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2004 Draft: College Midseason Update
Weaver's early showing puts him at top of list
By Allan Simpson
College pitching is the acknowledged strength of the 2004 draft. But that assessment hardly does justice to the kind of season Long Beach State's Jered Weaver is enjoying.
The 6-foot-6, 200-pound righthander has been the rage of scouts this spring. His performance has been so dominating that he has separated himself from the pack of 12 or 13 college pitchers who could become first-round picks.
"He's the top player on our list," said Padres general manager Kevin Towers, whose team has the No. 1 pick this year. "He's the only guy Chief (Padres scouting director Bill Gayton) has told me to lock in on so far."
Towers was more than just a casual observer at San Diego's Petco Park on March 12, when he saw his first game in the Padres' new home. He was also there to see Weaver, who was masterful against UCLA, striking out 15 while allowing one hit and a walk in eight innings.
Through seven starts, Weaver was 7-0, 0.71 with six walks and 73 strikeouts in 51 innings. Twice he had struck out the first 10 batters in a game.
"He's really put it all together this spring and jumped ahead of everyone else," an American League scouting director said. "His performance has been pretty amazing."
Other than Southern California's Mark Prior, who was drafted second overall by the Cubs in 2001, Towers said he couldn't recall a college pitcher in recent memory who has been as dominant as Weaver has been this spring. Even Prior, who went 15-1, 1.69 with 202 strikeouts and 18 walks in 139 innings in 2001, didn't post numbers quite like Weaver compiled in the early going.
Weaver has been so dominant that Towers believes he could step into the big leagues straight from the draft, something that hasn't occurred since Ben McDonald, the No. 1 overall pick in 1989, did so with the Orioles.
"He could hold his own right now, he's that good," Towers said. "He's been exposed to good competition, both at Long Beach State and internationally. He's a strike thrower, he changes speeds well, he's got good deception and he can get his fastball up to 93-94 mph. But it's a lot to ask because all eyes would be on him, especially the media and his fellow players. The expectations would be so high.
"It wouldn't hurt for him to get in a few innings in the minor leagues first, like Prior did, to acclimate himself to wood bats and the professional environment. Plus, he would earn his stripes with his peers by proving himself in the minors first."
Weaver's stuff, while good, isn't in the same class as Prior's. His fastball runs from 88-94 mph, and he generates plenty of movement from a low three-quarters arm slot. Scouts give his slider mixed reviews and wonder if he'll be able to maintain a good breaking ball with his arm angle, which he'll need to be effective against lefthanders. His changeup is solid, his command impeccable.
Weaver's pitching style is similar to his older brother Jeff, a 1998 first-round pick of the Tigers who is now with the Dodgers.
"Their body types are very similar, and they've both got the same three-quarters arm slots," Towers said. "They're both very intense, very animated. But where Jeff was slider-happy and has tended to live off his slider, Jered uses his whole repertoire more and has better command."
Advising Weaver will be agent Scott Boras, who also serves as Jeff's agent.
Weaver's success is a continuation from last summer, when he hurled 45 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings for Team USA before seeing his streak snapped against Cuba in the gold-medal contest at the Pan American Games in the Dominican Republic.
That performance solidified his status as one of the top prospects for this year's draft. His dominance this spring has pushed him over the top.
"We're still going to cover all our bases by seeing the Rice pitchers and Justin Verlander," Towers said, "but barring injury, it's going to be pretty hard for anyone to jump over Weaver."
While Weaver has separated himself from the pack, the rest of this year's college pitching class has largely held form.
Verlander, a 6-foot-4, 180-pound righthander from Old Dominion and a teammate of Weaver's on Team USA, appears to be Weaver's chief competition to go No. 1 when this year's draft is held June 7-8. He was ranked No. 2 among college players--ahead of Weaver--prior to the season, and remains No. 2.
Any debate on Weaver vs. Verlander will center on a pitcher with a higher upside (Verlander) against one who is much more polished and should reach the majors sooner (Weaver).
"Verlander's definitely got better pure stuff than Weaver," an AL scouting director said. "He has better arm strength and a better power breaking ball. But Weaver's got the whole package. He's got better pitchability and a better third pitch. He's more of a sure bet."
Unlike Weaver, Verlander has been erratic this spring. Princeton roughed him up for 10 runs in five innings despite seeing a steady diet of 96-97 mph fastballs.
Righthanders Jeff Niemann, Philip Humber and Wade Townsend, who pitched Rice to the College World Series title a year ago, also have attracted plenty of attention and haven't disappointed. All should be drafted in the first half of the first round. But there's plenty of debate on which of the three will be selected first.
Niemann was an early favorite to go No. 1 overall, but his command has been off since the 6-foot-9, 260-pound righthander had arthroscopic elbow surgery in the fall. That temporary setback has enabled Weaver and Verlander to leapfrog past him. Even Humber has pushed past Niemann according to some scouts, but he has done so as much on merit as opportunity. Humber had 17 strikeouts against Hawaii and touched 96 mph in the process. Neither Niemann nor Townsend has thrown that hard this season.Palmetto State Showcase
Several other pitchers have attracted their share of attention from scouting directors and crosscheckers.
An early two-game showdown between in-state rivals South Carolina and Clemson gave more than a dozen scouting directors a rare opportunity to see the best fastball and the best breaking ball on display this spring. Oddly, both South Carolina righthander Billy Buckner and Clemson catcher-turned-reliever Collin Mahoney were barely on the radar at the start of the season.
Buckner, a ninth-round pick of the Devil Rays a year ago at Young Harris (Ga.) Junior College, saw his stock skyrocket when he struck out 16 Clemson batters in 7 2/3 innings, mixing an outstanding curveball with a 92-94 mph fastball. His more-established teammate, lefthander Matt Campbell, also has one of the best curveballs in the draft and ranks as a potential first-rounder.
The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Mahoney received little attention in two years as a light-hitting backup catcher. But he was given a chance to work out of the bullpen last fall, and some scouts registered his fastball at 100 mph against South Carolina. Mahoney is far from a polished product, but his velocity alone has elevated his stock considerably.
Mahoney's teammate, lefthander Tyler Lumsden, is another first-round candidate. On the same day Mahoney's fastball flashed triple digits on radar guns, Lumsden's fastball topped out at 96 mph.
In addition to Buckner and Mahoney, the other college pitcher whose stock has risen dramatically is Central Florida righthander Matt Fox, a sixth-rounder out of high school. Fox always has had above-average arm strength but had control issues in his first two college seasons. The combination of his fastball (which touches 94 mph), a hard slider and vastly improved command have elevated his worth and enabled Fox to go 6-0, 0.62 with 10 walks and 63 strikeouts in 43 innings--results that have been topped only by Weaver.Princeton Produces Talent
Another school with the potential to produce multiple first-round picks is Princeton--a rarity for any school, much less an Ivy League school.
Righthander Ross Ohlendorf was a known quantity to scouts before the season, but his stock improved when he outdueled Verlander and Virginia Commonwealth righthander Justin Orenduff, both almost certain first-rounders, in two of his first three starts. His fastball was clocked at 94 mph, and his control has been much improved.
But the real revelation for scouts has been 6-foot-5, 205-pound outfielder B.J. Szymanski. An all-Ivy League wide receiver, Szymanski has shown five-tool potential after not even playing baseball in college as a freshman. He has been clocked in the 60-yard dash in 6.45 seconds and has displayed above-average power.
"He's as good an athlete as there is in college baseball," an American League crosschecker said. "He's a potential five-tool guy, a switch-hitter with power from both sides."
Szymanski's presence has been a positive development in a draft that is decidedly thin on college position players. Florida State shortstop Stephen Drew is the only college hitter certain to go in the first round.
"There's not a lot of depth at the top end from a position standpoint," Gayton said.
On the Decline
The college crop has had its share of disappointments this spring. Many of them play at Georgia Tech, which entered the season ranked No. 5 but quickly fell out of the poll.
As many as six Yellow Jackets were projected to be drafted in the first five rounds this year, not to mention the possibility of two first-rounders in 2005. But hardly a single Georgia Tech player has performed up to expectations.
Catcher Mike Nickeas, second baseman Eric Patterson, outfielder Jeremy Slayden and righthander Micah Owings all have fallen in the eyes of scouts. Slayden, a possible first-rounder at one point, was lost for the season with a shoulder injury. Their two premium sophomores also have struggled, as shortstop Tyler Greene has been inconsistent at the plate and righthander Jason Neighborgall hasn't been able to find it.
Arizona State first baseman/outfielder Jeff Larish is the other noteworthy disappointment. He projected as the top college position player at the start of the year, but he hasn't performed anywhere near expectations with the bat.
"He's been a disappointment," an AL scouting director said. "We've seen a change in his mechanics and his approach. He's been a lot more passive at the plate this year."
Meanwhile Larish's teammate, 5-foot-9 shortstop Dustin Pedroia, has improved his worth. He has been winning over doubters who said he doesn't have the size or tools to be an early-round pick. By hitting well over .400 and playing steadily in the field, he has elevated himself into a solid second-round pick--possibly higher for organizations that emphasize performance over tools.
"He plays above his tools," an AL crosschecker said. "He's proven his determination and drive to overachieve. He's always scoring, always making plays in the field."