Less projecting, more security in Draft
College pitchers offer smaller margin for error, quicker rewards
When in doubt, take a college pitcher.The 2006 First-Year Player Draft offers an example in which the safe thing to do also might be the intelligent thing to do. Five of the first six selections in the draft on Tuesday were college pitchers. Thirteen of the 30 first-round choices were college pitchers. The college pitcher is the closest thing to a finished product there is in the highly speculative process of drafting baseball talent. These may be conventional choices and they may represent what is the strength of this class, anyway. But in the case of the Kansas City Royals, who held the draft's first pick, they went with conventional drafting form, but away from their typical economic profile. Their selection of Luke Hochevar cannot be much disputed in terms of pitching talent. Hochevar won 15 games and led Tennessee to the College World Series in 2005. Drafted by the Dodgers, he agreed to and then spurned a $2.98-million bonus. This spring he has been pitching in independent ball to reestablish his credentials. His agent is Scott Boras. That very sentence generally sends thoughts of large amounts of departing cash through the minds of MLB personnel people. Boras is known for getting the maximum amount for his clients and his very presence in the equation gives some organizations pause when considering their selections. With a new baseball administration in place in Kansas City, this may be the dawn of a truly different era for the Royals. There were plenty of other college pitchers who could have been justifiably drafted with the top pick. The Royals picked someone with the requisite talent, but they also chose someone with the dreaded "signability" issues. This is a relatively bold step for the Royals and it may indicate that they are moving in a more aggressive direction. But Hochevar was a college pitcher, so his selection set the theme for this draft. In the iffy proposition of drafting baseball talent, the college pitcher is the nearest thing to a sure thing that the game's futures market offers. And he is still a long way from an absolute lock. High school players may have those fabulous "high ceilings" but they are also high school kids. In many cases, their level of competition is difficult to judge. You can become so enamored of the vast potential of a 17-year-old player that you lose sight of how far away he actually is from the big time. And what kind of professional athlete and adult he might become is also a matter of speculation.
Take the 2003 Draft, when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were faced with the classic choice between the high school player -- Delmon Young -- who arguably had the greatest potential of anyone in the Draft, and the college player -- Rickie Weeks -- who all interested parties agreed was the closest thing to a Major League-ready prospect in the Draft.The Devil Rays opted for Young and his vast potential. As we speak, Young is serving a 50-game suspension for hitting an International League umpire with a thrown bat. Weeks went second in the draft to the Milwaukee Brewers. In his second year in the Majors he may be misplaced at second base, where he has 20 errors, but he is already a more than capable Major League hitter. There is no right and wrong about this. Young could learn from his episode and reach his great potential. This example is not an indictment of drafting high school players. The Atlanta Braves, for example, have gone heavily in that direction and have merely won 14 straight division titles. But the incident does tend to support the notion that data base is a lot more comprehensive with a college player; on both a competitive and a personal level. And even with a college position player, you can look at his offensive statistics and still wonder how much those numbers reflected the metal bat. And can he hit the big league breaking ball? There may be no way to tell for sure. With the college pitcher, you can measure the velocity, you can see the bite of the slider, you can judge his composure on the mound. He is the nearest thing the draft has to a finished product. And this year, the experts agreed that the strength of this Draft was in college pitching. That was handy. This college pitching talent, for the drafters, was a marriage of talent on one hand, and a solid, cautious, reasonable drafting approach on the other. And, there is the matter of need. Everyone talks about how expansion diluted the quality of pitching. But with five-man starting rotations and the growing specialization of relief pitchers, the number of competent pitchers required for successful competition expanded even further. Everybody needs pitching and the college pitcher is the fellow who figures to help out in the foreseeable future. The first round of the 2006 Draft reflected the area of its greatest strength, but it also illustrated where clubs needed help in a relative hurry.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.