When it comes to my first-hand knowledge of the talent available in baseball’s amateur draft, I am what Seattle Mariners manager Eric Wedge would call a “yahoo.”
I’m not proud of being a yahoo – definition: “a crude, brutish or obscenely coarse person” – but neither am I ashamed, because just about everybody else not affiliated with a professional baseball scouting department is also a yahoo. Without having seen any of the top college prospects in this year’s class (or, for that matter, any of the top high school prospects), it’s easier to be a yahoo than to contribute an expert opinion.
And yet I’m optimistic about the Mariners’ chances of selecting a position player of impact Monday, when Seattle will follow Houston and Minnesota in the first round. Of course, I am assuming the Mariners will take a position player. If they use their top pick on a pitcher, as they have five times in the past six years, my reaction will be crude, brutish and obscenely course.
Besides, it seems to me the Mariners can’t go wrong. (Well, OK, sure they can – it’s a draft – but you understand what I mean.) At least three intriguing position players figure to be on their wish list, and even if the Astros and Twins claim two of them, the Mariners will be assured the third.
Some introductions are in order.
• Outfielder Byron Buxton, from Baxley, Ga., is considered to be the best high school baseball player in the U.S. Buxton is that rare teenage athlete who has renounced basketball and football to dwell on the more difficult task of discerning breaking pitches from fastballs with a bat in his hands. He’s fast (31 stolen bases in 32 attempts as a senior), strong (he put on a show last summer at the home run derby before the Under Armour All-America game in Chicago), and throws hard enough to have whiffed 93 batters in 46 innings as a pitcher this season.
A National League scout told Baseball America that Buxton is “probably the best player I’ve scouted.” The scout wasn’t referring to this year. He was referring to the best player he’s scouted, period.
“It’s the best tool package I’ve seen in 10 years, and he has the potential to hit,” the scout continued. “This kind of athlete doesn’t play our sport. He’s unique to our game. The ones we get don’t have a feel for the game. This guy does.”
• The University of Florida’s Mike Zunino, ranked as the top college position player, profiles as an above-average catcher. After Zunino hit 19 home runs in 2011, his bat cooled a bit this season as opponents pitched around him, but the son of Reds scout Greg Zunino has drawn raves for his inclination to serve as a take-charge field general behind the plate.
If the idea of the Mariners using a No. 3 overall draft choice on a catcher revives memories of Jeff Clement – the 2005 first-rounder from USC that Seattle took instead of Long Beach State shortstop Troy Tulowitzki – it shouldn’t. Clement was seen less as a catching prospect than a project whose upside was his left-handed power.
Oops. It turned out Clement had more trouble hitting big-league pitches than he did catching them. A better comparison to Zunino might be Jason Varitek, the Mariners’ first choice in the 1994 draft.
• Shortstop Carlos Correa is expected to become the highest-drafted player ever drafted out of Puerto Rico. At 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, Correa, who is only 17, might not be finished growing – in which case third base could be his ultimate destination. Or maybe not. Correa has been a shortstop since the age of 6.
“I’m going to work for it,” Correa told Baseball America. “I’m going to work hard to stay at short because that’s my position. I love to play there.”
Aside from their status as the sort of position players the Mariners ought to be coveting, Buxton, Zunino and Correa share something else in common: Those who are familiar with them gush about the humility and team-oriented attitude they bring to the field.
Buxton’s high school coach, Jeremy Smith, has described the outfielder as “a better person than a player.” Correa’s coach at the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy, Carlos Berroa, lauds the shortstop’s “good heart” and “very strong family background,” calling him “a special kid.”
He’s also a bright one: Correa is planning to graduate from high school with a 4.0 grade-point average and has a full scholarship lined up at the University of Miami in the unlikely event he turns down a first-round signing bonus.
Zunino’s coach at Florida, Kevin O’Sullivan, recently offered this scouting report on the Gators’ three-year starter: “Tremendous player. Tremendous kid. Great work ethic. Great leader. He’s the total package.”
See what I mean about the Mariners not going wrong Monday? One of these three is guaranteed to be available, and if either the Twins or Astros select a pitcher – Stanford right-hander Mark Appel is regarded to be the ace of the 2012 draft class – Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik will find himself facing a deliciously appealing quandary.
A prediction: If Buxton still is there, the Mariners buck a franchise trend and select a high school outfielder with their No. 1 choice (they did that in 1987, when they landed some Cincinnati kid named Ken Griffey Jr.).
If Buxton is off the board, the Mariners probably take Zunino – the safest pick in the draft – but don’t be shocked if they roll the dice on Correa.
However it shakes, as long as the first-round draft choice swings a bat, and has the potential to swing that bat 500 times a season, I’ll be one happy yahoo.john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com