Analyzing Amateur Baseball Talent as it pertains to the MLB Draft

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College Notes 3-16-09

Growing Legend

The biggest story of the college baseball season, and the biggest story pertaining to the 2009 draft, is the growing legend of Stephen Strasburg. I have talked to a few people the past couple of weeks who have seen him pitch this season and the reports vary some.

The reports of 102 mph against Nevada have been squashed by two sources, noting that the Strasburg legend seems to be taking on a persona of its own. However, one of those two sources did say that Strasburg reached 101 in his start versus San Diego just over a week ago. Regardless of the radar gun readings, everyone I have spoken to about this young phenom agree that he is worth the hype. He sits in the upper-90s and his slider is unhittable.

This past Friday he recorded his fourth consecutive game in which he reached double-digits in strikeouts. While he hasn't (and probably won't) face the stiffest of competition all season long, he did strike out 18 San Diego batters, and has struck out more than two batters per inning. His 59 to five strikeout to walk ratio over 27.1 innings of work looks like something achieved by a Nintendo ace.

There is no reason to believe he won't continue to cruise this spring, and if the Nationals don't take him number one overall, there are going to be a lot of angry fans in the DC area, with plenty of reason to be upset. I don't see that happening, even if the Nationals do have to sign the 10th overall pick as well.

Big Ten Giant Killers

For the second consecutive weekend a team from the Big Ten travelled south to take on a prominently ranked national opponent and came out on top.

Two weekends ago the Illinois Fighting Illini took two of three games from the LSU Tigers, who at the time were ranked number one in the nation according to a few national polls.

This past weekend the Minnesota Golden Gophers did the same to TCU, often mentioned by people as somewhat of a dark-horse team when it comes to teams to watch during the pursuit of glory in Omaha.

Those series victories led to both the Illinois and Minnesota programs being ranked in the top 25 by a couple of national publications. The Gophers are currently ranked 17th in the national RPI ratings while the Illini are 54th.

In addition to Minnesota’s weekend series win over the Horned Frogs, they began the season taking two of three from the Big East/Big Ten Challenge, and also swept the Dairy Queen Classic tournament against opponents UC Santa Barbara, Washington and Hawai’i.

Illinois also went two for three in the Big East/Big Ten Challenge in addition to the two victories over LSU.

That’s good news for a pair of programs a week away from having their own conference schedules begin. The Big Ten is perceived to be down this year due to the amount of talent that Michigan (a program that is no stranger to playing the role of giant killer in recent years) lost in last year’s draft. Although at 10-5, the Wolverines are holding their own despite being swept by Arizona this past weekend.

(After a 13-2 start, Ohio State’s success also needs to be mentioned, although they haven’t scheduled as nearly of a challenging non-conference schedule as the aforementioned teams.)

Each program has a notable positional player and pitcher that has stepped up to help propel their teams.

For Minnesota, right-fielder Michael Kvasnicka is batting .411 with nine doubles, while right-handed pitcher Tom Buske is 3-0 with a 1.44 ERA and a 23 to five strikeout to walk ratio over 25 innings of work.

Illinois is led by catcher Aaron Johnson (who is keeping the Canadian pipeline of catching prospects to Champaign alive and well, following in the footsteps of Lars Davis and Chris Robinson) by hitting .396/.463/.646 with three home runs and 19 RBI so far this spring. Left-handed pitcher, and former quarterback, Phil Haig is 3-0 with a 0.72 ERA.

Sophomore center fielder Ryan LaMarre, a name to watch for the 2010 draft, has progressed well from his freshman year to this season for the Wolverines, batting .410/.486/.754 with six dingers and 25 RBI. Senior righty Chris Fetter is 2-1 with a 1.78 ERA and a 26 to three strikeout to walk ratio in just over 25 innings of work.

All of these players, and their respective programs, have stolen the spotlight in the Big Ten conference from Indiana, who was expected to be led by top draft-eligible players such as catcher Josh Phegley and left-handed pitcher Matt Bashore. Phegley is off to yet another impressive start (.421/.532/.807 with eight home runs), but Bashore (0-3, 8.44 ERA) is not.

Red Hot Shortstop

Speaking of the LSU Tigers, despite losing two of three to Illinois a week ago, two of their draft-eligible hitters may be making a strong case for their first-round potential.

D.J. LeMahieu is enjoying a very successful start to the 2009 college baseball season. In fact, the entire LSU squad is red hot, as the team collectively is batting .348 with 31 home runs heading into conference play. Sean Ochinko leads the team in batting with a .473 average (with six home runs), while Leon Landry has already slugged eight home runs. The weekend staff of Anthony Ranuado, Austin Ross and Chris Matulis is collectively 7-1 with a 1.73 ERA, proving that the Tigers have the arms to match their bats during a year in which they were among the top two to three teams in nearly everyone’s preseason poll.

Hot starts often lead to big seasons, and big seasons for draft eligible players can often lead to high draft slots and big money. Look no further than last year, when Buster Posey and Gordon Beckham entered the year as potential first round draft picks and ended being selected as the fifth and eighth players overall. And Posey was rumored to be among the Rays’ candidates for the first overall pick.

And of course those two players play premium positions, where offense is often viewed as an added bonus to strong defense, which is always something taken into consideration when draft value is determined.

Speaking of value, that is where signability comes into play. While draft-eligible sophomores typically are somewhat of an unknown commodity, since they have the added negotiating benefit of time of their side, few players pass on the opportunity to take first-round money, basically becoming millionaires overnight. LeMahieu, like Posey and Beckham a year ago, entered his draft eligible season as a potential first-round pick, coming off of a very strong season on the Cape (again like Posey and Beckham) while also playing a premium position. So far he is putting up big numbers, hitting .447 with a .550 on-base percentage while slugging .745. His two doubles and two home runs may not look overly impressive, but he also has four triples, and has swiped four bags in four attempts.

Compare that to Grant Green (who has signability issues of his own), whom many believe is the best positional prospect available for the 2009 draft. Green is off to a slow start, although his peripheral numbers are strong. He is only hitting .256 to open the spring, and has also committed six errors. Of course one big week could turn his numbers around in a hurry, just as one bad one could cause LeMahieu’s to plummet.

But again, hot starts often turn into big seasons, and don’t be surprised if LeMahieu, who has the tools and the talent to rival Green, starts to show up in more and more conversations where the candidates for the top 10 overall picks in June’s draft are discussed.

Jared Mitchell is also making a strong case for the first round. He was a potential first-round draft pick coming out of high school, and a player that really impressed me as part of the 2005 Aflac All-American Classic. His game was so refined back then, and it still appears to be that way despite the fact that he has also played wide receiver for the Tigers football team the past few years.

When I got to see him play in high school he immediately reminded me of Carl Crawford. He has top of the order tools, with a good eye, game-changing speed and enough power that should allow him to leg out plenty of doubles and triples as well as double-digit home run power.

In the second game of a double-header versus Kentucky last Sunday, Mitchell showed some Rickey Henderson-esque skills. He went 1-for-1 in the game with a pair of walks, four stolen bases and a run scored. He has only been caught stealing once this year in 20 attempts, he has drawn 17 walks and has hit seven extra-base hits.

Owl Arms

When hasn't Rice produced Major League quality pitching prospects? As many as they have produced in recent years, their best alumni may still be Lance Berkman.

Friday ace Ryan Berry has been a rock at the top of the Owls' starting rotation ever since his freshman year. He has continued his impressive college career by tossing three complete games already this year, two of those being shutouts.

He is 3-0 with a 1.42 ERA and a 31-to-5 strikeout to walk ratio over 31.2 innings of work. Most impressive is that he has only allowed nine hits in that time, although four of those have been doubles and one has been a home run. Regardless, his .088 average against ranks as the best in all of college baseball.

However, overuse is always a concern of Rice pitchers as they come out, as we have yet to see a prominent arm such as Phillip Humber, Wade Townsend, Matt Anderson, or Jeff Niemann enjoy consistent success at the professional level. Seeing Berry pitch so consistently deep into ballgames doesn't dispel that concern.

Dandy Dozen

SP
Tyler Matzek Polished lefty with power arsenal
SP
Alex White Second best college RHP to Strasburg
SP
Zack Wheeler Rising draft boards with impressive FB/CB
UT
Brooks Raley Smooth lefty leads A&M in ERA, BA
C
Luke Bailey Baseball rat with compact build, swing
1B
Jonathan Singleton Powerful prep slugger with big LH bat
IF
Ryan Jackson Slick defender with questions about bat
3B
Jiovanni Mier True SS with exciting tools
SS
Robbie Shields 2B/3B type with promising bat
OF
Tim Wheeler Exciting blend of power & speed
OF
LeVon Washington Blazing fast with exciting leadoff tools
OF
Everett Williams Great athlete with tools galore

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