OAKLAND -- Thanks to their seemingly annual exodus of free agents, the A's are once again primed to stock their minor league system through the June 7 draft. Two years ago, when Jason Giambi jumped to the Yankees, Johnny Damon ran to the Red Sox and Jason Isringhausen cashed in with the Cardinals, the A's were left, through compensatory picks granted to teams that lose marquee free agents, with seven of the first 39 selections.
This year, after Miguel Tejada bolted for Baltimore and Keith Foulke bailed for Boston, Oakland has five of the first 49 picks and six picks before the third round.
"Because of the way we do business," general manager Billy Beane said in an obvious reference to Oakland's restrictive big-league payroll, "this is probably a more crucial time for us than a lot of other clubs."
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The early rounds are particularly key to the A's because those are where teams typically find their future studs.
There are exceptions, of course.
A's ace Tim Hudson, for instance, was a sixth-round pick in 1997, and New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza was drafted by the Dodgers in the 62nd round (1988) as a family favor.
But by and large, if a team's going to make hay in the draft, it's going to make hay right away.
"We have to make sure we hit on our high picks," Beane says, "because that's where Major Leaguers come from."
Recent A's examples: Eric Chavez went 10th overall in the 1996 draft. Mark Mulder was the second overall pick in 1998. Barry Zito went ninth overall in 1999, and Bobby Crosby went 25th in 2001.
"We do have a pretty good track record in that regard," Beane says.
The record also reveals that the A's don't always end up developing the talent they take in June. Jeremy Bonderman, now a part of the Tigers' rotation, was picked by Oakland right behind Crosby in 2001, but was traded a year later in a deal that brought Ted Lilly and two prospects to the A's.
One of those prospects was later used to land Erubiel Durazo.
"We've traded a lot of good young players in the past," Beane concedes. "But you have to give up something significant to get something of significance, and we've done pretty well in using the draft not only to get players we want for ourselves, but also to compile trading chips for down the road."
So with that philosophy in mind, don't expect the A's to shy away from any particular type of player this year.
Yes, they have Chavez locked up at third base for six more years, and Beane says that they have three promising third basemen -- Adam Morrissey, Mark Teahan and Brian Snyder -- in the system. But if a hotshot hot corner guy is there when the A's are on the board early, they won't hesitate to take him.
"Very rare is the occasion that we draft for need," Beane explains. "And quality position players are very hard to find later in the draft."
Past five No. 1 picks Year Player 2003 Bradley Sullivan, RHP 2002 Nicholas Swisher, 1B 2001 Bobby Crosby, SS 2000 None 1999 Barry Zito, LHP
That said, A's fans know very well that their team is built on pitching, and Beane makes a point to mention that power-hitting outfielders have been scarce in recent drafts. This probably explains why Baseball America is predicting that Oakland will take Stanford University outfielder Danny Putnam and University of Texas ace Huston Street with its top two picks, 24th and 26th overall.
Putnam, a 5-foot-10, 200-pounder who hits from the left side, has the plate patience that the A's so covet to match his pop. Street, at 5-foot-11 and 179 pounds, is built a little like Hudson and has a similarly enticing mixture of power (35 strikeouts in his first 35 innings this year) and control (nine walks).
Beane won't comment on any specific players, but it's no secret that he prefers college talent over prep prospects.
"We'll go after a high school position player with the right demographics. Do they go to school in a heavily populated area? Is the competition they face good? These are the questions we ask," says Beane, who was Oakland's assistant GM when the A's apparently got the answers they needed before plucking Chavez out of Mt. Carmel High in San Diego.
"But do we lean toward college kids?" Beane continues. "Sure. We like to get a return on our investment as quickly as possible."