State Report: Alabama




THIS YEAR'S CROP
***** One for the books
**** Banner year
*** Solid, not spectacular
** Not up to par
* Nothing to see here
Alabama's colleges did their job in 2009, producing enough talent to make the year interesting in the state. Jacksonville State righthander Ben Tootle entered the season as the consensus top talent, coming off a blistering performance in the Cape Cod League last summer. But a virus kept Tootle off the mound for a month and caused him to drop close to 20 pounds, leaving the door open for someone to usurp him atop the list. Alabama senior outfielder Kent Matthes took advantage of the opportunity by tying for the Division I home run lead heading into NCAA regionals, and figures to be the top player drafted out of the state. Another senior, righthander/shortstop Austin Adams of NAIA Faulkner, also figures to go fairly high after showing premium velocity even as a starter.

The strength of those players helps offset a down year for Auburn and a very poor year in the high school ranks. Scouts and college recruiters expect all of the state's top prep players to go to college, rather than sign out of the draft.

NATIONAL TOP 200 PROSPECTS

1. Kent Matthes, of, Alabama (National Rank: 63)
2. Ben Tootle, rhp, Jacksonville State (National Rank: 79)
3. Del Howell, lhp, Alabama (National Rank: 105)
4. Austin Adams, rhp, Faulkner (National Rank: 172)
5. Joseph Saunders, 2b, Alabama (National Rank: 178)

OTHER PROSPECTS OF NOTE

6. Jake Smith, 3b/rhp, Alabama
7. Jason Walls, rhp, Troy
8. Luke Stewart, 1b, Alabama-Birmingham
9. CC Watson, lhp/of, Cleburne County HS, Heflin
10. Brint Hardy, of, Alabama-Birmingham
11. Luke Bole, lhp/1b, Hartselle HS
12. Johnny Gunter, rhp, Chattahoochee Valley CC
13. David Doss, c, South Alabama
14. Vin DeFazio, c, Alabama
15. Charley Williams, of, Troy
16. Austin Hyatt, rhp, Alabama
17. Dustin Crane, rhp, Snead State JC
18. Daniel Adamson, of, Jacksonville State
19. Adam Heisler, of, South Alabama
20. Austin Hubbard, rhp, Auburn
21. Chris Sorce, rhp, Troy
22. Slade Smith, rhp Fort Payne HS

SCOUTING REPORTS

KENT MATTHES, OF, ALABAMA

Matthes has never been drafted, even though he was an Aflac All-American in 2004 in high school and was a solid college player as a sophomore and junior, hitting 19 home runs over two seasons though his poor plate discipline (26 walks, 92 strikeouts) held him back. He has put it all together this season, however, prompting one area scout to call the fact that Matthes hasn't been drafted "an indictment of our industry." He has pro tools, and has since high school. He's athletic and a solid-average runner, as well as a good baserunner (27 for 30 on stolen bases the last three seasons), with an average to plus arm that most consider suitable for right field. He'd be an above-average defender in left field if he moves there, and he might because his arm doesn't play plus at times due to a long transfer. He has plenty of raw power, though some wonder if he'll produce enough game power for a corner outfield spot. Alabama coaches believe he started to pick up on breaking balls better during the team's fall tour of Cuba, and Matthes carried that confidence into the spring. As he improved his approach, he turned his power into production, leading Division I with 28 home runs. He made more consistent contact and drove the ball to all fields, helping him hit .365 after entering the season with a .293 career average. Matthes doesn't have major mechanical issues with his swing, so continued improvement with his patience and pitch recognition will determine how his power carries over.

BEN TOOTLE, RHP, JACKSONVILLE STATE

Tootle fits in with other small-college high draft picks such as Kyle Heckathorn, Rex Brothers and Chad Jenkins who gained more experience by going to smaller schools and earning rotation time as freshmen. Tootle threw 174 innings his first two seasons at Jacksonville State and shined last summer in the Cape Cod League, where he ranked as the league's No. 4 prospect. He showed a 94-98 mph fastball last summer and similar velocity at times this spring. He's a hard worker and long-toss fan with a quick arm who holds his above-average velocity deep into games when he's physically right. Tootle missed about a month with a stomach virus that caused him to lose more than 10 pounds. In his first two outings after his time off, his velocity was down, but he was brilliant for four innings against Tennessee Tech, sitting 92-96 mph before he tired in the fifth inning.Tootle's secondary stuff remains in question as does the life on his fastball. He throws a hard slider that grades out as average and a changeup as well, though it's below-average. Most scouts consider Tootle a better bet to relieve despite his ability to throw hard for seven innings, as he showed when the last pitch of his seven-inning complete game against Austin Peay was 98 mph. His draft status might hinge on how he finishes and how well teams saw him last summer. He won't go in the first round as he might have right after last summer's performance, but he shouldn't be far behind his small-school brethren.

DEL HOWELL, LHP, ALABAMA

Like many college pitchers this spring, Howell's draft stock has been volatile. Recruited as a two-way player, Howell shined as a pitcher in the Texas Collegiate League last summer and earned top prospect honors there, striking out 47 in 34 innings. Alabama intended to use him as a reliever this year, in a middle-relief, "moment of truth" role, but he wasn't 100 percent healthy as he recovered from a case of mononucleosis. In an effort to make up for lost innings, Alabama used Howell as a starter early in the season, and he flashed above-average stuff, including dominating Vanderbilt in a complete-game effort. His fastball touched 94 in relief last summer and sat at 89-92 mph at its best this spring. He's got natural sink and tail on the fastball as well and complements it with a good, hard slider in the low 80s. In relief, Howell was a two-pitch guy, but he flashed an average changeup this spring. He has thrown fewer than 100 innings in college, making him an intriguing, fresh arm for scouts who have seen him throw well. He doesn't have the innings under his belt to know how to get out of jams or fight through innings when he doesn't have his best stuff. He could go anywhere from the second to the fourth round.

AUSTIN ADAMS, RHP/SS, FAULKNER

Adams could be the top prospect in NAIA this spring after lefthander Ashur Tolliver of Oklahoma City. He's shown a premium arm for several years at Faulkner, which retained him as a recruit even after Auburn offered him late in his senior season. Adams was drafted as a shortstop in 2008 as a 27th-round pick but he didn't sign and came back to school as a senior. He hit .389 with 14 home runs this spring, is an above-average runner with 4.05-second times to first base from the right side and has solid infield actions, with a chance to stay at shortstop as a pro. With all that, he'll be drafted as a pitcher. After relieving much of his career, Adams has moved into more of a starting role this spring and maintained the premium velocity he'd flashed in the bullpen. After hitting 95 last year, Adams topped out at 98 mph this spring and pitched at 91-96 mph, even as a starter, and showed the quick arm and athleticism to maintain that velo deep into games. He also throws a curveball and changeup, though scouts prefer the curve, a power breaker in the lower 80s. It has plus potential if he can improve his command. Lacking experience as a pitcher, Adams has plenty of refinements to make. His stuff tends to flatten out the harder he throws, helping explain how a NAIA pitcher with his velocity and breaking ball can go 5-2, 5.83 with ratios of just 8.16 strikeouts per nine innings.

JOSEPH SAUNDERS, 2B, AUBURN

First-year Auburn coach John Pawlowski was a big league pitcher, but his teams at College of Charleston and now Auburn are known for high-octane offenses with all-or-nothing approaches at the plate. Several highly-regarded sophomores at Auburn struggled this spring with lots of strikeouts, but Sanders, a junior, responded to the approach and was having a tremendous season, ranking second in the Southeastern Conference in home runs in April. But on April 21, he was struck in the jaw with a pitch, and while his jaw didn't need to be wired shut, it was broken. Sanders, whose mother Barbara spent 25 years in the Air Force and went through cancer treatments in 2008, showed his toughness by returning less than a month later for the final series of the season against Alabama. He went 2-for-11 in the set, mashing his 19th homer in the final regular-season game. Sanders' bat is his best tool, as he has hand strength and solid plate coverage. He's played third base and second in college, and he's just an adequate infielder, with erratic footwork. His arm plays at either position, but he may not have the hands to stay in the infield, making him more of a utility player in the Ty Wigginton mold. He has enough speed to make a shift to the outfield possible, but he'll have to be more patient for his power to play in pro ball; he walked just 33 times in 128 college starts. The lack of college hitters may push him into the first six rounds anyway, if he's signable.

Others To Watch

The rest of Alabama's roster includes several players who should be drafted in the eighth- to 15th-round range, such as senior Vin DeFazio, an offensive catcher with solid receiving ability and a below-average arm. Righthander Austin Hyatt, the staff ace this year, is another quality senior who is a command-oriented fastball/changeup pitcher, with the change his best pitch.

Third baseman/righthander Jake Smith also was set to go out in that range before an ankle injury (torn ligaments) during the SEC tournament sidelined him. He didn't have surgery and expected to be ready to play by July at the latest, so the injury shouldn't damage his draft stock. Smith had a big year at the plate, leading the Tide in batting and ranking second in homers, but he lacks patience (six walks, 45 strikeouts). He is a fine defender at third with good arm strength. He got scouts excited when he took over closer duties late in the season, flashing a heavy 88-90 mph fastball that touched 91, with a surprising feel for the strike zone. His secondary stuff is rudimentary, but he has shown he can flip an early-count breaking ball in for strikes.

Troy's best draft prospect is junior righthander Jason Walls, who has a live fastball that he can't quite command. He has a deep arm stab in his arm action, making it hard for him to repeat his delivery and stay out front. Walls sits at 89-93 mph and has heavy life down in the zone, and a hard slider that can be average if not a tick above. He doesn't have a great changeup and doesn't throw enough strikes, profiling more as a middle reliever. He's 6-feet-5, 205 pounds with a bit of projection left. He was just 4-4, 4.73 and may not go in the first 10 rounds, and Troy obviously would love to get him back for his senior season.

The same can be said for catcher Steven Felix, whose older brother Mike was a second-round pick of the Pirates out of Troy in 2006. Like Mike, Steven is a lefthanded hitter and good athlete with arm strength. He just became a full-time catcher this season, and his bat suffered, slumping to .268 after he hit .325 last year. Felix has good hands and a plus arm but remains raw defensively and is particularly behind on blocking balls and making accurate throws. He threw out just 14 of 57 basestealers (25 percent) and probably could use another year in school to work on his defense.

Righthander Chris Sorce was Troy's closer and is a 6-foot righty who touches 93 mph and pitches at 90-91, but he isn't likely to go out higher than the 15th round because of his fringy secondary stuff (slider, changeup). Outfielder Charley Williams has a pro body at 6-foot-1, 220 pounds and hasn't translated his raw power to games consistently. He's an average runner and solid defender with a below-average, left-field arm. Jacksonville State's Daniel Adamson has a strong, compact body at 5-foot-11, 210 pounds, as well as plus speed and range in cneter field. He has average power that he'd tap into more if he were more selective. He might be better suited as a senior sign.

Auburn only notable prospect is closer Austin Hubbard, a 6-foot-2, 200-pounder who relies on a hard-biting slider that at times had real depth. His fastball topped out at 91 mph.

Alabama-Birmingham had a good season, posting a winning record and winning a series against Rice in Conference USA. Coach Brian Shoop did a lot with a little, led by senior outfielder Brint Hardy, a fifth-year senior with plus speed. He's 23 and lacks power but should be able to hit the ground running in pro ball. Hardy's 46 steals led the nation heading into regional play. First baseman Luke Stewart, a Georgia transfer, hit 15 homers to lead the team and has plus lefthanded raw power. He also has no two-strike approach and is a three-true-outcomes hitter, either walking, striking out or killing the ball, but his lefty power had him positioned to be picked in the first 12 rounds.

Austin Adams isn't the only interesting small-college pitcher in Alabama. Righthander Dustin Crane, a 6-foot-2, 195-pounder at Snead State CC, hit 95 mph with his fastball and sat at 91-92. A fourth-year sophomore, Crane turns 23 in August, having missed time due to 2007 Tommy John surgery. He throws a curveball, slider and changeup as well.

Righthander Johnny Gunter, who was a catcher when he played at Troy, should go a bit higher after dominating this spring by going 10-3, 1.79 with 113 strikeouts and just 44 hits allowed in 81 innings for Chatthoochee Valley CC.  He's a Division II Columbus (Ga.) State recruit who hit the mid-90s out of the bullpen with a shorter arm action.

The top Alabama high school talents were lefthanders Luke Bole and Charles "C.C." Watson and Auburn signee and righthander Slade Smith. Bole and Watson are both Mississippi State signees, and both are expected to stay true to their college commitments.

Watson is 6 feet, 185 pounds, and scouts see little future projection, yet he had a strong spring, winding up as the top player in the state. He throws in the 88-91 mph range and has bumped a bit better at times. He also spins a breaking ball well, a curveball with some power that has helped him to some gaudy strikeout totals, including a 21-strikeout game this spring. His delivery has some effort to it. Bole has better size at 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, and his stuff is fringe-average, with a fastball running up to 89 mph and a decent curveball. He has some athleticism and played quarterback at his high school. Both Bole and Watson can hit enough to contend for at-bats as two-way players at Mississippi State, and Bole actually had more success hitting than pitching this spring. He hit a homer in the state 5-A championship clincher, leading Hartselle High to the title, and hit 20 on the year to tie the state record, held by three others—one of whom is Bo Jackson.

Smith's father went to Auburn as a quarterback. He's shown an 89-91 mph fastball with some sink, plus a feel for a changeup and an ability to add and subtract from a decent breaking ball. He may not have enough present stuff to go out but would be a good draft-and-follow under that old system.