Team USA Top 10 Prospects
Alvarez, Smoak boast big bats
USA Baseball's college national team regularly is the best collection of college baseball talent in the country. What scouts and crosscheckers saw in 2007, however, was largely uninspiring, by their accounts. The '07 installment was much thinner in draft-eligible talent than in years past.
The lack of true trials didn't help, and Team USA got underwhelming performances by many players up the middle. The team's struggles were reflected on the field, where it lost 12 games, its highest total since 1999, including a second-place finish at the Pan American Games in Brazil and third-place at the World Port Tournament in the Netherlands.
"We know (Pedro) Alvarez and (Justin) Smoak are going to be premium drafts, but whether it was a product of (USA Baseball's inability to hold) trials—with having to pick the team based on performance in the spring—or guys opting to play in the Cape (Cod League), there wasn't much to get excited about," a National League scouting director said. "Last year you had (first-rounders David) Price, (Ross) Detwiler, (Daniel) Moskos and position guys like (Julio) Borbon and (J.P.) Arencibia. Go back to (2004) when they had Ryan Zimmerman, Alex Gordon, (Troy) Tulowitzki and that crowd. There have always been talented Team USAs, but for whatever reason, this group just doesn't compare."
We take a closer look at this year's college national team, ranking them in order of their overall professional potential with consideration given to their performance this summer.
1. Pedro Alvarez, 3b (Jr., Vanderbilt)
Smoak followed Alvarez in Team USA's lineup, and he now follows him on most draft boards as Alvarez outplayed him in every phase of the game on the same diamond. His .315 average was tops among Team USA regulars, as was his .551 slugging percentage. Alvarez has plus bat speed and power, and his likelihood of reaching his high ceiling as a hitter is enhanced by his feel and instincts at the plate. He lets pitches travel deep and uses his strong wrists and loose hands to drive balls out of all parts of the park.
His lone shortcoming as a hitter is his tendency to chase balls out of the strike zone, but the bigger question is his defense at third base. While he doesn't necessarily look like a fluid athlete, his hands and actions at third base are fine, and he's an average runner underway who will take an extra base whenever possible. He has a solid-average arm, though he was limited to DH duties the final four games because of a sore arm.
"You think he's a thick-hipped, soft Latin guy, but he has better movement than you think initially," an NL scout said. "He's an instinctual third baseman with power to his throws and running. He's not Bobby Bonilla. He's more of a complete player than you realize."
2. Justin Smoak, 1b (Jr., South Carolina)
Based solely on performance, Smoak would not have cracked the list. After collecting three doubles and three home runs during Team USA's six-game tour of the New England Collegiate League, Smoak went 20-for-102 without any more homers, finishing with paltry .223/.291/.380 numbers. The performance was atypical for Smoak, who tore up the Cape Cod League last summer and batted .315/.434/.631 as a sophomore at South Carolina. He has plus raw power from both sides of the plate and a swing that has leverage.
Changeups gave him fits this summer, and he didn't adjust quickly, often lacking balance spinning off the ball and failing to recognize pitches consistently. He's a poor runner, but has good hands and playable arm strength and footwork at first base.
"I couldn't pick out anything mechanically in his swing that was an obvious concern," an American League scout said. "We expect the world from this guy because he set the bar so high. In the end, it's one summer and I think you can give that type of player a pass because he's done so much."
3. Brian Matusz, lhp (Jr., San Diego)
Although Matusz and righties Jacob Thompson and Lance Lynn left the team shortly after it returned from the Pan American Games in Brazil, citing fatigue as the primary reason, Matusz and Thompson were lauded for their perseverance. That was evident in the Pan Am Games during the semifinals, when Matusz held Mexico to one run in a 2-1 win that helped the team advance to the gold-medal game against Cuba.
Matusz' fastball velocity was mostly 86-89 mph, touching 92, and his command wasn't as sharp as it was this spring when he went 10-3, 2.85 with 37 walks and 163 strikeouts in 123 innings for San Diego. His changeup has potential to be a legitimate put-away pitch, and his 75 mph curveball has nice deception, as well. He's pitched closer to 90-92, touching 94 in the past, and because of his 6-foot-4 frame and three-quarters arm slot, he has the tools to become a middle-of-the-rotation starter and one of the top college pitchers drafted next year.
4. Tyson Ross, rhp (Jr., California)
The starter that picked up the slack for the worn-down staff was Ross. He was the team's most consistent pitcher and earned a reputation as the go-to guy when it needed a strong start. He struck out seven with four hits in six-plus innings against the Dominican Republic in Rio de Janeiro, then came back and worked two shutout innings of relief against Cuba with three strikeouts in the gold-medal game after Thompson was chased in the fifth inning.
Ross' mechanics belie his stuff, because he's upright in his delivery and doesn't get much extension. Ross has a hard time landing his fastball to his glove side and struggles with the consistency of his slider. But Ross got plenty of empty swings, racking up 39 strikeouts with just seven walks and a 0.82 ERA in a team-high 44 innings.
His fastball sat between 86-88 mph with occasional life and plus movement, and his 78-81 mph slider has short, hard break at times. He mixes all three of his pitches—including a fair changeup—effectively, works quickly and is also a very good athlete.
"The challenge of pro baseball will be to change him or leave him the same," said Team USA pitching coach Bob Kinneberg. "Is he a reliever or starter? At the beginning of the summer I would have said, 'we need to lengthen you out and change some things.' But at the end of the summer, after seeing how dominant he was, I'm not sure you have to change a thing."
5. Brett Hunter, rhp (Jr., Pepperdine)
A stocky righthander with a fearless approach, Hunter went 3-0, 0.66 with 31 strikeouts and 10 walks in 27 innings, seizing a role as a late-inning door-slammer for Team USA midway through the summer. His delivery and arm action aren't pretty, but when he keeps his weight back over the rubber and stays on top of the ball, he gets to a power release point. What comes out is a 94-96 mph fastball, short, tight slider at 81 mph and an 87 mph two-seamer. His fastball has heavy life and sink, especially to the arm-side. He works quickly and attacks hitters, throwing inside to both righthanders and lefties.
"He's a little erratic and he's going to struggle to repeat that delivery, but you look at the draft and guys with good bodies throwing 95 usually don't last real long," an AL scout said.
6. Jacob Thompson, rhp (Jr., Virginia)
Like Smoak, Thompson's performance this spring was much better than his summer. For the second year in a row, he eclipsed the 100-inning mark in college, posting a 1.50 ERA with a strikeout-walk ratio of better than 3-1 as a sophomore in '07. His lack of command was the most notable difference during his truncated tour with Team USA, as he pitched deep in counts and walked eight in 21 innings with just 13 strikeouts before leaving the team. He was lifted after being roughed up by Cuba in four innings during the Pan Ams in his most important start of the summer.
His coaches, who described him as a perfectionist, were confident Thompson would bounce back and again command three pitches like he has at Virginia. This summer, his fastball ranged between 87-90 mph. His curveball showed occasional plus break with 11-to-5 shape and depth, and his changeup is a third weapon.
7. Brett Wallace, 1b/dh (Jr., Arizona State)
The Pacific-10 Conference triple crown winner and a first-team All-American as a sophomore, Wallace knows how to handle the bat. He spent most of the summer batting behind Alvarez and Smoak, and made consistent contact, posting a .312 average and .345 on-base percentage. He homered in his first at-bat, but managed only one more homer and four doubles the rest of the summer.
He's a mature hitter who drives balls to both gaps and has mastered the backside single. He'll show above-average bat speed and average raw power in batting practice, but it didn't translate to games with wood. All his value lies in his bat, as Wallace is a below-average runner and lacks the mobility to play the outfield as a professional, limiting him to first base or DH. As a result, the development of his power will dictate his draft stock.
8. Lance Lynn, rhp (Jr., Mississippi)
Lynn opted to shut it down along with Thompson and Matusz when the team returned from Brazil, citing fatigue and a nagging groin injury. Lynn's velocity was also down from the spring, as he pitched near 88 mph, touching 92 occasionally, and fared well working primarily off his fastball, posting a .136 opponents' average.
"This guy knows how to get empty swings," an AL scout said. "I'm not completely sure how, but he's jamming bats at 87-88."
The big-bodied 6-foot-3, 260-pounder has solid-average fastball command, moving the ball around the zone effectively. His 11-to-5 curveball has good shape and deception, but like his fastball it doesn't stand out. His fringe-average changeup completes a repertoire that fits in the back of a rotation.
9. Preston Paramore, c (Jr., Arizona State)
A career .353/.473/.496 hitter with metal in two years at Arizona State, Paramore epitomized Team USA's offensive struggles. He was a key figure in the Sun Devils' run to Omaha during the spring, but batted .111—the lowest average of any Team USA regular this decade—and finished the summer on a 25 at-bat hitless skid. While he drew 20 walks, Paramore's patience at the plate too often left him behind in counts, and he managed just one extra-base hit in 63 at-bats. He's shown solid-average bat speed and raw power in the past, but his swing was long and he didn't make consistent hard contact. Defensively, Paramore has average arm strength with a clean release that allow his throws to arrive on target and with carry. His footwork should become adequate as he develops, and he already shows sound receiving skills. He could play with more energy.
"I think you have to go back to their spring stats—I can't tell you how many times I must have said that when analyzing these hitters," an NL scout said. "He's a switch-hitting catcher that has some idea what he's doing behind the plate, so while he's played poorly (this summer), I don't think anyone's giving up on him."
10. Ryan Flaherty, 2b (Jr., Vanderbilt)
Flaherty started his summer on a tear, just missing hitting for the cycle against Keene, but batted just .235-1-8 after the team's six-game stint in New England. He's an exceptional college player who has outstanding feel for all phases of the game and fringe-average tools across the board.
He has a sound approach at the plate, with a willingness to work counts and use the middle of the field. He lacks the bat speed to hit for plus power with wood and lacks the foot speed or range to stick at shortstop, his position with the Commodores. He has an average arm and has average speed underway. His savvy, instincts and quick first step should allow him to handle second base, and ultimately he has value as a reliable utility man in the big leagues who could hit for average.