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This year's draft as uncertain as ever

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June 3

This may be New England's most glorious week. Along the shore, the beach roses are an aromic wildfire, the lilacs haven't yet passed, the rhododendron are unfurling, iris have burst and after nine weeks of 39 degrees and drizzle, it is finally spring and Rocco Baldelli is playing.

Rocco Baldelli? Baldelli is an outfielder from Bishop Hendricken High School in Warwick, R.I., and just might be the best prospect in Monday's draft. Patriots -- and former Cleveland Browns -- coach Bill Belichick called friends with the Indians and told them Rocco might be "the best athlete I've ever seen."

Baldelli is 6-foot-4 and runs like a wide receiver, and he's such a nationally renowned volleyball player that the videotape that was sent to clubs of him had 20 minutes of volleyball and two of baseball. "Yet," says one club official, "he's so great an athlete that you have to think about taking him. Speed, power, athleticism -- there's no one else like him in this draft."

Looking back on the draft
67.1 percent of first-round picks from 1986-1995 played in the major leagues.

Of the major league players signed out of the June draft from 1986-'95, the round breakdowns are as follows:

1st (and sandwich) round: 28.3%
2nd round: 7.9%
3rd round: 8.5%
4th round: 5%
5th round: 4.6%
6th through 10th rounds: 19%
11th through 20th rounds: 15.7%
21st round and up: 11%

Problem is, a week before the draft, hardly anyone had seen him. The New England weather had been Greenland revisited for most of the spring. Then Baldelli got hurt and missed close to a month. And when he returned Thursday, four days before the draft, there were a half-dozen Devil Rays folks there to see him. Saturday, he was going to hold a special workout and then play in a game.

"This was a guy that the Red Sox thought they had tucked underneath the mattress at 22," said one scouting director. "Now he could go anywhere from fourth on up."

As intriguing as Rocco may be, the fact that a tools kid from Warwick could go from unseen to the Faith Hill of the war rooms tells you all you really need to know about this class. There is no Josh Hamilton in this draft, no Mark Texeira, the Georgia Tech star who will be the No. 1 pick next year. "There are a lot of late first rounders," says one scouting director, "and there are a lot of second- and third-rounders who will get taken in the first round."

Put that together with the commissioner's office's desire to narrow the gap between cost and value for draft picks, and Monday will begin a gristmill of contrary forces where teams are playing take-it-or-leave-it and agents like Scott Boras are insisting that only collusion could keep Clemson outfielders with two homers for the entire season from being entitled to $2 million.

"Normally, with a week to go we know the first 20 picks in order," says one GM. "We may not know the first five until they get called out."

For instance, less than 72 hours before the draft, the Marlins were expected to use the first pick and do a deal with San Diego high school first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, not because they need an Adrian to replace Elian, but because he took their offer. But some felt that if catcher Scott Heard came back and agreed to take $3.2 million, he could be the pick, especially considering that if he slipped past the Royals at four he could drop to 12 or 20 at considerably less than $3M. "This is all about deals, and the scouting directors have been well-schooled by Sandy Alderson," says an agent. "The average first-round pick has inflated 20 to 25 percent each year, and they're determined to put an end to that."

This is how goofy it is. The Twins are expected to take the draft's consensus No. 1 pick, Palmdale, Calif., HS right-hander Matt Harrington, with the second overall pick, but they don't know if they can sign him. The Cubs at three reportedly were close to a deal with the parents of Coral Park (Miami) HS shortstop Luis Montanez, who originally was represented by Boras. The Royals were uncertain at four. So were the Expos, who at five were trying to get a deal done with someone like Puerto Rican shortstop Edgardo Lebron, who is Baseball America's 102nd-rated prospect, or Corona, Calif., left-hander Mike Stodolka, whose agent, Larry Reynolds, is the brother of Montreal farm director Tommy Reynolds.

At the sixth pick, everyone thought the Devil Rays had a deal with Kissimmee, Fla., lefty Joe Torres, but all of a sudden they were on Baldelli, as the Rockies, picking at seven, checked out Stanford right-hander Jason Young's medical reports.

Where they went
A list of players that weren't drafted or were late-round selections:

Andy Ashby (undrafted)
Brad Ausmus (48th round)
Bobby Bonilla (undrafted)
Mike Bordick (undrafted)
Ricky Bottalico (undrafted)
Jason Isringhausen (44th round)
Bernard Gilkey (undrafted)
Ken Hill (undrafted)
Jason Johnson (undrafted)
Mike Piazza (62nd round)
Kenny Rogers (33rd round)
John Smoltz (22nd round)

"Before the season, Young was clearly the No. 1 pick," says one scouting director. "But he got hurt. Is that long-term? He's got the best upside of any college pitcher."

The Boras-led way of doing business could get ugly. The agent called one club that will pick at the end of the first round Thursday in an attempt to get them to take Cal third baseman Xavier Nady -- who Boras insists should get a Pat Burrell contract ($3 million bonus as the No. 1 overall pick in '98) -- and was told they had no interest. Boras said Miami HS shortstop/center fielder David Espinosa is better than Hamilton, which no one else believes. Boras has another client he's also looking to get big money for -- former University of Miami shortstop Bobby Hill, who is currently playing in the Atlantic League after refusing to sign with the White Sox. Boras promised Hill he'd get him a $1.5 million bonus and with the lack of quality leadoff middle infielders around, he might just get it from someone this year.

The last time the first pick in a draft got less than the first pick of the previous one was in 1992 when the Astros took Phil Nevin for his signability and paid him considerably less than the Yankees paid Brien Taylor the previous summer. By the way, Nevin is coming into his own while Taylor is out of baseball. That year, the Astros told Nevin and outfielder Chad Mottola they'd give the money to whoever took it first. Meanwhile, the best player in the draft fell all the way to the sixth spot because of money, which is how Derek Jeter became a Yankee and why one Michigan scout quit.

But the lesson of this draft is that the prospect you get at 20 or 30 might be as good as the one at one or two. This year is very similar to '92 when the Mets took Preston Wilson at nine, the Jays got Shannon Stewart at 19, the Pirates drafted Jason Kendall at 23 and the Marlins got Charles Johnson at 28. And if Pittsburgh had the first pick and selected Kendall, it would have been considered a terrific selection.

Maybe Rocco Baldelli is the best player in this draft. Maybe not. He hasn't played a lot of baseball. Back in '87 there were some clubs who thought Mark Merchant was a better outfield prospect than Junior Griffey. In case you don't remember, the Mariners got Griffey while the Pirates took Merchant, who never quite made it.

In 1990, the media superstar was Texas high school pitcher Todd Van Poppel. At the last instant, Braves GM Bobby Cox backed off Van Poppel because of his face in the negotiations and went with the look he knew was right, and took Chipper Jones. That was supposed to be the year of the superstar high school pitchers -- Van Poppel, Kurt Miller, Todd Ritchie and Steve Karsay. Stanford's Mike Mussina went to the Orioles with the 20th pick and has had a long and prosperous career, while those high schoolers haven't even approached the level of Mussina.

That same year, the White Sox and Mets had great drafts. Chicago took Alex Fernandez, Bob Wickman, James Baldwin and Ray Durham in the first five rounds, then got Jason Bere in the 36th. The Mets, meanwhile, got Jeromy Burnitz, Aaron Ledesma, Fernando Vina and Brian Daubach.

But because they had no patience the Mets virtually got nothing for their draft. "Patience is a lesson anyone should learn scanning draft histories," says one scout. "Look at the way the 1990 pitchers are just now making it." Or look at the fact that the three top college picks in '92 -- Nevin, Jeffrey Hammonds and Calvin Murray -- are just now getting it. Trot Nixon took six years after being the eighth pick in the nation, and is now one of the two or three best right fielders in the American League.

Look at David McCarty, the third overall pick in the draft in '91 by the Twins, out of Stanford. He drifted for years, signed with Oakland as a minor league free agent and when Oakland couldn't find a spot, GM Billy Beane moved him to the Royals, where he's since taken off. "People held it against David because he was the third pick," says Beane. "All they talked about was what he couldn't do, which was hit the fastball in. There are a lot of big players who can't hit the fastball there, either. But David can hammer mediocre pitching, especially the ball away. He has power, is the best defensive first baseman in our league and he can play the outfield and can throw. That's a lot of things he can do."

There are other truths about the baseball draft. One is that power is often the last thing to come. If a kid can make contact and use the field, the power will come. The second is that the biggest mistake can be taking the college pitcher with the 4-5 starter ceiling instead of the high school star with upside tools, which is how the Giants took right-handed pitcher Steve Soderstrom in front of Nixon in 1993. The third is that international development has become nearly as important as the draft, with more than 40 percent of minor league players now being foreign-born.

In the last few years, agents like Boras have been able to get Rick Ankiel first-round money in a second-round slot. And while the feeling is that the Dodgers will give Espinosa what he wants because they are the Dodgers, some high-demand guys will likely get a cold dose of reality.

Remember, Danny Ray Goodwin was the first pick in two different drafts. Mike Piazza was a 62nd-rounder. And Pedro Martinez, Vladimir Guerrero, Roberto Alomar, Pudge Rodriguez, Bernie Williams, Edgar Martinez, Andres Galarraga, Andruw Jones, Omar Vizquel and Edgardo Alfonzo were all signed outside of the draft.

Keep all of that in perspective.

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