OAKLAND, Calif. -- There's a chance the Orioles, for the second time in the past four years, will end up with the highest-rated prospect in the country when baseball opens its annual free agent draft tomorrow.
Stanford outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds is the consensus top talent among scouts. But the shaky financial condition of the teams drafting in the first three positions could leave him available when the Orioles make their selection in the fourth position.
That the Orioles would consider paying big money to an unproven draft choice could be considered contradictory in light of their slow movement in attempts to re-sign shortstop Cal Ripken, who is eligible to become a free agent at the end of the year.
Hammonds is considered an impact player who could steal 60-70 bases a year and hit 10-15 home runs.
The gamble is that Hammonds has hinted it will take a $1.8 million package for him to give up his last year of college eligibility and turn professional. That apparently has scared off the Houston Astros and Cleveland Indians, who have the first two picks. The Montreal Expos, in the third spot, reportedly are upset that the Orioles might have influenced Hammonds to float a high number in the hopes he'll still be around when their turn comes.
The Orioles have strong ties to Stanford, primarily through West Coast scout Ed Sprague. His son, Ed Jr., played at Stanford, was a No. 1 pick of the Toronto Blue Jays in 1988 and leads the Triple-A International League in home runs.
Former Orioles Jeff Ballard and Pete Stanicek played at Stanford, as did pitcher Mike Mussina and minor-leaguers Paul Carey (first baseman-outfielder) and Doug Robbins (catcher).
Houston and Montreal have had recent unpleasant experiences with No. 1 picks -- the Astros failing to sign right-handed pitcher John Burke last year, and the Expos missing with catcher Charles Johnson three years ago. Both are projected as first-round picks again this year, with Johnson considered a possibility for the Orioles if Hammonds is unavailable.
The Astros reportedly have settled on Cal State-Fullerton third baseman Phil Nevin, Baseball America's College Player of the Year, as the first pick. The Indians, in desperate need of immediate pitching help, reportedly will take Paul Shuey, a right-handed reliever from North Carolina.
Barring a late decision to gamble on Hammonds, the Expos are expected to pick Michael Tucker, a shortstop from Division II Longwood College who is projected as a second baseman or outfielder. That scenario would leave Hammonds available for the Orioles.
Scouting director Gary Nickels won't say whether the Orioles will take Hammonds if he's available, but does stress the importance of having an early selection in the draft.
"It [the draft] tends to get overlooked a lot," said Nickels, "but there's no doubt about the importance it has played for the Orioles in the past four years.
In the past four years, the Orioles have drafted relief ace Gregg Olson, starters Ben McDonald (the highest rated player in the 1989 draft) and Mussina and outfielder Mark Smith, currently playing with the Double-A Hagerstown Suns.
If the Expos decide to gamble with Hammonds, the Orioles probably would take Tucker, regarded as the best pure hitter available, with the idea of converting him into an outfielder.
This year's draft lacks the marquee names of recent years, but has a lot more intrigue. There is an abundance of players who are prospects in baseball and football (Florida State pitcher/quarterback Kenny Felder, UCLA outfielder/wide receiver Mike Moore, Texas high school outfielder/quarterback Shea Morenz).
Also, this is an Olympic year, which means 25 college players (most likely including Hammonds, Tucker and Johnson) can sign, but not play or receive any money until play in Barcelona, Spain, is completed.
This is also the first year of baseball's disputed new draft rule, which allows teams to retain rights to a previously undrafted player for five years. In the case of high school players, that would mean until after they leave college.
The idea is to better control the escalation of signing bonuses, but the rule already is being challenged by the Major League Players Association and also is likely to be contested by individual players.
Also, with the National League expansion draft coming up, nobody in this year's amateur crop will be offered a major-league contract. Any player on a 40-man roster, or with three years of minor-league experience, will have to be protected when the Florida and Colorado teams are stocked in November.
Most of the top college players, including Hammonds, are not affected by the new rule, having been previously selected as high school players who turned down offers to attend college.
Hammonds' bargaining power is the option to return to Stanford and re-enter the draft next year. That's the same situation the Orioles faced when they drafted McDonald three years ago.
The big difference is that they wouldn't have to deal with Scott Boras, who represented McDonald and last year's No. 1 pick, Brien Taylor, whose $1.55 million deal with the New York Yankees helped create the new draft rule.
6. New York Yankees
7. San Francisco
10. Kansas City
11. Chicago Cubs
15. St. Louis
17. Kansas City (from San Diego)
18. New York Mets (from Boston)
19. Toronto (from Los Angeles)