Day One of the Draft.
Things didn’t start well for Texas last night, as Brennan Boesch connected with the home run porch to give Detroit a 3-0 lead before Colby Lewis had recorded an out.
One minute later, the Mets drafted Wyoming high school outfielder Brandon Nimmo, the first of the players tied to the Rangers in recent mocks, with the 13th overall pick.
Forty minutes after that, Boesch hit his second bomb of the game, something called Andy Dirks hit a home run of his own, and Toronto used pick number 21 on Massachusetts high school righthander Tyler Beede, another player who had been connected with Texas, minutes after which Alex Avila became the fourth Tiger to take Lewis deep, and the third in the third inning alone.
But then, at 8:28 p.m., after Lewis had been chased, Endy Chavez ran down a blast to right center field and Ian Kinsler made a terrific play to his left, firing to Michael Kirkman at first to get an out, as Boston used its second pick (26th overall) on New Mexico high school catcher Blake Swihart, not on Dallas Jesuit outfielder Josh Bell, a player whose reportedly massive price tag and solid commitment to the University of Texas had caused predictions of a first-round free-fall to take shape. With six more picks to go before the Rangers were on the clock, it looked like only Tampa Bay (at 31 and 32) posed a legitimate threat to keep Bell from being available to Texas.
Then, a Cruz missile and a Yorvit Torrealba double and a run-scoring Kinsler single, with Kirkman throwing the ball well, and Texas was back within four runs, with the game not even half over.
The Rays took LSU outfielder Mikie Mahtook at 31, which I figured meant Bell was going to be there at 33 – if Tampa Bay was going to risk one of its 10 Day One picks on a huge signability risk like Bell, you would expect they’d have used 31 to do it, and not 32, since they’d get a compensation pick the next year at the same slot if they failed to sign him.
Tampa Bay took Nevada high school shortstop Jake Hager at 32. Bell was available to Texas. As were Travis Harrison, Josh Osich, and Brian Goodwin, all players who had shown up in at least one mock in the last week or two as a projected Rangers selection.
But then the Tigers tacked on another run, again off Boesch’s bat (this time just a double), and the Rangers made their pick at 33, taking not Bell or Harrison or Osich or Goodwin, but Georgia high school lefthander Kevin Matthews.
Washington then took Goodwin at 34, leaving Toronto and Boston once again in the Rangers’ way – and the Jays took a high school outfielder but it wasn’t Bell (it was Jacob Anderson), while Boston went for high school lefthander Henry Owens.
The Rangers did go for an outfielder at number 37, but rather than Bell (the number 15 talent in the draft in Baseball America’s estimation), it was Georgia junior Zach Cone (number 86 for BA).
At the end of the night, after 60 players had been selected in the first and supplemental first rounds, Bell was not one of them, a pretty clear signal that clubs believe him when he says he’s going to college. Someone will take a flier on him early today, but nobody wanted to use a Day One pick on the power prospect. (I’m still a bit surprised the Rays didn’t take a shot, since they had 10 of last night’s 60 picks and could have essentially deferred the Bell pick for use on someone else next year if he didn’t sign, thereby giving their 2012 draft more strength, or maybe deferring a couple other of those 10 picks by virtue of paying Bell’s price to sign him.)
As for the players Texas did take, we’ll get to a breakdown on Matthews and Cone in a moment, but it seems to me that before we really know what we have in those two, we do know that Monday was the latest big night for another top prospect in the Rangers system: Georgia/North Florida area scout Ryan Coe.
Texas hired Coe a year and a half ago after he’d coached for 12 years at Kennesaw State University. Don’t ask me how you decide that a college baseball coach would make a reliable area scout, but Texas brought Coe on just before the 2010 high school and college seasons got underway, and he made an instant impact. Texas drafted Georgia high school outfielders Jake Skole and Jordan Akins with its initial first-round pick and its third-rounder last year, and then took promising University of Georgia righthander Justin Grimm in the fifth round, all three on Coe’s recommendation. The Rangers employ between 15 and 20 area scouts responsible for scouring the country for draft talent. In his first-ever draft as a scout, Coe was responsible for three of the club’s first eight picks in 2010.
And for both of its Day One picks in 2011.
I don’t have any idea whether Matthews and Cone were brilliant finds or questionable reaches, but given that no other team called Josh Bell’s name, I’m not as disappointed not to be writing about him this morning as I would have been if he’d gone to Toronto at 35 or Boston at 36 or 40 or Tampa Bay at 38 or 41 or 42 or 52 or 56 or 59 or 60.
Plus, I suppose it’s not out of the question that Texas could be the team that takes a flier on Bell sometime this morning. So thinks Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus, who said in a late-night chat session: “Gotta say, I think a later-round shot at Bell for the Rangers could be in the cards.”
On to Matthews and Cone, both of whom are now Rangers property by virtue of the departure of Cliff Lee to Philadelphia via free agency:
1st round (33rd overall, pick awarded for loss of Cliff Lee). KEVIN MATTHEWS, LHP, Richmond Hill High School (Ga.) (scout: Ryan Coe)
(last year’s first-round picks: Jake Skole and Kellin Deglan; recent Rangers first-round picks include Matt Purke, Justin Smoak, Blake Beavan, Michael Main, Kasey Kiker, Thomas Diamond, Mark Teixeira, John Danks, Carlos Pena; best number 33 pick in last 25 years: Dave Burba [Mariners, 1987])
Rangers Director of Amateur Scouting Kip Fagg said of Matthews, “He’s very athletic and a kid whose makeup is special,” using that word that Don Welke talked about over the weekend. “We see big upside with him in a small frame,” Fagg continued. “He’s got athleticism, three-pitch mix, strikes, competitiveness. There are a lot of things you can say are special with this kid.”
But the most economical, descriptive note I saw on Matthews was Jason Parks’s comment that a scout he trusts called the 18-year-old “a more athletic [Robbie] Erlin.” That I can get my head wrapped around.
Matthews stands just 5’11” – yet can dunk a basketball (a meme likely to follow him with even more force than the fact that last year’s second-rounder Cody Buckel starred in his high school’s production of “High School Musical”) – and he pitches “with a chip,” says Fagg, working in the 90-mph range with a curve and change that offer promise if not polish. Baseball America ranked him as the draft’s number 105 prospect, comparing him to Rangers farmhands Robbie Ross and Kasey Kiker (a somewhat lazy comparison that seems apt only in terms of build, given how differently those two have developed) and even invoking a Billy Wagner reference, though he doesn’t feature the same type of velocity. BA does refer to a “consensus . . . that he’s a future reliever due to the effort in his delivery,” and Keith Law (ESPN) agrees, questioning whether Matthews has the durability to pitch every fifth day.
Yes, Matthews’s Twitter handle is “UVAbound11,” but it looks like the last time he tweeted anything was in February, so I wouldn’t worry too much about whether he’ll sign rather than honor a commitment to the University of Virginia. The Rangers are confident that he wants to sign and will do so quickly.
Goldstein responded as follows when one Rangers fan challenged the pick since all the projections had Matthews available at least a round later: “[T]eams take guys they like. Let me [make] this clear. The Rangers or the Rays or the A’s or whoever really couldn’t give a rat’s @ss what myself, or Keith Law or Jim Callis think about a guy. That’s who they like. I understand the Matthews pick, he’s a Rangers kind of guy with a very clean arm who might be undervalued.”
Much of the immediate reaction when Texas used a third-round pick on Erlin in 2009 was that he’d have gone higher if he weren’t under six feet tall. Erlin’s height is no longer much of a bullet point as he marches toward the big leagues.
If Matthews really turns out to be “a more athletic Erlin,” nobody will question Texas spending the 33rd pick in the draft on him.
Supplemental 1st round (37th overall, pick awarded for loss of Cliff Lee). ZACH CONE, OF, University of Georgia (scout: Ryan Coe)
(last year’s supplemental first-round picks: Luke Jackson and Mike Olt; recent Rangers supplemental first-round picks include Tanner Scheppers, Julio Borbon, Tommy Hunter, Neil Ramirez, Colby Lewis, Chad Hawkins; best number 37 pick in last 25 years: Adam Jones [Mariners, 2003])
The draft industry loved Cone after his sophomore year at Georgia – two years after he’d been taken by the Angels with the final pick in 2008’s supplemental third round, 11 spots before Texas took righthander Joe Wieland in the fourth round – but a freak baseball accident derailed his junior season and made him a non-factor on Day One in the eyes of most folks who cover the baseball draft.
Cone hit .363/.403/.627 for the Bulldogs in 2010, leading to pre-season All-America recognition and prompting BA’s Jim Callis to write a year ago that he profiled as a first-round pick this season and that he “[m]ight be the best athlete in the 2011 college crop.” But he collided with fellow Bulldogs outfielder Jonathan Taylor as they converged on a looping line drive in March, leaving Taylor (who weighed 20 pounds less than the 200-lb. Cone) partially paralyzed with a neck injury after his head struck Cone’s hip. He may not walk again. The 21-year-old Cone was fortunate to come away with only a concussion. He slumped all season at the plate, hitting .275/.331/.385, and scouts believe his arm regressed as well.
Still, BA ranked Cone as this year’s number 86 draft prospect, banking on his “big tools” and “pro body” and noting last night that he remains “[a]mong [the] draft’s best athletes.” Yet Goldstein (“I just don’t get” the pick) and Law (“Really?”) weren’t crazy about the selection. The Rangers believe they are buying low, basically. They believe he’s a plus-plus center fielder (perhaps among the best in the college ranks) whose issues at the plate can be corrected with proper coaching – in other words, the back half of the scouting and player development equation. The bat speed and raw power are there, and he’s a plus runner (measured at 4.05 to first, 6.45 in the 60).
Don’t bother asking what the selection of Cone says about the organization’s belief in Julio Borbon or Leonys Martin or Engel Beltre or Ryan Strausborger or Café Martinez or Jake Skole. Texas never drafts for need, the corollary of which is that the club won’t cross a player off the board (particularly a pitcher or a position player who plays up the middle) just because there’s already organizational depth at the position.
Given the suggestion that Matthews and Cone will sign quickly, it stands to reason that neither are demanding signing bonuses much over slot, if at all. Does that mean Texas is planning to roll the dice today on a signability case or two? Possibly. (We should also remember that the club committed $15.5 million to Martin a month ago, and there’s the chance that Texas has some other things cooking in this summer’s July 2 international class that the draft budget has to be weighed against.)
Could Josh Bell be on the Rangers’ radar? It’s certainly possible. Someone is going to test the strength of his commitment to play collegiately (especially with the looming spectre of hard slotting in the next collective bargaining agreement). But even if Texas has Bell near the top of its board as things get rolling this morning, there are rumors that Detroit will use its first pick, number 76 overall in this morning’s second round, to take him. Texas won’t make its first selection today until number 83.
But Monday’s festivities laid waste to the collection of predraft prognostications to a greater extent than any first round in memory, so it’s not worth assuming that the Tigers are primed to call Bell’s name, or that Bell is high on the Rangers’ board, or on their board at all. We’ll know what we need to know soon enough.
While I haven’t seen Matthews or Cone play, or Bell or Harrison or Osich for that matter, I’ll be the first to admit, if based on nothing other than the online projections that I’ve read (and the promise of discarded financial handcuffs), that the Rangers’ first two picks seemed a bit surprising.
But if Matthews steps onto the field in a pro uniform and starts to produce like Erlin or Ross, and if Cone takes to coaching and starts to erase all the doubts and realize the potential that his toolbox hints at, then we can get on with putting aside Monday night’s question marks like a three-homer inning served up by one of the leaders of your rotation, and moving forward.