10 Degrees: Never too late to draft superstar

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

Albert Pujols(notes) awoke from his two-month slumber this week. He had been Sleeping Ugly, prince of underachievement, flusher of $300 million dreams, and while the speculation about Pujols' impending free agency causing his drought never made much sense, neither did the apparent lack of cause for the deepest funk of his career.

If this jag continues and Pujols returns to his position as the preeminent Mr. Sandman for pitchers, eventually he will reflect upon the dark days that just a week ago saw him with a slugging percentage on the wrong side of .400. Within the last seven days, Pujols has raised it nearly 80 points, the sort of jump generally reserved for early in the season when numbers fluctuate like radon readings.

Albert Pujols went from 13th round pick in 1999 to NL Rookie of the Year in 2001.

Home runs in all three games of St. Louis' sweep of Chicago, including back-to-back walkoff jobs in extra innings, were enough to push the Cardinals into a virtual tie with Philadelphia for the best record in the major leagues. It marked the 19th time since Pujols' debut in 2001 that he homered in at least three consecutive games, behind only Alex Rodriguez's(notes) 23 such streaks. They have been baseball's best hitters since Barry Bonds' removal, and it's Rodriguez's record $275 million contract that Pujols will try to exceed.

Money matters to Pujols, even if he sloughs off such talk. In 1999, when the Cardinals drafted him in the 13th round out of Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City, Mo., they offered $10,000 to sign. Indignant, Pujols played in a summer league, dominated and ended up signing for $60,000.

On the day the 2011 draft begins (7 p.m. ET, MLB Network), Pujols is among the greatest reminders that the science of scouting proves fallible yearly. Million-dollar bonus babies bust. Thousand-dollar dart throws hit treble 20. And guys like …

1. Albert Pujols somehow drop to the 402nd overall pick. The mechanics behind the descent remain fascinating more than a decade later. Scouts didn't see Pujols sticking at shortstop, where he was playing, and worried about his thick body turning fat, and weren't sure if his bat would project enough at a corner-infielder or -outfield position, and didn't believe he was really 19 years old.

So he fell. Baltimore picked seven times in the first round and chose Mike Paradis, Rich Stahl, Larry Bigbie, Keith Reed, Joshua Cenate, Scott Rice and Brian Roberts(notes). They whiffed 10 more times before St. Louis took Pujols. San Diego went 0-for-17, too. Kansas City, the city in which Pujols played high school and college ball, took 16 players in the first 13 rounds, none named Pujols.

There must be something about positionally uncertain, 19-year-old Dominican émigrés dropping in the draft, because …

2. Jose Bautista(notes), who during Pujols' nap stole his title as Scariest Hitter Around, didn't go until the 20th round of the 2000 draft. Like Pujols, Bautista played at a juco, Chipola College in Florida, where he teamed with Russell Martin(notes). And like Pujols, Bautista's ultimate place on the field was nebulous.

The Pittsburgh Pirates just knew he could hit and grabbed him under the defunct draft-and-follow rules, which allowed a team to take a high school player in a late round and sign him before the following draft as long as he played juco ball. Bautista impressed the Pirates enough to warrant $500,000, equivalent to second-round money, so it's not like he was a complete afterthought.

Still, the regard for him was higher than another …

Jorge Posada

3. Beneficiary of draft-and-follow rules, Jorge Posada(notes), who spent a year at a juco in rural Alabama playing … shortstop. The Yankees signed him as a 24th-round pick anyway.

Posada's long conversion to catcher proved fruitful for more than a decade, though it prompted the current contract that continues to weigh down the Yankees' lineup today. Unable to catch anymore, Posada would be a wonderful DO – designated outmaker – if such a role existed. As designated hitter, he's woefully underperformed, even after his self-benching episode. Pre-tantrum: .165/.272/.349. Post-tantrum: .216/.340/.351.

Only one player older than Posada remains in the major leagues after being a late-round – 10th and beyond – pick: Jim Thome(notes), who went to Cleveland in 1989 as a … shortstop. Thome's survival is remarkable considering the paths of those around him. Eric Young(notes), who went as a 43rd-round pick, now has a son in the major leagues. Eric Wedge (third round) is a manager, Jerry Dipoto (third round) is a former general manager and Mike Milchin (second round) is an agent.

Thome became the last man standing in the Class of '89 following the retirements this year of Gregg Zaun(notes), Trevor Hoffman(notes) and Russ Springer(notes), who …

4. Spent parts of the 2008 season sharing the Cardinals' clubhouse with Jaime Garcia(notes). The Orioles' flub with Garcia in the late rounds of the 2004 draft led to perhaps the greatest late round of all time: the 22nd round in 2005.

Even if none of the other 27 players from the round make the major leagues, the triumvirate of Garcia, Atlanta ace Tommy Hanson(notes) and burgeoning Florida star Logan Morrison(notes) gives the 22nd three potential All-Stars this season – none of whom is older than 24.

Baltimore wanted to sign Garcia after taking him in the 30th round in '04. Joe Almaraz, then an Orioles scout, told the New York Times the team refused to give him the necessary money because Garcia had not done well on a test the team gave its prospective signees. Turns out, Almaraz said, the test was mistranslated and Garcia had no chance of scoring high.

Hanson and Morrison were among the final draft-and-follows. MLB eliminated the practice in 2007. Still in practice is the draft-and-unfollow, which …

Heath Bell

5. Heath Bell(notes) experienced in 1997. Tampa Bay chose him in the 69th round – yes, Bell already has ready-made jokes – only to not bother giving him an offer. He signed as an undrafted free agent the next year with the New York Mets, who saw him toil in their organization for nine years before getting traded to San Diego and becoming one of baseball's best closers.

Sixty-ninth round picks, by the way, don't even exist anymore, which, sadly, precludes the possibility of another Clay Condrey(notes). The right-hander, who won a World Series pitching for Philadelphia's bullpen in 2008, was a 94th-round pick – No. 1,728 overall – by the New York Yankees in 1996. He wasn't even Mr. Irrelevant. That honor went to Aron Amundson, taken in the 100th round by the Yankees. He was a draft-and-unfollow, too.

Bell's evolution into lockdown reliever will make him among the most desirable commodities in the coming weeks when teams decide whether to fight for a playoff spot this season. More than any position, relief gems come up in the later rounds, and …

6. Jonny Venters(notes)' rise from draft-and-follow to the most dominant reliever in the major leagues started when Atlanta took him in the 30th round in 2003. The left-hander went from near Orlando downstate to Fort Pierce for junior college, signed with the Braves, blew out his elbow and arrived last season destined for mop-up duty.

Then Atlanta realized nobody could touch his hard sinker and filthy slider. In 35 2/3 innings this season, Venters' numbers are inconceivable: an 83.3 percent ground-ball rate, zero home runs allowed, an opponent batting average of .140 (and slugging percentage of .167). The 26-year-old would close for practically every other team, though the man for whom he sets up, Craig Kimbrel(notes), is the only other reliever in baseball today with the 1.1 Wins Above Replacement that Venters has posted this season.

Late rounds are great rounds for left-handed pitchers, on the off chance they sign and find a sudden uptick in radar-gun readings, like Venters and …

Derek Holland

7. Owner of the biggest velocity spike in years, Derek Holland(notes). From Newark (Ohio) High to Wallace State CC in Alabama to the Texas Rangers as a 30th-round pick, Holland's fastball grew from a decent pitch into a 97-mph behemoth that proved the team's $200,000 signing bonus a plenty good investment.

While Holland's fastball has settled around 93 mph, that was plenty Saturday, when the 24-year-old threw his first career shutout. Holland's inconsistency maddens the Rangers – his stuff is too good to have given up four or five runs in six of his 12 starts – and there remains the question of what happens when Tommy Hunter(notes) completes his current rehab assignment. Based on stuff, there's really no question who the proper choice is, though based on stuff …

8. Dillon Gee(notes) has no business in the New York Mets' rotation. The 25-year-old lasted until the 21st round in 2007 because right-handed fastballs that barely crack 90 mph don't exactly portend success. And yet here is Gee, 6-0, toast of the town, or at least the street or two in Queens loyal enough to remain Mets fans.

Gee spent the last two seasons at Triple-A, where he developed a reputation for striking out hitters, limiting walks and giving up home runs. The strikeouts are gone. The walks are up. The home runs are down. Which is to say the headline writers in New York who already exhausted their "Golly Gee" and "Gee Whiz" efforts were smart. Because unless Gee is sharing a flat with Mephistopheles – or the cutter he tried on for size in his last start develops into the plus pitch he currently lacks – he's bound to turn back into the same mediocre pitcher he once was.

For now, he might as well enjoy everything that comes with fleeting New York celebrity. After all, being an new-age, cross-borough Aaron Small beats what …

Jake Peavy

9. Jake Peavy(notes) deals with every day: betrayal of body. It's always something with the snakebit right-hander. He tore his latissimus dorsi muscle last season and underwent a relatively new surgery to reattach it to the bone. Tendinitis crept into his rotator cuff during spring training and kept him on the DL until May 11. In his fifth start off it Sunday, he tweaked his right groin and thinks he's going back to his unhappy place.

Just not unlikely. Peavy's trips to the DL have prevented him from maintaining the promise he realized in 2007, when he won the National League Cy Young award unanimously. The velocity on his fastball disappeared with the lat injury, and Peavy's evolution to a command-control-savvy right-hander was working well, with one walk in 25 innings.

It's been quite the development track since San Diego grabbed him with its 15th-round pick, 472nd overall, exactly 70 after …

10. Albert Pujols went to the team with whom he would imprint himself as a worthy heir to Stan Musial's title as king of St. Louis. The Cardinals surely didn't know what they had. No one ever does with a late rounder, unless it's a high school stud who falls for bonus-demand reasons.

The first round tonight will be full of the sure things, or at least what the scouting community considers them, and then comes the fun parts: nearly 30 rounds Tuesday and the final 20 on Wednesday. Gem seeking invigorates scouts. They look at the 1992 draft (Raul Ibanez(notes) in Round 36, Ryan Franklin(notes) in the 23rd) and the 1996 draft (Travis Hafner(notes) in the 31st, Kyle Lohse(notes) in the 29th and Roy Oswalt(notes) and Ted Lilly(notes) in the 23rd). They see Mark Buerhle (38th) and John Axford(notes) (42nd) and Orlando Hudson(notes) (43rd). They can make a career on that sort of guy.

Same for a franchise. Imagine the Cardinals without Pujols. Not in the future, which remains eminently possible, but over the past decade. He was their lifeblood, their pulse, their identity. He carried them to a World Series title in 2006. So to see them thriving without Pujols and with Adam Wainwright(notes) out for the season following Tommy John surgery says so much about GM John Mozeliak and manager Tony La Russa and the franchise's eminence.

Even better: Sleeping Ugly has awoken. And that's a beautiful thing.

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