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By John Manuel
(Talent Ranking: **** out of five) A decent high school crop in Georgia still makes it one of the nation's top groups, thanks to the exploding talent in metro Atlanta. The state could produce two first-rounders and is brimming with its usual assortment of interesting pitchers. Georgia and Georgia Tech were two of the hottest college teams in the country in May, with the Bulldogs' talent mostly concentrated in its underclassmen, leaving the Yellow Jackets to dominate the top of the draft. Next year could be an even better year in the state, led by Tech shortstop Tyler Greene and prep lefty Miers Quigley--both potential top 10 selections.
Projected First-Round Picks
• Chris Nelson, ss
Indians infielder Brandon Phillips also went to Redan High, but Nelson is more frequently compared with such shortstops as Derek Jeter and B.J. Upton. While Nelson isn't tall and rangy in the new shortstop mold, he has athletic ability to spare, which is why he's expected to be drafted in the first 10 picks overall and ranked first on at least one team's draft board. Nelson's best tool is his arm, even though he had Tommy John surgery in the fall. He's made a full recovery and has shelved his low-90s fastball for good. Smooth and easy at shortstop, Nelson has fluid infield actions, plenty of range and good baseball savvy. He may be the first high school player picked, though, because he has a polished bat. He has a short, compact swing, makes consistent contact and has solid bat speed. He hit .582-8-36 this spring. Along with his strong frame, the package has scouts projecting him to hit for average power down the road. It's an enticing total package when Nelson's plus-plus makeup is added in.
• Dexter Fowler, of
With a body compared to Andre Dawson's, the 6-foot-5, 185-pound Fowler is unlikely to slip through the early rounds of the draft and attend Miami. He's a premium athlete, long and lean like Dawson with broad shoulders, and he's made enough strides with the bat this spring to jump into the first round. He hit .500 with 10 home runs. An intelligent player, Fowler is an above-average defender with plus-plus speed in center field, gliding to balls like Andruw Jones and showing a strong arm. While he's made progress offensively and shows raw power potential, he lacks consistency in his swing, and some scouts think it will have to be broken down completely. He's a high-risk pick that could pay a high reward to a patient team willing to stick him in short-season ball for a while.
Second- to Fifth-Round Talent
• Micah Owings, rhp/dh
One of this draft's many brother tandems, Owings' younger brother Jon Mark also has significant talent, though many scouts expect him to end up at Clemson. Micah, draft-eligible as a 21-year-old sophomore, was one of the top sluggers in high school history with 69 home runs (fourth on the all-time list) and has hit in the middle of Georgia Tech's lineup for two seasons. His progress with the bat has made scouts think again about their projections that he would be better as a pro pitcher. He's cut down on his strikeouts, shortened his swing while retaining power and showed the ability to make in-game adjustments, all of which he lacked in 2003. He lacks a true position, though his tools profile for third base, where he has little experience. On the mound, Owings moved to the bullpen for a stretch this spring and showed mid-90s velocity with good life on the fastball, though he pitches at 89-92 mph as a starter with good sinking life. He might profile best as a reliever, where his stuff plays up a grade and his everyday mentality would work. He's a legitimate second-round talent both as a pitcher and as a hitter.
• Andrew Kown, rhp
While several Georgia Tech players underachieved with regard to the draft this year, Kown surged. He's a rare commodity in a college pitcher: a projectable, fresh arm. He's grown into his lanky 6-foot-7 frame and could add strength in the future. He came on down the stretch of his sophomore season and emerged with a strong summer in the Alaska League, where he was ranked the No. 6 prospect by Baseball America. Using a high three-quarters release point, Kown pitches in the 89-93 mph range with his fastball, touching some 94s, to go with a solid changeup. Kown could become a frontline pitcher if his inconsistent slider, which at times shows good depth and tilt, becomes a plus pitch.
• Eric Patterson, 2b
The younger brother of Cubs outfielder Corey Patterson, Eric has had a roller-coaster college career. He helped Tech to the 2002 College World Series in an All-Freshman season, when he hit .346 with 41 stolen bases. He slumped to .274 as a sophomore as he changed his approach, adopting a pigeon-toed stance and diving into balls at the plate in an attempt to replicate his brother's power. After struggling with Team USA last summer (he led the team in strikeouts), Patterson again started slowly this season before adjusting his approach. A 60 runner on the 20-80 scale who consistently gets to first base in 4.0-4.1 seconds, Patterson still doesn't trust his hands to produce his power, so he strikes out too much, hits too many fly balls and flies open trying to pull the ball. He has made more consistent contact since getting rid of his toe tap. Clubs that think he can adjust will get a good runner, average defensive second baseman and potential leadoff threat.
• Eddie Prasch, 3b
With the exception of Nelson, scouts agree that Prasch is the state's best hitter. His bat is by far his best tool, and he's shown the ability to hit good pitching from either lefties (lashing line drives off Quigley when the junior was throwing 94) or righties. He has a quick, short stroke and a good trigger in his swing. He hit .440-10-40 this spring. Prasch doesn't have another plus tool, however, though he's an average runner. He resembles Diamondbacks infielder Chad Tracy in that he projects for modest power (10-15 home runs) if he moves to third base, as expected. He isn't a great defender as a prep shortstop, and he might be too stiff with hands and footwork for the middle infield.
• Michael Schlact, rhp
At 6-foot-7 and 205 pounds, Schlact is a big prep pitcher, and while scouts differ on how much projection is left, they all agree there's more velocity to come. Schlact has shown an 88-91 mph heater while touching 92. Some scouts see a loose arm; others say he has more effort in his delivery than they would like, and that his body is fully mature. His slider is below-average, and he's used a split-finger pitch as well. His results haven't matched his stuff, leaving him available come the third round. His South Carolina commitment apparently isn't as daunting as some other commitments among the state's prep class.
• Brandon Boggs, of
Few college players look as good in a uniform as Boggs, an excellent athlete who has made progress with the bat this season and moved into the first five rounds. Boggs lost his starting job for part of his sophomore season, when he struck out too much in an attempt to hit for more power. A switch-hitter who's better from the right side, he has shortened his stroke this year to get better plate coverage. While he was still swinging and missing a lot, he had raised his average while hitting for solid power. His tools, average across the board (his arm might be a tick above), compare in many ways to former Tech star Jay Payton. Boggs may be a tweener who ends up a fourth outfielder.
• Luke Putkonen, rhp
Putkonen, part of North Carolina's potentially stellar recruiting class (which also includes football recruit Mike Rozier), has the loose arm and projectable frame scouts covet. He pumps 88-92 mph fastballs from a fluid, clean delivery, and the ball comes out of his hand with plenty of life. In a spring when many Georgia preps didn't perform particularly well, Putkonen was on cruise control, using a solid-average curveball and showing command of both his top pitches. The catch, besides his college commitment, is that he may have bone chips in his elbow. Some also question whether he's ready to go into pro ball straight out of high school.
• Bo Lanier, rhp
Georgia won 12 straight games in the Southeastern Conference, powered by a young, developing lineup and a deep bullpen, to which Lanier was the key. Pound for pound, one scout said, he's the best arm in the country. Lanier is smaller than his listed 6-foot-1, 155 pounds, but that doesn't stop him from pumping 93-95 mph heat into the strike zone. His fastball has good sink to it, and his loose, quick arm also generates good spin on a power curveball. A redshirt sophomore, Lanier may prove a tough sign, as he could use an extra season to gain strength and stamina, perhaps in the Georgia rotation.
Others To Watch
• A pair of top quarterback recruits has shown tools worthy of being drafted in the first 10 rounds. LHP Mike Rozier (no relation to the former Heisman Trophy winner) has signed as a quarterback with North Carolina; RHP D.T. McDowell committed to Nebraska originally but now will attend Troy State since the Huskers shifted away from an option attack under new coach Bill Callahan. Rozier has athletic ability, a powerful 6-foot-5, 210-pound frame and an 87-91 mph fastball that he commands fairly well. Scouts want to see more development of his secondary pitches, though, before taking on his football scholarship and his advisor, agent Scott Boras. McDowell has raw tools both on the mound and in the field--including in the open field. The Troy State football staff has called him a poor man's Michael Vick as a quarterback, since he's smaller (6-foot, 185 pounds) but just as explosive of a runner. He's been better on the mound to this point in baseball, showing a 93-94 mph fastball in a Perfect Game showcase with an 84-85 mph power slider. He has a lot of effort in his delivery and in his swing, and might be too raw to buy away from football.
• Another top football recruit, OF Calvin Johnson, has some of the best athletic ability in the draft--in any state. He's a Georgia Tech football signee as one of the nation's top prep wide receivers; he's 6-foot-4, 210 pounds and picked the Jackets over rival Georgia in a heated, well-documented recruiting battle. In baseball, he's a raw offensive player (even moreso than McDowell) who lacks skill, but the tools are hard to deny. It will take a lot of money (seven figures?) to keep him from his football career.
• Georgia Tech was surging as the season came to a close, with the help of some of its draft-eligible veterans. C Mike Nickeas is a fundamentally sound defender with average catch-and-throw skills and an athletic background. Born in Canada and raised in California, his English-born father was a professional soccer player; despite his international background, Nickeas caught for Team USA last summer and as a prep player on the junior national team. Nickeas has average tools across the board, though he's a below-average runner. He struggled at the plate this season, with his average and slugging numbers down considerably from 2003. He isn't afraid to draw a walk, but scouts say he's been passive at the plate this season. 1B Clifton Remole is a smooth fielder and patient hitter who hasn't unlocked his power potential yet. Senior 5-foot-9 RHP Brian Burks has filled a variety of roles for the Yellow Jackets in his career and commands three pitches well. His fastball has reached 91 mph in relief outings, and he's generally been more successful in that role. OF Jeremy Slayden could have been Georgia Tech's top prospect for the draft, but he was lost for the season in early March with a torn rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder. He projected as one of the top home run hitters in a draft short on power after hitting five homers last summer in the Cape Cod League, and he was expected to return to the Cape once healthy this summer. It's possible he could be an early-round pick if a team is prepared to sign him to a 2005 contract.
• Georgia came on strong down the stretch to post the best record in the Southeastern Conference, and the coaching staff credited junior C Clint Sammons for much of the surge. Like Nickeas, he has Team USA experience (2002, when his stint with the team was cut short by a broken thumb), and his catch-and-throw tools are ahead of his bat; he's shown little power potential, but was closing the season with a flourish. With Sammons, the difference is more significant as it should raise his draft profile. RHPs Sean Ruthven and Michael Hyle have carried much of the load in the Bulldogs rotation, and both could go on the draft's first day. Ruthven, the son of ex-big leaguer Dick Ruthven, has started to show some of his father's moxie and competitiveness on the mound. His fastball had average (88-90) velocity last year, but has been inconsistent in 2004, leading him to lean on his plus curveball and average changeup more. Clubs that bank on the velocity coming back could get a tall (6-foot-4), experienced righthander who commands three average pitches, and whose curve is a potential strikeout pitch. Hyle is a Tommy John surgery survivor who has also had shoulder inflammation this spring that caused him to miss some starts. He pitches off his fastball, changing speeds on it in the 84-92 mph range, and spots his curve, slider and changeup in an effort to induce groundballs.
• Georgia's prep ranks consistently fill Atlantic Coast and Southeastern Conference rosters with players, and this year's class should be no exception. OF/3B Jon Mark Owings, the younger brother of Micah, hit .515 with 17 homers for Gainesville High this spring. He has similar offensive tools if not the same kind of raw power of his older brother, and he doesn't have the same kind of arm. He's considered a tough sign as a Clemson commitment.
• RHP Josh Fields, who has thrown out a seven-figure price tag and but is only 6-foot, 165-pounds, is headed to Georgia. Fields, once a bat boy for the Bulldogs, reminds some scouts of Bo Lanier because he shows a quick arm, low 90s velocity and has a good curveball, but he's made it clear he wants to go to school.
• RHP Brian Futral hasn't shown the 94 mph fastball he showed last summer; in fact, the Georgia Tech recruit didn't even hit 90, so despite his good breaking ball and pitchability, he's expected to head to school at Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets class also includes RHP Eddie Burns, who has struggled to keep his 6-foot-8 frame coordinated and has lost velocity on his once 90-plus fastball; and LHP Tim Ladd, who also lacks size (5-foot-11, 165 pounds. Ladd's best features are an 87-88 mph fastball that pounds the strike zone and an average curveball.
• Alabama is likely to retain the services of RHP/3B Josh Copeland, a physical, strong two-way player who has had a tough spring. Copeland was impressive in Jupiter, Fla., at the Perfect Game/Baseball America World Wood Bat Championship in the fall, throwing a heavy 89-93 mph fastball and maintaining his velocity deep into games, but elbow woes short-circuited his velocity this spring. He's physically mature and has raw power, though he lacks polish at the plate. His signability was once considered very good, but he's not likely to go in the first five rounds anymore.
• Lanky LHP Tim Murphey has an excellent pitcher's frame at 6-foot-3, 165 pounds, and he's wiry strong. His loose arm helps him blow hitters away with an 89-92 mph fastball that has touched 94. He's not a strong student and is considered signable, though he's raw and needs work on his secondary stuff.
• Brewton Parker LHP Trey Wiggins, who has been clocked up to 94 mph, heads a contingent of small college pitching prospects that includes RHP Marcus Barriger of Armstrong Atlantic State, RHP Brett Campbell of Kennesaw State and LHP Matt Goyen of Georgia College.
• RHP Ryan Aldridge has one of the best arms in the state, but it wasn't clear if he'd be available for the draft. The Middle Georgia JC ace, who runs his sinking fastball consistently into the low 90s, was under control to the Yankees as a 26th-round draft-and-follow.
• While the consensus of scouts and college coaches considers RHP Jaager Good too small to be a high draft pick, the 6-foot-1, 175-pounder had a strong spring season, runs his fastball up to 92 mph at times (though he pitches in the high 80s) and has shown the ability to spin a breaking ball from his maximum-effort delivery.
• Had he been healthy this spring, RHP Jon Michael Vidic could have pitched his way into the first five rounds, what with his projectable 6-foot-4, 200-pound frame and a fastball that has reached the 90s. He's expected to enroll at Georgia Tech after having had Tommy John surgery in April 2003. Other area players who could get drafted but are expected to go to college are RHP/OF Stephen Dodson, SS Brad Emaus, C/1B Tyler Flowers and 1B Ryan Peisel. Dodson and Flowers (Georgia) were two-sport players in high school, Dodson as a basketball standout and Flowers in football. The Bulldogs plan to use Dodson's projectable 6-foot-4 frame on the mound. Emaus (Tulane), an AFLAC all-America team member, has a steady bat and average tools across the board. Peisel (East Carolina), who also was one of Lassiter's best pitchers, is noted mostly for his strong lefthanded bat. At this time, he lacks the bat speed to make a smooth transition to wood.