With Healthy Ankle, Borbon Back To Climbing Draft Charts
Julio Borbon knew his fractured ankle was behind him on April 20, when Tennessee traveled to Vanderbilt. Borbon led off the Volunteer fourth inning with a line drive down the right-field line. He turned it up a notch rounding first base and dug for third, sliding into the bag feet-first with a triple.
"I didn't even think about it, then I realized when I went back to the dugout, 'Did I just slide feet first?'" Borbon recalls. "I was so caught up in the game, I didn't think about it. I just realized this is the first time I went feet first since I got hurt in January."
It was a catharsis of sorts for Borbon, Tennessee's first-team preseason All-American center fielder and top-of-the-order catalyst. The junior missed eight weeks after fracturing his left ankle in practice Jan. 17, when he slid awkwardly into second base on a play where there wasn't even a throw. Without him, the preseason No. 11 Vols got off to a 3-5 start before padding their record to 12-7 against a soft nonconference schedule.
"I think it made a tremendous difference before we had him and then after we had him back," Tennessee coach Rod Delmonico said. "He's going to hit one or two in our lineup, he's a leader, he plays hard, gets after it, leads on the field. He didn't pick up a bat for eight weeks—that's the longest that young man has ever gone without swinging. He's just starting to get into a groove."
Borbon said the ankle was a little sore after games earlier this season, but now he feels 100 percent, like nothing ever happened. And if he felt tentative at all about sliding feet first in the wake of his injury, that's now gone, too.
The health of Borbon's ankle was one of the season's most important questions, to scouts as well as to the Volunteers. Speed is a huge part of his game, a major reason Borbon entered the season with a chance to be among the first 10 players drafted in June. He has been clocked as fast as 6.28 seconds in the 60-yard dash on Tennessee's scout day last fall, a major improvement from his freshman year time of 6.7 or 6.8 seconds.
Delmonico attributes the extra burst to Borbon's strict adherence to a running program between his freshman and sophomore years.
Borbon established himself as a vital cog in Tennessee's 2005 College World Series team, batting .350 with 12 stolen bases in 14 attempts, but he elevated his game to the next level his sophomore year, hitting .366/.412/.481 with 19 steals in 25 tries. That summer for Team USA, Borbon drew raves from scouts, who compared him to Johnny Damon for his speed, smooth defense in center field, ability to hit with authority to all fields from the left side or lay down a drag bunt, and even his below-average arm. He finished second on the team with a .345 average and flashed developing power, swatting four home runs.
"I think every time Borbon puts a uniform on, he gets better," Team USA coach Tim Corbin said last summer. "He's talented, but his talent is getting better and better and better all the time. He competes, doesn't let at-bats overwhelm his mind. History is history with him."
Borbon's history is pretty unusual for a college baseball player. He was born in Starkville, Miss., where his father was working on his doctorate degree in agriculture at Mississippi State, and Borbon remembers going to see the Bulldogs play when he was 2 or 3 years old. But Borbon's father took a job working for the government of his native Dominican Republic when Borbon was 4, so the family moved to Santo Domingo. Borbon grew up playing with and admiring older Dominican players like Pirates third baseman Jose Bautista, Reds Double-A shortstop Enrique Cruz and White Sox Double-A outfielder Ricardo Nanita.
When Borbon was a sophomore, Delmonico came to Santo Domingo to see another player in Borbon's league, but Borbon jumped out to him.
"I watched him take BP and he swung the bat really well, a good quick swing, and I was impressed with the way he handled the bat," Delmonico says. "I never got to see him run—I could tell he was quick, but I didn't know how quick he was."
Borbon also proved a quick study. Though he heard some English in classes and in movies, Borbon said he spoke Spanish 95 percent of the time. But after he eschewed professional contract offers and signed on with the Volunteers, he picked up the language quickly. An excellent student, Borbon was Tennessee's nominee for the SEC Baseball Scholar-Athlete of the Year award in 2006, and Delmonico said he had a 4.0 grade-point average this semester. Listening to the gregarious Borbon speak, it's nearly impossible to tell that English was not his primary language until he turned 18.
But learning new things has never been a problem for Borbon, off the field or on. As a freshman, Borbon struggled against lefthanded pitching, batting just .197. He worked hard on staying back on the ball and using the opposite field, and he learned to lay down more bunts against lefties, and he improved to .290 against southpaws as a sophomore.
"My coach who told me my freshman year to bunt all the time, and now he's telling me when not to," Borbon said. "I'm trying to use my speed every chance I can. If I have a slight chance to make it to first by laying one down, there's no doubt I'm doing it. It just tells you how much you've improved when now coach is telling you when not to bunt."
Now that Borbon is back to full strength and has 34 games under his belt (during which he has batted .327/.353/.476 with eight steals in 10 attempts), major league scouts can get back to dreaming about what the certain first-round pick is capable of in professional ball.