Could drafting Price be costly for Rays?

Published June 4, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - You are Andrew Friedman, and everyone says your job is easy.

Your Devil Rays have the No. 1 pick in the draft and are in obvious need of pitching. You have kept an eye on Vanderbilt left-hander David Price all season, and he has been as impressive as any pitcher in the nation.

See, they say. Easy.

Except you know better. As Tampa Bay's vice president of baseball operations, you have spent months considering the possibilities, the risks, the rewards and the history of drafting college pitchers.

You know, for instance, that a high percentage of elite college pitchers seem to break down shortly after leaving campus.

You have looked at the top five college pitchers taken in recent drafts and have seen an alarming number of rotator cuff problems and Tommy John procedures. From 1996 to 2005, nearly half of those draft picks had surgery.

Maybe it is an incredible fluke. Or a problem confined to certain four-year programs. But maybe, just maybe, it is a trend for pitchers who are overused by college coaches desperate for every win they can get.

You know Price's workload has been a topic of debate. Enough so that Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin is getting testy with reporters asking about pitch counts.

You know Price averaged 121 pitches in his 11 starts against Southeastern Conference teams. And you know that two of his worst outings came after games in which he threw 137 and 136 pitches. He hit 130 again Friday in an NCAA region game against Austin Peay.

But, alas, you know Corbin has a reputation for taking pretty good care of his pitchers. And that he has never used Price in relief this season and generally limited his starts to one per week. Corbin took Price out of that Austin Peay game with the score tied at 1 after nine innings.

So, Andrew, what are you thinking?

You know that a lot of people expected you to take a college pitcher last season, too. And you can recall that you began last season with your eye on North Carolina left-hander Andrew Miller and soon became enamored with right-hander Tim Lincecum of Washington.

Yet when it came time to pull the trigger with the No. 3 pick, you went with third baseman Evan Longoria because he seemed a more sure bet. And, even with Lincecum already in the majors with the Giants, Longoria still seems a safer choice.

After all, you know the inherent risks of taking a college pitcher by looking at scrapbooks from your own organization. The Rays used the No. 3 pick in 2001 on Dewon Brazelton, and he went 8-23 before being traded for a loaf of bread.

Jeff Niemann and Wade Townsend were top-10 picks in consecutive drafts for the Rays in 2004-05, and today they have matching surgical scars. It doesn't mean they won't be productive major-leaguers - it just points out the risks.

You know some scouts think Georgia Tech's Matt Wieters is the way to go with the No. 1 pick. Wieters is a switch-hitter. He has 20-homer power. And he's a catcher, a premium position on the field.

You have to be tempted by him. If he looks like a potential All-Star catcher, you almost have to take him. But the problem is whether he really is a catcher. At 6-5, he is a big man. Almost too big.

You have to wonder if, down the road, he won't have to be moved to first base or the outfield. If so, his value as a No. 1 pick goes way down.

You know some organizations have had success drafting college pitchers. In consecutive years, the Athletics drafted Mark Mulder out of Michigan State and Barry Zito out of USC. Both were 20-game winners within three years.

And you know some franchises have wasted their first-round picks in the hope of finding the next great college pitcher.

The Orioles took Mike Paradis, Beau Hale and Chris Smith in consecutive first rounds from 1999-2001, and none has reached the majors.

The Royals used a No. 4 pick on Jeff Austin and a No. 7 on Kyle Snyder in 1998-99. Snyder had Tommy John surgery a year later and shoulder surgery after that. Austin never won a game for the Royals and is out of baseball.

So how do you feel today, Andrew?

Your scouts are probably telling you Price appears to be the real deal. That he does not look like he is laboring or putting too much stress on his arm in the late innings of games. That's a good sign.

But your fans are probably telling you that you cannot afford a misstep. That a team such as yours, without vast financial revenues, has to have a high success rate at the top of the draft.

In the end, you know you have to choose Price.

His upside outweighs the history of arm problems for big-program college pitchers. His potential outweighs the number of complete games and 120-pitch outings. His position makes him too valuable to ignore.

Just so everyone knows:

It ain't so easy.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com or 727 893-8811.