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On Baseball: Phils must cash in on an important draft

This is one of the most crucial weeks of the year for the Phillies, and it has nothing to do with what happens on the field.

This is one of the most crucial weeks of the year for the Phillies, and it has nothing to do with what happens on the field.

Not for now, at least.

Baseball's first-year player draft begins Thursday, and it's one the most important ever for the Phils.

The team's core players - Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard - are all pushing 30. The farm system, weakened by trades and draft picks forfeited for signing free agents, needs restocking.

Sitting on a gold mine of picks, the Phils could find some stars for tomorrow - provided ownership will spend the dollars needed to procure top talent.

Thanks to a pair of compensation picks for losing free-agent Aaron Rowand and another for failing to sign third-rounder Brandon Workman last season, the Phils have seven picks in the top 136. That's a pretty good haul.

Their first pick is 24th overall. After that, they pick at 34, 51, 71, 102, 110 and 136.

"We want to make some hay," said Mike Arbuckle, the Phillies assistant general manager who oversees scouting and player development. "For several years, we didn't have a lot of high picks. This is our chance to catch up."

Under Pat Gillick, Arbuckle has worked mostly on big-league matters the last few seasons. This draft is so important that he and Chuck LaMar, the former Tampa Bay GM who joined the front office last year, have spent most of the last two months looking at amateur talent. In essence, the Phils have had two extra cross-checkers for this draft.

Surely, the Phillies' scouting staff has done its due diligence, and the boards in the Citizens Bank Park war room are teeming with players they want.

But will ownership OK the money needed for the team's scouts to take the seven best available players in the top 136? Or will the club be forced to sprinkle in some "safe" picks - players with solid but unspectacular skills who will come at the right price?

These are legitimate concerns because the Phillies historically have adhered to the commissioner's office recommendations on signing bonuses.

"We're budgeted to take good players," Arbuckle said. "We're going to get good players."

Does that mean the Phillies will exceed MLB's recommendations - or slots - for what picks in the top five rounds should be paid?

"Can we take a kid who is worth $300,000 and give him $1.5 million? No," Arbuckle said. "Can we take a kid who might be worth $350,000 and give him $600,000? If we see value and it's the kid we want and that's what it will take to sign him, then yeah, we might do that."

A decade ago, in the wild and crazy days of signing bonuses, the Phillies gave Pat Burrell more than $8 million and a big-league contract when he was drafted first overall. We don't see Phillies bean counters doing something like that any time soon. But they need to be willing to strike a happy medium - somewhere between the recommendations of MLB and the dollars that slot-busting teams like Detroit will pay - if they want top talent.

Paying a little more to lure a player away from a college scholarship can make financial sense when compared to the cost of mediocre free-agent pitching. Two winters ago, the Phils gave Adam Eaton $24.5 million, a paycheck he hasn't lived up to. Last summer, with the money they had left over from not signing Workman, the Phils signed their 12th-round pick, 6-foot-5 righthander Julian Sampson, who looked to be headed to the University of Washington until the Phils offered $390,000. At the time, he was pitching at 88 to 92 m.p.h. He's added 20 pounds of muscle and is consistently pitching at 94 m.p.h. (with some 96s) in his first pro season at single-A Lakewood.

So what makes more sense, throwing big money at below-average free agents or taking a shot at a Julian Sampson for a fraction of the money? There are no sure things in the draft, but if a team signs enough top talent and nurtures it well in the minors, some of it will make it.

It was refreshing to see the Phillies meet Sampson's price last summer because they failed to do so on several good prospects in recent years.

Greg Reynolds, who pitched in Philadelphia for Colorado last week, was drafted by the Phils in the 41st round in 2003. Sure, the Phils roughed him up. But he's just 22 and in the big leagues before his time. He'd be nice to have in the system, but the Phils didn't pay.

Same for lefty David Huff, who is pitching brilliantly at double A in Cleveland's system. The Phils picked him in the 19th round in 2005 but didn't meet his price. He went to UCLA, reentered the draft, and went 39th overall to the Indians.

Righthander Vance Worley was picked one round after Huff in 2005. The Phils didn't offer enough to get him to say no to Long Beach State. He's rated as the 121st best prospect in this draft.

The one that hurts most might be lefty Joe Saunders, picked in the fifth round, four rounds after Brett Myers, in 1999. The Phils wouldn't pay the freight so he went to Virginia Tech. Today, Saunders is 8-2 with a 2.76 ERA for the Los Angeles Angels and could be headed for the All-Star Game.

Let's hope the Phils shoot for some high-ceiling talents like Saunders on Thursday.

And let's hope the people who write the checks get them signed.