For most teams around the country, fall practice is over or wrapping up. Here are some fall tid-bits picked up from conversations with coaches and scouts at the World Wood Bat Association fall championship in Jupiter, Fla., and from phone conversations over the last few weeks.
• Wichita State and Creighton still figure to be the favorites in the Missouri Valley Conference, but Southern Illinois could be poised to make a run at a regional. I ran into Salukis pitching coach Tim Dixon in Jupiter, and he expressed excitement about the talent returning from an SIU team that went 34-22 a year ago, with a 13-11 MVC mark that was good enough for third place. It starts with junior righthander Cody Adams, of course. Adams went 11-5, 3.01 as a sophomore by relying mostly on his explosive low- to mid-90s fastball, but Dixon said Adams has thrown three pitches for strikes this fall, including an improving slider and a changeup, which has made huge progress. Adams has been up to 94 regularly this fall, and his improved secondary stuff could vault him up draft boards in the spring.
The rotation behind Adams should be stout, with strike-throwing lefthander Shawn Joy returning for his senior year and junior college transfer David Kington likely filling the Sunday starter spot. Kington has been up to 91 mph in the fall and throws his 12-to-6 curveball for strikes. Also keep an eye on 6-foot-6 freshman lefty Nick Rice, who could work as a midweek starter in 2008 and emerge as a potential ace down the road.
At the least, we know Rice has plenty of stamina, as he showed this spring when he was part of one of the longest high school games ever.
SIU’s bullpen returns closer Bryant George, whose 94 mph fastball helped him rack up 11 saves as a freshman, and senior set-up man Ian Reinhart, a righthanded sidearmer with deception and funk.
And the Salukis should be strong up the middle. Junior catcher Mark Kelly led SIU with a .379 average and 63 RBIs in the spring, and junior second baseman Scott Elmendorf is a catalyst in the lineup and a sound defender. Last year’s center fielder, Kevin Koski, is gone, but freshman Chris Murphy should slide right into that role, and the Salukis are excited about his offensive and defensive potential. The pieces are in place for Southern Illinois to challenge for the MVC title.
• Pitching figures to be a strength for UNC Wilmington. Junior righthander Bradley Holt battled command problems this spring and saw his ERA balloon from 3.48 in 2005 to 5.90 in 2006, but new Seahawks assistant Jason Howell said he looked very good this fall. If he throws strikes and commands the zone, Holt could give UNCW a reliable rotation anchor thanks to a 90-92 mph fastball that touches 94, a pair of promising breaking balls and a changeup with split-finger action. Also keep an eye on quality freshmen arms Justin Bradley, Cameron Roth and Stephen Harrold. The lanky Bradley has touched 90 mph this fall, while Roth reaches 87 to go with a decent breaking ball, and Harrold has a 90-91 mph fastball and a build that evokes former North Carolina closer Andrew Carignan.
• Jim Toman is settling in nicely in his first fall as the head coach at Liberty, and he thinks his club could surprise some people in the spring. For starters, Liberty’s weekend rotation is very intriguing, with quick-armed 6-foot righthander Dustin Umberger surrounded by towering righties David Stokes (6-foot-8) and Clarence Nicely (6-6). Nicely transferred to Liberty from Auburn, where he missed 2007 with Tommy John surgery. The Flames also have a potential draft sleeper in senior outfielder Garrett Young, who led the team in batting (.389), slugging (.591), home runs (eight) and RBIs (46) a year ago. At 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, Young has an athletic, physical frame, average speed, an average arm and developing power.
• Villanova will have a veteran club in 2008, with 13 seniors, at least four of whom figure to be drafted. Leading the way is ace righthander Jordan Ellis, who transferred from Virginia after his freshman year and carries an 11-2 career record into his senior season. Wildcats coach Joe Godri said Ellis owns a 92-94 mph fastball and a very good slider, and he could be drafted among the top 10 rounds in June. Other key Wildcats seniors include righty Bill Hoffman, the projected closer who owns an 89-92 mph fastball and a quality curve; infielder Derek Shunk, who needs just 38 hits to break the school’s all-time leader; and slugging first baseman Dan Terpak, who hit eight homers last year after transferring from St. Petersburg (Fla.) JC.
• East Carolina has a pair of very intriguing two-way players who figure to see time on the infield and the mound. Ryan Wood, a lanky 6-foot-4, 175-pound second baseman, hasn’t pitched since high school, when he tore his labrum and later had surgery. He looked very good at times filling in at shortstop this spring when Dale Mollenhauer got hurt, but the Pirates plan to move him back to second base, where his footwork plays better. East Carolina will also likely use Wood out of the bullpen, where his sinking 89-91 mph fastball and promising hard slurve could make him an effective setup man. ECU assistant coach Link Jarrett said Wood struggled to command the strike zone at times this fall, but the potential is clearly there.
As for high-profile transfer Justin Bristow, who left Auburn for Greenville after his 2007 sophomore year, he’s in the mix at shortstop but is more likely to play a corner infield position. Jarrett said Bristow did not hit any home runs this fall but did start stinging line drives to both gaps toward the end of the fall. Bristow is more likely to be used in a starting role off the mound than Wood, potentially even on Sundays. His 89-91 mph fastball has some run, his 84-86 cutter is effective, and he’s shown a good curveball and changeup at times. He’ll compete for a spot in the weekend rotation with freshman righthander Sthil Sowers, who throws an 87-88 mph fastball with good sink, a slider and a change. The Pirates want Sowers to be more physical, as they had to shut him down in the fall, but he does a good job keeping the ball down in the zone.
If Bristow plays third base and Wood second, that means sophomore Brock Sutton would be the favorite to play shortstop, though freshman Dustin Harrington and junior Drew Schieber are also in the mix. Meanwhile, the closer role vacated by Shane Mathews is likely to be filled by junior righty Bailey Daniels, a strike-thrower with an 87-89 mph fastball, a slider and a changeup.
• Elon righthander Steven Hensley burst onto the prospect landscape in the summer of 2006, when he was named the No. 4 prospect in the Northwoods League, and he appears on the verge of rocketing up draft boards after a solid fall. Hensley’s fastball sat in the 90-92 mph range and topped out at 93 in his first outing–he has another scheduled for Saturday–and he has focused on developing his slider rather than his curveball. His hard 85-87 slider has looked filthy at times, and his changeup is a third quality offering. And keep an eye out for junior outfielder/lefthander Kory Harrilchak, who hit three home runs last weekend, notched a couple of outfield assists, pitched well and showed above-average speed.
• New Cal State Fullerton coach Dave Serrano has been very pleased with what he’s seen this fall, particularly with his lineup. Outfielder Jared Clark, who had to sit out last year with a knee injury, is back and showing huge power–he blasted eight home runs this fall, according to Serrano. Other veterans like Josh Fellhauer, Khris Davis and Joel Weeks have also swung hot bats, and newcomers Gary Brown and Christian Colon have been as good as advertised. Colon has looked outstanding at shortstop and held his own with the bat, and Brown has worked out at second base, though he could spend time in the outfield as a freshman. Serrano said Brown has squared the ball up consistently this spring, shown blazing speed, and could lead off for the Titans as a freshman.
• Army has a pair of players who figure to be good senior signs next June. Lefthander Drew Clothier has a prototype 6-foot-3 frame and an 87-89 mph fastball that can reach 92, and two-way player Cole White figures to get a shot as an infielder thanks to his bat; he hit .408/.481/.575 in 179 at-bats last spring. Army also landed a few very intriguing freshman arms, led by 6-foot-5 righthander Kirk Porter, who can run his fastball up to 94 mph. With 15 freshmen on the roster, coach Joe Sottolano said the young Black Knights could take their lumps early in the season, but he expects them to be dangerous down the stretch.
• Mississippi State lost several key contributors from its 2007 College World Series team, including sparkplug Jeffrey Rea–a four-year starter–and powerful two-way star Mitch Moreland. But the Bulldogs return weekend starters Chad Crosswhite and Justin Pigott to a pitching staff that figures to be strong. Lefthander Jared Wesson is making his way back from labrum surgery and looked decent in short stints this fall, according to MSU assistant coach Tommy Raffo. Other key arms include lefthander Tyler Whitney, who took his lumps as a midweek starter last year but looked good this fall; righty Ricky Bowen, who worked mostly in relief last year but had a great summer in the Central Illinois Collegiate League and has developed a much better feel for pitching; and touted freshman Forrest Moore, who was OK in the fall but needs to improve his control.
Of course, the big story out of Starkville this fall was the dominance of closer Aaron Weatherford, who pitched in the 92-94 mph range and topped out at 97 to go along with a good splitter that can be an out pitch at times. Weatherford went back and forth last year between his slider and curveball, but he focused on the curve this fall. His draft stock continues to climb, and he figures to be one of the nation’s best closers in 2008.
• As you might imagine, Kentucky is thrilled that hard-throwing righthander Scott Green did not sign with the Red Sox as a 15th-round pick this summer after showing he is fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, and Green could give the Wildcats a bona fide ace on Friday nights next spring if he continues to improve. But don’t forget about junior lefthander Chris Rusin, who pitched on Fridays a year ago. Rusin has a legit four-pitch mix highlighted by a plus curveball and a lively 88-89 mph fastball, and he gives Kentucky an experienced Saturday starter.
Kentucky’s projected Sunday starter, ground-ball machine Greg Dombrowski, was hurt by UK’s shoddy infield defense a year ago, but the Wildcats shifted players around to remedy that problem this fall, and Dombrowski stands to benefit. Four-year starter Ryan Wills returns at shortstop to anchor the defense, and junior Brian Spear will move to first base after splitting time a year ago between second and third. That will push Sawyer Carroll from first to right field. Newcomer Chris McClendon has looked very sound at the hot corner, and speedy, athletic juco transfer Kevin Carby will battle it out with Canadian freshman Chris Bisson at the keystone.
• It will be hard for teams in the Atlantic-10 to keep up with Charlotte and Richmond in 2008, but Xavier has a few quality arms that give it a shot to surprise some people. Junior lefthander Charlie Leesman returns to anchor the weekend rotation; with a 6-foot-4, 210-pound frame, a 91-94 mph fastball and a good changeup with plenty of sink, Leesman could sneak into the top five rounds with a good spring. He has plenty of athleticism and even runs the 60-yard dash in 6.8 seconds. Senior righty Michael Lucas is a competitor who will bring his 89-92 mph fastball to the Saturday starter role.
• Wake Forest returns a veteran team poised to make a run in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Righthander Ben Hunter, who has pitched mostly in relief over his first two college seasons, will move to the rotation in 2008, while fellow righty Brad Kledzik is slated to shift from a starting role to the closer job. Fifth-year senior Charlie Mellies, who returned from Tommy John surgery to make four starts last spring (including a solid effort against North Carolina in the ACC championship game), has competed hard this fall and could assume a weekend starter spot. Sophomore Phil Negus also had a good stint and could fill out the rotation. The offense should be balanced and experienced, with Willy Fox and Allan Dykstra anchoring the middle of the lineup and sophomore catcher Michael Murray ready to give them more protection. Murray showed some of his huge power this fall, and he has made strides defensively behind the plate.
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