With draft, Orioles go deep in heart of Texas

Teams' picks marked by southwestern flavor

June 07, 2000|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

If the Orioles don't find the going any easier on the major-league level the next few seasons, maybe they could switch to the Big 12 Conference. They definitely are headed in that direction, with the compass pointed to the southwest, after finishing up their work in the amateur baseball draft.

On the first day alone, the Orioles took seven players from the state of Texas within the first 20 rounds. Their gleaming prize was right-hander Beau Hale, chosen with the 14th overall, pick after hoisting the Longhorns into the College World Series. He's about to venture into unfamiliar territory, in an organization he knows little about, but at least he'll spot one recognizable face.

The Orioles selected another member of the Longhorns' rotation, senior left-hander D.J. Jones, who was 12-5 with a 2.89 ERA. Jones, who pitched ahead of Hale, was taken in the 16th round.

"He's not a hard thrower but he has great command," said scout Deron Rombach, who covers Texas.

The Orioles used their 86th selection in the third round on catcher Tommy Arko of Cooper High in Abilene, Texas. Hidden away and unable to gain the same early exposure as other prospects, Arko still ranked as one of the top defensive catchers in the draft.

Rombach said the Orioles secured three potential power arms within the first eight rounds: Hale, Jon Skaggs and Jayme Sperring. Skaggs and Sperring both attend Rice University.

Skaggs, taken with the 114th pick in the fourth round, was 12-2 with a 3.07 ERA in 111 1/3 innings. Sperring, chosen in the eighth round, was 3-3 with a 3.69 ERA and three saves in 22 appearances. A part-time pitcher whose fastball averages 92-93 mph, Sperring also batted .272 (34-for-125) with six doubles, two triples, three homers and 25 RBIs.

A few more players from the state of Texas, draft-and-follow picks, also were selected yesterday. Not a bad haul for Rombach, who's been in this business long enough to know his efforts aren't usually rewarded to such extremes.

"This is my ninth draft as a scout," he said. "I've had years when we didn't get anyone."

Any bragging rights this season begin with Hale, a pitcher regarded as the hardest thrower among college prospects.

"I've seen him consistently throw 95, 96 mph for nine innings," Rombach said. "He's also the type of guy who throws real easy. There's not a lot of effort. Guys who throw that way usually bounce back without any problems."

Hale shut out Penn State on Saturday to advance the Longhorns into the World Series. Less than 48 hours later, he had another reason to celebrate.

"Two of my lifelong goals and they happen within three days. It's incredible. They're dreams come true," he said Monday night.

Hale's innings on the college level had been dispensed with a teaspoon until this year, when he accumulated 139 2/3 while going 12-5 with a 2.77 ERA and 125 strikeouts. Rombach's theory about Hale's resilience was put to the test Saturday when the right-hander stayed in the game for 148 pitches.

"It's not like my arm is dead or tired," Hale said. "My velocity is at its best in the eighth or ninth inning. And I've always been able to bounce back. I've never had any problems with my arm."

Rombach isn't the only scout whose fingerprints are all over this draft. John Gillette, who includes Washington in his territorial reach, helped land third baseman Nelson "Tripper" Johnson with the 32nd pick and right-hander Richard Bartlett with the 84th.

Baseball America rated Johnson the third-best power hitter among prep players after he batted .453 with nine doubles, six homers and 25 RBIs at Newport High in Bellevue, Wash. He also went 14-for-14 in stolen base attempts and committed only two errors.

Johnson knew the Orioles were interested, along with the Colorado Rockies and Atlanta Braves, so Monday's news didn't come as a shock. It did, however, allow him the rare opportunity to relax.

"I was real happy and relieved that it was over," he said before heading off to school yesterday morning. "The last two weeks have been pretty hectic. It was a hard wait."

Johnson is a tremendous athlete who also starred in football and basketball at Bellevue. He once returned a kickoff for a game-winning touchdown the only time he touched the ball, a week after being sidelined with a slightly punctured lung. Able to perform a 360-degree dunk on the basketball court, Johnson averaged 14.9 points during the regular season and twice scored 26 in the playoffs.

"When I was young, I loved all three sports," he said. "But since the eighth grade I told myself that what I wanted to do was play professional baseball. And that's what I've been gearing for every since.

"I love the atmosphere. I love to be outside. And it's not too hard on your body. Football was killing my body my senior year."

The Orioles wrapped up the proceedings yesterday, when their biggest coup was grabbing high

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