For the last few weeks I’ve been looking forward to the draft a whole lot.
Humor me while I continue with the “draft as spiritual nourishment” theme for a little bit longer. In addition to creating anticipation, draft day also brings to mind the hope that every new day represents – a chance to right old wrongs, reverse age-old trends and find a direction that does not rely upon dead paradigms and constipated thinking.
A few years ago, fans of the Milwaukee Brewers began the long, uphill climb out of nearly a decade of mediocrity when the Brewers took Cecil Fielder’s son Prince with the 7th overall pick in the draft. There was little reason for Brewers fans to think Fielder would fare any better than previous Milwaukee picks, but I think it’s safe to say that a good number of Brewers diehards wore grins as they fell asleep that night.
One of my favorite axioms is the one that reminds us that we should “never deprive someone of hope – it may be all they have.” There are a lot of teams whose fans enter June every year with a focus that is already a year or more beyond the present season. In that spirit I’d like to take a look at the surprises, disappointments and told-you-sos that struck me as I followed today’s First Year Player Draft.
My first draft projection was written in February before there was any 2005 performance to help in the player evaluation process. At the time, I really liked USC catcher Jeff Clement’s chances to put up great numbers and improve his draft stock. My mock draft had him going to the Mariners with the third overall pick, which is where he ended up going. Of course, my second mock draft, written in late May, had him drop five picks to the Devil Rays, so I can’t take too much credit there. I still like the pick a lot and think he’ll have a solid, Jason Varitek-like career. For Seattle’s sake, I hope they don’t trade him along with a future 20-game winner for a relief pitcher named after a cartoon cat.
I expected one of Scott Boras’s top college starting pitchers to fall a long way, but I picked the wrong one. Rather than Mike Pelfrey falling to the Red Sox at #23, Luke Hochevar dropped all the way to the supplemental round. A gloating Tommy Lasorda called Hochevar’s name for the Dodgers at #40. Pelfrey, meanwhile, went to the Mets with the 9th pick, which is where I had him going in my preseason projection.
By far, the most feedback I got on either one of my 2005 draft articles was my Cliff Pennington-to-the A’s pick in the first round. A few A’s fans were unhappy with this pick, citing Pennington’s size and lack of power as two glaring weaknesses. I won’t disagree, as I definitely felt that there were other players I’d rather see go to Oakland.
For one, Hochevar was available, and I think the A’s can use all the high-end pitching they can get. But based on a realistic idea of what the A’s feel they can afford and the skills they value in their players, Pennington fit the bill. I don’t love the pick, but I do like it. In an ideal world, the A’s will have a new ballpark when Pennington wins the 2008 Rookie of the Year Award after posting .300/.380/.450 numbers out of Oakland’s leadoff spot, but I won’t be disappointed if he does it at good ol’ Coliseum.
In the “what were they thinking?” category, what exactly does Texas see in John Mayberry? In all my research, Mayberry was never connected to the Rangers, but there they were, taking him with the 19th selection in the first round. Granted, Texas would not pick again until #67 and Mayberry probably wasn’t going to be around, so it isn’t really an overdraft.
If Mayberry, whom Texas drafted as an outfielder, can turn his obvious physical tools into consistent baseball skills, the Rangers will have a nice player on their hands. With guys like Hochevar, Craig Hansen and Brian Bogusevic still on the board though? I don’t get it, but I doubt the Rangers care. Despite my misgivings about him, I will be rooting for Mayberry, who seems like a good guy with good perspective on the opportunity his athletic ability has given him.
Finally, if you were lucky enough to put money on a Scott Boras client being the first to sign this year you are now rich and reading this from a beach in Ibiza. If you also wagered that the signing would happen before the end of the draft’s first day you are now in negotiations to purchase Berkshire-Hathaway. Yes, that was prep lefty Mike Pawelek who signed with the Cubs for a $1.75 million bonus, which is about a quarter of a million more than Trevor Plouffe, last year’s 20th pick, received from Minnesota.
Listening to Tommy Lasorda butcher shortstop Ivan DeJesus’s name – as well as the spelling of his name – as he announced the Dodgers’ pick was fitting considering the pick was a bit of a surprise. My head-scratching had multiple meanings. DeJesus figured to go late in the second round at best, but the Dodgers reached for him based on his bloodlines and plus-power at the shortstop position.
The bigger surprise – and perhaps the biggest surprise of the entire second round – came when Oakland called Thomas Craig Italiano’s name with the 53rd overall pick. Italiano, a high school righthander with what could be the best fastball in the entire draft, convinced the A’s he was good enough for them to break with their draft strategy of recent years and select a prep player early on. Perhaps the righty’s final start for Flower Mound High – a shutout in the Texas 5A playoffs – sealed the deal.
He will be the poster boy in one of the draft’s more fascinating side stories, as one can be assured that the A’s 2005 draft crop will be followed with great interest by statheads and Billy Beane detractors alike. Incidentally, the A’s drafted another prep pitcher later in the round, taking RHP Jared Lansford, son of longtime A’s 3B Carney Lansford with the 69th overall pick. Concern that his father would steer him toward college if he was drafted for his arm has dissipated, and Jared is expected to be a relatively easy sign for Oakland.
Two of the more astute picks in the round were Texas reliever J. Brent Cox to the Yankees and Cuban shortstop Yuniel Escobar to the Braves. I was a bit perplexed that the Yankees passed on Boras client Craig Hansen in the first round, but they made up for it by taking the Longhorn closer, a 6’4'' righthander who had a season nothing short of brilliant in 2005.
Escobar is in for a few years of adjusting to life in the United States, but his bat, range and arm will help him turn heads on the field. Atlanta got a steal here that will pay off if Escobar can overcome culture shock and the language barrier.
The third round saw a lot of my personal favorites taken. First, the Diamondbacks took Tulane RHP/1B Micah Owings. His future may be on the mound, but Owings flashed tremendous power throughout his college career and was a treat to watch at the plate.
Next, the Rangers took the draft’s best defensive catcher, Texas Longhorn backstop Taylor Teagarden. Aside from having one of the better names in all of baseball, Teagarden calls an excellent game, has top-notch catch-and-throw skills and is a natural field general. If he can learn to get leverage with his swing I believe that Teagarden’s body will allow him to hit 10-20 homers in the big leagues. He only hit three this year, but it’s good to keep in mind that the perks of playing as a professional – time, instruction and facilities – are best-utilized by hard workers, and Teagarden has no problem focusing on improvement.
Vanderbilt lefty Ryan Mullins rounds out my list of third round picks to keep an eye on. I predicted a strong year for Mullins back in February, but it didn’t turn out as well as I hoped. Mullins still has an excellent chance to be a special pitcher in the pros though, as his 6’6 frame, plus command, excellent 12-6 curve and success against wooden bats in the Cape Cod League will help him make a name for himself. He was arrested for driving under the influence this year, which resulted in a six-game suspension. Hopefully it was a one-time lapse of good sense that Mullins will use to grow and learn from.
There were only two picks in this round that really interested me, and neither for a positive reason. With the 16th pick in the round and the 126th pick overall the Florida Marlins took University of Miami 3B Gaby Sanchez. Sanchez didn’t play at all for the Hurricanes in 2005 thanks to a suspension for violating team policy, though he did practice with the team and reports from Coach Jim Morris on Sanchez’s effort were positive.
Curiously though (as if drafting a player who hasn’t played all year isn’t curious enough), the Marlins asked that Sanchez be listed as a catcher. Obviously the team’s proximity to the University of Miami allows them to keep up to speed on Sanchez, but with no answers out there in the public it leaves a lot of room for speculation. Did the Marlins make a great pick, or was it a signability pick used on a player with absolutely no leverage?
After hitting .326 with 11 homers for Rice in 2004, lefty-hitting outfielder Lance Pendleton entered the 2005 season with a good chance to be off the draft board by the time round two rolled around. Instead he hit .253 and found himself drafted by the Yankees as a pitcher in round four. Pendleton, who throws righthanded, might be better served to head back to Rice for his senior season. There he will have a chance to get his bat straightened out or, at the very least, hone his command on the hill a bit. Watching film of his 2004 at-bats makes me think that signing as a pitcher this year, without taking a shot at fixing his problems at the plate, would be a waste.
Arizona State slugger Jeff Larish was a darling of statheads all season, and really is the living embodiment of the scout/stat conflict. Combine that with his affiliation with Scott Boras and the picture gets even muddier. Larish enjoyed a great 2003 season, showing power, discipline and the ability to produce runs as a middle-of-the-order hitter. In 2004 he took a step backwards, which could be attributed to his move from first base to leftfield, an injured hand, the increased pressure of expectation. Or he might just not be as good as his 2003 numbers would indicate.
Nevertheless, Larish moved back to first base in his senior season and put up better, though not spectacular numbers. The Tigers took a chance on him with the 10th pick in the fifth round and hope the lefty can iron out his swing mechanics and return to his 2003 approach, which was an optimum balance of patience and aggressiveness.
Finally, the biggest fall of the day involved prep outfielder Austin Jackson. A product of Ryan High in Denton, Texas, Jackson was expected to go in the first two rounds back in February. His connection to a Georgia Tech basketball scholarship and a disappointing season found him undrafted until the Yankees took him with the 259th overall pick in the 8th round. If the Yankees can convince Jackson – a strong defensive outfielder in the mold of Torii Hunter – that his future looks brighter on the diamond than it does on the hardwood, they will get excellent value out of this pick.