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A pitcher or position player? Rays draft not cut and dried

Tampa Bay needs some pitchers, but they won't be chosen at the expense of all else.

MARC TOPKIN
Published June 6, 2004

BALTIMORE - If the Devil Rays want to - and some would say they should want to - they can take one of the top college pitchers with the fourth pick in Monday's draft.

Or, and this appears more likely, they can take one of the best high school position players, such as Atlanta area shortstop Chris Nelson.

The Rays don't pick until after the Padres, Tigers and Mets, but this year being fourth might not be much different than being first. They all might get their man.

While there are a number of good players, especially college pitchers, being considered for the top picks, there does not appear to be many guaranteed-to-be-great ones. No consensus No. 1. No obvious top-two picks, such as Delmon Young and Rickie Weeks last June.

"This year there seems to be more varied opinions on a lot of players with fine abilities," Rays player development/scouting director Cam Bonifay said. "I think philosophy of who you take might dictate some of this. There are some drafts when ability just stands out no matter whether it's a high school or college player. This year that might come into play. ... I think a lot of clubs are looking to take the best player they feel fits best into their system. A lot of organizations might take a player based on different reasons."

As a result, and because most of the college pitchers were in action this weekend, it may be Monday morning before teams decide what they are going to do. Draft projections have changed frequently, with speculation increasing, in the past week.

The Padres, who seemed settled on Long Beach State right-hander Jered Weaver as the No. 1 pick, reportedly changed directions and are likely to take Florida State shortstop Stephen Drew.

The Tigers supposedly are deciding between two college pitchers, Rice's Jeff Niemann and Old Dominion's Justin Verlander, and Texas high school phenom Homer Bailey. The Mets are said to be locked in on another Rice right-hander, Philip Humber.

If it goes something like that, the Rays could have some pretty good choices: an advanced college pitcher who could be in the majors relatively quickly, such as Niemann or Rice teammate Wade Townsend, or another top-notch position player such as Nelson to add to their collection.

Rays officials, from managing general partner Vince Naimoli down, acknowledge the need to stock up on pitching. But that doesn't necessarily mean they are going to take a pitcher first.

One argument is that since they lack top-level pitching they should take the best one available. "Our organization needs pitching," manager Lou Piniella said. "You can do a lot when you have young pitching coming."

But the other view is that impact position players - such as Nelson, a smooth-fielding, hard-throwing, good-hitting, fast-running shortstop, or Matt Bush, who is nearly as talented and may be slicker - are harder to find. And a better pick unless the pitcher is truly special - such as Mark Prior, who was taken by the Cubs one spot ahead of Dewon Brazelton in 2001.

"I don't think anybody's ever overloaded with young position prospects," Bonifay said. "The more position prospects you have, the better it is for the organization, and it bodes well for the future. We're not looking for quick fixes in the draft. ... You want to take the best player possible at that pick. There's no pressure to take a pitcher over a position player when you're talking about this quality of player."

The Rays only have to look back to 2002 for a great example: The Pirates picked first and took who they thought was the best college pitcher, Ball State's Bryan Bullington, who is muddling along at Double A. The Rays took the best prep position player, and if you haven't heard of B.J. Upton yet you should be able to come see him at Tropicana Field later this summer.

There are other factors of course, such as money, signability and the possible impact of new general partner Stuart Sternberg, who met with Rays baseball executives last week but isn't expected to be in the draft room Monday.

Rays officials, including general manager Chuck LaMar, were spread around the country this weekend taking a final look, especially to see if any of the college pitchers wowed them. But based on their past philosophy of taking the player with the potential to have the biggest impact, and their future plans to build with their top young players, Nelson seems to be the likely pick.

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