bigger and stronger."

The Rangers have been focused on pitching the past few years, and Smoak is the first position player they've taken with their first pick since outfielder John Mayberry in 2005 and the second since they took infielder Drew Meyer out of South Carolina in 2002. Teixeira was their first pick in the 2001 Draft.

Rangers' top five selections
Pick
POS
Name
School
11.1BJustin SmoakSouth Carolina
57.LHPRobby RossLexington Christian Acad.
89.LHPTimothy MurphyUCLA
123.RHPJoseph WielandBishop Manogue HS (Nev.)
153.OFClark MurphyFallbrook HS (Calif.)
Complete Rangers Draft results >

The Rangers have been focusing on pitching over the past few years but have also started trying to add position players with power as well. That's been a weak spot in the system of late, although Texas' best power-hitting prospect is Chris Davis -- also a first baseman.

General manager Jon Daniels said that doesn't matter. In fact, the Rangers would have used their second-round pick to take a power-hitting first baseman as well if he was the best player available.

"When you start drafting on need, that's when you get into trouble," Daniels said. "You pass on the best player and you end up regretting it down the line."

The Rangers still have to sign Smoak by Aug. 15 or he can return to South Carolina for his senior year. Smoak, who is represented by Dustin Bledsoe, twice declined to comment about possible negotiations. The Rangers think they'll be able to sign him.

"From what we've heard, the player wants to go out and play baseball and get started as soon as possible," Daniels said. "We're going to do what we can to sign the player and get him out there."

The Rangers still went hard for pitching, taking four hurlers in the first six rounds Thursday. The remainder of the Draft will be completed Friday. The Rangers also did their part in the special Negro Leagues draft by officially drafting Charley Pride, the country and western music legend who was a pitcher for Memphis and Birmingham.

Three of the four pitchers taken by Texas on Thursday were left-handed, including Robbie Ross, a second-round pick out of Lexington (Ky.) Christian Academy who has already committed to the University of Kentucky and could be a tough sign. He is also represented by Bledsoe.

"Obviously all good high school players are being recruited and have college scholarships waiting for them," Hopkins said. "But this guy wants to play baseball, and we wouldn't have taken him if we didn't think we could sign him. He was the best guy on the board when we took him."

The Rangers followed their selection of Ross by taking UCLA left-hander Tim Murphy in the third round, right-handed pitcher Joe Wieland out of Reno (Nev.) Bishop Manogue High School in the fourth, outfielder/first baseman Clark Murphy from Fallbrook (Ca.) Union High in the fifth round and left-handed pitcher Richard Bleier from Florida Gulf Coast University in the sixth.

1. Justin Smoak, 1B, University of South Carolina
A 6-foot-4 first baseman, Smoak is a switch-hitter who throws left-handed. He has played in 194 straight games for the Gamecocks and batted .333 in 739 at-bats with 62 home runs, 53 doubles, 207 RBI and 88 runs scored. He is the all-time leader at South Carolina in home runs and RBIs. He is also considered an above-average fielder with a .993 career fielding percentage. He was a 16th-round pick out of high school in the 2005 First-Year Draft.

2. Robbie Ross, LHP, Lexington (Ky.) Christian Academy
He throws 90-92 mph with an average breaking ball and average changeup who has decent control. He has a chance to be a middle-rotation starter in the big leagues. On the short side, but a little taller than 2006 No. 1 pick Kasey Kiker and a good athlete. Ross was 5-2 with a 1.51 ERA and 75 strikeouts in 51 innings pitched this year. Committed to the University of Kentucky, he could be a tricky sign.

3. Tim Murphy, LHP, UCLA
Another left-handed pitcher who is not massively overpowering, Murphy has a four-pitch repertoire and a feel for pitching. He was 5-6 with a 3.34 ERA for the Bruins and at one point had a 22-innings scoreless streak. The 6-2 junior pitched in 18 games, including 15 starts, and allowed 83 hits and 46 walks in 102 1/3 innings while striking out 111.

4. Joseph Wieland, RHP, Bishop Manogue High, Reno, Nev.
The Nevada Player of the Year, Wieland can both hit and pitch and is a very good athlete. As a pitcher, he was 7-2 with a 2.04 ERA with 115 strikeouts and 15 walks in 72 innings pitched. He throws 88-90 with a very good breaking ball and changeup, plus good control. As a hitter, he batted .556 with 12 home runs and 76 RBIs. He has committed to San Diego State.

5. Clark Murphy, OF, Fallbrook (Calif.) High School
He is 6-foot-4 and can play both outfield and first base. He has tremendous power and was drafted purely on his high-ceiling offensive potential. Future position is unknown, but this guy is a hitter. He hit .470 with 12 home runs and 25 RBIs in 78 at-bats. Has been described as a young Ryan Klesko and has committed to UCLA.

6. Richard Bleier, LHP, Florida Gulf Coast University
He was 7-1 with a 2.09 ERA with 76 strikeouts and 17 walks in 90 1/3 innings for the Eagles and was named the Atlantic Sun Conference Pitcher of the Year. He pitches in the 87-91 mph range with four pitches and throws strikes.

T.R. Sullivan 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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