Ask BA

I was having an email exchange about third-base prospect Josh Vitters with Mark Peel, who knows more about Cubs prospects than anyone this side of the Cubs, when something crystallized for me: Projecting plate discipline and patience for a high school hitter may be the most difficult job in scouting.

While the proliferation of high school showcases—such as the Perfect Game National, from where Conor Glassey filed several fine reports on 2012 prospects over the weekend—allows scouts to see prep hitters against better competition, it’s still not enough to know how they’ll fare when they face pitchers who can command multiple pitches in and out of the strike zone.

Chicago drafted Vitters third overall in 2007 because of his ability to hit for both average and power, and he’s doing a solid job of both in Double-A this year, batting .291/.326/.464. But he hasn’t torn up the minor leagues as expected because minor league pitchers know he’s looking to put the ball in play. He has walked eight times in 64 games this season, in line with his career rate, and big leaguers will further exploit his impatience when he faces them. Provided he improves his defense at third base, I think Vitters is talented enough to be a solid regular, but he may never have the impact with the bat that the Cubs and many other teams expected he would.

There will be no Ask BA next week, because I’ll be enjoying the final part of the College World Series, which remains my favorite baseball event. I envision an all-Southeastern Conference final, with Florida beating defending national champion South Carolina. I look forward to reminding my BA colleagues, most of whom graduated from North Carolina, that the Atlantic Coast Conference has one won just one CWS and that came 56 years ago.

    I was curious about your take of the Josh Bell situation and if you think it compares to the Dodgers and Zach Lee last year. Everyone criticized Los Angeles for picking a seemingly unsignable player, wondering if the team wanted to let him go in exchange for a compensation pick in a far deeper 2011 draft. With Bell writing a letter to the Major League Scouting Bureau saying that he doesn't want to turn pro, how come I haven't heard people getting on the Pirates for taking an unsignable player? Do they have enough money to throw at Bell after they take care of No. 1 overall pick Gerrit Cole?

    Anthony Porrazzo
    Lake Forest, Calif.

The criticism of the Dodgers came not because people though they were trying to gain an extra first-round pick in the 2011 draft. Rather, it came because no one though cash-strapped owner Frank McCourt possibly could pay what it would take to lure Lee away from playing quarterback at Louisiana State, and that he just wanted to save money by not signing a first-rounder.

But what everyone missed is that Los Angeles could land Lee and spend less than the slot recommendation for the No. 28 pick ($1,134,000) in 2010 by taking advantage of MLB bonus rules regarding two-sport athletes. The Dodgers gave him a $5.25 million bonus, but spread it over five years in a backloaded deal.

The situations are different in that no one suspected the Pirates of having any insincere motives when they took Bell, a Dallas Jesuit Prep outfielder considered the best high school bat in the draft, with the first pick in the second round.

Before the draft, Bell wrote a letter to the MLSB stating his desire to bypass pro ball to attend the University of Texas. While some might see this as a bargaining ploy and note that Bell will be advised by the Boras Corp., multiple sources have told Baseball America that they believe Bell and his mother (a professor at Texas-Arlington) are set on him going to college. One said he didn’t think Bell would sign for $20 million.

Cole likely will command a big league contract in the neighborhood of $7 million. The Pirates have spent more on the draft in the last three years than any other club, and at $45 million, they also had MLB’s third-lowest Opening Day payroll this year. I think they could find plenty of money to tempt Bell with, but I think he’s destined to be a Longhorn.

That said, I like the gamble. Bell was a mid-first-round talent in a deep draft, and it could be argued that he has the highest offensive ceiling of any player available. It’s a high-reward, low-risk move that will give Pittsburgh either a talent far superior to a standard 61st overall pick or the No. 62 choice in the 2012 draft. The Pirates have aimed high in the second round in recent years, failing to sign Tanner Scheppers in 2008 when he didn’t return to full health but grabbing power-armed Stetson Allie for $2.25 million last year.

    Do you think the Athletics will regret drafting Sonny Gray over Matt Barnes? I don't get the logic behind that one. Barnes has the more classic pitcher's physique and after all the injury problems with Rich Harden, I would think the A's would shy away from small pitchers like Gray.

    Jason Litteral
    Walnut Creek, Calif.

We ranked Gray No. 12 and Barnes No. 13 on our Top 200 Prospects list, and they went back to back in the draft as well, with Gray going 18th to the A’s and Barnes 19th to the Red Sox. They’re very close as overall prospects, and I wouldn’t worry about Gray’s size.

While Gray is 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, he never has had arm problems and many scouts believe he has what it takes to make it as a starter. Barnes has a more typical starter’s build at 6-foot-4 and 203 pounds, but they have similar fastballs and Gray has a better curveball. Ultimately, Gray’s ability to succeed as a starter hinges on his ability to repeat his delivery and maintain consistent command, not his size.

After the American League introduced the DH in 1973, the NCAA adopted its own version of the rule in 1974, when it also switched from wood to aluminum bats. College baseball had just had its most prominent two-way star ever in Dave Winfield, who led Minnesota to the 1973 College World Series as a pitcher and an outfielder. Though the Golden Gophers were eliminated in the semifinals, Winfield was named MVP of the CWS after striking out 29 in two starts—and never pitched again while becoming a Hall of Fame outfielder.

In order to allow teams to make the most of two-way talents, the NCAA rules committee decided to allow them to treat the DH and pitcher as separate positions. As seen in the Virginia-California game, Hultzen started the game in both spots and remained the DH after being relieved on the mound in the seventh. He wouldn’t have been allowed to re-enter the game as a pitcher, though a player who begins the game as solely a DH can pitch in relief and remain as the DH, even after he stops pitching.

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