2004 Draft Retrospective: Top Ten
In doing research for my article that appeared at Baseball Prospectus last week, I was reminded of the ugliness atop the 2004 draft. The faults of Matt Bush are now well-documented, and it's likely that even John Moores would throw in the extra money to now trade Bush for the likes of Stephen Drew or Jered Weaver.
It seems to me that 18 months is about the first logical time in which a draft can be reviewed. At this moment, we feel quite certain in calling Matt Bush a bust, and Gio Gonzalez a steal. But, with the rest of the baseball world quiet, I thought now would be a good time to look back at the 2004 draft in more detail. In part one of a series (to be continued at a later date), I want to use today to look back at the top ten of the '04 draft.
The top ten that year was flooded with pitching, as the college ranks offered a class that, in depth, rivals what it will bring to the table this year. While there wasn't much in the way of hitters, two high school shortstops were extremely well thought of among scouts. The top ten (plus Weaver and Drew) were the obvious first tier of the 2004 draft, as there appeared to be a talent drop-off shortly thereafter.
In looking back at the ten players selected, I found four groups based on the type of player they were: high school shortstop, high school fireballer, a pitcher from Rice, and a small-college pitcher. Here's my breakdown of the ten...
HIGH SCHOOL SHORTSTOPS
Pre-Draft Buzz: To this day, I hold the belief that not one single Major League Baseball team had Matt Bush atop their draft boards. According to Baseball America -- prior to the draft -- at least one team had Nelson on top. So, how did Bush rise to the top of the draft, while Nelson fell to becoming the ninth overall selection?
First, of course, was money. Bush was likely fourth (at the highest) on the Padres big board, behind what had been their final three: Stephen Drew, Jered Weaver and Jeff Niemann. Once ownership halted high-end bonus talks, the team had to begin looking past the Scott Boras crowd, into the next tier. Bush was attractive to San Diego both because of his bonus demands (or lack thereof - $3.1 million), and his hometown ties.
The belief before the draft was that Bush would become the better defensive player of the two, while Chris Nelson had the better bat. Both had cannons for arms, though Bush's graded out better; he had pitched in the low-90s for much of the season. Bush also showed extraordinary range, leading some to deem him a future Gold Glover. His contact skills were solid, and the belief was that his other four tools would make up for any lack of power.
Nelson's arm was a little less because of Tommy John surgery that preceded his senior year, and his range was just average. However, his bat speed drew comparisons (that have now grown far and wide) to Gary Sheffield, an ex-shortstop himself. Nelson was a very good hitter, with above-average -- though not spectacular -- skills across the board.
However, a pitching run in the top ten (from 2-8) allowed Nelson to slide into thin air, as the Rockies nabbed him ninth. The club had been expecting Nelson to be drafted by either the Indians or Orioles, and while they had prepared to draft a pitcher, were happy to have the blue-chipper fall into their laps.
2004: Short-season ball began poorly for Matt Bush, and ended worse. Before even beginning play in the Arizona League, Bush was arrested. This, of course, had followed a rowdy incident in a PETCO Park box, in which he and his friends had caused problems. Before his first plate appearance, Bush had doubters across the nation wondering if he was a bust.
His play seemed to confirm that belief, as Bush started slow, and never got going. In 21 Arizona League games, the first overall pick would have just three extra-base hits. His batting average was below the Mendoza Line. There were some positives in his defense, baserunning and discipline, but the negatives outweighed the positives. Moved to the Northwest League, in hopes that a change in scenery would spark something, Bush was average in seven Northwest League games.
The opposite fate happened for Chris Nelson, as many would wonder at the end of short-season ball whether Bush was the right high school shortstop at the top. Sent to the Pioneer League shortly after signing, Nelson registered 147 at-bats in 2004. His line: .347/.432/.510. In retrospect, we could have seen that his slugging was boosted by triples, that he struck out too much, and that his baserunning was poor, but that would have been nitpicking. Nelson began popping up in prospect lists; he was the flavor of the short-season fall.
2005: While things went from bad to worse this year for Matt Bush, things just turned poor for Nelson. Neither was awe-inspiring, to say the least. Bush's season contained pretty much the same minuses that short-season ball had. His batting average wasn't there, as he hit .221 in 453 at-bats, despite showing good contact skills with just 76 whiffs. His power was among the worst in the Midwest League, with just 18 extra-base hits all year.
Many of the positives from Bush's debut were gone. The Californian was rarely asked to steal -- just 12 times all year -- and was successful in just two-thirds of those attempts. His plate discipline was no longer a strength, as his 33 walks show promise, but hardly count as a positive. The only plus was his defense, as onlookers have told me that it was quite strong. He will always have the rocket arm and good range, it seems.
Nelson's 2005 began late with a hamstring injury, as he appeared in just 79 games. Nelson was atrocious in those games, with little power, no contact skills, and mediocre defense. Much can be blamed on the injury, but even that has people bringing out the term "injury-prone." In all, Nelson hit .241/.304/.330 in 315 Asheville at-bats. Worst was his 88 strikeouts, which indicated that batting average might never be a strength.
Future: For Nelson to be successful, his power must reappear in 2006. If it does, any contact problems will be overlooked. An increase in walks would be nice as well, though like Bush, it isn't currently a big problem. Nelson's ceiling isn't quite what people thought after 2004, but it's still his main draw as a prospect. He could turn out to be an All-Star -- especially in Coors Field -- though after this season, that doesn't look to be a good bet.
As far as Bush goes, all bets are off. He'll certainly get more opportunities to succeed than the average prospect, given his status as a former #1, but he might just not be very good. My guess is that his defense and contact skills will carry him, and that the Padres will give him some at-bats off the bench. It would be in Bush's best interest to retain his 2004 discipline, to start stealing more bases and to add a few more positions to his arsenal.
One player only has power to boast. The other has none, but could develop enough of everything else to at least come off the bench. Neither looks to be a fantastic selection.
THE RICE TRIO
Pre-Draft Buzz: Hopes were super-high for Rice University in 2004, as the school was armed with the best trio of pitchers in the history of college baseball. Atop that group was Jeff Niemann, who was coming off a 17-0 sophomore season. In basketball, Niemann would have surely left for the pros. His junior season showed why that would have been a good move.
Injuries plagued much of Niemann's junior year, with a sore arm (and decreased velocity) becoming a continuing trend. His year was good -- a 3.02 ERA, 94 K's in 80.1 innings -- but not enough to cement his status as the draft's best player. Stepping into his role as the Rice ace, to the surprise of some scouts, was Phil Humber. The right-hander was the team horse, having pitched in 100+ innings in each season of his college career. His stuff was not as good as Niemann or Wade Townsend, but he was the most polished.
Humber's rise left Wade Townsend as the consensus third of the three, though his ERA (1.80) was the best in 2004. Townsend had good -- not great -- stuff, but it came at the cost of some control issues. He could eat innings and had some upside, but he didn't profile to be much beyond a third starter.
In the end, Humber went first, going to the Mets with the third overall pick. Niemann quickly followed, going to the Devil Rays, who were willing to take the risk. Wade Townsend would be chosen eighth by the Orioles.
2004: Considering the number of innings consumed by these three at Rice, no one thought it a good idea for them to pitch in 2004. This belief slowed down contract negotiations, as Humber and Niemann weren't signed until after the season. Wade Townsend was not signed at all, and stuck, as he was also deemed ineligible to return to Rice. Like Luke Hochevar this year, Townsend was left between the Independent League, or working alone.
2005: He would choose home, as the year -- before June -- consisted of just tryouts for Townsend. He was generally unimpressive in these workouts, but piqued the Devil Rays interest in the June draft, who sought to reunite him with ex-teammate Jeff Niemann. However, it's believed that had Tampa passed, Townsend could have spiraled nearly 20 selections before having his name called. He would finish the year quite poorly in the New-York Penn League.
Humber's 2005 began with the most steam, as the Mets started him quickly in the Florida State League. His results were inconsistent, but the Mets were impressed with the control that Humber showed. At the same time that Gaby Hernandez and Brian Bannister were promoted, Humber was moved to AA. He would have just one (bad) start there, before his season ended. Tommy John surgery.
Niemann's year was clouded with injury as well, as he was on and off the DL the entire season. He started late, finished early, and had time off in-between. While the work schedule might sound appealing to you, it certainly hurt Niemann's declining star status. His strikeout numbers in both the Cal and Southern Leagues were good when he pitched, but no longer is this the guy that touches 99 with that devastating, spike curveball.
Future: Hopefully, a joint lawsuit. Humber, Niemann and Townsend (yes, I think he's next) deserve to sue Wayne Graham, their former coach at Rice. Maybe the likes of Miguel Ramos and Kenny Baugh (and how about Matt Anderson) could do so as well. Graham seems to be the Steve Spurrier of college baseball, creating a fantastic college atmosphere, while doing more harm than good for pro careers.
Graham's abuse on young arms has slowed the career of all of these players. Humber should be OK, as Tommy John surgery should repair all the damage, and he'll be back to full strength in 2007. Niemann's arm is a big question mark, and many have speculated that Townsend could be hurt. The Devil Rays must figure this out, because if these two could be returned to full strength, this system would get even deeper.
HIGH SCHOOL FIREBALLERS
Pre-Draft Buzz: A situation somewhat reminiscent to the Bush/Nelson fiasco. It's likely that had 29 teams in baseball had the choice between Mark Rogers and Homer Bailey, that 29 of them would have taken Bailey. The exception to this is the Brewers, who were actually left with the decision, and came out with Rogers.
Bailey had been lauded since early in his high school career at Texas, and was all over the radar before the 2004 season. That year, he had a 0.38 ERA with a K/9 well over 18.0. His fastball was explosive, easily in the mid-90s, and his curveball was among the draft's best. Bailey had walked just 10 in 72 innings, also showing polish that few do out of high school. He was a can't miss prospect.
Rogers, on the other hand, saw his stock ascent solely in his last year. Prior to that, Rogers had been New England's second-best talent, as Nick Adenhart had left everyone else in his dust. When Adenhart went down with an arm injury, Rogers burst onto the scene by dominating his weak Maine competition. His fastball had touched higher radar readings than Bailey's, albeit not on a consistent basis. His curve was good, but again, not that of Bailey.
But, oh yes, his price tag was lower. The Brewers drafted Rogers fifth overall, while Bailey would slip to seven.
2004: Both players were allowed just tastes of pro baseball in 2004, as their organizations wanted to give them experience (of being away from home) more than innings. Rogers pitched in nine games in the Arizona League, totaling just 26.2 innings. His WHIP was high at 1.65, but there were positives in the fact that he struck out 35 and did not allow a home run.
Bailey pitched even less than Rogers -- he had thrown more innings in his senior year -- with just six appearances in the Gulf Coast League. He also didn't allow a home run, but other than that was unimpressive: fourteen hits, three walks, nine strikeouts. But this was a sample-size for both players, causing few to back off their beliefs that Milwaukee missed out on the better talent.
2005: Very similar, disappointing (on the whole), seasons. Both spent the year in low-A, and were handled quite delicately by their NL Central organization. Neither would throw more than 105 innings, and both spent time in a tandem-like system, appearing some in relief.
I'll be writing a lot more about Bailey in the coming weeks (I think quite highly of him), but his 2005 season doesn't look great on the whole. He walked 62 batters in 103.2 innings, hardly showing the control that characterized him in high school. What did follow him to the Midwest League, however, was great stuff. During that time, he allowed just 89 hits, while striking out 125. Better yet, Bailey allowed just five home runs all season.
Rogers was good and bad in the same areas as Bailey, but worse in each category. He threw less innings, just 98.2, because he missed time with a blister. He allowed more walks during that time: 70. His H/9 and K/9 were lower, as in his innings, Rogers allowed 87 hits and struck out 109. He also allowed 11 home runs, though it's interesting to note that all of them came in his final 75 innings of the season.
Future: I actually still think highly of both players. Bailey has one of the best two-pitch arsenals in the minors, and should be among the game's elite pitching prospects in little more than a year. The Reds must preach control with him, and continue to work on his change-up, but Bailey has legitimate ace potential.
In Rogers, I see a similar player as to what I saw in Ambiorix Burgos a year ago. This guy is a future reliever. He was best in that role in 2005, and it is likely his fastball could jump to the mid-to-upper 90s if just pitching 1-2 innings. The Brewers shouldn't limit him to that yet, but it also isn't fair to let him continue to struggle as a starter. His production early in the season should dictate his move-to-relief timetable.
SMALL SCHOOL HURLERS
Pre-Draft Buzz: These three tended to get caught in the middle. They weren't the best high school hitters, pitchers, or even college pitchers. They were generally seen as the second tier of college pitching, but more because of exposure than anything else. Justin Verlander, Jeremy Sowers and Thomas Diamond were all dominant college pitchers, not worked as hard as the Rice trio, but for some reason, did not have the same notoreity.
Verlander quickly went to the top of this threesome because of a great pitcher's body, and even better stuff. His stock rapidly ascented after dominating rival Justin Orenduff, and Verlander single-handedly put Old Dominion on the map. He had touched 99 in his junior season, and with less baggage than the Rice trio (again, Wayne Graham), was chosen second overall by the Detroit Tigers.
Jeremy Sowers pitched at the biggest school of the three, but was also the leader of the Vanderbilt program. There is no doubt that Sowers deserves some recognition for Vandy quickly becoming one of the nation's recruiting powerhouses. Sowers didn't have the great stuff that the other pitchers in the top ten had, but he was crafty and he had a rubber arm. He was quickly compared to Tom Glavine, like most soft-throwing southpaws, but for once, the comparison felt apt.
Diamond went to the smallest school of the three -- University of New Orleans -- and as a result, was at the bottom of the barrel. He had developed quite a big frame while at school, and as a result, had boosted his velocity to the mid 90s. When mixed with two solid breaking pitches, Diamond had been devastating. Grady Fuson decided to pick Diamond ahead of a few high school arms that many thought the Rangers were considering.
2004: Only Diamond was allowed to pitch of the three, as his first two years at college had yielded so few innings. Like Chris Nelson, Diamond did nothing but enhance his prospect status during his short-lived first season. Starting off in the Northwest League, it didn't take long for Diamond to distinguish himself as the best pitcher in the league. Five appearances, 15.1 innings and 26 strikeouts later, Diamond was moved to the Midwest League.
He would have seven late season starts in low-A, where his ERA improved upon his Northwest League rate. In 30.2 innings, he allowed just 18 hits and eight walks, while striking out 42. Oh, and throughout his whole season, guess how many home runs he allowed? Just one. Diamond was suddenly the player the Orioles should have picked, in the matter of months.
2005: Diamond picked up where he left off in 2005, starting strong in the tough California League. He was moved up to AA after 14 starts, as he was 8-0 with a 1.99 ERA. 53 hits in 81.1 innings, with 101 strikeouts and just three home runs allowed. Moved to the Texas League, his control fell apart, as he would allow 38 walks in 69 innings, and his ERA would bloat to 5.35.
Jeremy Sowers had the opposite season, actually improving when moving to AA. He started the year in the Carolina League, and was moved up after 13 starts. Prior to that, he allowed 60 hits in 71.1 innings, striking out 75 and walking just 19. He also proved to be a groundball machine, so the team moved him to the Eastern League, where Sowers would excel. While his strikeout numbers worsened (70 in 82.1 IP), Sowers would walk just nine men and continue to provoke ground balls. He finished the year in AAA, where he'll start next season.
However, no one's 2005 can trump that of Justin Verlander, who flew up prospect lists and quickly validated the Tigers selection. Starting in the Florida State League, Verlander quickly separated himself from the pack as the league's Cy Young. He left the league with the ERA title (1.67), and had struck out 104 batters in 86 innings. Reports of his three great pitches would eventually lead him to start the Futures Game. Verlander pitched great in the Eastern League, not so great in the Majors, and had his year ended early with injury. The Tigers have really high hopes for his 2006 season.
Future: These three seem to still be in the order they were drafted in. Verlander's stuff separated him from the pack, as long as he can stay healthy. And while Sowers will never be an ace, he's an early safe selection for Rookie of the Year, 2007. Thomas Diamond has a lot of volatility after a bad finish in AA, but few players from the 2004 draft have seen their stock climb more in the last 18 months than him.
In the end, the moral of the story seems to be that choosing the safer, cheaper pick is not the best philosophy when drafting. Sometimes it works, like with Jeremy Sowers, but other times it means missing out on a talent like Homer Bailey. It seems as if the Detroit Tigers made the best pick of the top ten, trusting their instincts in selecting a player that many thought was not one of the five best players in the draft. Looking back, we now know he's at the top.