Scouts Question Texas Duo
Longhorns outfielders Danks, Russell carry high expectations
They are two of the hardest players to figure out in the 2008 draft class. Texas juniors Kyle Russell and Jordan Danks entered the season as the best in a lackluster group of college outfielders, and major league scouting directors voted both easily onto the preseason All-America first team. But halfway through the spring, Russell and Danks have draft statuses as murky as the Longhorns' postseason prospects.
Scouts didn't know what to do with Russell even after his historic 2007 season, and he slipped to the Cardinals in the fourth round as a draft-eligible sophomore despite leading the nation and shattering the Texas school record with 28 home runs. Russell was the midseason player of the year in 2007, when he had 17 home runs through 35 games, but a year later he's batting just .248 with seven homers through 35 games, and that's after a four-homer binge over the weekend against Missouri. Through 22 games, Russell was hitting just .236 with one homer and had missed three games with a strained muscle in his neck.
"The day I saw Russell against Kansas (in mid-March), he probably hit the bottom then. He was really scuffling," a National League area scout said. "Against Kansas, he was swinging so hard, I don't know if his eyes were closed or not. They could have been.
"A guy couldn't do anything more than he did last spring. It was impossible to duplicate that."
Russell admitted that he created massive expectations for himself and put far too much pressure on himself early in the season. He needed the weekend off against Texas Tech to recover mentally as much as to recover from his strained neck muscle.
"Yes, he has struggled early in the season, and it's all about expectations and what goes on in a person's mind," Texas coach Augie Garrido said. "He's a very aware person, and when the domino fell in the wrong direction it created a continued reoccurrence of trying, and any one of the coaches in this conference can tell you without a doubt that as soon as you start to try in this game, you start to beat yourself. He tried and failed so he tried harder, and he failed more. So he tried even harder, and he failed more. He did have a good weekend last weekend, so my hope is he's getting back to elementary hitting, which is see ball, hit ball."
It's easy to look back and say that Russell should have signed with the Cardinals after his huge sophomore year, but Russell said they never made him an offer. Scouts speculate that was because Russell made it clear it would take a seven-figure bonus to sign, but he said he never put any number out there. Regardless, Russell does not regret the way things played out. Indeed, he thinks he could benefit from the adversity of his first half.
"I think I did develop a lot of expectations for myself coming into the season," Russell said. "I think I did have to prove that it wasn't just a fluke what happened last year. The funny thing is people don't really care what I think, they don't care that I hit 28 home runs, they just want to see me do good. Now I honestly know the purpose of why I came back: to overcome the slump that I've gone through and all the things I've gone through here. I can't say I've had an amazing year here, because I've had my ups and downs, but those ups and downs will make me better. For me to go through it now, I actually consider myself very fortunate."
Danks was regarded as an elite home run hitter coming out of high school, and he beat Marlins center fielder Cameron Maybin in the home run derby at the 2004 AFLAC All-America Game. But he has just nine home runs in 490 at-bats in two and a half years at Texas, including three homers in 136 at-bats this spring. Yet his performance has been fairly even in his junior year, as he has hit .324/.452/.515 and played characteristically sound defense in center field.
"I could go bald scratching my head on that guy," a National League area scout said of Danks. "If you're going to project power, you've got to have something to back that up in college. He's a tough one to figure out. He's got that real patient, disciplined approach, he's always working that count—he could profile as an Oakland-type guy."
Danks is an outstanding baserunner with good speed, and he had 32 career stolen bases without ever being caught until he was gunned down March 20 against Texas Tech. He's also an exceptional defender in center field, though his arm is fringy. But the 6-foot-5, 205-pound Danks was not supposed to be a speed-and-defense center fielder when he told major league clubs not to waste early draft picks on him in 2005 because he wanted to go to Texas. If not for that stance, Danks would likely have gone in the first round thanks to his raw power and athleticism.
"The last couple of years I was in the leadoff spot a lot, and I think that's really what turned me into a get-on-base guy, try to walk, get a hit, poke the ball over the third baseman or shortstop," Danks said. "Now I've been hitting two, three hole, so I've got a different role, where the guys in front of me get on base and I'm just trying to connect as hard as I can to get those guys in. I'm feeling actually real confident this year, a lot more at the plate. I haven't really gone through a major slump yet, which I've done freshman and sophomore years, so I'm hoping to avoid that. I'm seeing the ball real well—it's looking like a beach ball right now."
Danks has produced enough that scouts can dream on his supreme talent, though it's unclear if any clubs will be prepared to make the kind of commitment it will take to get Danks to sign.
"I think somebody's going to take Danks pretty good," said another NL area scout. "He's a good-looking player, he fits the mold. You'd like to see more production out of the guy, but I would still think he goes pretty good. He certainly would make it easier on everybody if he went out and hit some home runs. He has hit, just hasn't hit very many home runs."
He's got a shot to go in the first round, but his draft stock has not climbed since high school. That doesn't mean Danks regrets for a second his decision to get an education. His older brother, White Sox lefthander John Danks, was a first-round pick out of high school by the Rangers in 2003, and Jordan learned from John's experience in the minor leagues.
"My brother had a big influence on (the decision to go to school)," Jordan Danks said. "I got to see him in the minor leagues, and you look at his minor league roster—at the time he was 18, 19 years old, he was in Double-A and you got guys on the roster 30 years old. I told myself I didn't want to be one of those guys who signed out of high school and got to Double-A but didn't have anything else to fall back on. I just decided if they want me now, hopefully they'll want me out of college."