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Late pick might be the best of the lot

By JOHN C. COTEY
Published June 8, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - For every Rocco Baldelli (first round), there's a Toby Hall (ninth round).

For every Jeff Niemann (first round), there's a ...

Matt Walker?

While all the attention was focused Monday on the Devil Rays' 6-foot-9 top draft pick, the steal of Tampa Bay's first day may have come nine rounds later when Walker was selected.

Walker was rated No. 88 overall by Baseball America, which also had him at No. 13 overall among high school prospects at midseason, but was the 285th player taken in the 10th round.

Walker may have dropped because he tired at the end of the season when the cross-checkers started coming around, according to Baseball America (which had Walker rated higher than second-round pick Reid Brignac).

Walker was a two-sport standout at Central (La.) High, earning all-state honors in both baseball and football. He threw for 1,375 yards and nine touchdowns as a senior and was considered a strong football recruit.

But this spring his fastball was consistently clocked in the 90s and he shot up the baseball charts, going 11-1 with a 1.56 ERA and 148 strikeouts in 78 innings.

His fastball reportedly dropped a few mph by the end of the season, though, explaining his slip from a potential first-round supplemental pick to a third- through fifth-rounder.

"He's a fine young high school pitcher," Rays player development/scouting director Cam Bonifay said. "He's a tremendous competitor and has fine major-league stuff. We're excited to get him there."

CAJUN COOKIN': Walker was one of two Louisiana prepsters taken, joining second-round pick Brignac, a 6-2, 170-pound outfielder from St. Amat High School.

Brignac played centerfield as a junior and shortstop as a senior. He could wind up as a third baseman with the Rays. He has a scholarship to traditional baseball power LSU, but Bonifay thinks there is a "very, very good" chance the Rays will have few problems signing him.

Both players were scouted extensively by Benny Latino, who has culled Chad Gaudin and Joey Gaithwright from Louisiana. The state was one of the richest in talent, according to Baseball America.

SO THERE!: Walker may have been rated higher by Baseball America, but Brignac has bragging rights - not only did he go higher in the draft, but when the two played against each other this year Brignac hit a towering home run off Walker.

POWER, POWER, POWER: Bonifay said the Devil Rays were intent on drafting power pitchers, and they appeared to fulfill that goal with a host of big, strong arms. The Rays drafted five pitchers that stand 6 feet 3 or better in the first 14 rounds.

BARGAIN BIN: Though most draftniks had third-round pick Wade Davis of Lake Wales going somewhere after the fourth round and maybe even as late as the 10th, Bonifay said he was thrilled to land the right-hander where he did.

"We were extremely happy to get Wade Davis in the third round," he said. "We were holding our breath on that one."

Davis was 7-3 this year for the Highlanders.

SPRING TIME: Matt Spring (fourth round) went undrafted as a high-schooler, but one season at Dixie State College of Utah changed that.

Spring, a 6-2, 220-pound catcher, hit 18 homers this season with 70 RBIs, and as a freshman was a team leader for the Rebels.

Saturday, he led the Rebels to the national junior college championship, doubling and scoring in a 4-3 win over San Jacinto-North. He was MVP of the tournament.

UTAH CONNECTION: Spring isn't the Devil Rays' only Utah connection - Hurricane High shortstop James Scholzen was the last pick on Day 1, going in the 18th round.

Scholzen was Utah's Class 3A state track champion in the 100, winning in 11.37 seconds.

AREN'T YOU?: Garth Iorg, the 16th-round pick, is the son of the former big-leaguer by the same name.

[Last modified June 8, 2004, 01:01:17]

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