Padres focus in on Drew

SAN DIEGO -- Less than a week before the Padres make the first pick in the draft, it appears club executives have made up their mind.

"I'd say we're leaning toward Stephen Drew," Padres general manager Kevin Towers said.

The junior shortstop, who led Florida State to the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship, is hitting .353-14-52 with 14 doubles, six triples and has stolen nine bases on 10 attempts. He has struck out just 38 times in 246 plate appearances.

Scouts from other clubs can't help but notice the Padres' strong presence at the ACC tournament in Salem, Va., over the weekend.

"You have to give the San Diego staff a lot of credit for how hard they are working with this No. 1 pick," said an area scout who attended the tournament. "Their higher-level guys were in Wilmington (N.C.) to see Justin Verlander, then they motored up to Salem to watch Drew. They had the (scouting) director there, crosscheckers, area guys ... They showed up at 11 p.m. and stayed there until Drew got the big hit in the first game at 1:35 (a.m.). They're really working their tails off."

For months, the speculation was the Padres were hot on Long Beach State righthander Jered Weaver, with a faction holding out for Rice righty Jeff Niemann.

The 6-foot-7 Weaver took his first loss Thursday against Miami and is 14-1, 1.68 overall. In 128 innings, he has allowed just 71 hits, walked 18 and struck out 193. The 6-foot-9 Niemann, who was 17-0, 1.70 last season, has been hampered by a groin injury this season and is 5-3, 3.34. But he has 83 strikeouts in 70 innings, using a fastball that has reached 97 mph and a power slider that is generally regarded as the best breaking pitch among players eligible for the 2004 draft.

All three players will be in action this weekend in NCAA tournament play. Rice plays host to a regional and opens with Texas Southern, Long Beach State plays at Stanford and opens with St. John's and Florida State is at home and plays Bethune-Cookman.

"There is less risk with a position player, injury-wise," Towers said. "And Drew is a guy who can play any position but catcher. We'd probably keep him in the middle of the infield."

With rookie Khalil Greene firmly entrenched as the Padres' shortstop, Drew would have to change positions with a move to center field a possibility. Drew is the brother of Atlanta outfielder J.D. Drew, who was a first-round pick of the Phillies.

Tim Drew, the family's middle son, was a first-round pick of the Indians and is now in the Expos system. They should become the first brother trio of first-round picks in the 40-year history of the draft.

"Drew has good bloodlines," Towers said. "He plays for a good university. He has been consistent from his freshman year on. Honestly, all three have their pluses. And I'd be happy with any one of the three. I don't think we could go wrong with any one of them."

Towers said, the final decision belongs to Bill (Chief) Gayton, the club's scouting director. Gayton has long been an admirer of Niemann. The consensus of scouts consider Weaver to be closest to the majors of the trio, while Niemann has the highest upside.

"Chief has a good feel for what way we're going to go," Towers said. "Ultimately, it's going to come down to what Chief and the scouts feel.

"But I like Drew."

John Maffei is a Baseball America correspondent who covers the Padres for the North County Times of San Diego. Contributing: John Manuel.