The Yankees have four selections in the first 42 picks of this year's First-Year Player Draft, giving the team an unusual chance to rebuild a system that has been depleted by trades and injuries.
New York lost its first-round pick (28th overall) for signing Paul Quantrill, as well as its second-rounder (69th) for signing fellow reliever Tom Gordon. But unlike recent years, the Yankees didn't just sign free agents -- they lost some as well.
As a result, New York received two selections (Nos. 23, 37) when Andy Pettitte left for Houston and two more (41, 42) when fellow left-hander David Wells signed with San Diego.
With four early selections, Mark Newman, the organization's senior vice president of baseball operations, calls the 2004 draft a "huge opportunity" for the Yankees to stock up on solid prospects.
"We rarely have extra picks, and our scouts understand that," Newman said. "It's critical that we replenish the system."
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Newman believes that this year's draft is all about pitching, based on the players available. With several of the club's top pitching prospects (including Triple-A hurlers Jorge De Paula and Danny Borrell) recovering from Tommy John surgery, New York needs to add some young arms in the June 7-8 draft.
"It's very pitching-heavy," Newman said of the Class of 2004. "I think it's a very weak draft in terms of position players. It probably tilts more toward pitching than any year in recent memory."
So the odds are that the Yankees will focus on pitching, especially since this draft class seems overloaded with quality college arms.
"You'd have to bet on that going in, just based on where the strength of the talent is in the draft," Newman said. "But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so it's hard to predict how other clubs will act or react as the draft goes on."
While pitching seems to be the obvious target, Newman said that the team plans to take the best available player. No matter what the needs may be in the organization on draft day, those needs are sure to change in the three or four years it will take the prospects to make it to the Majors.
"By the time these guys are ready to play in the big leagues, your needs are different," Newman said. "It's hard to project what your needs are down the road. We don't try to force the issue on positional needs."
Although most people are projecting some of this year's draftees (such as Long Beach State's Jered Weaver, younger brother of former Yankee hurler Jeff Weaver) as "can't miss" prospects, Newman doesn't think there's any such thing.
"It's impossible to label a guy 'can't miss,'" Newman said. "Mark Prior may have been as close as they come, but with injuries and how many things can go wrong on the way to the Majors, you never know for sure."
The Yankees, as it has been well-documented, drafted Prior out of high school in the second round in 1998, but he chose to go to college instead. Prior was eventually taken with the second pick overall by the Chicago Cubs in 2001.
Past five No. 1 picks
2003 Eric Duncan, IF
2001 John Ford-Griffin, 3B
2000 David Parrish, C
1999 Danny Walling, RHP
Although this year's draft seems loaded with college players, New York has taken high school players in the early rounds of the last two drafts. Last year, the Yankees selected high schoolers in each of the first three rounds. In 2002, New York didn't pick until the third round, taking Brandon Weeden, a high school hurler who was sent to Los Angeles with Weaver in December as part of the trade for right-hander Kevin Brown.
"We don't have a bias toward one or the other," Newman said. "College players may be more mature and may move a little faster [toward the Majors], but that's assuming the two players were equal in ability. If a high school player has more ability, it's an easy choice."
Newman feels that the difference between high school and college players is "more of an academic distinction than a real world distinction," adding that a scout's job is the same either way.
"You may see college players against better competition, and they may be more mature, physically," Newman said. "There's less projection with a college player, but as scouts, you have to project. That's the essence of scouting.
"You have to evaluate a pitcher independent of the competition to a large extent. The competition he'll ultimately be facing is so far advanced of high school or college, so you have to take that into account."
Newman believes that this year's draft is one of the two most important the club has had in the past decade, joining the 2001 draft. That year, the Yankees had three of the first 42 picks, receiving selections when pitchers Denny Neagle and Jeff Nelson left via free agency.
"It's a unique opportunity for us. Our scouts are excited by that opportunity. It's a very important draft," Newman said. "They're all important, but when you have some extra picks, you have to take advantage of it."