Gators Thrive In Early Recruiting
Now Florida hopes to hang onto its class
See Also: Top 100 high school prospects chart with commitments
A year ago, Kevin O'Sullivan was quietly optimistic about his first early signing class as the head coach at Florida.
"I feel as good as I guess you can right now," he said last November, after the Gators signed six players from Baseball America's top 100 prospects list. "They're all good students who want to go to school."
His confidence was well placed. Of Florida's six signees in the top 100, five wound up in Gainesville, with the lone exception being righthander Ryan Weber, who opted for St. Petersburg Junior College.
So when O'Sullivan says he feels good about his chances of landing most of this year's banner early signing class—which includes a whopping eight players from BA's top 100—it's wise to take him seriously.
"You never sign anybody thinking there's no chance to keep him," O'Sullivan said this November. "I think you've got to be realistic with your expectations, but right now we feel real good about most of these kids coming to school. I think it's a great place to develop their skills over the next three or four years. Obviously Florida is a great place to go to school, and our coaching staff has a good track record of helping kids get better."
In an informal survey of other recruiting coordinators, the consensus was that Florida has the nation's best class, not just because of the impact talent and depth signed but because the Gators have "a pretty solid chance to keep several of those players," as one coach put it.
The Gators expect to suffer significant losses from their current team after 2009, so they signed a fairly big class with 16 total recruits. O'Sullivan's goal was to try to sign the best players from the state of Florida, and just one signee—6-foot-4 righthander Hudson Randall from Atlanta—is from out of state. The Gators blanketed the state, signing players from Miami to Tampa to Orlando to Jacksonville, and they focused on good students who seemed inclined to head to school. Ten of Florida's 16 signees are pitchers, including five lefthanders.
"The way the condensed schedule is set up now, you've got to have pitching," O'Sullivan said. This was one of those years there was an abundance of quality lefthanded pitchers in the state, so it made sense to be aggressive with those guys. But we've got a couple catchers, a couple middle infielders, a couple outfielders."
Florida landed signed three lefties who rank among the BA top 100: No. 42 Patrick Schuster (a projectable 6-foot-3 slinger with an 87-91 mph fastball); No. 51 David Holmberg (a 6-foot-4, 210-pounder with a three-pitch mix, including a fastball up to 90); and No. 84 Brian Johnson (who also stands 6-foot-4 and touches 90 with his heater). But the three highest-profile recruits in the class are No. 12 Bobby Borchering (a switch-hitting corner infielder with huge power potential); No. 18 Austin Maddox (a powerful, physical catcher with a plus arm); and No. 20 LeVon Washington (a dynamic second baseman with perhaps the best speed in the entire draft).
Shepherding those players through the draft process and to campus will be a challenge, but so was landing last year's top recruit, lefthander Nick Maronde, who ranked 19th on this list a year ago. He's now a freshman with a very good chance to step into the Florida rotation right away.
Chad Kreuter and his staff can't take all the credit for Southern California's intriguing early signing class, which includes six members of the BA top 100 (second-most only to Florida).
"The funny thing is I have to give my son some recruiting credit on this," said Kreuter, USC's third-year head coach. "If he's not playing, I don't know all of these guys. What's really cool about this class is all these kids, I have known them or been associated with them since they were 12 years old. They have played with or against my son on high school teams or travel ball teams all the way up to here. His best buddies are Jiovanni Mier, Brooks Pounders and Jeff Malm."
No. 13 Mier (an athletic shortstop with premium defensive skills), No. 66 Pounders (a hulking 6-foot-5, 240-pound righty with a promising three-pitch mix) and No. 53 Malm (a big first baseman with a short lefthanded swing and power potential) are three of the Trojans' top recruits. Another is No. 94 Cade Kreuter (a lanky, projectable 6-foot-6 infielder), Chad's son. Cade and Malm were teammates as 11-year-old on the Las Vegas Titans travel team, and when Kreuter started his own team the next year, Cade convinced him to add Malm to the roster. Malm led off and played center field.
Kreuter's long-standing relationship with this group of recruits and their families gives the Trojans a better chance to get their blue-chippers through the draft than they had a year ago, when they lost three of their four top 100 recruits, including first-rounders Tim Beckham and Aaron Hicks.
"The families of these kids know that I'm in it not for the glory of being the coach and padding my resume, I'm in it for these kids," Kreuter said. "I'm simply here to try to help these kids attain their lifelong dreams just like I attained my lifelong dream. We're going to teach great baseball, there's no hidden agenda. They're going to come in here and they're like my own son when they're in here. Parents will trust what advice we pass on."
And family ties of a different sort could help USC land another elite recruit. No. 60 Richard Stock, one of the nation's top catching prospects, is the brother of Trojans junior catcher/righthander Robert Stock.
Around The Nation
• Arizona State, which brought in the nation's No. 1 recruiting class earlier this fall, has signed another strong group, though it's not as big as last year's 24-player early signing class. One reason that class was so big was that ASU knew it had little chance to keep some of its upper-echelon signees, such as 2008 first-rounders Eric Hosmer and Kyle Skipworth. This time around, the Sun Devils signed 16 players, including five members of the top 100. But while last year's class was headlined by two of the nation's top eight players, the top-ranked signee this year is No. 23 Chad Thompson, a 6-foot-8 righthander who has already reached 94 mph. ASU recruiting coordinator Josh Holliday knows Thompson will attract plenty of professional interest, as will No. 29 Deven Marrero (a smooth shortstop whose cousin is Nationals prospect Chris Marrero); No. 54 Jake Barrett (a hard-throwing 6-foot-4 righty); and No. 58 Jacob Morris (a switch-hitting 6-foot-3 outfielder).
But a year ago, Holliday acknowledged that the strength of his class would wind up being the next tier of players, and the same could be true of this group. Like last year's class, this one contains several intriguing junior college players who could make an immediate impact, such as polished catcher Xorge Carrillo and lefthander Jimmy Patterson from Central Arizona JC, and lefthander Josh Moody from Western Nevada CC. Holliday has never been afraid to cast a wide net, and he might have struck gold with Washington prepster Michael Englund (a physical hitter whose older brother Stephen was the Nationals' second-round pick in 2006); undersized Houston-area righty Brady Rogers (a competitor with an excellent feel for pitching); and Missouri prep righthander Ethan Mather (who works in the 88-91 range with a good curveball).
"We've plucked some out-of-state kids with great talent," Holliday said. "Getting (Florida prepster) Deven Marrero to come so far from home is huge for us because we felt like he was the top shortstop recruit we could get. We're excited about it. Only the draft will determine how many of these guys will get here. But I think for the most part our group is second- to fifth-round type guys, and we've got a lot of guys who could go to school in that area."
• San Diego recruiting coordinator Eric Valenzuela believes his early signing class could be just as good as—or even better than—USD's watershed class two years ago, which ranked as the best in the nation.
"It's a ridiculous class," Valenzuela said. "The difference is we got five legit arms. We went pitcher-heavy, obviously, because we lost (Brian) Matusz and (Josh) Romanski last year, this year we're potentially losing (Matt) Thomson and (A.J.) Griffin, and next year we'll potentially lose (Kyle) Blair and (Sammy) Solis. So we've got two lefties and three righties, and every one of them is a power arm."
USD's eight-player class features four top 100 recruits, headlined by No. 39 Michael Dedrick (a 6-foot-3 righthander whose fastball has reached 93 mph, making him the top prep prospect in the state of Utah) and No. 68 James Needy (a 6-foot-6 righty who also has reached 93). The other top 100 recruits in the class are No. 52 Matt Moynihan (a speedy, lefthanded-hitting outfielder) and No. 63 Cameron Garfield (a strong catcher with a power arm and a power bat).
But that doesn't include the other big arms in the class, like righthander Andrew Walter and lefthandies Evan DeLuca and Aaron Wirsch. The final member of the class is also intriguing: first baseman Jake Williams is a smooth fielder whose father Matt was a big league All-Star.
• People on the West Coast agree that other top early signing classes belong to Cal State Fullerton, Stanford and Arizona. The Titans aggressively pursued elite talents like lefthander Tyler Skaggs (No. 8), righties Matt Hobgood (22) and Dylan Floro (56), and catcher Geno Escalante (31), but coaches and scouts say each of those players has a chink in his armor that might usher him through the draft and to Fullerton. Then there are athletic two-way players Wes Hatton and Jonathan Meyer, who have the look of classic hard-nosed Fullerton players.
The Cardinal landed three top 100 players: big righties Mark Appel (No. 37) and Christopher Jenkins (61), and shortstop Kenny Diekroger (83). But the sleepers in the class are Iowa prepster Dean McCardle (who reaches the 90-92 range and has an excellent hammer curveball) and Chicago prepster Justin Ringo (an outfielder with a promising lefthanded swing).
Arizona signed a pair of top 100 talents in lefty Ian Kroll (27) and outfielder Randal Grichuk (69). But the class stands out most for its collection of projectable, high-upside arms like 6-foot-5 righthander Trent Stevenson (who already reaches 90 mph).
• Terry Rooney got a late start on his first class at Central Florida after the Knights hired him to be their head coach on June 12. But Rooney had made plenty of connections in the Southeast during his two years as the Louisiana State pitching coach, and he scoured the Sunshine State to put together a strong 14-man class in short order. Thirteen of the 14 are in-state recruits.
"One of the things that attracted to me to this job was obviously where we're located," Rooney said. "The state of Florida is one of the top two or three every year for amateur talent. Our No. 1 priority was to land as many of the top players from the state of Florida as we could, and then No. 2 we'll go out nationally. We really felt like we achieved that first goal with our signing class, and I couldn't be more ecstatic.
"What I did is the same thing I did at LSU two years ago (in building the nation's No. 2 recruiting class): shore up the middle by signing some catchers and middle infielders. The formula in the past has been pitchability lefties, projectable righties, and junior college kids with a little experience. The most important thing was to get as athletic as we possibly could, and develop some kids with a chance to be dominant power arms down the road."
The crown jewels of the class are athletic, middle-of-the-diamond talents Ronnie Richardson and Darnell Sweeney. Richardson, a center fielder from nearby Lake Eagle, Fla., is a compact switch-hitter with a chance to be a legitimate four- or five-tool player. Sweeney, a shortstop from Miramar, Fla., has smooth defensive actions, a strong arm and plus speed. The top arms in the class are projectable, 6-foot-7 righty Greg Cook from Tampa, and junior college righthanders John Michael Blake (who has reached 94 mph) and Chase Bradford.
• Rooney's former school, LSU, was another of the big winners from the early signing period. The Tigers landed four top 100 recruits and four impact junior college transfers, led by hard-throwing, 6-foot-6 righty Mitch Mormann from Des Moines (Iowa) Area CC. The prep group is led by athletic outfielder Slade Heathcott (No. 26), who had surgery to repair a torn ACL after suffering a football injury a few weeks ago. Heathcott and Brody Colvin (33) figure to be explosive two-way players for the Tigers should they reach campus, while righty Zach Von Rosenberg (36), last year's Louisiana state prep player of the year, and lefty Forrest Garrett (87) give LSU a pair of high-upside prep arms.
"That's one thing we really wanted to do is build a little bit of depth in our pitching staff," LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. "And we've got some quality arms, so I'm real excited about that."
• Oregon, whose resuscitated program takes the field for the first time this spring, has landed lefthander Tyler Matzek (Capstrano Valley HS, Mission Viejo, Calif.), whom BA ranks as the No. 1 player in the prep class.
• Of the players who remain uncommitted, No. 2 Donovan Tate is a blue-chip football recruit who is weighing his options in both sports; Southern California and Georgia look to be the most likely destinations for him, though he'll almost certainly be a premium draft pick. No. 9 Mychal Givens seems very unlikely to bypass the draft and therefore have yet to sign with any colleges, and Mississippi looked like the front-runner to land No. 97 Billy Hamilton.