Successful college shortstops tend to be overdrafted. Take 2010, when the consensus of area scouts in Southern California preferred Cal State Fullerton speed-merchant outfielder Gary Brown over shortstop Christian Colon, while national evaluators preferred Colon for his track record of hitting and steady, if less flashy tools.
The college middle infielder that can hit is one of the safest profiles for scouts, so Colon went fourth overall, while Brown went 20 picks later and signed for $1.3 million less than Colon. In their first season as pros in 2011, Brown outshined Colon. Both are in Double-A now.
This year's crop of college middle infielders is thin, contributing to the subpar college hitting crop overall. Arizona State's Deven Marrero and Stanford's Kenny Diekroeger led the crop of such players coming into the year, but neither has shined this spring, with Diekroeger (.310/.360/.441) moving to second base while sophomore Lonnie Kaupilla was healthy for the Cardinals and Marrero slumping to .268/.329/.396.
That has left room for others to move up, including two from the rival schools that have occupied the top spot in BA's Top 25 college rankings: Florida State's Justin Gonzalez and as Florida junior Nolan Fontana.
Fontana isn't as toolsy as Marrero or Diekroeger but has outperformed both. Fontana is having his best offensive season for the Gators, hitting .312/.429/.519 with a career-best eight home runs. As usual, the sure-handed Fontana has been steady on defense, committing just three errors after committing 12 last year and just four as a freshman.
Scouts agree that Fontana doesn't have particularly loud tools, with his best attribute being his excellent hands and his speed, which rates at least a 55 if not a 60 on the 20-80 scouting scale. He also profile well as a lefthanded-hitting middle infielder. That said, scouts don't see a lot of impact if he can't stay at shortstop, and he doesn't have classic shortstop range or infield actions.
Fontana's counterpoint in many ways is Florida State's Gonzalez, who at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds is longer and leaner than the 5-foot-11, 195-pound Fontana. Gonzalez has a mild hamstring pull that prompted him to leave the Seminoles' last game against Miami early, and he was expected to play against Rhode Island this weekend, but it wouldn't be a shock if he had some time off.
A righthanded hitter, Gonzalez has much more power and better infield actions than Fontana, with his average arm strength the biggest impediment to his pro future defensively at shortstop. After a tough start, he has become more consistent with the routine play and has made 10 errors this season, after making 12 a year ago.
However, Gonzalez has a bigger concern—strikeouts. He fanned an absurd 74 times in 2011 while hitting .264/.380/.433, and has shown scant improvement statistically in 2012: .252/.373/.424 with 48 strikeouts in 139 at-bats. His strikeout rate is actually up from 32 percent to 34.5 percent over a year ago.
Miami junior Stephen Perez could work his way into this mix with a strong finish. Perez was a peer of Marrero's in the South Florida prep class of 2009, but Perez's college career has been marked by modest performance and injury, including a right arm issue that forced him to DH and play second base for the first half of 2012. He's hitting .264/.363/.472 this season, his best year in college. He runs well but also remains strikeout prone like Gonzalez, with 157 in 539 at-bats (a 29 percent clip).
Fontana's profile and performance track record could push him to the supplemental first-round area, even though in terms of talent, most area scouts consider him more of a third-round pick. Gonzalez may have to finish strong at the plate to make it into the first five rounds, despite his defensive ability.
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