There seems to be a strong sentiment among fans to draft players with a high "ceiling" - players who can impact the Major Leagues with exciting tools.
First, some perspective: fewer than 10% of all the drafted players become solid Major League players (not stars, simply solid). Therefore, if a player reaches the Major Leagues, even as an extra player, that is a HIGH ceiling. Do we want to draft players who will not only make the big leagues but also have a chance to be a cornerstone player? Absolutely. However, that level of "ceiling" or "upside" is rarified air. Furthermore, it's not always so obvious during the draft process.
When most people talk about ceiling or upside what they're really talking about is the gap between the player's current ability, call it his polish, and his ultimate ability. A bigger gap indicates bigger upside. Let's think about that for a second - is that such a good thing? The answer is that it all depends on the ultimate ability as well as the likelihood that the player will reach that level. That ultimate ability, though, can be very difficult to measure.
Here are a few examples from Oakland, where Grady Fuson was the Scouting Director. Tim Hudson was drafted by the A's as a senior out of Auburn where he was the SEC player of the year (making the SEC All-Star team as a pitcher and an outfielder). However, Tim was 6'0" and about 160 pounds. Most people viewed him as a very good college player. Did anyone envision 142 Major League wins and counting? No chance. The A's liked him enough to draft him and believed he had big league potential, but Tim's "upside" wasn't evident.
Another example was Barry Zito. Forget about Barry's recent struggles and go back to 1999 when he was pitching for USC. When the A's drafted Barry with the #9 overall pick in the draft, it was viewed as the biggest overdraft in the first round. How could the A's take a guy with a below average fastball with one of the top ten picks in the country? Sure, Zito was "safe", because he would likely pitch in the big leagues, but there wasn't any upside! Now Zito is a 3-time All-Star and a Cy Young Award winner with more than 100 Major League wins under his belt. Did we expect that type of success when we drafted him? Very simply... no. Before anyone dwells on this one because of Barry's current stats, there are dozens of other examples.
The point is that players will often surprise you (in these cases positively, but it more often goes the other way), and if we take players who we believe have Major League potential, there is plenty of upside.
As far as drafting polished players versus unpolished players, which is the more relevant question, we've done both at the Padres. Remember, just because a player is from the college ranks, that does not make him polished. One comment referred to our selection last year of Brad Chalk and said we paid too much for a low ceiling player. Chalk is actually an example of the opposite. Though a successful college player at Clemson with above average speed and defense in CF, Chalk was a guy who hadn't done the offensive damage in college that we believe is in there. If he hits like we believe he can, his upside is huge. Chalk, Andrew Cumberland, Matt Latos, Cedric Hunter... we've taken plenty of players in the past few years with high picks that weren't considered polished products, but who also have exciting skills. There is nobody in our draft room selling a player by saying, "This guy is going to be a really good minor league player and should help our A-ball team win games."
Just like everyone else, we want upside, which is to say that we want big leaguers.