A.M. Race (Vol. 1)
This June, for the first time since the draft's implementation in 1965, the draft order will be decided by the finish in the 2004 standings, worst to first. This leaves the Arizona Diamondbacks on the board with all the options, notably the presumed top choice Justin Upton. In previous years the pick would have gone to the Kansas City Royals, the worst American League team, because the National League received the top overall choice last draft.
What this does is make the race to the bottom of the standings a little more important. While the draft isn't a notable enough event for this to get a lot of recognition, but giving the Majors' worst city something to hold their hat on isn't a bad idea. This idea is one of the reasons the NFL claims to have more parity than Major League Baseball. We still have those $200 million payrolls to worry about, but it's a baby step nonetheless.
Anyway, in tune with the title of this site, I want to begin looking at the 2006 draft. In this piece we'll look at the teams that should 'battle' for top (bottom?) spot, or what I'll call the 'Andrew Miller race.' But first, you�ll meet (or if you subscribe to Baseball America, be re-introduced to) the man behind the name.
My presumed top pick in 2006, Andrew Miller is a sophomore this year at the University of North Carolina. At 6-6, Miller possesses what his school calls a '94+ mph fastball� and his teammate detailed as 'one of the nastiest sliders in college baseball.' Despite near-promises of attending college prior to the 2003 draft, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays spent their third-round pick on Miller, hoping to land Florida's top high school prospect with a big offer. They didn't, and the southpaw would later be named by Baseball America as the top prospect in the Cape Cod League, on the second-team Freshman All-American team, and the preseason ACC Freshman of the Year.
In a close race with his teammate, Miller would lose out the official ACC Freshman of the Year to Daniel Bard. While his right-handed counterpart was the Friday pitcher for the team and won two more games, I really believe that Miller should have won the award. Miller's ERA was lower (2.93 to 3.88), he had far more strikeouts (88 to 68) and thirty less hits allowed (64 to 94) in just six less innings (89 to 95). The only peripheral number that Bard was clearly superior was in the walks category, where he issued thirty-one to Andrew's 48.
That final number represents the Achilles heel of Miller's game: control. In the Cape Cod League, which he dominated, Miller would lead the league with 26 walks in 40 innings. The stuff is there, the refinement is lacking. He would show his upside in seven of his eighteen appearances, allowing a 2.18 ERA in 33 innings. So if he puts it together - watch out.
Another problem that has been associated with Miller is consistency, whether it's the big inning or start-to-start. The latter appeared to be healed as the season went on, as the two halves of his seasons were quite different. In his first nine appearances, Miller had a 3.64 ERA (5.57 RA!), 7.50 H/9, 5.36 W/9 and 8.36 K/9. Things then infinitely improved in his final nine appearances, where his ERA lowered 37% to 2.30 (2.68 RA), the H/9 down 26% to 5.55, the K/9 up to 9.38, and his BB/9 encouragingly went down to 4.40. Should his 2005 season be this good, expect Miller to take the 'Friday Night Pitcher' status from Bard during their junior seasons.
But while Miller was sensational in the Cape Cod League, his half split there was geared towards a great first half. He began the season with a twelve strikeout masterpiece, and only allowed four earned runs in his first four starts, spanning 27.1 innings. He walked eleven, struck out 29, and allowed only ten hits. The wheels fell off the truck in his final three games, with a catastrophic 15 walks in just 12.2 innings. I wouldn't worry too much about this though, Miller will likely benefit from the six months and come back with better control.
I'm not sure if Miller is capable of the sophomore season that Jeff Niemann had in 2003, but I wouldn't put it past him. He doesn't have the polish that a lot of college pitchers do, but he has more upside than any in recent memory. At this point, only an arm injury will prevent Miller from one day contributing to the Major League scene. With this resume all before he turns twenty, I expect Andrew to be the first pick of the 2006 draft.
Now the question is, who will have this pick? While most preseason predictions will cover division winners as well as the playoffs, I think it's appropriate for me to keep track of the 'Andrew Miller race.' For now, the main contenders, ranked in order of who I deem most likely to win:
Kansas City Royals: Preseason, this is the worst team in baseball. The club has one hitter that will contribute any power (Sweeney), and is preventing a second (Pickering) from entering the lineup. The rotation is made of misfits other than Zack Greinke, and the bullpen could be anywhere between serviceable and awful. And, there really isn't a lot stopping Allard Baird from trading it all at the deadline.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Another team lacking a lot of upside. The Reds and Brewers are both improved teams, and the Pirates are now far worse than anyone else in the division. I don't expect Kip Wells, a viable second starter, to last long with the team, leaving them just with Oliver Perez. The offense will be quite poor, though I guess Craig Wilson is everything (and more?) that Mike Sweeney is at this point. The bullpen should be fine and the rest of the rotation good enough to present them from losing 100 games, but not 90.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays: Lou Piniella always has this team make some little, 'we're for real' run in the early going, and then they slowly trot back towards mediocrity. They might never leave that title this year, as the team starts more and more to build towards the future. If things break right I could see them leaving the cellar, but that would take a lot of crossed fingers. A goal of 70 wins is just not the right way to run a franchise, nor is doing anything to prevent full-out rebuilding mode. Fire Chuck Lamar!
Second-Tier Long shots: Colorado Rockies, Toronto Blue Jays, Washington Nationals, Texas Rangers
An interesting spin could be if Miller asks for a lot of money, and the Royals, Pirates and D-Rays are all scared away. Then the long shots really will have a big difference in this race. Kansas City's choice in the two-hole this year (Gordon or Pelfrey are the best options, IMO) will tell us a lot on whether they would forego Miller, likely the best talent of that draft, for a cheaper option.
But that�s just another flaw of the Major League draft. Maybe the next 'Free ___' movement can be geared at the draft? For now, I'll just take the revised draft order, and wait 'til next year on Andrew Miller. At least the players give us optimism.
Note: An unexpected weekend trip delayed my second depth charts installment, which I hope to be up some time this week. And for all those who e-mailed asking to see all the depth charts, I believe you misunderstood me. I'm happy to share team-specific requests, just not everything. Thanks for your understanding.