Picking Apart the Draft: 2004
There is a perception among baseball fans that the first round of the June Amateur Draft is foolproof – or that it should be foolproof. In a series of upcoming articles I am going to take a look at just how successful teams have been drafting with the first 10 picks of the draft in recent years, starting in 2000 and ending in 2004. Previously, I looked at the drafts from 2000 to 2003.
As we get closer to 2008 while looking back at recent drafts, it gets harder to analyze the picks simply because they have not had as much time to develop. But that doesn’t mean it’s not still fun to try. As such, this will be the fifth and final part of the series. 2004, like 2002, resulted in a poor draft decision with the No. 1 overall pick. The choice to take Matt Bush first overall was a signability decision and an opportunity for good PR by grabbing a local player. But as we know by now, having looked back at four other recent drafts, signability choices rarely work out, and the same can be said for picking players based on public relations. When you have the rare opportunity to choose the best player in the nation, do it right.
The first 10 picks of the 2004 draft broke down like this:
1. San Diego Matt Bush, SS California high school
2. Detroit Justin Verlander, RHP Old Dominion University
3. NY Mets Philip Humber, RHP Rice University
4. Tampa Bay Jeff Niemann, RHP Rice University
5. Milwaukee Mark Rogers, RHP Maine high school
6. Cleveland Jeremy Sowers, LHP Vanderbilt University
7. Cincinnati Homer Bailey, RHP Texas high school
8. Baltimore Wade Townsend, RHP Rice University
9. Colorado Chris Nelson, SS Georgia high school
10. Texas Thomas Diamond, RHP University of New Orleans
Interestingly, only one player (Verlander) from the Top 10 of the 2004 draft has established himself in the majors. It’s still early, though, as I mentioned above. Bailey needs some more polish but he looks promising. Niemann finally earned a reprieve from his injury woes and had the opportunity to make a couple major league starts. Humber and Sowers look like they are going to top out as No. 4 starters, but that is more than can be said for Diamond, Townsend and Rogers.
As for the rest of the first round, Los Angeles (AL) took Jered Weaver 12th overall, Kansas City nabbed Billy Butler at 14, Arizona took Stephen Drew at 15 and New York (AL) got Philip Hughes at 23.
Let’s take another look at the Top 10:
Above, I’ve already put my two cents in about the Padres’ decision to draft Bush. No matter how you slice it, a .219/.294/.276 line over four years is terrible. Luckily for the Padres, Bush had a killer arm and they had the option of moving him to mound. And things looked good in 2007 - in seven game he had a 1.25 ERA, 6.25 H/9, 2.45 BB/9 and 20.00 K/9 - and then he went and blew out his elbow throwing one of his high-90s fastballs. With any luck the Padres will have Bush back at full strength at the beginning of 2009, but he still faces a long road ahead when he’ll be 23 with 7.2 innings of pro experience on the mound.
By far and away the best pick of the draft. Verlander is an absolute stud with a power arm and durability. His biggest obstacle coming out of college was questionable command but that has not been a major issue in his pro career.
Verlander might have the best pure stuff in the draft. He has a tall, upright delivery with a lighting-quick arm, and a fastball that tops out at 99 mph with hard run and sink. He complements it with a curveball that has good late depth and sharp bite, and a deceptive changeup that has fastball arm speed and late fade and sink. Verlander's biggest obstacle is his lack of command as he struggles to repeat his delivery.
He made it to the majors in his first pro season and was a reliable starter by the end of his second. If signability was truly the only thing that kept the Padres from drafting him then they should be ashamed. Verlander even proved he wasn’t a difficult sign, and all about the money, as his family took over negotiations when it looked like his agent could, or would, not get a deal done. Imagine what he could do in Petco Park…
There are three Rice University alums in the Top 10 and Humber was supposed to be the “safest bet” among the three. Well, all three have disappointed mightily, although Humber and Niemann finally both have had a taste of the majors. Humber has gone through surgery since signing and his stuff is not the same as it was in college. As a result, he is now a fourth starter. But the Mets got value out of this pick as he was used to obtain Johan Santana from the Minnesota Twins.
Unlike former Rice teammate Humber, Niemann has been able to avoid the knife but he has still battled through a litany of injuries that have slowed his career advancement to a crawl. He finally made his major league debut this season with Tampa Bay but he only has a short window to establish himself before the likes of Wade Davis, David Price and Jacob McGee begin appearing on the scene. Niemann could end up as a dominating, late-game reliever.
Rogers is yet another promising draft pick who has seen the knife since signing his first pro contract. He was an absolutely dominating prep hurler who has nasty stuff (a pro rate of 11.02 K/9) but he rarely knows where it’s going (career 6.25 BB/9). Rogers had shoulder surgery in 2007 and it remains to be seen how successful he’ll be when he comes back from it.
Sowers looked like he was going to be the steal of the draft. After turning down the Reds as a first rounder out of high school (20th overall), Sowers went sixth overall to Cleveland and make it to the majors in is second pro season after cruising through the minors and rarely facing adversity. In his first 14 pro starts, he posted a 3.57 ERA and allowed 8.66 H/9. The soft-tossing lefty, though, had only 3.57 K/9. The next season, he got tattooed and began to pitch away from contact – never a good sign for a guy like Sowers. His 6.42 ERA and 11.23 H/9 got him sent back to the minors after 13 starts and he has yet to re-surface in the majors on a permanent basis.
Bailey has been the recipient of a significant amount of hype… some of it is deserved, some of it not so much. There is no denying the fact that he has the stuff to be a monster at the major league level, but his control needs work and he is still learning the nuances of pitching. Being passed this spring by phenom Johnny Cueto was probably the best thing that could have happened to Bailey. It will allow the media spotlight to shy away from him a bit and give him some much-needed time at Triple-A to hone his game. So far this season in Triple-A things look very promising. The ERA is superficially nice, but the most impressive thing is the control: four walks in 26.1 innings. On the downside, he continues to be an extreme flyball pitcher (0.76 GO/AO) which can be very dangerous, especially in Cincinnati.
Baltimore failed to sign Townsend out of Rice University, which may have actually been a good thing in the long run… although you really have to hate it when a team throws away a first round pick. Townsend ended up signing with Tampa Bay in the 2005 draft, after again going in the first round, but he blew out his elbow and needed surgery. He’s back pitching but he spent all of last year in A-ball as a 24-year-old. This season, he was pushed to Double-A, skipping over High-A ball, despite posting a 5.08 ERA in 2007, along with 4.65 BB/9 rate. So far this season, Townsend, now a reliever, has a 6.55 ERA in nine games with eight walks in 11 innings. No trio has disappointed this much since the monster that was Wilson/Pulsipher/Isringhausen.
If you consider Bush as a pitcher even though he was a shortstop when drafted, Nelson was the only non-pitcher taken in the first 10 picks. Since signing, he has had two good years and two not-so-good years. It’s hard to know what exactly to expect from Nelson; is he a starter or a utility players? If you look at his line from High-A ball in 2007 - .289/.358/.503 - you would probably be inclined to say starter, but it was his third straight season in A-ball and Modesto is not the worst place to hit. So far this season, Nelson is hitting .250/.269/.361, which is less than inspiring but it has been only 17 games. The jury is still out on Nelson, but it’s safe to saw with Troy Tulowitzki in Colorado, Nelson won’t be the starting shortstop any time soon.
For whatever reason, the Rangers are just snakebitten with pitchers… If you don’t believe me, check out Edinson Volquez in Cincinnati… He would never have done that in Texas. That’s just way to it is, the way it has been, and the way it will probably continue to be. Diamond and his mid-90s fastball started out very well in pro ball and dominated the lower minors. Then he hit a wall in Double-A… then he blew out his elbow. Considering his control issues coming out of college, Diamond’s pro rate of 4.43 BB/9 isn’t all that bad and he also had a nice rate of 10.57 K/9. It might be a good idea to throw Diamond into the back end of the bullpen when he resumes throwing about the time he turns 25.
Thanks for reading our five-part series looking back at the Top 10 picks from the 2000-2004 amateur drafts.