When talent and a revamped draft collide, McCullers left in limbo



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Sat. June 2, 2012 | Laura Keeley | Email

When talent and a revamped draft collide, McCullers left in limbo

TAMPA — In the past four days, Lance McCullers has been named the best high school baseball player in the country, was mentioned in conjunction with Friday night’s trivia question during the Tampa Bay Rays broadcast, and appeared on both the cover of Baseball America magazine and ESPN’s SportsCenter.

On the field, he was the ace for nationally ranked Jesuit High, surrendering just two earned runs in 77.1 innings for a 0.18 ERA. He faced 310 batters as a senior and struck out 140 of them (45 percent). To end his year, McCullers threw 136 pitches for the win in the Class 6A region finals before turning around and throwing 93 more over six scoreless innings in the state semifinals.
Perfect Game had him ranked the No. 1 prospect in his class for three years. Last season, sports agent Scott Boras made him the same type of binder that MLB all-stars such as Alex Rodriguez and Prince Fielder received in their free agent years (both signed for more than $200 million).
Despite all this, ESPN does not currently project McCullers to be a first-round draft pick in Monday’s MLB first-year players draft. Neither Perfect Game nor Baseball America has him in the top 10 picks. The reasoning has nothing to do with his talent, but everything to do with money and signability.
“It’s frustrating, the whole draft thing is frustrating,” McCullers said. “I’ve done nothing than get better since I’ve been ranked No. 1 forever, and no one in the country had a better year than me on the hill.
 “If Major League Baseball wants to undervalue me, then I’ll show them what I’m really about three years from now.”
• • •
When MLB players and owners signed a new collective bargaining agreement last July, the draft underwent significant changes. Each team has a certain amount of money available to distribute as bonuses to its first 10-round draft picks. Each draft spot, from No. 1 to No. 338, has a slotted value, with most picks having significantly lower values attached than in past years.
Take, for example, the No. 5 pick, which ESPN does note as a “possibility” for McCullers. Last year’s No. 5, Bubba Starling (one of McCullers’s good buddies from their USA Baseball days), received a $7.5 million bonus. This year’s No. 5 is slotted for $3.5 million. The 11th pick, where Baseball America currently projects McCullers, has a slot bonus value of $2.65 million. Last year’s 96th overall pick received $4.4 million.
“It puts the team in a good situation because they can present to the player, ‘Here’s what we have to work with, you either take it or leave it,’” McCullers said. “I think it’s going to push a lot of high school guys who wouldn’t have considered going to school more in that direction.”
Unlike in the NFL and NBA, where teams' top draft players are expected to play right away, the MLB draft places a higher value on projection and potential. 
Take Byron Buxton, a 6-foot-1, 175-pound outfielder from Georgia who now is the consensus top high school pick. It's readily acknowledged that Buxton hasn't faced much top-flight pitching since he didn't do much on the showcase circuit and played football in the fall. But he's fast and still has room to fill out his frame, leading ESPN to say, "There's no player with more upside available in this draft pool."
Contrast that to McCullers, who is seen as fully grown at 6-foot-2, 205 pounds and has been tracked by colleges and scouts before he entered high school. 
"I’ve probably talked to more scouts and executives, including GMs, about McCullers this year than anyone else," said Keith Law, who makes ESPN's mock drafts, in his Thursday podcast. "He’s seen as having a high price tag and extremely strong commitment to Florida. Guys like that are tough. ...He could easily end up, five six years from now we're talking about him as 'why didn't he go in the top five overall picks?'" 
McCullers has committed to Florida, currently ranked the best colligate team in the country. If he decides to play in college, he would have to spend at least three years in Gainesville before he could be drafted again.
“He kind of has a little bit of big man on campus personality to him,” said David Rawnsley, Perfect Game’s national director of scouting. “He’s a guy you could really see fitting in at the University of Florida and would probably really enjoy it, and I think everyone is aware of that. He’s not a wide-eyed, naïve high school kid. He’s a very intelligent, sophisticated young man.”
Jesuit coach Richie Warren, who has taught McCullers in his American government and economics class and managed him for four years on the diamond, has another adjective to describe McCullers.
“Amazing,” Warren said after McCullers accepted the Gatorade national Player of the Year award Thursday. “He’s quite amazing.”
• • •
When he’s not on a baseball field, McCullers likes to go golfing and fishing with his dad, former MLB pitcher Lance Sr., younger twin brothers Ryan and Austin, and other buddies from the team. 
During games, McCullers is all business, throwing 96 mph in the first inning and in the seventh, dispelling the notion that many observers suggested this winter, that he didn’t have the mechanics, control or stamina to be a starter in the big leagues (at this point, analysts from ESPN, Perfect Game and Baseball America agree that he projects as a starter). The onfield results speak for themselves.
Yet the signability questions remain.
McCullers and his family selected the Boras Corporation to advise them through the draft process. The agent, with his infamous player binders full of projections and analysis (the Baseball Hall of Fame requested the one he made for Rodriguez) has a history of landing draft picks large contracts.
“If anyone is going to know what to do in this draft, it’s going to be him,” McCullers said of Boras. 
McCullers plans to watch Monday’s first round surrounded by family and a few close friends at his North Tampa home. There wasn’t a TV broadcast in 1982, when McCullers Sr. was taken in the second round. 
“I was at the beach when I got drafted," McCullers Sr. said. "I had to call in to my mom and dad, that’s how I found out,” he said. 
Regardless of the outcome, McCullers' statistics, the material that made him the best high school player in the nation, will still stand.
“He’s had an absolutely huge season,” said Jason A. Churchill, part of ESPN’s draft coverage. “Statistically, it’s one of the best seasons we’ve seen in a long time from a high school pitcher.”

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