Top Spot Still Up In Air

There have been many conflicting reports on whom the Tampa Bay Rays are leaning towards taking with the number one pick on Thursday. Unlike going into last June, when Tampa Bay selected Vanderbilt left-hander David Price with the top pick, there is no clear-cut favorite.

There have been many conflicting reports on whom the Tampa Bay Rays are expected to select with the number one overall pick in Thursday's amateur draft. Unlike going into last June, when Tampa Bay chose Vanderbilt left-hander David Price with the top pick, there is no consensus favorite. Brian Matusz has even shown up at the top spot in some mock drafts, despite earlier reports saying the Rays had limited their list to three players, Pedro Alvarez, Tim Beckham and Buster Posey.

Although Alvarez is a Scott Boras client and missed a huge hunk of his junior season due to injury, it would not be a shock if he is the first name called on Thursday. While the Pittsburgh Pirates have shown the most interest in the Vanderbilt third baseman, he is the safest bet among a strong crop of draft-eligible corner infielders. The left-handed hitting slugger's bat will play at either corner infield spot in the future, experts say.

Whether or not Alvarez can remain at his current position, however, is not such a sure thing. Although he has a enough arm strength to remain on the left side of the infield, some scouts fear that his size/weight may become an issue, similar to Miguel Cabrera's situation this spring in Detroit. He made 10 errors in his brief campaign with the Commodores in '08, posting a .903 fielding percentage. Regardless, many scouts also feel—as does he—that he can remain at the position at the highest level.

Alvarez, elected as the National Freshman of the Year after setting the Vanderbilt single-season home run record in 2006, put up gaudy offensive statistics in his first two seasons in Nashville and with Team USA this past summer. He was named a consensus First-Team All-American as a sophomore after hitting .386, .463, .684 while leading Vanderbilt to its best finish in program history. The New York city native then delivered a strong encore with the US National squad, posting a club-best .950 OPS against some of the best international amateur competition from across the globe. The injury to his hamate bone limited his production the spring--compared to his first two collegiate campaigns at least--but he rebounded nicely to finish at .317/.424/.593 with nine home runs and 30 RBIs.

With Boras as his representation, the price tag will be high for Alvarez's services--perhaps more than $8-million, according to some rumors. In fact, expect his camp to demand a more lucrative signing bonus than his former teammate and last year's top pick, Price, received when he signed with Tampa Bay at the August 15 deadline in 2007. He is still the best pure hitter in his class, though, and it will be a surprise if he was not around when the Kansas City Royals make their selection at number three.

Despite the recent hype surrounding Posey as the safe bet at number one, some scouts are not so sure, as he does not have the upside of Alvarez or Beckham. According to one source, the Florida State backstop projects as a capable everyday catcher--with 15-to-20 home run potential--at the big-league level but not a superstar.

Posey, though, has been linked as the Rays' front runner for weeks in numerous reports. He has certainly put up prolific statistics this season for the Seminoles, hitting .472./.572/.908 through June 1. In addition, the infielder-turned-catcher ranks among national leaders with 24 home runs and 84 RBIs, although he does not project to hit for power with a wood bat in his hands. Posey, Collegiate Baseball's National Player of the Year, delivered yet again this weekend, belting four homers for Florida State, who will advance to the Super Regionals after defeating Tulane on Monday night.

The Seminoles' starting shortstop as a freshman, he is the best defensive catching prospect in the draft as well. He is also an intelligent kid with a strong head on his shoulders.

Regardless of the Rays' current starting catching situation--23-year-old starter Dioner Navarro, an above-average defender, ranks among the strongest offensive performers at this position since the '07 All-Star break--the Rays will draft on talent, not need. Navarro's hot start (.344/.382/.430) is based off of too small of sample size for Tampa Bay, an organization which has a thin crop of talent at the position down on the farm, to rule out picking Posey. The situation with club's incumbent starter is not likely to factor into the Rays' decision either way, although it is not too far-fetched to picture Posey setting up behind the the dish at Tropicana Field in the near future if Tampa Bay does uses its top pick to pursue this avenue.

Still, Beckham is a legitimate five-tool prospect who has a knack for playing the game. He has the highest upside, and is the best talent in the draft, in my opinion. Talent is the most important factor a team must base its decision on when it comes choosing amateur talent, not on filling a short-term need at the major league level. Which is why I think the Rays will end up taking the Georgia prep shortstop.

Projected top-100 pick Anthony Hewitt of Salisbury, a boarding school in Connecticut with an excellent baseball program that produced current minor leaguer Pat Bresnehan and former top draft pick Mark Rosen, has drawn some comparisons to Beckham. They are both exceptional runners with tremendous athleticism. The difference, though, is that Beckham, although he did not play the sport seriously from age 11-to-14, is not as raw. In fact, he should be able to remain at shortstop in the future. While it will take him longer to make an impact in the majors than Alvarez or Posey, he is arguably the best long-term prospect in the draft class of 2008.

All three of the aforementioned prospects are realistic possibilities to be taken at the top of the draft. The Tampa Bay organization has been discrete about its plans, however, and whomever they decide to take at number one will remain a secret until commissioner Bud Selig steps up to the podium in Lake Buena Vista on Thursday afternoon.

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