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MLB draft is a puzzle

Special to

June 1

Maybe the Pirates will take Ball State right-hander Bryan Bullington, and two years from now he'll be in their rotation. Maybe. Dave Littlefield knows that the history of the baseball draft tells us "that there are seldom quick fixes," and only has to look as far as Kris Benson, who was the first pick in the 1997 draft out of Clemson and in his sixth professional season has just 21 major league victories.

Maybe the Devil Rays will take Chesapeake, Va. high school shortstop B.J. Upton and he'll turn out to be the next Derek Jeter. Maybe ... in 2006. After all, Jeter was a legitimate prodigy and he was in his fifth professional season when he made the big leagues for good.

In this draft, you select for the needs of your organization, not the needs on the major league level.
Kevin Towers, Padres GM

"In this draft, you select for the needs of your organization, not the needs on the major league level," says Padres GM Kevin Towers. "Building is a long process."

"We spend a lot of time working on this draft because it's so important to the long-term success of your franchise," says Colorado's Dan O'Dowd. "But the reality is that if and when a lot of these players we're studying so carefully are contributing major league players, a lot of us won't be around."

Fact: 68 percent of the players who were on the All-Star team the last three years first reached All-Star status somewhere between his seventh and 17th (see Jeff Nelson) professional season.

Fact: Only five current general managers (John Schuerholz, Walt Jocketty, Terry Ryan, Jim Bowden, Gerry Hunsicker) were in their positions seven years ago, at the time of the 1995 draft.

"This isn't one of those years when there's a clear-cut No. 1 pick," says Littlefield, who, barring a last minute change of mind will select Bullington, who has been likened to Jon Lieber with a little extra fastball. One of the problems is that this is not a college year; besides Bullington, the two highest-rated college pitchers are Stanford's Jeremy Guthrie, who is 23 and is represented by Scott Boras; and Rutgers' Bobby Brownlie, who has had tendinitis problems and is, yes, also represented by Boras. "We have to be prepared for either of those pitchers falling to us in the twenties," says one GM. "This draft is that muddled."

There are two ways to view the unpredictability of the draft. The first is to look at first-round selections from 1985-95, which allows all players time to make the majors. In that time period 201 of 294 players picked in in the first round made the majors.

First Round Picks Who Made The Majors (1985-1995)
College Pitchers High School Pitchers Total with 30 MLB Wins
57 of 84 27 of 50 57 of 84

The second way is to take all the players who were named to the last three All-Star games. "It makes you think about all the effort we put into the draft," says one NL GM, "when you realize that two-thirds of the All-Star players took at least seven years to reach All-Star level. Most of us won't be around in seven years."

The following breaks down the rounds in which they were drafted, how long it took them to make the majors to stay, how many professional seasons it took to make an All-Star team and, finally, how many organizations each player had been in when he first made an All-Star team. These charts show how long it takes to develop an All-Star from time he is drafted.

All-Stars, 1999-2001
Top 5 1st Rd 2-3 Rd 4-10 Rd 11 Rd-Up Undrafted Int'l
12 33 5 12 17 1 20

Pro Season When All-Star Made the Majors to Stay
2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th - Up
6 8 19 15 39

Professional Year When First an All-Star
2nd 3rd 4th 5th-6th 7th-10th 11th-Up
1 1 8 18 37 22

Number of Organizations Played for When First Made All-Star Team
1 Org 2 Org 3 Org 4 Org 5 Org-Up
53 19 9 6 1

There is no top-of-the-draft college player, either. The first college positional player selected -- 13th, by San Diego -- could be Clemson shortstop Khalil Greene, a senior who inexplicably dropped all the way to the 14th round last season, went back to school and earned comparisons to Rich Aurilia. The next two college positional players are likely to go in the 14-16 range: North Carolina second baseman Russ Adams and Ohio State 1B/OF Nick Swisher, whose father Steve was once a first-round selection by the Cubs.

"I have no idea where this is going," says Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro. "We have a number of players we'd be happy with at 22nd, but I have no idea whether or not any of them will be there. Normally, we'd have a pretty good idea. Not this year." For Shapiro, whose organization needs positional players, Tuesday will be an important day, with seven picks in the first 97. It is extremely important for Billy Beane and Oakland, as the Athletics pick 16, 24, 26, 35, 37 and 39 because of the Johnny Damon, Jason Isringhausen and Jason Giambi losses. It's another opportunity for the Cubs to add to one of the best farm systems in the game, as they pick 21, 32, 36 and 38. That may allow them to roll the dice on a couple of high-stakes Boras clients like Brownlie, who could turn out to be the Mike Mussina of this draft, downgraded at the time of the draft only to turn out to be a star, or Durham, N.C. RHP Jason Neighborgall, who has been compared to Josh Beckett in terms of arm speed as well as pricetag.

If Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay go with Bullington and Upton, Cincinnati expects to take a high school pitcher, either Houston high school left-hander Scott Kazmir or Brentwood, Calif. right-hander Chris Gruler. Kazmir, who is probably the highest-rated player in the draft, is a Jeff Moorad/Brian Peters client who will be costly, and with Jim Bowden's every financial move under scrutiny, not only is he hamstrung trying to acquire pitching on the major league level, but he has to bring Kazmir into Cincinnati on Sunday to meet CEO John Allen and get the clearance to select and sign the fabulously talented lefty. "He's the best lefty in the draft in five years," says one AL scouting director.

Top College Pitchers
Bryan Bullington RH Ball State
Jeremy Guthrie RH Stanford
Robert Brownlie RH Rutgers
Jeff Francis LH U. Brit. Col.
Joe Blanton RH Kentucky
Joe Saunders LH Va. Tech
Luke Hagerty LH Ball State
Darrell Rasner RH Nevada
Derick Grigsby RH NE Texas J.C.
Ben Crockett RH Harvard

Kazmir is considered the best player in the draft, and could play hardball. Then Baltimore, Kansas City and Milwaukee have to decide whether or not to take the gamble on drafting him -- knowing he wants Beckett money -- or taking a signable kid and allowing Kazmir to fall to Texas with the 10th pick.

The tough signs work sometimes, sometimes they don't. Two years ago right-hander Matt Harrington was the seventh pick in the first round and turned down $4 million from Colorado. Last year, he was a second-round pick by the Padres and turned down $1.2 million. This year, he might slide into the third round. He never went to college, and is pitching in the Western League. Back in the 1980s, a Georgia high school pitcher named Ken Henderson was picked by Milwaukee fifth overall, went to college and on to oblivion. Then there was Mike Mussina, who could have gone in the first three picks out of high school, chose Stanford and has had a brilliant career.

If the Reds cannot afford Kazmir, they may take Gruler -- who's earned comparisons to Curt Schilling, but had a disappointing workout in Cincinnati Friday. Baltimore could then have the opportunity to take Kazmir; otherwise, the O's have been hard to read, with most clubs thinking that they'll either take Georgia high school OF/hitter Jeremy Hermida or Virginia Tech left-handed pitcher Joe Saunders.

Top High School Pitchers
Scott Kazmir LH Houston
Adam Loewen LH Surrey, BC
Chris Gruler RH Brentwood, Cal.
Cole Hamels LH San Diego
Zach Greinke RH Orlando
Jason Neighborgall RH Durham, N.C.
Clint Everts RH Houston
Kevin Jepsen RH Sparks, Nev.
Mark McCormick RH Clear Lake Shores, Tex.

Then comes Montreal. "We're drafting as if we'll be playing next season, as we hope we will," says GM Omar Minaya. Now, agents have to wonder about a client being picked by the commissioner's office, but Minaya and scouting director Dana Brown hope to sign their top picks, whether its Kazmir's high school teammate and right-handed pitcher Clint Everts, British Columbia HS left-hander Adam Loewen, Brownlie, Guthrie, Hermida or U. British Columbia left-hander Jeff Francis.

After that? Kansas City loves Loewen, but there is a lot of local sentiment to take John Mayberry Jr., a Jermaine Dye clone who not only is the son of the former Royals star, but lives in Kansas City; he's also signed to go to Stanford. Mayberry and Cecil Fielder's powerful son, Prince, could go anywhere from the top 7-8 picks (both Milwaukee and Detroit have been on The Prince of Melbourne, Fla.) to the end of the first round. But along with Swisher, expected to go in the 15-16 range, there should be three sons of former major leaguers taken in the first round, with Bryan Harvey's son, Kris, a pitcher/outfielder from Catawba, N.C., selected soon thereafter. Hank Blalock's younger brother, Jake, is expected to be one of Oakland's first seven selections; Beane played for Blalock's uncle, and doesn't want to lose every member of the family.

"There are eight to 10 high school pitchers that have No. 1 starter ceilings," says one scouting director, pointing to Kazmir, Loewen, Gruler, Neighborgall, San Diego lefty Cole Hamels, Orlando right-hander Zach Greinke and Everts off the top of his head. "But so much can happen. Neighborgall may have the most electric arm in the draft in five years, but there's question whether or not his body can support the arm. And look at the history of high school pitching."

OK, Josh Beckett is in the big leagues, and he was selected out of a Texas high school in 1999. But the past is littered with he-could-pitch-in-the-big-leagues-now phenoms, like Brien Taylor, the first pick in '91; one fight, one injured shoulder, one busted career. From 1985-97, there were can't miss high school pitchers taken in the first five selections named Kent Mercker, Willie Banks, Steve Avery, Roger Salkeld, Taylor, Kurt Miller, Kerry Wood and John Patterson.

Remember the greatest high school pitching class of all time, 1990? Miller, Todd Van Poppel, Todd Ritchie and Steve Karsay. Three went on to become good major league pitchers, but none before his 10th professional season, none for the team that originally drafted him. Remember when Travis Lee and three high school pitchers -- Matt White, John Patterson, Bobby Seay -- found loopholes in the '96 draft, were declared free agents and raked in a combined total more than $30 million in signing bonuses? Lee turned out to be a fungible, below-average major leaguer to this point in his career, and not only have White, Patterson and Seay totaled one major league win (by Seay), but their combined minor league record is 59-106.

Top College Position Players
Khalil Greene SS Clemson
Russell Adams 2B UNC
Nick Swisher 1B Ohio State
Michael Johnson 1B Clemson
Jeff Baker 3B Clemson
Drew Meyer SS S. Carolina
John McCurdy SS Maryland

Then one looks at Florida's outstanding young rotation of Beckett, A.J. Burnett and Ryan Dempster and realizes that each was a high school draft pick. Or look at the Phillies' unique ability to pick high school pitchers, like Adam Eaton, Brandon Duckworth, Brett Myers, et al. And even the premier college prospects don't necessarily turn out to be Roger Clemens (who was the 19th pick in the first round of the '83 draft, behind nine other pitchers); Andy Benes, Tim Belcher and Ben McDonald were all their year's Bullington, a college pitcher selected with the first pick.

Mark Prior is the exception. So is Kirk Saarloos, who may be the next player from last June's draft to make the majors. He was taken by Houston in the third round after going 15-2 at Cal State Fullerton, and in his last seven starts for Double-A Round Rock has allowed one earned run, prompting speculation that he could follow Roy Oswalt, Carlos Hernandez and Tim Redding in making the run from Round Rock to Houston. There has been speculation that Arizona might bring up 3B Chad Tracy if needed, as he's been over .400 all but three days this season in the Texas League. Tracy was, indeed, selected last year, but in the seventh round as an East Carolina senior who went undrafted as a junior. (There are several players who stayed in school and have upped their values this June, like Greene going from the 14th to first round, Harvard's Ben Crockett going from the 10th to likely the second, Notre Dame outfielder Brian Stavisky from the 33rd round to 2-3, Michigan left-hander Rich Hill from the seventh to second and Wake Forest right-hander David Bush from the fourth to second).

If Sarloos and Tracy make it this summer, they are, indeed, exceptions. The first player to make the majors from the 2000 draft was the Twins' Adam Johnson -- the second overall pick -- but he has slid back to the minors. The second was Toronto's Mike Smith, a fifth-rounder. The only one currently in the majors is Cubs second baseman Bobby Hill.

Top High School Position Players
B.J. Upton SS Chesepeake, Va
Scott Moore SS Cypress, Cal
Prince Fielder 1B Melbourne, Fla
John Mayberry OF Kansas City
Jeremy Hermida OF Marietta, Ga
Denard Span OF Tampa
Matt Whitney 3B Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
Jeff Francoeur OF Lilburn, Ga
Brian Dopirak 1B Dunedin, Fla.

Perhaps the most unique recent exception is Albert Pujols, who was a 13th-round pick in 1999, made his professional debut in 2000 and in 2001 had one of the greatest all-time rookie seasons. Contrast that to the fact that Curt Schilling was in his 12th professional season and with his fourth organization when he first made an All-Star team. Robby Nen was in his eighth pro season when he made the big leagues for good, Greg Maddux his fourth, Ben Sheets his third, Randy Johnson his fifth, Nomar Garciaparra his fourth, Jeter his fifth, Sammy Sosa his fifth, Bernie Williams his seventh. "There aren't," as legendary scouting guru Gary Hughes once said, "many Junior Griffeys and Alex Rodriguezes -- sure things." The only other players selected with the first overall selection that had Cooperstown talent were Darryl Strawberry, who threw it away, and Chipper Jones, who was a controversial pick in 1990 and testament to the scouting acumen of Paul Snyder and Bobby Cox.

Because of the unpredictability, there are several teams that strongly believe in drafting college players in the first five rounds, then move on the developmental risks out of high school. Oakland may take anywhere from five to seven college players with their seven picks. "There is no set formula," says Shapiro. "You can't say you shouldn't draft high school pitchers, because we wouldn't have C.C. Sabathia. Look at Florida, Philadelphia, Atlanta."

Just as perplexing is the drafting of catching. "There is so much to developing as a catcher, between hitting and catching and how to separate them, to all the information you devour every day to the relationships with pitchers, it takes a long time to develop," says Jason Varitek. He was a first-round pick as a college junior, turned down Minnesota's offer, was a first-round pick as a senior by Seattle, but it wasn't until he got to Boston that he blossomed. Pudge Rodriguez was signed as a free agent in Puerto Rico before players from that country were draft-eligible. Mike Piazza was a 62nd pick. Check the list of top catchers and their draft rounds: Jorge Posada (24), Mike Lieberthal (1), Mike Barrett (1), Paul LoDuca (23), Damian Miller (20), Dan Wilson (1), Brad Ausmus (43), Jason Kendall (1). There may not be a catcher selected until the second round Tuesday.

This may be the last draft under the old system. Owners are pushing for an international draft and a cap on spending. The Players Association has opposed slotting of salaries because of pressure from agents, but one major agent says, "The vast majority of major league players resent the bonuses these kids get, and consider it taking money out of their pockets. So I think you'll see some kind of limit." Oakland moved Jeremy Giambi and likely will move two more veterans because it will cost close to $10 million to sign their draft picks.

There are scouts who believe that Kazmir will be in a major league rotation next season, in Cincinnati, Baltimore or Texas. "He's not tall (nearly 6-1), but he has great arm speed, touch and command," says an NL scouting director. "He's the best since Rick Ankiel. That's his comparable."

Which, as Chuck Berry would say, goes to show you never can tell.