Aside from Justin Upton, the immensely gifted 17-year-old shortstop from Chesapeake, Va., who most scouts agree is the best player available, Tuesday's draft contains no jaw-dropping talent, no Joe Mauers or Mark Priors who promise immediate impact. What it lacks in outsized personalities, however, it makes up for in balance. "I've been with a club that selected third, and that draft didn't have nearly the depth this one does," says Mariners vice president of scouting Bob Fontaine. "I think it's a very good draft. I'm optimistic."
Among the salient questions entering the June 7 draft:
How good can Upton be?
Like his brother, B.J., a shortstop who was the second player picked in 2002, by the Devil Rays, Justin is a schoolboy with all the tools. He's defensively flexible (he can play short, third or centerfield), has good arm strength, hits for power and average and has great natural speed. Through 22 games as a senior at Great Bridge High, he was hitting .522 with 12 home runs and 33 RBIs and, like All-Stars Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield, had won the Gatorade National Player of the Year Award. Says one National League scouting director, "Upton is not your typical high school guy. He's not far away." If Upton isn't selected by the Diamondbacks, who pick first, he won't fall far.
Believers in performance analysis generally prefer drafting college players. But a recent study by Rany Jazayerli of Baseball Prospectus found that at the No. 1 pick, high schoolers with extraordinary talent--such as former top picks Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr. or Chipper Jones--have a greater chance of developing into elite major leaguers than collegians. "We put [Upton] in the same category," says an American League executive. "He has the same kind of upside."
What impact will the unsigned '04 draftees have on this year's selections?
Three of the top 15 picks in last June's draft--righthander Wade Townsend, taken eighth by the Orioles; righthander Jered Weaver, 12th by the Angels; and shortstop Stephen Drew, 15th by the Diamondbacks--missed their first year of professional ball because they couldn't agree on contracts. Townsend, who throws a low- to mid-90s fastball and a hard curve, felt lowballed by Baltimore and should go in the top 15 again.
Weaver, who commands four pitches, was dominant at Long Beach State in '04 but hasn't pitched since. On May 20 he signed with the independent Atlantic League's Camden Riversharks, where he joins Drew, a former Florida State star who has had limited at bats with the Riversharks during his talks with Arizona. Both are represented by Scott Boras, which makes signability an issue.
What will become of Boras's other pitchers?
In addition to Weaver, Boras controls frontline college righthanders Mike Pelfrey of Wichita State and Luke Hochevar of Tennessee, plus closer Craig Hansen of St. John's; all have first-round pedigrees, but the prospect of a protracted negotiation spooks some clubs. "We did a study of [Boras's] clients, and the study told us a lot of the highly touted pitchers he represents never really materialize," says Gord Ash, assistant general manager of the Brewers, who pick fifth. "So the battle you're going to fight is not really worth it. And it doesn't help if you draft a pitcher and he doesn't sign and report." Based strictly on skill, all three would go high, but as with Weaver last year, all could slip because of financial considerations.
How high will Cuban defectors be drafted?
Of the five Cubans who defected last fall and declared themselves eligible for the draft, the one considered most major league ready is Yunel Escobar, a 22-year-old shortstop whom the Red Sox like and could grab with one of their six choices among the top 59 picks. Should Escobar go in the first or second round, it could create a precedent for nonsuperstar Cubans to choose the draft route rather than gamble on free agency and the logistical problems that accompany it.
In addition to Justin Upton, here are five players who should go early in the first round of the draft (2005 stats through Sunday).
Alex Gordon, 3B, Nebraska
64 GP, .386 AVG, .750 SLG, 18 HR, 23 SB
Premier college slugger showed versatility by playing first base for Team USA last summer.
Cameron Maybin,CF, Roberson High (Asheville, N.C.)
25 GP, .662 AVG, 15 HR, 37 RBI, 32 SB
Set state single-season record for batting average; all-around athleticism has drawn comparisons to Ken Griffey Jr.'s.
Mike Pelfrey,RHP,Wichita State
12--2, 1.91 ERA, 136 K, 28 BB, 131 2 / 3 IP
A 6'7" righthander with plus fastball and sinker; won 10 or more games each of his three seasons in college.
14--2, 1.90 ERA, 131 K, 42 BB, 118 2 / 3 IP
Stingy righty leads nation in wins, holding opponents to .192 average and six homers.
Troy Tulowitzki,SS,Long Beach State
36 GP, .355 AVG, .603 SLG, 7 HR, 26 RBI
Considered further along than former 49ers shortstop Bobby Crosby was in 2001, when A's picked him 25th.
ROBERT GURGANUS (JUSTIN UPTON)
TWO OF A KIND
Justin (at an MLB-sponsored showcase) may be even better than B.J. (inset), picked second in 2002.
SKIPMILOS.COM (B.J. UPTON)
¬†[See caption above.]
SCOTT BRUHN/NU SPORTS INFORMATION (GORDON)
Gordon's D is also a strength.