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Mission Improbable: Angels to Wait : Baseball draft: They select outfielder who won’t be available for two years. Dodgers pick a catcher.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Given their history of strange moves, the Angels might have outdone themselves in the first round of baseball’s amateur draft Thursday.

They selected a man on a mission.

The problem is, high school outfielder McKay Christensen’s determination to spend two years on a Mormon mission will prevent him from playing baseball or joining the Angels’ farm system until 1996.

General Manager Bill Bavasi insisted that the 18-year-old Christensen, who stole 62 bases in 62 attempts during his three-year career at Clovis West High in Fresno, was “far and away” the best of the available talent when the Angels picked sixth and would be worth the two-year wait.

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He insisted, as well, that finances had nothing to do with the club’s change of mind. The Angels initially had planned to draft a college pitcher capable of making a quicker impact, presumably Pepperdine right-hander Cade Gaspar, who was ultimately selected by the Detroit Tigers, drafting 18th.

“We have a very fair signing budget,” Bavasi said. “Money was not going to be a problem with whoever we took on the first round. There’s not a whole lot of difference (between potential signing bonuses for Christensen and Gaspar). This was strictly a matter of ability.”

It is believed, however, that the Angels cooled on Gaspar when they could not get a financial commitment from him late Wednesday and that they have already reached a $700,000 contract agreement with Christensen, who was attending graduation events Thursday and could not be reached for comment.

“They probably thought we would be asking for too much money,” Gaspar’s father, Rod, a former major league infielder, said. “I mean, they wanted a commitment before the draft and we thought it would be unfair to other clubs that might be interested to give them a number.

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“We told them Cade would love to play for the Angels and felt that we could work things out after the draft. Bob Harrison (Bavasi’s special assistant) told us they were going to take a college pitcher if available and Cade was their guy. They end up taking a high school outfielder. It was very surprising.”

It was the biggest surprise of a first round in which the Dodgers, drafting 13th, selected catcher Paul Konerko of Chaparral High in Scottsdale, Ariz.

The New York Mets took Florida State right-hander Paul Wilson with the first pick. The Cleveland Indians selected right-hander Jaret Wright of Katella High in Anaheim, son of former major league pitcher Clyde Wright, with the 10th; the Boston Red Sox, drafting 12th, took former Bellflower St. John Bosco shortstop Nomar Garciaparra of Georgia Tech, and the San Francisco Giants selected Cal State Fullerton center fielder Dante Powell with the 22nd pick.

There were 17 rounds Thursday, with the draft continuing through Saturday. Only the first round is announced publicly, but it was learned that the Dodgers took Mississippi State left-hander Gary Rath with their second pick and Miami shortstop Mike Metcalfe with their third. The Angels took outfielder Norm Hutchins of Lincoln High in Yonkers, N.Y., with their second pick and Notre Dame shortstop Paul Failla with their third.

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USC third baseman Aaron Boone was drafted in the third round by the Cincinnati Reds, who already employ his brother, Bret, as a second baseman and his father, Bob, as a coach.

UCLA pitcher Brian Stephenson, son of Dodger scout Jerry Stephenson, was selected in the second round by the Chicago Cubs, and UCLA first baseman Mike Mitchell was picked in the ninth by the New York Yankees. Loyola pitcher-infielder Jesse Ibarra was taken in the sixth round by the Giants, Pepperdine relief pitcher Mauricio Estavil was selected in the 11th round by the Philadelphia Phillies, and Cal State Fullerton second baseman Jeff Ferguson was taken in the ninth round by the Minnesota Twins.

The Dodgers were thought to be leaning toward Wake Forest left-hander Bret Wagner, ultimately drafted 19th by the St. Louis Cardinals, but scouting director Terry Reynolds said Konerko was the “best available talent and it wasn’t close.” He added that so few premium talents come through the draft at the catching position that he couldn’t pass on Konerko, 18, despite the Dodgers’ catching backlog, which includes Mike Piazza, Carlos Hernandez and 1992 draft pick Ryan Luzinski.

“Those concerns are way down the road,” Konerko said of the catchers ahead of him. At 6-feet-3 and 205 pounds, he was the Arizona high school player of the year, batting .564 with 14 home runs and 51 runs batted in.

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He has signed a letter of intent with Arizona State, but his father, Henry, who will serve as his agent, said: “We hold that letter in high regard, but there’s only one first round.”

Christensen, the Angels’ surprising pick and only the 47th-ranked position player among Baseball America’s top 100 draft prospects, has signed a letter of intent to play football at Brigham Young. He will give that up, but not his mission, the Angels said. All 28 clubs were notified by Christensen’s parents that no amount of money could deter him from that mission.

“Do you take a lesser player who might be ready in three years, or do you wait five for the better talent?” Bavasi said. “We think he’s worth the wait.”

Asked if he was concerned that Christensen’s skills might diminish in the two years he doesn’t play, Bavasi said, “That’s part of the gamble. Concerned, yes, but we’re confident he’ll come back in shape and ready to pick up where he left off.”

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Christensen is 5-11 and 185 pounds. He led the state with 44 touchdowns as a running back, has been timed, according to the Angels, in 6.5 seconds for 60 yards and a left-handed 3.9 to first base, and hit .486 in 70 at-bats this season.

Was he truly the best of the thousands of available players, including the three college pitchers selected later in the first round? The Angels are going to have a long wait to find out.

Amateur Draft

FIRST SELECTION

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* New York Mets--Paul Wilson, Florida State, right-handed pitcher

ANGELS

* No. 6 overall--McKay Christensen, Clovis West High, outfielder

DODGERS

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* No. 13 overall--Paul Konerko, Chaparral High, Scottsdale, Ariz., catcher


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