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Crunch time comes as draft approaches

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 5, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- It's that time of year for Dan Jennings when a luxury is considered back-to-back nights in the same motel. While most of the Rays officials are trying to get the team straightened out on the field present day, scouting director Jennings and his staff are working feverishly on the future.

The annual draft is less than a month away and the Rays are traversing North America to narrow the field of candidates for the No. 2 pick.

According to experts such as Baseball America, this is a draft class rich in high school pitchers and position players, average in college pitchers and shallow in college position players.

"When you're picking as high as we are, you've got to get the player who you think can have the biggest impact for your organization long term," Jennings said.

Because it is the National League's year to pick first, the Rays will have to wait for the Pirates to commit before they know whom they'll get June 4.

Some reports have the Pirates leaning toward B.J. Upton, an athletic shortstop from Chesapeake, Va., in the Derek Jeter-Barry Larkin mold who, by the way, has committed to Florida State.

Other possibilities for the top pick are pitchers Adam Loewen, a 6-foot-5 left-hander from Surrey, British Columbia who throws regularly in the mid 90s; and Scott Kazmir, a 6-foot lefty from Houston's Cypress Falls High who has impressed scouts with a 96 mph fastball and command of his curveball and changeup.

The top Florida prep prospects appear to be Apopka right-hander Zack Greinke, who throws in the mid 90s, and Melbourne's Prince Fielder, the powerful but portly (at least 240 pounds) son of Cecil Fielder, but neither is considered a top-two pick.

If the Pirates take Upton and the Rays don't want to gamble with giving big money to another prep pitcher, they could go for a college pitcher.

That would give them a prospect who should provide more immediate help at the big-league level (maybe two years away instead of four). It might also allow them -- and no matter what they say, we know this is an issue -- to save money by signing the player to a major-league contract, spreading the multimillion dollar bonus over several years as they did last year with Dewon Brazelton.

Rutgers right-hander Bobby Brownlie is ranked the top prospect by Baseball America and has been compared to Milwaukee's Ben Sheets, though there are concerns about his size (6-1, 210) and lack of variety in his repertoire. Plus, he's being advised by Scott Boras, which means he'll probably be an expensive and tough sign.

University of British Columbia left-hander Jeff Francis, who looks polished but hasn't faced top competition, and hard-throwing Stanford right-hander Jeremy Guthrie, another Boras client, also are ranked high.

A better possibility for the Rays is Ball State right-hander Bryan Bullington, a 6-foot-5, 225-pounder with a quality fastball and slider whose stock is rising quickly.

Over the next couple weeks, Jennings and staff will decide on their top two, then react to whatever the Pirates do.

"I think the way we look at it is if we're going to pick high, I'd just as soon we pick first," Jennings said. "But there is good depth at the top, and no one person has singled himself out. We feel like we're going to get a very good guy."

THANKS FOR THE HELP: One day last week, Seattle's Mike Cameron called buddy and former Reds teammate Greg Vaughn to commiserate over how both were slumping. "I told him to keep swinging and battling," Vaughn said.

Thursday night, Cameron tied a major-league record by hitting four home runs in a game. "Sometimes it would be good for me to take the advice I give," Vaughn said.

THAT'S TO GO, I GUESS: The new Saturday Family Value Pack, offering four outfield tickets, two caps and two large pizzas for $39, seems like a good deal. But there's a catch: You don't get the pizzas at the game, just coupons for Papa John's.

HOO-RAYS: The Rays are talking about hiring Jeff White, former chief financial officer of Major League Baseball, as a consultant to offer strategic advice on MLB-related matters. ... May 1 data shows the Rays still have the youngest team in the majors, with an average age of 27.50, down from 27.51 on opening day. ... The Rays aren't doing the Red Sox any favors by playing Monday's game at night, as the Sox play Tuesday night in Oakland. Then again, the Sox don't usually do the Rays any favors in Boston.


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