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By Jim Callis
(Talent Ranking: *** out of five) Illinois colleges have bounced back after a down year in 2003, producing four lefthanders who will go in the early rounds. Southern Illinois' Eric Haberer came out of nowhere to jump to the top of the pack, much as righthander Casey Erickson did in the high school crop. The state's top juco prospects can be found on the mound as well.
Projected First-Round Picks
Second- To Fifth-Round Talent
Eric Haberer, lhp
Southern Illinois planned to use Haberer as its closer this spring, but moved him into the rotation after losing its first nine games. Haberer outpitched Notre Dame's Chris Niesel in his first two starts and swiftly established himself as the state's top prospect. He has the best arm strength among Illinois' quality college southpaws, pitching at 89-93 mph with good life and sink. Haberer throws two types of breaking balls, with his slider more effective than his curveball, and has a changeup he should use more often. With a fastball/slider mix and 6-foot-2, 200-pound frame that are reminiscent of Mike Stanton's, Haberer projects as a late-inning lefty reliever. J.A. Happ, lhp
Happ is the most polished and projectable of the state's four college lefthanders. He followed up a strong summer in the Cape Cod League by chasing Northwestern's season and career strikeout records this spring. He led the Big 10 Conference with 96 strikeouts in 85 innings. Happ usually pitches at 84-88 mph with his fastball, peaking at 92, and at 6-foot-6 and 205 pounds he could pick up more velocity if he fills out. His arm works well, and his size and delivery give him deception that allows him to miss bats. His curveball is a plus pitch at times, while his changeup needs work. Kyle Bloom, lhp
When Bloom has all three of his pitches working and keeps them down, he profiles better as a starter than any of the Illinois lefties. The problem is that he's rarely in sync, which explains why he hasn't had a winning record for the Redbirds and owns a career 12-16, 5.63 mark. His 86-90 mph fastball is fairly straight but is effective when he uses his 6-foot-3 frame to generate leverage down in the zone. His curveball has added 4-5 mph in velocity this spring, and his changeup usually is a solid-average pitch. Dave Haehnel, lhp
Haehnel enjoyed tremendous success out of the bullpen in his first two years in college, posting a 1.08 ERA as a redshirt freshman in 2002, then leading the Horizon League with nine saves and ranking as the Jayhawk League's top prospect last summer. Moved to the rotation this year, he has continued to make batters swing and miss at his 88-93 mph sinker. His changeup is a well-above-average pitch at times, but he'll need to improve his breaking ball to start at the next level. It's serviceable at best, and he may be better off using a cutter.
Others To Watch
RHP Casey Erickson has good bloodlines. His uncle Roger won 14 games as a rookie for the 1978 Twins, and his brother Corey is a Double-A infielder in the Cardinals system. But it wasn't until this year that Casey emerged as the state's top prep prospect. At his best, he maintains 89-90 mph velocity and shows a good breaking ball from a low three-quarters arm slot that gives his pitches a lot of life. He also had outings when he didn't top 86 mph this spring. He's athletic at 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds. He committed to Illinois in May.
SS Josh Flores is the top position player in the state. He's a legitimate 80 runner on the 20-80 scouting scale, going from the right side of the plate to first base in 3.9 seconds. Flores isn't a project but will need refinement. He needs to improve his footwork and arm slot, though he does have good feet and arm strength. He makes consistent hard contact but needs to smooth out his swing and stay back better on breaking balls. He's expected to sign because he has no four-year college options.
OF Jeremy Pickrel whetted scouts' appetites with a strong summer in the Central Illinois Collegiate League last year, then fell off as a junior. He struck out 73 times (one off the NCAA Division I lead) in 153 at-bats after fanning 77 times in 290 at-bats over his first two seasons. Scouts say he spread out his stance too much and stopped using his lower half in his swing. But they still like his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame, his raw power and his athleticism.
C Dan Pohlman spent two years as a linebacker on Northwestern's football team and saw a lot of time in the outfield and on the mound in his first three years of baseball. A full-time catcher for the first time as a senior, he's still learning behind the plate. But he has power in his bat, arm strength and a solid 6-foot-1, 215-pound build.
Illinois' top two junior college prospects were under control to big league clubs. RHP Justin Berg (Yankees) is a 6-foot-5, 215-pounder who induces a lot of ground balls when he keeps his lively 89-91 fastball down in the strike zone. His slider has improved this spring. Berg pitched in the 2003 Junior College World Series with Indian Hills (Iowa) CC. LHP Eric Everly already signed with the White Sox after Olney's season ended. He set an Olney record with 97 strikeouts in 85 innings this spring. There's some effort in his delivery, but his arm works well. His future is as a reliever, and he pitches at 88-91 mph with a decent slider out of the pen.
The best juco prospect with no strings attached is C/3B Chris Cunningham, who won the 2003 national junior college batting title at .523 and hit .376 this spring. He's an offense-only player, but that average is eye-catching.
Scouts aren't as high on the pro futures of two juco sluggers, John A. Logan OF Matt Richardson and Olney 1B Ben Humphrey. Richardson, tied for the national juco lead with 18 homers, may have to prove himself at Mississippi State next year. Humphrey, tied for third with 16 homers and fourth with 79 RBIs, is strong at 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds but has holes in his swing.
OF Mike Hughes ended the regular season among the Horizon League leaders in virtually every offensive category, and packs a lot of power into his 6-foot-3, 225-pound frame. He's a good athlete for his size and might have a future as a catcher. Scouts question his feel for hitting with wood and wish he pulled the ball more often.
Yet another power hitter who hasn't captivated scouts is OF Joe Dunigan. He has plus-plus raw power, but it shows up more in batting practice than in games, where he strikes out too often. While he runs well for a 6-foot-1, 210-pounder and has arm strength, clubs probably won't try too hard to buy him away from Oklahoma.
C Dan Puente was hampered by finger and shoulder injuries, then saw his season end when he broke his left hand. He'll still get drafted because of his catch-and-throw skills. Puente's injuries forced 1B/C Brad Canada behind the plate, but his best position is the batter's box. After batting .238 as a sophomore, he hit .368 with gap power and more walks (27) than strikeouts (21).
RHP Josh Kauten is impressive from a physical standpoint, with a 6-foot-4, 200-pound frame, an 89-93 mph fastball that touches 95 and a strong overhand curveball. But he went 0-7, 6.58 as a senior because his fastball straightens out and he can't pitch himself out of jams. Still, he has the stuff to be a late-inning reliever.
RHP Aaron Lovett opened his season with a no-hitter when he recorded 20 of the 21 outs via strikeout. He's projectable at 6-foot-5 and 180 pounds, throws 84-88 mph and owns a promising curveball.
RHP Drew O'Connell is also very projectable (6-foot-4, 195 pounds) and has more consistent velocity than Lovett, usually pitching at 87-88 mph.
RHPs Gary Perinar and John Ely lit up radar guns more than any Illinois prepsters. Perinar is just 6 feet tall and showed some 92s and 93s early this spring before falling off. He'll be a better pitcher after attending Minnesota. Ely touches 92 mph but does so with a violent delivery that makes scouts cringe. He has a better breaking ball than Perinar but pro clubs might wait to see how he holds up at Miami (Ohio).
RHP/OF Brian Smith is interesting both ways but needs to add strength to his 6-foot-3, 165 pound frame. He throws 83-86 mph and owns a true cut fastball, and his bat and speed serve him well as a position player.
RHP Shaun Seibert threw in the low 90s and flashed a good slider at the Perfect Game Indoor Showcase in February. But he strained his elbow in May while trying to halt his delivery after an umpire called timeout. That injury and his size (6 feet, 170 pounds) may mean that teams won't try to divert him from Arkansas.
RHP Ryan Stobart is the same size as Seibert. He doesn't throw as hard, but his slider is better.
3B Rob Marconi, OF Rene Aqueron, Southern Illinois 2B Greg Andrews and Illinois-Chicago SS Jordan DeVoir all have drawn interest as senior signs. Northern Illinois' career homer (35) and RBI (169) leader, Marconi is also a good athlete. Aqueron drilled 10 homers this spring after hitting just three in his first three seasons, but he'd be better off shortening his stroke and focusing on his speed and on-base skills. Andrews homered twice off Vanderbilt lefty Jeremy Sowers, a sure first-round pick, in February and has good hands at second base. DeVoir has a line-drive bat, but his below-average speed will prompt a position change.
LHP Joe Piekarz erased big league all-star Fritz Peterson's 40-year-old Northern Illinois strikeout record, leading the Mid-American Conference with 92 in 107 regular-season innings. He's a finesse lefty, as are fellow senior signs Todd Stein and Zach Minor. Minor holds Northern Illinois' career win mark with 20.
The most recognizable name among Illinois prospects belongs to OF Kenny Williams Jr., the son of the White Sox general manager. A good all-around athlete, Williams needs to add strength and shorten his swing.
C/RHP Ryan Eigsti's arm is useful behind the plate and on the mound. He can throw 87-89 mph and has some pop.
RHP Chris Wietlispach's commitment to Yale probably will preclude him from being drafted. But he's 6-foot-3 and 170 pounds and can add velocity to his present 85-88 mph fastball.