2009 Preseason All-Americans
Scouts like this year's pitching crop
The 2008 pool of college talent featured an unusually large number of standout position players. Corner infielders Pedro Alvarez, Yonder Alonso, Justin Smoak and Brett Wallace all lived up to their billing and were selected in the first 13 picks of the draft, while catchers Buster Posey and Jason Castro and shortstop Gordon Beckham played their way into top-10 choices. Second basemen rarely go high in the draft, but Jemile Weeks went 12th overall.
Scouts viewed that group as a once-in-a-decade bounty. It certainly stands in contrast to the 2009 college group, which features a bunch of question marks after Southern California shortstop Grant Green and North Carolina first baseman Dustin Ackley.
"The college position crop drops off after Ackley and Green," an American League scouting director said. "It falls off real fast."
Clubs will compensate by taking advantage of a deeper stock of college pitching this spring. Just two college arms (Brian Matusz, Aaron Crow) went in the first half of the draft in 2008, the lowest total since 1990. As many as seven could go that high this year, led by San Diego State's Stephen Strasburg and North Carolina's Alex White.
Colleges churned out an impressive group of catchers in both 2007 (when Matt Wieters headlined six backstops who went in the first and sandwich rounds) and 2008 (when Posey and Castro became just the third pair of college catchers to go in the top 10 of the same draft). Clubs have a deep follow list of catchers to evaluate this spring, led by Indiana's Josh Phegley, Missouri's Trevor Coleman and Oregon State's Ryan Ortiz, but none of them is close to a first-rounder at this point.
Josh Phegley, Indiana:
Phegley hit just .232 and went homerless as a freshman, then focused on adding strength and batted .438 (second to Posey in NCAA Division I) with 15 homers last spring. While he surged offensively, the extra bulk prevented him from moving as well behind the plate, and scouts still aren't sure what to make of him. He has an average arm and threw out 31 percent of basestealers last year despite a bout of shoulder tendinitis that prevented him from catching for Team USA during the summer. It also kept Phegley from showing how his power will play with wood bats, as some scouts wonder whether he has the bat speed to do a lot of damage against better pro pitching.
Similar to the situation behind the plate, there's also a downturn among college corner infielders this year. Five college first basemen (Alonso, Smoak, David Cooper, Ike Davis and Allan Dykstra) went in the first round in 2008, shattering the old record of two, but only Ackley figures to do so this time around—and a number of clubs would move him to the outfield. There also isn't a third baseman who can approach the talent of Alvarez or Wallace.
Dustin Ackley, North Carolina:
After hitting .402 and .417 in his first two seasons, and .415 in the Cape Cod League last summer, Ackley has established himself as the best pure hitter in college baseball. Scouts rave about his bat control, his balance and his ability to square balls on the barrel of his bat. He should have at least average power and is such a gifted hitter that he could develop more. He's also a good athlete with plus speed, and he could move from first base to center field once he recovers from elbow surgery last July.
"As well as he runs, everyone is curious to see him in center field," a National League scouting director said. "If you put him out there, it could really make him special. And boy, he can really swing the bat."
Chris Dominguez, Louisville:
Dominguez would also be on the move if some pro teams had their way. Though he has hit 36 homers the last two seasons and has two summer league home runs titles on his résumé (New England in 2006, Cape Cod in 2008), some scouts wonder if he might have a brighter future on the mound. Dominguez swings and misses too much and may never hit quality breaking pitches. He has flashed a mid-90s fastball in the past, though he has shown no interest in pitching. His arm is an asset at third base, though at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, he may not have the range to stay there in the long run. Draft-eligible as a redshirt sophomore in 2008, he turned down the Rockies as a fifth-rounder.
"He's got some work to do to stay at third base, but he has a bazooka arm and big power," the NL scouting director said. "The strikeouts bother you and there's some length to his swing, but that raw power is a big tool. I've seen him hit some home runs the other way that were bombs."
Tommy Mendonca, Fresno State:
Mendonca was named Most Outstanding Player of the 2008 College World Series after hitting four homers and playing dazzling defense, leading Fresno State to an improbable title. He also earned points for his makeup when he joined Team USA immediately afterward when the national team put out an emergency call for a third baseman. Mendonca has good power, but he has an arm bar in his swing and a propensity to swing and miss. He set an NCAA record with 97 strikeouts last spring and topped Team USA with 26 in 52 at-bats. He has a solid arm and good instincts at third base, helping make up for below-average speed.
Besides starting pitcher, shortstop is the deepest college position for the 2009 draft. Green is the best everyday player, college or high school, in the draft, and offensive-minded D.J. LeMahieu (Louisiana State) and slick-fielding Ryan Jackson (Miami) could join him in the first round. Second base usually isn't a home to top prospects, and unlike last year with Weeks, 2009 is no exception. Several intriguing second-base candidates, such as A.J. Pollock (Notre Dame) and Kyle Seager (North Carolina), will play different positions this spring.
Grant Green, Southern California:
Grant Green (Photo by Larry Goren
Green was the top prospect last summer in the Cape Cod League, where scouts compared him to a cross between Evan Longoria and Troy Tulowitzki, two other former college shortstops from California. Green may not quite have Longoria's offensive ceiling, but he's not far off either. He has the skills to hit for average and power, and he has the solid speed to steal a few bases. Though he's big for the position at 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, he has legitimate shortstop range, arm strength and actions. His biggest need is to improve his consistency and cut down on errors on routine plays.
"He's an offensive player at a premium position, and he'll stay at shortstop," a second NL scouting director said. "He really has improved his plate discipline and ability to use the whole field since he got to college, and he has gotten stronger. He's the No. 1 position guy. There's not a better guy out there."
Ross Wilson, Alabama:
The lone member of our All-America first team who's not draft-eligible this year, Wilson projects as a fourth- to sixth-round pick in 2010. Though he tied an Alabama freshman record with 15 homers in 2009, he's probably more famous for his football exploits. He quarterbacked Hoover (Ala.) High to a state football title that was chronicled on MTV's reality series "Two-A-Days" and is the younger brother of Crimson Tide starting QB John Parker Wilson. Ross' most obvious assets are his power, arm strength and athleticism, though a lack of range may eventually lead to a move to the outfield. His swing can get long at times, which has restricted his ability to hit for average (.295 as a freshman, .218 in the Cape League).
Clubs avoided college outfielders in the first round of the last two drafts, but that should change in 2009. None of the candidates—Tennessee's Kentrail Davis, Pollack, California's Brett Jackson or Florida's Matt den Dekker—draws universal praise, but all are good athletes with enough proponents to go that high. California two-way star Blake Smith, whom scouts prefer as an outfielder, fits the same mold.
Kentrail Davis, Tennessee:
Kentrail Davis (Photo by Andrew Woolley)
A draft-eligible sophomore, Davis might offer the best combination of power and speed among college players. A compact 5-foot-9 and 195 pounds, he has a quick bat and hits his share of homers despite having more of a line-drive, all-fields approach. He should be more dangerous once he adds some loft to his swing and makes some adjustments against offspeed pitching. Despite his plus speed, Davis may have to move from center field at Tennessee to left in pro ball because he lacks defensive instincts and arm strength.
"I have a feeling he's going to be a left fielder, which is fine," the first NL scouting director said. "He's going to give you a good bat and the kind of offense you're look for at that position. He'll give you some speed and athleticism, too."
Brett Jackson, California:
Jackson has hit just .289 with four homers in two seasons at California, but scouts believe he's just scratching the surface of his ability. He's a 6-foot-2, 210-pound athlete with power potential, plus speed, center-field range and an average arm. He needs to get stronger and continue the progress at the plate he showed as a sophomore and in the Cape League last summer, where he hit four homers with wood bats.
"There's a high-ceiling player there," a second AL scouting director said. "He has the tools and the athleticism and some charisma. He could go steep in the draft if he has a big spring. I'd like to see him start dominating with the bat. His offensive numbers have just been OK."
A.J. Pollock, Notre Dame:
The Cape Cod League MVP last summer, Pollock finished second in hitting (.377) and first in slugging (.556). He's a pure hitter with a simple approach, quick stroke and strong hands. Besides his pure hitting ability, none of his other tools is overwhelming but they're all solid. He has gap power, plus speed, the instincts to play center field and a solid arm. He played third base as a freshman and center as a sophomore, and some scouts wonder if he might make a dynamic second baseman in pro ball.
"He's a pretty good runner and player," the second AL scouting director said. "He's a little like Jacoby Ellsbury. He can hit, has some power, he's a good runner, he's a good defender. He doesn't have a lot of big, big tools but he's a good player."
A pair of two-way stars have a chance to go in the first round of the draft. Arizona State's Mike Leake doesn't blow away hitters with his stuff but throws strikes, gets outs and wins. Scouts prefer Leake strictly as a pitcher, while California's Blake Smith intrigues them both as a right fielder and a righthanded reliever. Smith has more physical gifts, but Leake has been the bigger star in the Pacific-10 Conference. Both pulled double duty for Team USA last summer.
Mike Leake, Arizona State:
Leake does it all for the Sun Devils, winning 24 games over his first two college seasons and seeing action at every position but catcher and third base in 2008. His best pitch is his fastball, which plays better than its 89-91 mph velocity because he sinks it and spots it so well. He could throw harder on a more consistent basis once he focuses solely on pitching in pro ball, and he has topped out at 94 mph. His curveball and changeup are effective secondary pitches, made more effective by his ability to throw any pitch for a strike in any count.
"I've seen him best as a pitcher," the second AL scouting director said. "He really competes. He won't light you up, but he throws strikes and moves his pitches around. He can hit, but the other tools don't add up as a position player."
The gap between Strasburg and every other prospect in this draft is as big as the gap between the Yankees and Marlins payrolls. While he attracts most of the attention in the college pitching crop, it's a deep group that could produce 10 or more first-rounders. In addition to the first-teamers below, lefthanders Andrew Oliver (Oklahoma State) and Mike Minor (Vanderbilt) could factor into the first 10 selections.
Kyle Gibson, Missouri:
Gibson remains ultraprojectable at 6-foot-6 and 208 pounds, and if his fastball picks up more velocity, he's going to be tough to stop. He has starred at Missouri and in the Cape Cod Leauge, and led Team USA with five victories last summer. His fastball sits at 89-92 mph with good sink and tailing action. He owns one of the best sliders in the college ranks, a crisp 82-85 mph pitch that he commands well. His changeup has fade and deception, giving him the potential for three plus pitches. He throws strikes easily from a smooth delivery, and his height allows him to throw on a steep downhill plane.
"He'll fit in the top 10 picks," the first NL scouting director said. "I do think he has a little more velocity in there, and he's got good stuff anyway."
Stephen Strasburg, San Diego State:
What a difference two years makes. Scouts considered Strasburg mentally and physically soft when he came out of West Hills High in Santee, Calif., but now there's nothing about that him doesn't draw raves. His fastball sits at 95-97 mph and touches triple digits. He also has the best breaking ball in college baseball, a two-plane breaker in the low 80s that he calls a slider and some scouts call a curveball. He also flashes a plus changeup that he doesn't need very much. On top of his devastating stuff, he has a 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame to go with strong command and makeup. Coming off a year in which he had a 23-strikeout game against Utah and was the lone collegian on the U.S. Olympic team, Strasburg could be poised for an even bigger 2009.
"He's way above everyone else in this draft," the first AL scouting director said. "It's hard to find any dents with this kid. I got a brief look at him the other day and his body looked better, leaner and stronger, and his delivery looked better. His combination of power and command is ridiculous."
Kendal Volz, Baylor:
Volz didn't allow an earned run in 14 innings as Team USA's closer last summer, and that could be his future role as well. He looks the part at 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, and loves to go after hitters with his 92-95 mph fastball and a late-breaking slider in the low 80s. He does have an effective changeup and a frame built for durability, so if he can improve his command he could remain a starter in pro ball. He doesn't have a problem throwing strikes but gets hit more often than someone with his stuff should.
Alex White, North Carolina:
White may take a back seat to Strasburg, but in most years he'd be a candidate to go No. 1 overall in the draft. He has a 93-95 mph fastball that touches 97, and he backs it up with a hard slider and a nasty splitter. All three rank among the best pitches in college baseball, and his stuff is so lively that he sometimes has trouble keeping it in the strike zone. He also throws a changeup, though it needs more work. White skipped summer ball last year after a heavy workload at North Carolina, but that's the only real knock against him.
"His velocity holds up into the late innings," the second AL scouting director said. "His slider and splitter are both good, and sometimes it's hard to tell them apart. Stuff-wise, he definitely can be a starter. The only concern is durability, because he's been shut down at times and there's some funkiness to his delivery."
Jason Stoffel, Arizona:
Jason Stoffel (Photo by David Stoner)
Arizona had two relievers (Ryan Perry, Daniel Schlereth) go in the first round of the 2008 draft, but it was Stoffel who served as the closer on a Wildcats team that came within one win of the College World Series. He attacks hitters with a 92-95 mph fastball that climbs into the upper 90s, and a hard curveball. He fills the zone and keeps the ball down, so he won't beat himself with walks or home runs. He shouldn't require much time in the minors before he'll be ready to help a big league bullpen.
"Even with two first-rounders in that bullpen, there were no qualms about it. He was the guy who Arizona trusted in the ninth inning," the second AL scouting director said. "His stuff is so good and he throws strikes. He has that ability to pitch the ninth inning. His stuff and makeup remind me of Brandon Morrow."