Harper Leads A Very Talented Junior College Crop
It's a good year for junior college talent. Of course that will be the case when a phenom like catcher Bryce Harper graduates early from high school to enroll at JC of Southern Nevada and outfielder LeVon Washington—a first-round pick by the Rays last year—doesn't sign and heads to Chipola (Fla.) JC. But even beyond those two, there are some interesting players in this year's junior college crop.
Two of the most interesting players are putting disappointing freshman seasons at Division I programs behind them with fresh starts at junior colleges. Both have boosted their draft stocks gradually this spring.
Roach Keeps Coyotes Loose
After losing the first three games of the series, the JC of Southern Idaho clung to a 3-3 tie in the bottom of the fourth inning of the weekend's final game against Southern Nevada.
With two outs and runners on first and second, one look over to Southern Nevada's on-deck circle was all it took to realize the game could change in a hurry.
There he stood, going through his warm-up routine with his trademark smeared eye black, taped-up wrists and a filthy uniform. No, not Bryce Harper—he was in the dugout, laughing too hard to take any warm-up swings. It was righthander Donn Roach, just keeping the team loose, as usual. He finally stepped aside for the real Bryce Harper, patting him on the back and giving him some encouragement on his way to the plate. Harper stepped into the box and promptly hit a go-ahead three-run home run in what would become the team's 34th win of the season.
"Him and Aaron Kurcz keep our team really, really loose," Southern Nevada coach Tim Chambers said. "Donnie's so funny. He's hilarious."
Roach said it's more important to keep this team loose because of all the attention it's getting.
"It's a game, so I go out there and have fun," Roach said. "I go in and get my work done and when it's time to be serious, I'm serious. On pitching days, I don't really like to talk to anyone, I go in there and do my thing. But on other days, I'm a lighthearted guy and I like to have fun.
"There's scouts there all the time because of Bryce and all the talent we've got. There's GMs in the stands and stuff. I think sometimes people look at it and they get tight, but when we're loose we play better."
Of course, keeping your teammates loose is a lot easier when you're playing well—both individually and as a team.
Roach, who won three state championships at Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas and was a 40th-round pick out of high school by the Angels, spent his freshman year at Arizona, where he went 1-4, 7.84 with 22 strikeouts and 22 walks over 41 innings. Looking for a change of pace, he transferred to Southern Nevada this year to play with Bryan and Bryce Harper, whom he's known since he was 10 years old.
"It's good to be back closer to home, where there's a support system here," Roach said. "I left Arizona because it wasn't really the place for me. I didn't really mesh with the coaches too well, so I thought it was better to come home than stick it out there for a few more years."
This year, Roach has gotten back on track thanks, he says, to dropping his arm slot down to the three-quarters position he used in high school. He didn't realize it, but his slot had slowly been creeping up higher and higher.
The results speak for themselves. Over his first 12 starts, Roach is 9-2, 2.72 with 91 strikeouts and 20 walks over 76 innings. Bryce Harper isn't the only one breaking records for the Coyotes. Roach, who is committed to transfer to South Carolina next season if he doesn't sign a professional contract, set a new school record with his 16-strikeout performance April 2 against Salt Lake CC.
Roach throws his fastball in the 90-94 mph range. He put his splitter on the shelf in favor of a curveball that has turned into a hammer and has been working to improve his changeup.
"The curveball's been working great," he said. "I worked on it a lot this offseason because I lost it last year. I just couldn't find it. My arm slot changed, and I worked a lot on my arm slot this offseason and got my curveball back to where it needed to be, and actually got a little more bite and a little more velo on it."
Knecht Connects At Connors State
After countless hours of practice, bus rides and sitting on the bench, all Marcus Knecht had to show for his freshman season at Oklahoma State were 12 at-bats. His only two hits in those at-bats were home runs, but it didn't matter. Knecht just couldn't find his way into the lineup.
After the rough season, Knect was seeking guidance. The 6-foot-1, 198-pound Canadian couldn't stand the thought of going through that again.
"I talked to my high school coach for the Ontario Blue Jays, who is someone I really trust, and I asked him what I should do because I didn't want to go through that again," Knecht said. "He said probably my best bet was to go to a junior college. He was really good friends with the coaches here at Connors State, so I just trusted him and it's worked out unbelievably."
It didn't take long for Knecht to make a good impression on Connors State (Okla.) coach Perry Keith.
"We were scrimmaging one day in the fall and we'll play 15 or 20 innings on one of them long scrimmage games," Keith said. "He had hit a couple home runs and a double and he came up in the 14th or 15th inning with guys on first and second and hit a hard ground ball to short and beat out the double play. A lot of guys would just jog down the line or whatever, but that's just the kind of guy he is. He plays hard, he works hard and he's a very humble kid."
Knecht attributes the hard-nosed play to his hockey background. He played center and right wing growing up, but gave up his nation's national pastime as a freshman in high school to focus on America's.
"Oh, I definitely have a hockey mentality," Knecht said. "That game is so aggressive and even after I quit, the mentality of just working hard all the time, off the field and on the field, just stuck. Plus, I just love getting on base."
With regular playing time, Knecht is showing what he can do. Through his first 142 at-bats, Knecht was hitting .472/.571/.965 with 20 doubles, 16 home runs and 18 stolen bases. That makes him 12th in the nation in batting average and on-base percentage for junior college players, fifth for home runs and tied for third in doubles.
Since 1990, 48 players have been drafted out of Connors State, most notably Julio Lugo as a 43rd-rounder in 1994.
"Tools wise, I think he's every bit as good as any of them," Keith said. "Marcus has power to burn. He can run and do all that and he's got power, and I think he's going to hit. Sometimes you get guys with power and they swing and miss, but I think he's going to hit. He's the whole package."
Over the past two decades, the highest-drafted player out of Connors State was lefthander Johnnie Wheeler, who was taken in the eighth round by the Indians in 1997. With his combination of above-average speed and power, Knecht projects to go higher than that this June. If he doesn't sign, he is committed to North Carolina State next season.
• Orange Coast (Calif.) JC righthander Chad Thompson has been injured all season but started to throw some light bullpen sessions in mid-April. Thompson had Tommy John surgery on May 1, 2009 and has been recovering since. The Yankees took a flier on him with a 17th-round pick last year, but he decided to head to school to rehab with the hope of improving his draft stock. The Pirates could have a nifty one-two punch at the top of the rotation next year, because lefthander Beau Wright is also transferring in. Wright was a 29th-round pick by the Twins last year, but attended UC Irvine and has also been sidelined after having Tommy John surgery. Both pitchers played in the 2008 Aflac All-American game and entered their senior years of high school as members of Baseball America's high school top 100 list.
• Mount Hood (Ore.) JC first baseman Taylor Ard has been sidelined a majority of the year and is not expected to play for the remainder of the Saints' season. The 6-foot-2, 225-pounder went undrafted as a freshman at Mount Hood after hitting .496/.581/.848. He boosted his stock by hitting .387/.489/.595 in the West Coast League last summer, but then broke the hamate bone in his left wrist during preseason batting practice. Ard will be a bit of a wild card for the draft and is committed to Washington State next season.