CLEARWATER, Fla. - A month ago, 21 amateur scouts, four scouting supervisors, and two coordinators went to Citizens Bank Park for a meeting before the busy season started. The scouts presented Johnny Almaraz, the Phillies' scouting director, with lists of the top 15 draft prospects from their coverage areas.

The preparation for this summer's draft, to be held in three months, carries a higher importance than normal. The Phillies will pick first in every round. They have more bonus money to spend than any other club. It is a chance to infuse even more talent into the rebuilding process.

That is why the organization will devote resources in the next three months to putting more eyes in the field. They will take trusted executives, such as Pat Gillick, Charley Kerfeld, and Bart Braun, and assign them more amateur responsibilities. Former manager Charlie Manuel will peek at potential draftees. The team hired an additional amateur scout this winter to cover part of Florida and Puerto Rico.

The more people who see a certain player, the Phillies hope, the better informed the decisions can be.

The first choice, the No. 1 overall pick, is paramount. The Phillies will look for the so-called "best-available talent," but it is never that simple. They have prioritized pitching, which is the current strength of this draft class. They must weigh the added certainty a college pitcher provides over the tantalizing talent of a high school arm. A college pitcher could join the revamped Phillies pitching staff sooner, and that is one relevant factor.

Consider this: In the 51 years of the amateur draft, a high school pitcher has been taken first overall just three times. The Rangers picked David Clyde in 1973 and rushed him to the majors that same season. Brien Taylor, one of the most famous draft busts, went No. 1 to the Yankees in 1991. And Brady Aiken, who squabbled with the Astros over his bonus amid injury concerns, went unsigned as the first pick in 2014. All three were lefties; no righthanded pitcher from high school has ever been the first overall selection.

The Phillies have twice invited Barnegat High's Jason Groome to Citizens Bank Park, and they will watch every single one of the South Jerseyan's starts this season. Gillick, a Hall of Famer and current senior adviser, has followed A.J. Puk, a towering lefty from the University of Florida, since last fall.

Puk made his season debut last weekend in Gainesville with four Phillies officials - including Gillick and Braun, a special assistant to the general manager - in attendance.

They'll see University of Oklahoma's Alec Hansen, a hulking righthander saddled with command and injury concerns. Riley Pint, a hard-throwing prep star in Kansas who reportedly hit 100 mph in a recent bullpen session, is on the radar.

In three months, so much can and will happen. Almaraz, who is on the road himself scouting prospects, declined to comment this past week.

Teams with the No. 1 pick have selected 26 college players and 25 high schoolers. The high schoolers, with an average 22.6 wins above replacement (WAR), have outperformed the college ones (15.3 WAR). But that is based on the strength of position players from high school. This year, there is no clear superior prep position player. Not yet, at least.

Would the Phillies prefer a pitcher over a position player? Most likely, yes. But should a position player emerge in the next three months as a possible No. 1 pick, it simply helps the equation.

Look at the first pitcher picked in each draft for the potential discrepancy between a high school and college arm. A college pitcher was the first one picked in 32 drafts; a high schooler was selected 19 times. The college ones averaged a 13.3 WAR while the high school pitchers posted a 8.0 WAR. The variance in the high schoolers was far greater; Josh Beckett (No. 2 pick in 1999 with 35.9 WAR) and Kerry Wood (No. 4 pick in 1995 with 27.7 WAR) were stars, but eight of those 19 high school pitchers accumulated zero or negative WAR in their careers.

This is only a rudimentary analysis. History, at the very least, offers some context to the decision-making process.

After Almaraz passed last summer on a college pitcher to select high schooler Cornelius Randolph, a pure-hitting shortstop who was immediately moved to left field, the scouting director said he preferred an "impact bat" over a potential third starter.

This summer, the Phillies hope to find a future ace. The deliberations have begun.

@MattGelb www.philly.com/

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