Whether Stanford is blazing a path to Omaha or at home licking their wounds with a season finished too soon, the one constant for the Cardinal this time of year is the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. There are a few twists to this year's draft that will change the experience for both the draft hopefuls and the fans who follow it. For the first time ever, this year's draft is in part televised. The first round plus the supplemental "sandwich" picks will be broadcast live on ESPN2, starting at 11:00 A.M. (PDT) with coverage for four hours. All 30 clubs will have one or more representatives on-site in Orlando (Fla.) for the event.
Not only do these changes bring ceremony to a previous lifeless event which was conducted via conference call, the new MLB Draft format also greatly prolongs the proceedings. Teams now have up to five minutes to make their first-round pick. That first round previously spanned maybe 15 minutes, with mere seconds elapsing between picks. Now it will take hours before we reach the second round today.
How many rounds can be completed on the first day of this two-day draft is uncertain, but it will not likely be much more than five rounds. There are 50 rounds in the MLB First-Year Player Draft, nearly half of which is customarily wrapped on the first day. We made it through 18 rounds last year on the first day.
Some fans will eat up the drama and analysis on the televised broadcast. If this format had been installed last year, Stanford fans would have reveled in attention and commentary before, during and after Greg Reynolds was taken with the second overall pick. In 2007, however, no current Cardinal is expected to be taken in the first round or the supplemental picks. In fact, more of the rounds where Stanford players may be drafted this year will be pushed into Friday, where 80 to 90 percent of the total selections will take place.
A handful of Stanford Baseball upperclassmen are eligible to be drafted in the span of these two days with hopes ranging from probable to possible:
Ryan Seawell is the lone senior by eligibility, with the other players all juniors. Players with remaining eligibility can come back to school after being drafted and play for a chance for a different draft selection in a following year, which adds mystery for some junior-year draftees. Players not yet peaking with their ability may opt to return for their senior year to boost their stock, draft position and ultimately signing bonus. The better players could also return to school if they are dissatisfied with the signing bonus offered by the club who drafts them.
But there are typically some certainties each year for Stanford's most elite prospects. We knew last year that Greg Reynolds was a high pick in the first round. The year before, we knew that the trio of John Mayberry, Jr., Jed Lowrie and Mark Romanczuk would go in the first few rounds on the first day.
Coming into this 2007 season, Michael Taylor and Nolan Gallagher were prized prospects with loads of ability and the chance to follow in the footsteps of their teammates the past couple years. Mirroring Stanford's season, however, the performances by Stanford's superstars left much to be desired. Gallagher was rocky on the mound from start to finish with only a sprinkling of solid outings interspersed, while Taylor took until the final month of the season to break through .300. These players remain intriguing because of their tools, but each each exclamation point is now surrounded by a cluster of question marks.
"I really don't know," admits head coach Mark Marquess. "Most of the time, you have a pretty good idea... We're not sure of anything this year. Probably the guy we figure who will be the highest drafted will be Taylor, but you don't know. Gallagher would normally go, but are they going to back off because of his season? Erik Davis, same idea. He pitched well at the end, but he's coming off the injury. Sorgi normally would go, but he's been injured. It's really kind of up in the air. I really don't know what to think of the juniors. Ryan Seawell is a senior. He's an athlete who didn't play his best position, which is outfield."
"I think Brian Juhl will be drafted because he can catch. And he's a switch hitter," the Cardinal coach continues. "He's not your top draft pick, but I think he will be drafted. And he's way ahead in school. He only needs a quarter to graduate. If he gets anything fair at all, I think he'll go. He can catch and throw. He hits lefthanded and righthanded."
"The thing with catching is that if you can catch and throw, there's a spot for you," Marquess adds. "The question which you don't want to ask, though: 'Am I filler or am I a prospect?' That's a hard question to ask yourself. You're going to think you're the prospect because there are examples of guys who went in the 50th round that made it."
Marquess addresses the questions which inevitably come after the MLB Draft is completed. The mystery today and tomorrow is where players will be selected. Up next is the decision whether the drafted juniors should take the signing bonus and jump to pro ball, or come back for another year at Sunken Diamond.
"That is always a very personal decision, and I really don't have any input to that. That's a family decision," Marquess says. "My main focus is to make sure that they are ahead in school, so that if they do sign after their junior year, they're going to graduate. Knock on wood, that has happened. That always happens."
The great secret in Stanford Baseball, which separates it from other sports on campus where a student-athlete may jump to the professional ranks before finishing his or her fourth year, is that Marquess' players are supported and programmed on an academic track that has them ready or very close to ready to graduate after their third year. The penalty of leaving Stanford (too) early is the degree left behind, but that is not the case for most who come through the baseball program.
Finishing one's degree early is not necessarily an automatic ticket to leave. Chris Minaker was done with his undergraduate requirements by the end of the 2005 season, only to find his name never called in the draft. He came back for his senior year and not only completed a masters degree, but he also had a blockbuster season that led Stanford in almost every offensive category - earning a draft selection in the 10th round.
The moral of Minaker's story: finishing school doesn't necessarily mean it's time to be finished at Stanford.
"The thing that works against us is that all of our kids are ahead in school," Marquess admits. "But it does you no good to sign after your junior year and then be released in August. Sometimes that signing bonus, even if it's not make or break, shows interest. If they don't have a lot of money invested in you, and you go play June, July and August, and they release you - you can't play college baseball again."
"The truth of the matter be known, and you don't want to tell the young men this, is that there is 50 rounds. Of your 50 draft picks, there are probably only two or three who you think has any chance of making it to the big leagues," says the 31-year Stanford head coach. "The other 47 are there to fill in the teams to play around those three guys, if you're honest. If you know those odds, then you want to maximize the amount of money you can get, make sure you get your college degree and make sure they have enough money invested in you that you're going to get a fair shot to make it."
Marquess also wants to make sure that his players are ready to play professional baseball at a level where they can have a chance. The numbers of players who wash out of A and AA farm clubs each year is staggering, due in no small part to the fact that each organization can restock the bottom of its farm system annually with 50 or so players in the draft. There is no time or patience in minor league baseball for the ill-prepared.
"It's important that when you enter pro ball, you play your best - because that's what you're evaluated on. If you have a bad year or two, then you're out of it," he says. "You have to do your best preparation in college so that when you enter, you don't have a god-awful year and get released maybe if they don't have a lot of money invested in you. Or not move you up to the next organization. You don't have a lot of years to prove yourself."
A heightened concern this year for the legendary Cardinal coach is that his players did not have as many auditions in front of the true MLB decision-makers as is typically the case at Stanford. If you attended games at Sunken Diamond this year, you undoubtedly saw the scouts with their notepads, radar guns and stopwatches. They were there. But it is not the area scouts who significantly influence draft decisions. They are worker bees spread around the country to compile ground-level advice. They are at the bottom of the draft decision food chain. Above them are the cross-checkers, who in turn report to the scouting directors. They feed information to the general manager, who ultimately makes the calls.
Good or even great reports from the local scout are murmurs in the wind to the front office. The serious money and draft selections only follow what the scouting director and/or general manager believe, and that best comes from their scouting trips. The elite players bring those big wigs to the ballpark. Absent the superstar, your good work may be noticed only by the guppy in the organization.
"The other problem that we have, to be candid with you, is that the powers that be didn't see us play," Marquess laments. "Last year, everyone saw us play because every scouting director and every general manager in the world came to see Reynolds. When they saw Reynolds, they saw Minaker hit two home runs off [Brandon] Morrow. The local scout can see you play, but he's not making the call. It's different when you have that premier guy. Every time Reynolds pitched last year the last two months of the season, everyone was there to see him. Everybody. When they see Reynolds, they see the other guys. They see Chris Lewis, which probably elevates his draft when he plays well. They see Minaker. This year, they wouldn't have seen Minaker. They wouldn't have seen Lewis. Maybe initially in the first two weeks of the season, but when Gallagher started slow, Davis was hurt and Taylor started slow, they may not have come back. The local guys have seen them, but they're not decision-makers."
Witness the case of Taylor. He is a rare specimen at 6'6" and 260 pounds, who can run and hit for power. But he spent the first one-third of the season hitting below .250. Not until May did he nudge from "disappointing" to "exciting" in his third season of college baseball. Taylor in May hit six of his 12 home runs this season. He recorded multiple-hit games in 16 of his final 19 contests of the year, during which time he batted .429 and raised his average 60 points.
But by the time he hit that stride, who was there to watch? Taylor was Stanford's bluest blue chip of the draft-eligible players this year, and his horrendous start took him well out of contention for a first- or second-round pick. That removed the incentive for a team's top brass to come watch him, even though his finish to the season was quite worthy of attention.
Once Stanford's season ended, something happened that is unusual for a Cardinal player: Taylor hit the road for workouts. The past week, he went to clubs who maybe saw little reason to come to him this season.
"That's never happened before because we're always in the playoffs," Marquess comments. "He went for some workouts in Philadelphia and Florida, which is great, and he finished strong. But those people need to see him. My concern for my guys is that they haven't been seen. As great as Michael Taylor played over the last five or six weeks, who saw him?"
"He's tooled, no question. He can tool out," the head coach assesses of his mammoth outfielder. "Arm - he has a great arm. The knock on him initially, when he first came here, was that he wasn't a very good defensive outfielder. He became much better. Power - even though he is big, he didn't hit for a lot of home runs for a long time. Finally he hit a lot of home runs this year and hit bombs, but I don't know who saw those bombs. I don't know who saw him hit one to the field hockey field when we played UoP. Probably no one saw him hit that ball."
Visibility was not the issue for Gallagher this year, who was his own worst enemy. The Cardinal's most experienced and talented pitcher was demoted away from the Friday starter role after a series of poor performances, and by the end of the year he was out of the starting lineup altogether. For a guy who has been hailed by teammates since his freshman year with the best "stuff" on the staff, it was a disheartening and damaging season.
"Gallagher is tooled enough because he has enough fastball and he has enough good curve. The mystery is how Gallagher gets hit - because his stuff is good. He tools out," Marquess explains. "To be candid with you, he hasn't shown what he can do. If next year as a senior he shows what he can do and what he thinks he can do, he's going to get offered more money, even though he's a senior, than what he can get right now."
Erik Davis is similar in that his draft stock is disappointing today, though his season was quite different from that of Gallagher. Davis had ball hit back at his head during summer baseball last June in the Cape Cod League, smashing his face just below his right eye. The traumatic injury required reconstructive surgery surrounding his eye, and it was initially doubtful whether he would see well or at all again. Understandably, the junior righthander started this season slowly and really only came on at the end. He became a weekend starter the final five weeks of the season, including a stretch of three starts where he lasted six-plus innings. Davis did end on a sour note, giving up 10 earned runs in four-plus innings at USC.
"Davis tools out really good if you see him on the right day," Marquess offers. "You're just a little leery of the injury with Davis."
Adam Sorgi also started 2007 slowly, coming off February 2006 shoulder surgery to repair his torn labrum. The middle infielder/third baseman tried to rush his return at the start of this season, which ultimately cost him more time. Only at the end of March did he become an everyday player in the batting lineup. Sorgi caught fire before long and did not release his chase for a .400 batting average until the final week-plus of the season. The fact remained that despite what he showed at the plate, Sorgi never moved to the left side of the infield. He played second base, the least demanding defensive position of the three he plays. Sorgi could not consistently make the tough throws from deep at shortstop, which is where he would have played for Stanford if fully healthy this year. If it were not bad enough that he played only part of the season, Sorgi never played where he needed to play on the field.
"Sorgi has to prove that he can play everyday at a certain level," says Marquess. "He can hit, but he's not going to be drafted for his bat. Not that he isn't a good hitter - he just hit about .400. But he's going to be drafted for the question of whether he can play the middle, his size and his tools."
Another seeming mark against these players is the poor season Stanford just conducted. The first non-winning season on The Farm since 1993 is a badge of shame, to be sure, but Marquess maintains that Major League Baseball scouts players for reasons of talent and not wins/losses.
"The scout doesn't care about your record. We could be 0-50," cracks the coach. "If last year we won every game Greg Reynolds started and every other game we lost, at the end of our season our record would be 12-44. At the end of that season, our players would be more heavily scouted that year than they were this year. Scouts don't care about the team."
"When you have a strong team and a good record, usually you have guys that are pretty good who they want to see. Normally that happens," he continues. "Normally you have at least one pitcher and one position player. But we didn't have anybody after the first three or four weeks of the season who was going to be considered for a first-round draft pick. We could have had that. If Taylor hits three or four home runs in the Fullerton series or Gallagher pitched a one-hitter, then they would have been followed more closely, but it didn't work that way. We didn't have anybody else who could be a first round pick, but those guys could have been."
Despite the blemishes on the résumé of all Stanford's draft hopefuls today and tomorrow, the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft remains an unpredictable event. A player's "stock" may not necessarily guide where he is selected because the draft is not an efficient market. The consensus or median assessment of the 30 organizations is not what determines your fate. Only one dance partner is needed to call you out onto the floor.
"It just takes one team to like you," says Marquess. "They could all sign and get a lot of money. I just hope they get what they want."
What each player wants and needs to sign and forgo his senior year at Stanford varies wildly. Jeremy Guthrie came back to school after being taken in the third round, while other players have left after second-day selections. Each player has a different emotions toward what he is worth today versus a year from now, and each player's family has a different financial outlook on the question. (Keep in mind that many college baseball players are on fractional scholarships under the NCAA's 11.7 scholarship limit.) Taylor is less emotional and more clinical than his peers, however.
"Michael is unique because he is more detail-oriented," Marquess maintains. "He has an exact idea of what he's worth and what his value is, and he'll stick to that. If he doesn't get it, he'll come back."
The Cardinal coach has no idea, however, what that number is or which draft position today or tomorrow could lead to that number.
"You could have the Yankees draft him in the first round and give him second-round money. You could have the Pirates draft him in the 10th round, and there's no way he is going to sign because of the type of money," he says. "The draft is so unpredictable. You have guys who say, 'Coach, I have talked to this team and this team.' Then they'll be drafted by a team that no one from that organization even talked to them. Sometimes there is no rhyme or reason for it."
No rhyme or reason. That phrase will undoubtedly be oft uttered in the next 48 hours, for the MLB Draft remains an unsolvable mystery. We can only patiently wait as it unfolds - televised or not.
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