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Texas Class of '01 looks stronger now

by Jim Callis
April 23, 2004

CHICAGOóScouting is unquestionably an art and not a science.

At the time, Texas' 2001 draft class was considered average by the state's lofty standards. It produced two first-round picks (Royals righthander Colt Griffin, Tigers righty Kenny Baugh) and two supplemental first-rounders (Yankees righty Jon Skaggs, Rockies infielder Jayson Nix), plus a $1.701 million draft-and-follow in Yankees righty Sean Henn. Padres second baseman Josh Barfield, a fourth-rounder, and Red Sox catcher Kelly Shoppach, a second-rounder, since have surpassed them.

But much like Georges Seurat's pointillist painting, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," the Lone Star State's 2001 crop is better appreciated from a distance.

Three years later, no less than seven of its members look like they'll be first-round picks. Coming out of high school, just two of the seven were drafted, none earlier than the 20th round.

Owls Take Flight

The three most prominent prospects graced the cover of our College Preview, where we called Rice righthanders Jeff Niemann, Philip Humber and Wade Townsend the best pitching trio in college history. They weren't nearly as celebrated three years earlier. In fact, they weren't celebrated at all.

Niemann had a big body (6-foot-9, 240 pounds), but he looked like a long-term prospect. His mechanics and command were raw, and his velocity would drop from 91 mph on one fastball to 85 on the next.

Niemann wasn't even the top prospect at Houston's Lamar High, as athletic outfielder Vincent Blue drew more raves and went in the 10th round to the Tigers. Niemann wasn't drafted, in part because of his questionable signability.

The state's Class 4-A player of the year as an infielder/pitcher at Carthage High, Humber had a strong 6-foot-4 frame and good tailing action on his pitches, but only fringe average velocity. The Yankees took a flier on him in the 29th round but couldn't sway him from college.

Townsend had the strongest fastball of the three, regularly throwing 90 mph with a clean arm action as a senior. Yet he stood out more as a basketball player and first baseman than as a pitcher at Dripping Springs High. No team called his name in the draft, though like Niemann his commitment to Rice was a factor.

It's a tribute to the Owls coach Wayne Graham and his staff that all three pitchers blossomed much quicker than expected. They helped Rice to the College World Series as freshmen, then carried the Owls to the first NCAA championship in school history last year. All three are expected to go in the first 10 picks in June.

Emerging From Obscurity

Scouts still are trying to determine who's the best position player available in a very lean group this spring. The answer just might be Princeton outfielder B.J. Szymanski, who was almost totally overlooked among Texas talent three years ago.

At Rider High in Wichita Falls, Szymanski excelled more in football, where he was an all-state wide receiver, and as much in basketball as he did in football. The Reds were the only team that worked him out, and in a year where they couldn't afford to sign their first-round pick, they weren't going to offer Szymanski enough to divert him from the Ivy League.

Szymanski concentrated on football as a freshman and didn't join Princeton's baseball team until he was a sophomore. Under the tutelage of head coach Scott Bradley, a former big league catcher, he quickly has developed into a switch-hitting center fielder with speed and power from both sides of the plate.

Szymanski's Princeton teammate, righthander Ross Ohlendorf, could join him in the first round. He didn't face tough competition at St. Stephen's Episcopal High, a private school in Austin, and his 1520 SAT score made him virtually a lock to attend college. But scouts noted his projectable 6-foot-4 frame and easy 89-91 mph velocity, and Bradley has helped refine him as well.

As a sophomore at Trinity Christian High in Dallas, Purcey projected as the state's top high school prospect for 2001. Then he leveled off and lasted until the Mariners took him in the 20th round because he raised questions about his command and mental toughness, which continued to dog him in his first two years at the University of Oklahoma. He has addressed them this spring, and has as much upside as any lefty in the 2004 draft.

Huston Street was a two-way star at Westlake High in Austin, but as a 5-foot-11 righthander with a below-average fastball he drew limited pro interest. Since arriving at the University of Texas, he has established himself as the best money pitcher in college baseball. He saved all four of the Longhorns' CWS victories during their 2002 national title run, and his makeup, polish and plus slider could push him into the first round this June.

Street's metamorphosis parallels that of the Texas Class of '01. Back then, they seemed rather ordinary. Given three years of perspective, we know now that they were anything but.

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