Drafting in the Top 10 a risky business
White Sox will be careful when selecting a prospect next June
CHICAGO -- Remember Mark Merchant? How about Ty Griffin or Jeff Jackson?
The last two names potentially hold some significance for White Sox fans, but all three players serve as cautionary tales as to what could happen when Top 10 picks in the First-Year Player Draft go awry.
It's a situation facing Chicago for the first time since right-handed pitcher Alex Fernandez was nabbed by the South Siders with the fourth overall pick in 1990, as this team's bewilderingly subpar 2007 season mercifully winds into its final week. In fact, the organization run by owner Jerry Reinsdorf has drafted as high as No. 12 only twice in his 17-year run (Bobby Seay in 1996 and Joe Borchard in 2000).
If the season ended Sunday night, the sixth Draft slot would belong to the White Sox. Even with a surge over the final six games against the Royals and Tigers, a very slim chance exists that the team selects any lower than ninth overall next June.
Not exactly a dream come true for an organization who won a World Series title in 2005. Then again, the addition and development of a high-impact youngster holds just as much importance toward a sustained turnaround as a major free-agent signing.
"You never want to have it because, obviously, it indicated the big league team didn't succeed with wins and losses," said Doug Laumann, who will oversee the 2008 Draft for the White Sox after being named the director of amateur scouting on June 24. "But it's exciting. It affords you the opportunity to get a premier guy.
"As a director, or even for anyone in a national or regional [scouting] position, you do think, 'What would I do with a really high pick and who would I take?' You never want to have it because of the circumstances, but you think about, 'If I was picking in the first five or six [slots], how would I line them up?'"
Laumann readily admitted preparation for a Top 10 pick shouldn't differ from preparation for taking a player in the high teens or low 20s, a location the White Sox have grown accustomed to following their past few productive seasons. Sitting high up in the Draft, though, affords the chance for a more informed, precise pick.
A team selecting No. 19 or No. 20 might not be sure if its desired player still will be around, but a team picking early can hone in on a handful of elite collegiate players or even a select few high school possibilities who are the five or 10 best in the country. Laumann explained how he will have the chance to see a specified player three or four extra times and even get general manager Ken Williams or other important individuals involved in the process to watch the targeted youngster.
Higher expectations and an inherent amount of pressure naturally come with the excitement of an impact pick. It's the classic risk-reward sort of situation.
"When you are drafting that high, there's a lot of pressure not to make a mistake," Reinsdorf said. "First of all, you have to give him a lot of money. You really, when you are drafting as high as we are, you shouldn't make a mistake -- not that we haven't in the past."
Money does become an issue in the Top 10 of the Draft, and as Reinsdorf pointed out, it's a great deal of money -- for a completely untested commodity. Left-handed pitcher Aaron Poreda, the White Sox top pick at No. 25 in 2007, received a $1.2 million signing bonus.
There's also the specter of super agent Scott Boras, who understandably serves as advisor for many of the top perspective selections. He's also someone the White Sox have steered away from in the recent past.
At this early stage of preparation, with the 2007 regular season not even finished, Reinsdorf refused to speculate on the potential for dealing with anything other than scouting top talent.
"It's hard to talk about something like that in the abstract," Reinsdorf said.
Laumann echoed the sentiment expressed by his boss, adding his focus will be honed in on the best fit for the White Sox, not the most affordable.
"We plan on working until our selection with the mindset to take the best player available, until someone tells me or us to do differently, and whatever the system is, is what it is," Laumann added. "I haven't sat down and talked to him, but I know Jerry well enough.
|"When you are drafting that high, there's a lot of pressure not to make a mistake."|
|-- White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf|
For those who believe getting selected as a top five or top 10 pick is all about glory for the draftee, well, let's just say as much pressure gets attached to the player once he joins the team as it does on the team researching the player's employment.
Take John Danks, as an example. With the ninth pick of the 2003 First-Year Player Draft, the Rangers selected this native of Round Rock, Texas. Danks immediately was set for stardom, a trip to greatness made even better by his hometown-boy-made-good status.
Life wasn't quite that easy for Danks, who admirably served as the White Sox fifth starter this season, after being acquired in an offseason trade from Texas. At a time four years ago when he should have been moving into his first college dorm room, Danks felt as if his livelihood rested on being perfect every trip to the mound.
"That took me a couple of years to figure out," said the affable Danks of adjusting to first-round fame. "I was trying to strike out everyone and put up the impressive numbers. I was pitching away from my game, and I felt like I had to come in and pitch well enough to be in the big leagues in two or three years.
"Once I figured out that they weren't going to move me or release me if I didn't pitch well, then I relaxed and started pitching a lot better. Some guys progress a little slower than others. The Jered Weavers of the world , those guys are just super human, I guess you could call them."
The current economy of baseball, where good players receive $10 million per year and great players price off the chart, opens up avenues for these top picks to reach the Majors in one or two years. Andrew Miller (Tigers, sixth pick) and Tim Lincecum (Giants, 10th pick) both served as part of their respective team's starting rotations in 2007 after being first-round picks in 2006.
These are examples of partial success stories.
Every organization has the draft misses alluded to by Reinsdorf, even high up in the first round. But for every Merchant (selected No. 2 by the Pirates in 1987), Griffin (selected No. 9 by the Cubs in 1988) and Jackson (a Chicago native and former Simeon High School great selected No. 4 by the Phillies in 1989), there's usually a corresponding Jack McDowell (No. 5 in 1987), Robin Ventura (No. 10 in 1988) and Frank Thomas (No. 7 in 1989).
Each one of these three White Sox legends was chosen after the respective aforementioned players who came up well short of their big league destiny.
"Reality has set in, and like I said, I'm excited about it," Laumann said. "Hopefully, we win our games the rest of the way and finish on a good note. If for whatever reason we don't, we'll try to take advantage of the situation presented to us."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.