ST. PETERSBURG -- The Devil Rays have traditionally taken the best player available in the First-Year Player Draft, and this year that philosophy might fit perfectly with their needs as well.
The Devil Rays need pitching, for the immediate future and beyond, and that's just what is at the top of most teams' list.
"There is some real good depth early in the draft," said Cam Bonifay, the Rays' director of player personnel and scouting. "Yes, there are many fine college pitchers, but there are some very good high school pitchers as well.''
The Rays have taken position players with their top pick all but two times since they started drafting in 1996. Only once in the past six drafts (RHP Dewon Brazelton in 2001) have they gone for a pitcher. They have never taken a high school pitcher in the first round.
"We don't try to get too smart," Bonifay said. "We try to keep an open mind going into the draft."
The Rays pick fourth this year, after having one of the top two picks in each of the last two drafts. Tampa Bay has had one of the top six picks every season since 2000, when outfielder Rocco Baldelli was selected from Bishop Hendricken High in Warwick, R.I.
Bonifay and his staff have pared the list of their potential first-round picks to six. He declined to be specific but said it included pitchers and position players from high school and college.
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The Padres, Tigers and Mets have the picks in front of the Rays and the projections are that Long Beach State right-hander Jered Weaver will not make it to the fourth pick. The Rays also might not get a shot at Old Dominion right-hander Justin Verlander or Rice right-hander Jeff Niemann.
If any of those three pitchers drop to the Rays' pick, they will be very interested. The Rays also like the two other Rice right-handers, Philip Humber and Wade Townsend, with Humber maybe their favorite of the two. All three Rice pitchers are juniors who are very big, throw hard and have good control.
Past five No. 1 picks
2003 Delmon Young, OF
2002 B.J. Upton, SS
2001 Dewon Brazelton, RHP
2000 Rocco Baldelli, CF
1999 Josh Hamilton, OF
Any of those pitchers would fit well with Tampa Bay's long-term plan to develop young position players first and then go after pitchers. The time to switch would appear to be now. On their 40-man roster, the Rays have at least seven position players, 27 and under, who have the potential to become Major League All-Stars.
Brazelton remains a top pitching prospect, along with 23-year-old right-hander Seth McClung, but the Rays do not have enough depth of quality starters. They most likely will try to trade for or sign one or two starters this off-season, but this draft offers an excellent opportunity.
"Our philosophy has always been that we're going to take the very best player available," said general manager Chuck LaMar. "Whether that player is a pitcher this year remains to be seen."
The Rays could consider a high school pitcher, such as right-hander Homer Bailey of LaGrange, Texas. He might be on their list of finalists. But they probably would want a pitcher who could help them sooner than Bailey might be ready.
Or, of the position players in the draft, the Rays might consider Florida State shortstop Stephen Drew or shortstop Chris Nelson of Redan High in Decatur, Ga.
But with shortstop B.J. Upton now in Class AAA and Julio Lugo playing well, the Rays should be set in the middle infield for a while.
No matter whom they take, the Rays will know the player well. Most of their top scouts and front office personnel, including Bonifay and LaMar, have been studying the best players up close for quite a while. They have spent a lot of time at college tournaments and individual workouts as well.
"Our people have done an outstanding job," Bonifay said. "Along with our cross-checkers and (special assistant to the GM) Tim Wilken and (assistant GM) Bart Braun, we have had as many guys out working as ever before. They haven't taken any days off in the last month. And our scouting supervisors have done a good job with recommendations."