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Cold reality: Baseball draft has no absolutes

Kevin Youkilis had a laugh before the game, then extended his hitting streak to 22 games with a single in the third inning. (JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF)

All you need to know about the baseball draft: Mike Piazza was a 62d-round pick in 1988. And if his father weren't tight with Tom Lasorda, he wouldn't have been drafted at all.

Well, maybe that's not all you need to know about the baseball draft, but it's a start. Baseball ain't basketball or football, is what I'm saying.

The 2007 Major League Baseball draft will take place a week from today, and there is a very good chance you didn't know that. But I rather doubt that if you profess to be a fan of the Patriots or Celtics, those drafts ever sneak up on you. So why is baseball different?

The easy answer is that you don't know who the players are. College and high school baseball stars are known only to scouts and those who follow high school and college baseball, and in most cases, that means friends and family, and maybe not even friends. And that's not all. Even if people did know who the players are, there is no guarantee any of them will ever make it to the bigs.

"You've got a lot more evidence," points out Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, who yesterday joined director of amateur scouting Jason McLeod for a little session dealing with the draft. "College basketball and football are, in a lot of ways, feeders for pro basketball and football. We're dealing a lot more with projections. We may be trying to evaluate a high school batter who has never faced anyone throwing a fastball harder than 78 miles an hour and attempting to project him seven or eight years later facing someone who's throwing 98."

They're also trying to project someone into a world of failure when he may have known only success. If there is one thing people in baseball can agree on, it is that those with the most raw talent are not necessarily those who wind up enjoying major league glory. Sometimes even players who have developed their skill to a very high degree do not have viable careers.

Yogi, as usual, was right. Ninety percent of this game is half-mental.

"It's all mental," declares Kevin Youkilis. "Baseball is the hardest game to play in all of sports because there is so much failure. We've all seen the guys with the best arms, or who could hit the ball the farthest, not make it. These guys are here because they were the toughest mentally."

If you don't believe that, it means you've never spent much time in the minors. On any given night from April through Labor Day, while the minor league seasons are in progess, the hardest fastball, the greatest outfield throw, or the longest home run that evening could take place in a rookie league game. The best game, period, on, say, Aug. 8 might be in the Midwest League. But come back the next night. You might throw up. Baseball is about repetition, and that's where the mind comes in.

"Watching games is the easy part for scouts," maintains McLeod, who has been training himself to do what he now does since leaving the playing ranks in 1992 (he was a pitcher in the Astros' chain). "Getting to know the players is the hard part."

Sending a young man out to make a living in unfamiliar life circumstances is a crapshoot. Going 0 for 4, and then 0 for 4 again, can be a lonely proposition if you're 18 years old, 2,000 miles away from home, and you miss your girlfriend and the McDonald's closes before you get there.

"You understand why there are six levels of minor league baseball," Epstein says. "You're not just becoming a major league player. You're going from being a boy to a man."

There never will be a guaranteed way of measuring just what's inside someone like, for example, Youkilis. Unlike teammates Manny Ramírez (Cleveland first round, 1991), Jason Varitek (twice a first-rounder, signing with Seattle in 1994), and J.D. Drew (thrice a first-rounder, finally signing with St. Louis in 1998), Youkilis was a grinder who was not exactly a Golden Boy at the University of Cincinnati.

"I was disappointed when I wasn't drafted at the end of my junior year," he explains. "So I went to the Cape Cod League, and if you can hit there, you can hit anywhere."

Youkilis was taking a final exam in finance the day of the 2001 draft. "People had told me I could go anywhere from the 10th to the 20th round, but I had no idea what would happen," he says.

Team?

"Again, no idea," he says. "People tell you, 'This team likes you, that team likes you,' but the team that says they like you never picks you."

Well, it was the Red Sox in the eighth round, and six years later, here he is, smashing the ball all over creation while building a case for starting in the All-Star Game. Or he would be, if he were on the ballot.

You needn't be an MIT mathematician to know that he passed quite a few higher-drafted players along the way.

The team Terry Francona put on the field last night actually reflected some pretty good scouting. There were the aforementioned three No. 1s, a No. 2 (Dustin Pedroia, 2004), a No. 3 (Alex Cora, 1996), a No. 7 (Coco Crisp, 1999), a No. 20 (Mike Lowell, 1995), and an undrafted free agent from the Dominican Republic (David Ortiz, 1992), plus, of course, Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Cleveland fielded a No. 1 (Trot Nixon, 1993), a No. 2 (Kelly Shoppach, 2001), two No. 3s (Grady Sizemore, 2000, and Ryan Garko, 2003), two No. 4s (Josh Barfield, 2001, and Paul Byrd, 1991), a No. 10 (David Dellucci, 1995), an undrafted free agent from the Dominican Republic (Jhonny Peralta, 1999), and a No. 31 (Travis Hafner, 1996). Yup, the great Cleveland designated hitter was a 31st-round draft pick. See?

Of course, most of these people weren't with the team that originally drafted them. But they're all in the bigs, and that's the goal.

Scouting baseball players is painstaking work. There are variables in every sport, but the nature of the pitcher-batter confrontation renders baseball scouting far more capricious, especially when you're talking about high school kids.

It's not always that easy to tell what's what in college competition, either. "If college baseball were like college basketball or football, our draft would be a much different animal, and it would be a shorter draft, as well," Epstein muses.

Here's an overview of the 2007 crop. "It's a high school-dominated draft," says McLeod. "The high school position players are very good, followed by the pitchers. The college position players are the weakest in many years. There are a few top-end college pitchers."

But, to borrow a phrase, it is what it is, and it matters. "It's our most important day of the year," Epstein maintains. "The quality of the 2012 or 2015 Red Sox could be decided [next Thursday] by the people in that room."

Your pulse rate may not accelerate when the Red Sox draft Whatsisname next Thursday. But Theo's will.

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