Swimming In Sophomores
This year's draft class bolsted by sophomores
A year after college baseball boasted its best draft crop of position players this decade, scouts have lamented the dropoff among 2009 candidates after Southern California shortstop Grant Green and North Carolina first baseman Dustin Ackley. If not for an unusually strong group of draft-eligible sophomores, the pickings would be even slimmer.
Though he was hitting just .265 with four homers through six weeks, Tennessee outfielder Kentrail Davis was still regarded as the third-best college position prospect available. His 5-foot-9, 200-pound frame draws comparisons to Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett's, and his power and speed make him one of the best all-around athletes in the draft.
Another Southeastern Conference sophomore, Louisiana State's D.J. LeMahieu, also projects as a first-round talent. He's a big-bodied shortstop whose proponents believe he can stay at the position and will develop more power once he starts turning on more pitches. Despite a recent slump, he was hitting .364/.482/.557.
A third sophomore was rising up draft boards, though clubs are split on whether Texas A&M's Brooks Raley is more valuable as an outfielder or as a lefthanded pitcher. Raley was leading the Aggies in hitting (.385), doubles (12) and steals (17), as well as wins (5-0) and ERA (1.80). He has a quality bat with a discerning eye, gap power, arm strength and plus-plus speed, as well as three solid pitches, command and an athletic delivery.
Raley could go before the second round, as could South Carolina righthander Sam Dyson, who has maintained a mid-90s fastball while flashing a hammer curve. Those four are at the forefront of the best group of sophomore-eligibles since six went in the first three rounds of the 2004 draft, starting with Minnesota lefthander Glen Perkins, a first-round pick of the Twins.
Other sophomores whom teams are monitoring closely include lefthander Bryan Morgado (Tennessee) and righties Craig Fritsch (Baylor), Mike Nesseth (Nebraska), Graham Stoneburner (Clemson), Drew Storen (Stanford) and Shawn Tolleson (Baylor)
"Sophomores are definitely a factor in this year's class," a crosschecker with an American League team said. "We've looked at it as an organization and talked about it with our area guys, and we've been more stressing the evaluation. Get the evaluation of the player right, and don't worry about signability right now. If we get the evaluation right, then we'll worry about signability."
Dollar Sign On The Muscle
Signability is a more significant worry with sophomores, who have more leverage than other college draftees because they still have two years of college eligibility remaining. As a result, they often get drafted far lower than their talent alone would merit.
Baseball America ranked 13 sophomores on its Top 200 Prospects lists in the past two drafts, and only one went in the first five rounds and signed for more than MLB's bonus recommendations: Texas third baseman Brad Suttle, who received a fourth-round record $1.3 million from the Yankees in 2007.
Suttle was the only sophomore to exceed slot money two years ago, but teams were more aggressive in 2008, when the commissioner's office exerted less pressure on them. The Indians paid out $725,000 each for North Carolina outfielder Tim Fedroff (seventh round) and UC Irvine righthander Bryce Stowell (22nd), while the Athletics gave $675,000 to Wichita State shortstop Dusty Coleman (28th round) and the Padres spent $400,000 on Florida infielder Cole Figueroa (sixth). Coleman, Figueroa and Stowell all improved their stock by starring in the Cape Cod League during the summer.
With the U.S. economy in decline, it remains to be seen whether clubs will be as generous in 2009.
All sophomores were included in the first two years of the draft in 1965 and 1966, but since then they've had to turn 21 within a certain time frame (currently 45 days after the draft) to be eligible. Interestingly, the two best sophomore signees since the rule change came from Michigan State: Steve Garvey (Dodgers, first round, 1968 June secondary draft) and Kirk Gibson (Tigers, 1978, first round).
(For more on draft-eligible sophomores, see Jim Callis' column
on the biggest success stories and busts from this decade.)
• Once again, a prominent Rice pitching prospect has come down with arm problems. Righthander Ryan Berry was expected to miss four to six weeks with what Owls officials described as tightness in his arm. Rice has had eight pitchers drafted in the first or sandwich rounds this decade, and six of them—Kenny Baugh, Jon Skaggs, Philip Humber, Jeff Niemann, Wade Townsend and Joe Savery—had elbow or shoulder surgery in college or early in their pro career. The Owls also expected to miss Friday starter Mike Ojala, a projected seventh- to 10th-rounder, for a week or two with elbow tightness. "The doctors have assured us there is no permanent damage and both will be back pitching this year," Rice coach Wayne Graham said.
• No college pitcher has made a bigger surge forward this spring than Kentucky's James Paxton, who has shown the best fastball among college lefthanders. He consistently has pitched in the mid-90s with life, piling up 49 strikeouts in his first 32 innings. Scouts were eager to see him match up against Dyson, but Paxton wasn't at his best. Battling some tendinitis in his left knees and winds gusting to 30 mph, he sat at 91-93 mph and gave up nine runs in two innings. South Carolina won a 20-19 slugfest.
Contributing: Aaron Fitt.