NEW YORK -- The idea that the Mets will go with a pitcher in the first round of the 2004 First-Year Player Draft isn't surprising. New York has gone to the mound five times with its first pick in the last seven years and because there is a wealth of quality pitchers in the college ranks, this year's selection should make it an even half-dozen.
New York owns the third pick in the draft, which begins Monday, behind San Diego and Detroit. While the likes of Florida State shortstop Stephen Drew or Arizona State first baseman-outfielder Jeff Larish are drawing consideration, the pull of a starting pitcher who is talented enough to be in Queens by the summer of 2005 is just too great an opportunity on which to pass.
"We haven't said that we're concentrating on pitching," assistant general manager/director of baseball operations Gary LaRocque said. "But there is an abundance of it in the draft and the upper rounds may be more pitching-drafted than in recent years. We'll just have to wait and find out. Any given year it can change. It just so happens that's the way it falls this year."
So in no particular order, here are five hurlers whom New York should have a chance to grab with the No. 3 pick, at least three of which will be available when the Mets announce their selection:
• Jeff Niemann, Rice: The 6-foot-9 right-hander was 17-0 in 2003 and is 5-3 with a 3.38 ERA through 14 games this year. He has a 95-mph fastball and a devastating slider to go along with an intimidating Randy Johnson-like frame. He had arthroscopic surgery in the offseason but has begun to round back into form after a slow start.
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• Wade Townsend, Rice: Another dominating starter, Townsend has a mean fastball and the attitude to back it up. He may turn out to be the one who reaches the Major Leagues the quickest. He could end up as a closer.
• Jered Weaver, Long Beach State: The younger brother of Los Angeles starter Jeff Weaver, this hard-throwing right-hander has been dominant all season. But because he's already an attraction in Southern California, he figures to go to San Diego.
• Justin Verlander, Old Dominion: A dominating right-hander, Verlander strikes out people in bunches. He still has room to add on to an already imposing frame. He has set school and conference records for strikeouts and figures to go in the top five even if he's not chosen by the Mets.
• Phil Humber, Rice: One of a trio of talented Owls who won the College World Series clincher a year ago. Some consider him the most consistent of Rice's big three.
As for Drew, the Mets also don't appear to be scared off by some injuries or the fact that he'll be joining his brother, J.D Drew, in agent Scott Boras' camp.
"The most important thing is that we've done our work and are prepared to make the best possible selection," LaRocque said.
Past five No. 1 picks
2003 Lastings Milledge, OF
2002 Scott Kazmir, LHP
2001 Aaron Heilman, RHP
2000 William Traber, LHP
What will also benefit New York is that they have picks in the second, third and fourth rounds, selections that haven't been there in recent years because the club signed free agents and lost picks as compensation.
"When we have the picks in the second and third rounds, our track record has been solid," LaRocque said. "That's where we've gotten the David Wrights and the Bob Keppels and the Matt Petersons. They've all come from that area since 2001. We've already shown that is an important area of the draft and we're looking forward to having those picks this year. The last few years we didn't have a two or a three when some organizations were getting multiple picks there.
"It's a quality area for us and we recognize that. It's also significant that we have the third pick in each round, a pick that's not at the middle or the bottom. You're looking at 10 or 15 additional players from which to choose. That's something that we haven't had in the last two drafts and that's important."
Should New York throw everyone a curveball and go in another direction, here are some other names on which to keep an eye: Redan (Ga.) High shortstop Chris Nelson, LaGrange (Texas) High right-hander Homer Bailey, Mission Bay (Calif.) High shortstop Matt Bush and Williamsport (Md.) High right-hander Nick Adenhart.