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Young arms the order of the day
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06/04/2002 10:48 pm ET 
Young arms the order of the day
First half of draft loaded with high school pitchers
By Damon Young /

B.J. Upton, a five-tool shortstop, could be considered a six-tool player if you include his pitching ability. (courtesy Greenbrier Christian Academy)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The talent in this year's baseball draft resides in the high school ranks and the Devil Rays' first 22 picks reflected that, as they went with 14 high school prospects during the Tuesday's first rounds of baseball's annual talent show.

The day started off with a bit of uncertainty for the Rays, who didn't know until a few hours before the draft began that Pittsburgh was in fact going to take right-hander Bryan Bullington with the first pick. But once it became official, general manager Chuck LaMar, scouting director Dan Jennings and the rest of the staff sitting in the Rays' war room at Tropicana Field blew a tremendous sigh of relief, knowing they would get the man they coveted.

B.J. Upton.

Without question Upton, the Virginia prep shortstop, is considered the jewel of this draft for the Rays. Rated by many experts as the top prospect in the draft, Upton has drawn comparisons to New York's Derek Jeter throughout his career at Greenbrier Christian Academy in Chesapeake.

2002 First-Year Player Draft
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Bullington goes first
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"There were 14 shortstops and left-handed pitchers taken in first round out of 30 picks which tells you the premium on those two positions," LaMar said.

"But B.J. Upton, obviously, we thought, when its all said and done, no matter how long it takes to get here, has a chance to be the best player of that group or we wouldn't have selected him second in the country. We knew there were a lot of shortstops on the board. But with the overall package of tools, athleticism, and age, the sky's the limit. There's no ceiling on his head on how good he can be depending on how bad he wants it...There were a lot of shortstops taken but we feel like we drafted the most talented shortstop of that group."

Once the hype of the first round subsided, the real work began.

The Rays followed Upton with three consecutive high school outfielders, including Jason Pridie (Prescott, Ariz.), Tampa's own Elijah Dukes and Wesley Bankston (Plano, Tex.).

Pridie, 18, led Prescott High School to Arizona's 4-A championship this season. The 6-foot-1, 180-pound outfielder/pitcher hit .550 with 12 doubles, nine triples, 13 homers, 47 RBIs and 14 stolen bases.

"He's just a baseball player," Jennings said of the club's second pick. "He's blue-collar, a throw-back."

If Dukes, 17, decides to forgo football for the hometown Rays, he could become one more in the long line of former Hillsborough High School athletes in the Majors. Hillsborough is the alma mater of current big leaguers Carl Everett and Gary Sheffield and former All-Star pitcher Dwight Gooden, just to name a few. At 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, Dukes was one of the nation's top linebackers and running backs, eventually signing a letter of intent to play football at North Carolina State University.

"I don't think anybody expects to go in the third round," Dukes, who worked out for the club one final time Monday at Tropicana Field, said while attending a draft party at his aunt's house Tuesday night. "I thought I might go a little sooner, but I'm not disappointed."

"I really don't know yet," he said when asked what his preference, football or baseball, would be right now. Again, the Rays are confident they'll be able to get the job done.

And while the Rays began the day with four position players, pitching dominated the rest of the afternoon. The club selected 14 pitchers, including just three left-handers, in the day's final 18 rounds. In total, the club picked up one shortstop, four outfielders, three left-handed pitchers, 11 right-handed pitchers and three catchers.

One selection that caught the attention of outsiders was the team's 13th round pick -- Matt Harrington. The Matt Harrington that has been drafted each of the past two years and then refused multi-million dollar contracts. Harrington, 20, was originally drafted in the first round (No. 7 overall) by the Colorado Rockies in 2000. After a highly publicized, tense negotiation process, in which Harrington rebuffed the Rockies' reported $4 million offer, the right-handed pitcher went back into the draft.

San Diego selected Harrington in the second round last year but, again, he rejected the team's offer of $1.2 million. San Diego had until May 28 to sign the pitcher but declined after watching him work out one last time.

So why would the Rays jump into the turbulent waters with Harrington and his agent Scott Boras?

"We felt prepared to make a run at him," Jennings suggested. "We saw him in high school and liked his ability tremendously. We saw two of his outings with the (independent league) Long Beach Breakers and we sent out the same scout that some him in high school to have a before and after picture. We're glad to have the opportunity to negotiate with him.

"What we can hope is that he's ready to begin his career as a professional baseball player and get into an organization to get the main thing that he needs and that's development. He needs to get on a structured program and know that every fifth day he's going to get the ball and compete against kids his own age and experience level. We're very excited about the opportunity to bring him into the Devil Rays organization."

Is it realistic that a club, on record as wanting to hold down costs, can sign a player that has turned down two multi-million dollar contracts? Jennings thinks so.

"We took him with full intention of signing him. In any negotiation you have to put, what we call in the industry, the dollar sign on the muscle. We will make the determination of what we think his worth is and what we value his ability at this point. We have to base all our grades and what we think of Matt Harrington in 2002 ... We believe in his makeup and his desire to be a big league pitcher. We have a great relationship with him and his family and we felt 'Let's roll the dice here.' I think it's a situation that we felt as good as anybody about our chances of doing it because of (our relationship)."

And Jennings summarized his feelings about the first day of the 2002 First-Year Player Draft, saying he felt as good as anybody could

"We're very pleased with the draft that we had," Jennings concluded. "The time and commitment put in and the results, I don't think there's a better scouting staff in baseball. We are extremely happy about what we were able to day."

Now on to day two.

Rounds 23-50 will be held Wednesday, starting at 1:00 p.m. ET.

Damon P. Young is an editorial producer for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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