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Bill Conlin: Phillies take risk on draft pick Hewitt, but could be rewarded

IF DISCOVERING five-tool baseball players was easy, Club Five would not have such an elite membership. There is no waiting list.

IF DISCOVERING five-tool baseball players was easy, Club Five would not have such an elite membership. There is no waiting list.

In the modern era, we think of Ruth, Mays, Mantle, Clemente, Aaron, the Robinsons (Jackie and Frank), Reggie Jackson, Bonds, Yaz, Griffey Jr., A-Rod and probably another debatable half-dozen who hit for a high enough career average to make the club.

Most first-ballot Hall of Famers were a tool or two short. Mike Schmidt was plus in power, glove, arm and running speed. But he was a career .267 hitter. Derek Jeter will be first-ballot, but comes up short on home-run power. Albert Pujols might atone for lack of straight-line foot speed with his intelligent baserunning. His other four tools are at the True Value level.

I yammered at the Phillies for a quarter of a century to draft more athletic position players. But they kept topping their drafts with guys heavy of leg and slow of bat. Lebo Powell, a no-shot catcher, and another receiver, Trey McCall, come to mind. When McCall, a Virginia high schooler, attended the annual prospects baseball camp at Old Dominion University, his adviser counseled, "You might be able to get a partial ride at a lesser D-I or D-II college."

The ride the Phillies provided - McCall signed on the cheap - ended in Clearwater, Fla., after the kid proved conclusively that he didn't even have Swiss Army Knife ability, let alone usable tools. There was an apocryphal story that on draft day, the Phillies had confused Trey McCall with Troy McCoy, a power-hitting college outfielder. No matter. Troy was not the real McCoy, either.

Phillies general manager Pat Gillick, whose body of work here is looking much better lately, is a renowned raw-tools guy. He looks for athletes with the ability to someday stand tall in the pastime's Sistine Chapels.

And if you look at the raw athleticism of the three outfielders at the top of the Phillies' wildly out-of-character, high school-heavy draft last week, Gillick could have been building three-fourths of an NFL defensive backfield or a 4 x 100-meter relay. Greg Golson can run anchor.

At the head of the Phils' Class of 2008 is 19-year-old shortstop Anthony Hewitt, soon to be a third baseman. Hewitt went from Brooklyn's Parade Grounds to a $40,000-a-year ride at Salisbury School in northwestern Connecticut. For 3 years, the gifted kid got to beat up on the likes of Trinity Pawling, the Hotchkiss School, Taft School, Wilbraham & Monson and Pomfret.

These are small, elite bastions of academe that send the sons of rich men off to the Ivy League. The Salisbury Crimson Knights went 20-0, led by Hewitt and two other high-rated imports. They scored more than 20 runs three times, including a five-inning, 21-0 mercy-rule skunking of the Cheshire Academy Cats. You can imagine the level of pitching.

I have seen Hewitt's workout videos. Make no mistake, this is an athlete of the Greg Golson/Michael Bourn stripe. In the batting-cage footage against grooved batting-practice serves, his form is flawless. Next is shown a number of swings from at-bats in an actual game where the only ball he put in play was a feeble dribbler. Not one swing-and-miss resembled his classic BP form. That said, in the March preseason Orlando National Baseball Classic for high-school prospects, Hewitt was the Outstanding Offensive Player, batting .769 in four games. And he wasn't facing Loomis Chafee pitching there.

When and if the Vanderbilt-committed Hewitt signs - he seems eager to start his pro career - he likely will end up with the Gulf Coast Phillies in a bottom-rung, short-season rookie league. Many of the pitchers he encounters there will be Latinos out of the academies in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. Many will have been there since March, tuning their live arms in extended spring training. Not one of them will be wearing a Cheshire Academy or Wilbraham & Monson letter sweater. It will be an intense learning experience for Hewitt.

God forgive me for being a cynic, but one memorable name came to mind when the Phillies reached out to draft Anthony Hewitt. My e-mail suggests I was not alone in recalling . . .

. . . Jeff Jackson. (Insert groans here.)

The Chicago inner-city outfielder was not even the biggest flop in what has to rank as one of the worst first rounds in draft history, the 1989 fiasco. Of the 30 players selected, only Frank

Thomas (No. 7, White Sox), Mo Vaughn (No. 23, Red Sox) and Chuck Knoblauch (No 25, Twins) had notable careers. All were still on the board, of course, when the Phillies proudly took Jackson at No. 4. The Phils had not hoarded all the stupid pills, however. The White Sox had homeboy Jackson slotted at No. 7. With Jeff off the board, they lucked into Thomas, a hulking Auburn first baseman believed to be a first-round reach.

Awesome as Hewitt's numbers were at Salisbury, Action Jackson's Simeon High numbers in '89 blew them away: .504 average, 46 steals, 16 homers in 119 ABs (1 per 7.4 ABs) and 72 RBI.

But the athlete considered to be the best outfielder in an outfield-rich draft never made it past Double A Reading and was eventually released.

The moral: Never judge a draft by the first round.

The Class of 1989 included - all selected in later rounds - Tim Salmon, John Olerud, Denny Neagle, Jeff Bagwell, Ryan Klesko, Trevor Hoffman, Jim Thome (13th round) and Brian Giles (17th). *

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