By GREG AUMAN
CLEARWATER, Fla. —The high level of draft talent in this year’s Big East Big Ten Challenge could be best appreciated Saturday afternoon by the small set of bleachers directly behind home plate at Jack Russell Memorial Stadium.
Seats were available on either side, but the view from straight behind the plate was good enough that scouts packed five deep behind and around those central stands. With each pitch Minnesota batters faced, a fleet of radar guns rose from the bleachers, overflowing with scouts on hand to see a pair of high first-round picks in Connecticut righthander Matt Barnes and outfielder George Springer.
Easily half the crowd was scouting, stopwatches hanging from their necks, notepads in hand. That was no surprise to Huskies coach Jim Penders, who saw the huge attention focused on his players during a simple workout two days earlier.
"We probably had 30-40 guys at the Yankees complex for our practice, for God’s sake," Penders said. "We couldn’t catch pop-ups, but they were hanging in there for everything we did. It adds a bit of a circus atmosphere to it."
Minnesota got the best of Barnes and Springer on Saturday, edging the Huskies with a 3-1 win despite getting just four hits. Barnes didn’t disappoint, striking out seven batters in the first three innings with overpowering speed in the low-to-mid-90s; he finished with 11 strikeouts in six innings.
Springer didn’t have his best game, hitting into a double play in the first and fouling out twice, and even when he reached base in the third on a shot off the third baseman’s glove, he was caught stealing to end the inning. That was a sight in itself, as in all of last season, the center fielder and preseason first-team All-American was caught just twice in 35 attempts.
The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Springer’s combination of power and speed—he hit 18 home runs last season—also comes with a keen eye at the plate, as he set Connecticut’s school record with 60 walks last season, helping him to a .491 on-base percentage.
"His potential is the most vast of any kid I’ve coached," Penders said. "He does things you don’t see every day, and you couple that with excellent baseball instincts, and you have the potential for a heck of a baseball player. I don’t think he’s close to what he can do on a baseball field, which is scary because he’s been a very productive player for us. He’s a dynamic player and personality."
Barnes may be the best Saturday starter in college baseball, as senior lefty Elliot Glynn will get the nod on Fridays for the third year in a row. Even after Saturday’s win, Minnesota coach John Anderson was wowed by Barnes’ power.
"He just dominated us with his fastball," Anderson said. "I was impressed by how he was able to just dominate us. He’s an impressive talent, a strikeout guy. The more we could get him to throw, the more you get his pitch count up in his first start of the year. We felt our only chance was to try to match our bullpen against theirs."
The three-day challenge has consistently featured high draft picks—last year’s field included Ohio State pitcher Alex Wimmers, who went 21st to the Twins, and the inaugural tournament in 2009 had Notre Dame’s A.J. Pollock, who was picked 17th that summer by the Diamondbacks. With seven top-50 picks in the previous two drafts, the event draws not only scouts by high-level executives as well, since many aren’t far off with the start of spring training.
"There’s been a ton of scouts here every year we’ve been here," Anderson said. "You can see a lot of people on a lot of teams. From a scouting standpoint, it’s a smorgasbord for those guys."
This year’s field may match the previous two combined—in addition to Connecticut’s two likely top-10 picks, there is Huskies shortstop Nick Ahmed, two Louisville standouts in versatile infielder Ryan Wright and righthander Tony Zych, plus Michigan shortstop Derek Dennis, all rated among the top 60 prospects in college baseball by Baseball America.
Penders said the high scouting interest in February is a huge plus, but he hopes the same stopwatches will see his team late in the season—the Big East tournament is back in Clearwater in May—when Northern players have had enough time to fully develop their skills. That won’t be an issue for elite players like Barnes and Springer, but he hopes the rest of the squads get more looks in a few months.
"We’ve had guys written off in the past," he said. "To do the best job of scouting and evaluating northern talent, you’ve got to see it in April and May, because we’re not exactly the same. I think that’s true for all college baseball players."
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