State Report: Alabama

Yellowhammer State has talent at the top






See also: Baseball America's Complete 2010 Draft Map


THIS YEAR'S CROP
***** One for the books
**** Banner year
*** Solid, not spectacular
** Not up to par
* Nothing to see here
With four players in Baseball America's Top 200, Alabama has one fewer than last year. But the state has depth behind its top players, and two or three other members of the college class could break into the top 200 selections.

This shouldn't be a surprise, though, because both Alabama and especially Auburn have strong junior classes that were well regarded in the fall of 2007, when they first arrived on campus. Auburn's class was the nation's fifth-ranked class at the time, and while the group didn't provide immediate returns, it did eventually carry the Tigers back to regionals for the first time since 2003. Alabama's class, meanwhile, helped the Tide make regional appearances in each of the last three seasons.

Both programs are winning despite the state's modest high school talent, and even though Jacksonville State has produced a player who could be the state's top draft pick for the second straight year.

NATIONAL TOP 200 PROSPECTS

1. Hunter Morris, Auburn (National Rank: 65)
2. Todd Cunningham, of, Jacksonville State (National Rank: 87)
3. Reggie Golden, of, Wetumpka HS (National Rank: 96)
4. Jimmy Nelson, rhp, Alabama (National Rank: 107)

OTHER PROSPECTS OF NOTE

5. Trent Mummey, of, Auburn
6. Josh Rutledge, ss, Alabama
7. Jeff Shields, rhp, Chattahoochee Valley CC
8. Darryl Norris, rhp/3b, Fairhope HS
9. Brian Fletcher, of, Auburn
10. Coty Blanchard, ss/rhp, Cherokee County HS, Centre
11. Ryan Woolley, rhp, Alabama-Birmingham
12. Kevin Patterson, of, Auburn
13. Phillip Ervin, of/rhp, Leroy HS
14. Chase Whitley, rhp, Troy
15. Cole Nelson, lhp, Auburn
16. Andrew Jones, rhp, Samford
17. Ross Wilson, 2b, Alabama
18. Jason Townsend, rhp, Alabama
19. Kevin Putkonen, of, Chattahoochee Valley JC
20. Grant Sides, rhp, Samford
21. Tyler Norwood, rhp, Southern Union JC
22. Cary Baxter, rhp, Oak Mountain HS, Birmingham
23. Austin Hubbard, rhp, Auburn
24. Tyler White, rhp, Alabama
25. Jonathan Merritt, ss, Alabama-Birmingham
26. Luke Stewart, 1b, Alabama-Birmingham
27. Justin Fredejas, of, Auburn
28. Matt Arguello, lhp, Davidson HS, Mobile
29. Jake Smith, rhp/3b, Alabama
30. Jonathan Stephens, rhp, Samford
31. Nathan Kilcrease, rhp, Alabama
32. David Schulze, 1b/of, Samford
33. Clay Jones, 1b, Alabama
34. Derek Varnadore, rhp, Chattahoochee Valley CC
35. Adam Heisler, of, South Alabama
36. Shay Crawford, lhp, Alabama-Birmingham
37. Case Nixon, c, Hillcrest HS, Tuscaloosa
38. Wayne Miller, of, Samford
39. Nick Crawford, 2b, Alabama-Birmingham
40. D.D. Hicks, rhp, South Alabama

SCOUTING REPORTS

Hunter Morris, 1b
Auburn

Morris spurned the Red Sox as a second-round pick in 2007, making him the highest unsigned high school draft pick to attend college that year. He was a first-team Freshman All-American in 2008 but stumbled as a sophomore, hitting just .282 and striking out 50 times in 50 games. Morris responded by getting in the best shape of his life, and this time the cliche was actually true: He lost 30 pounds and stunned scouts when he posted a 6.75-second 60-yard time on scout day in the fall. His leaner 6-foot-2, 220-pound body has allowed Morris to improve his bat speed, as he can hit velocity better than he used to, and has made his actions and swing looser. While he's still a below-average defender (though with a solid arm), he's no longer a total liability at first base, and he's a solid-average runner under way. Morris doesn't have explosive power and may have more pure hitting ability than raw juice, with both grading out as average or a tick above. He's likely to go out in the same range as he did out of high school.

Todd Cunningham, of
Jacksonville State

Scouts got familiar with Jacksonville State last year, following hard-throwing righthander Ben Tootle. Cunningham entered the season as a possible first-round pick, and he could still sneak in that high. He has a track record with wood, hitting .387 last year to lead the Cape Cod League after hitting .310 in the Texas Collegiate League in 2008. He hadn't dominated the Ohio Valley Conference this spring, but he was clearly the best hitter in the conference and its best prospect. For some, Cunningham fits the center-field profile well enough to be an everyday player. He's intelligent and has a good baseball IQ. He switch-hits and stays inside the ball from both sides, working counts with a patient, disciplined approach. Some project him to be an above-average hitter with fringe-average power, projecting to 10-15 home runs annually. He's a solid-average runner, with his throwing arm being his weakest tool. He played one game at shortstop and would profile well at second base, but he's a better fit at shortstop if his bat can carry him. Detractors see Cunningham's range and arm as short for center field, and his power short for a corner spot. His safe bat and consistency likely will push him into the second round.

Reggie Golden, of
Wetumpka (Ala.) HS

The top player in Alabama's high school ranks for the last two seasons, Golden is an Alabama recruit whose build and tools remind some evaluators of another Southeastern Conference player of recent vintage, current Brewers farmhand Kentrail Davis. He's a five-tool athlete with present strength who profiles as a right fielder, even though he stands less than 6 feet tall. Golden impressed scouts by grinding through the spring despite a hamstring pull that slowed him all season. He still ran average to above-average times despite his injury, but as he matures, speed won't be a major part of his game. Power will, as Golden has impressive strength and raw bat speed. His approach at the plate is raw, and he lacks the plate discipline that allowed Davis to star from the start of his SEC career. His best present tool is his above-average arm, which fits well in right field. He plays with energy and is coachable, and he'll have to adjust to better pitching with his raw hitting skills.

Jimmy Nelson, rhp
Alabama

Nelson emerged as the Crimson Tide's top prospect, surpassing middle infielders Josh Rutledge and preseason All-American Ross Wilson. He has the size (6-foot-6, 250 pounds) and hard, heavy fastball to profile as a middle-of-the-rotation starter. Nelson has had an inconsistent career as he's honed his mechanics, and an inconsistent junior season, peaking with strong starts against Kentucky early in the season and with a complete-game gem against Mississippi in mid-May. The latter start was key, as many scouts weren't sure he wanted the ball in big-game situations. Nelson can run his fastball up to 95-96 mph at times, and he has learned to rely more on movement and less on velocity. When his fastball is in the 88-93 range, it has natural, hard sink. He complements it with an 80-84 mph power breaking ball that scouts call a slider, as at times it has some depth. At his best, both pitches grade out as above-average. His changeup remains below-average but has its moments, and he tosses in a curve from time to time that some scouts believe suits his arm slot better than the slider. Nelson's arm action is decent, but he still loses his release point from time to time and struggles to throw strikes. He has improved his mound demeanor and has matured so that fielding miscues or a lack of run support don't disrupt his rhythm as often. He failed in a try as a closer last season, and some evaluators believe being in a rotation suits him better. Teams that like him as a starter will be tempted starting in the second round, and he finished the regular season strong.

Not Much After Golden In High Schools

The prep players who had the most buzz in the state after Reggie Golden really aren't worthy of the word "buzz." Righthander/corner infielder Daryl Norris is a key Mississippi State recruit and the state's hardest thrower. He sits at 90-92 and reportedly touched 94 several times this spring, and he has a strong, physical frame at 6-foot-1, 210 pounds. He has a thick lower half and scouts doubt he has much projection. He's an arm-strength pitcher who doesn't have tremendous experience on the mound, having focused more on hitting in his high school career. He has legitimate raw power offensively and a solid approach at the plate that should play well in college. He'll play third in college but likely lacks the agility to stay there as a pro. Norris' arm strength still could get a bite in the first five rounds.

Righthander Cary Baxter, an Alabama signee, was more notable as an all-area basketball player. He flashed low-90s velocity, and he should be able to do that more often as he focuses on baseball. He's joined in the Crimson Tide's recruiting class by catcher Case Nixon, an intriguing prospect who had Tommy John surgery this year. Nixon's family has plenty of ties to the school, so no team is expected to make a run at signing him in spite of the injury.

The other prep players attracting interest were shortstop Coty Blanchard, an intriguing athlete who was the state's football player of the year as a quarterback. Blanchard committed to Mississippi State for baseball in 2009, then changed his commitment to Jacksonville State, a Division I-AA school, for football as a quarterback. His father Fran played for the Gamecocks in the 1980s, and Blanchard's best trait is his athleticism. He's a shortstop in baseball with solid but unrefined tools.

Samford recruit Phillip Ervin isn't overly physical at 6 feet, 180 pounds, but he has intriguing tools both as a hitter and pitcher. His fastball has touched 91 mph, and he was a 6.7-second runner in the 60 in the fall. Ervin came back late in the spring after tearing a knee ligament while kicking an extra point in football season. He had surgery in October and returned in April, hitting three home runs in a doubleheader in his second week back. He was playing DH all spring, but when healthy has center field tools. He wound up as the losing pitcher in the state 2-A title game (to fellow Samford signee C.K. Irby) and was making the Bulldogs' improving program sweat out its most talented signee's status.

Power Surge At Plainsman Park

Auburn entered regional play with 117 home runs, tops in Division I. While Hunter Morris, the Southeastern Conference player of the year, leads the way with 21, he's just third on the team in slugging percentage. DH Kevin Patterson was slugging .769 thanks to 16 home runs in 114 at-bats. A 24th-round pick in 2007 out of high school (White Sox), Patterson had a tough college career, struggling with defensive fundamentals, nagging injuries and contact. He had struck out in 33 percent of his at-bats over three seasons. While Patterson runs well, including a 6.8-second 60 time on scout day, he's a poor left fielder who takes bad routes to the ball, and he has played almost exclusively at DH for Auburn this season. He could still go with a single-digit pick thanks to his strength and bat speed, which give him greater raw power than anyone else on his team.

The son of ex-big league infielder Scott, Brian Fletcher is a different player than his dad. Scott was a bat-control middle infielder, while Brian is a slugging left fielder known for his power. Fletcher should join Chad Bettis, Derek Dietrich and Brett Eibner as unsigned members of the Astros' 2007 draft class who go in single-digit rounds in 2010. Fletcher has a pro mentality, shaking off failure well, which comes in handy because he has 192 strikeouts in 612 at-bats at Auburn (31 percent). Fletcher's more athletic than Kevin Patterson, so he's capable of being an average left fielder as a pro. While he lacks Patterson's pure strength and size, he has electric bat speed and can catch up to good fastballs. He's just too aggressive early in counts and gets himself into pitcher's counts too often.

Center fielder Trent Mummey is a more well-rounded player than either slugger and had his own power surge this season, matching last year's home run total (15) in half as many at-bats. He missed the first seven weeks of the season with a severe ankle sprain before he returned to center. He doesn't have prototype range but maximizes what he does have and has above-average arm strength. He's a slightly above-average runner who repeats his simple swing and got hot this year with his power. Mummey showed juice and speed in the Cape Cod League last summer as well, hitting .250/.321/.400 with 22 steals. While scouts don't project him to be a power hitter as a pro, he should have average power and could go out as high as the fourth round.

Auburn's hitting was well ahead of its pitching, but lefthander Cole Nelson, drafted last year out of an Iowa junior college, and senior righthander Austin Hubbard should be picked. Nelson is a 6-foot-7, 240-pounder who can get out of sync quickly and whose stuff falls off when he's in the stretch. His fastball tops out at 92 mph from the windup, and he has feel for his slider as well. Hubbard, the Tigers' closer, has a fringy fastball that sits 87-90 mph and throws a lot of sliders from 79-82 mph and touching 84. It works, as he was 5-2, 1.96 with nine saves, but he wasn't expected to be a high pick.

Alabama's infield was expected to be one of the nation's best, but third baseman Jake Smith and second baseman Ross Wilson didn't live up to that billing. Smith, a good defender with excellent power, has a swing too long for college ball, not to mention wood bats. He also has worked as a closer occasionally and runs his fastball up to 92 mph, with a decent breaking ball. If he wants to pitch, he'll get a chance in pro ball. Wilson, a two-time Preseason All-American, broke down physically at the end of last season, didn't make USA Baseball's college national team and wound up taking the summer off. He never got rolling in 2010, with a hairline fracture in his hand interrupting the season and costing him five games. A former prep quarterback who was featured on MTV's "Two-A-Days" reality show, Wilson hit just .259/.381/.413 and may have to be a senior sign. First baseman Clay Jones has the least pro tools but was Alabama's best middle-of-the-order hitter, leading the team with 15 home runs. He's a solid college hitter and good defender at first base.

The Crimson Tide infielder who lived up to the hype was Josh Rutledge, who could go in the first three rounds to a team that believes in his bat. He's a smooth athlete with good infield actions, in the Adam Everett mold. Rutledge doesn't make the flashy play in the hole because he's better going to his left than to his right. He has enough arm and range for short. Offensively, he had a solid season and runs a tick above-average, with sound baserunning instincts. He lacks strength in his hands and forearms and may never drive the ball enough to be a big league regular, despite his good defense. He also lacks plate discipline and has trouble catching up to good velocity.

The college pitching in the state aside from Jimmy Nelson lagged behind the hitters. Alabama-Birmingham's Ryan Woolley was one of the most watched arms, as he sat out in 2009 as a transfer from Georgia yet was picked in the sixth round by the Braves anyway. He didn't sign after pitching poorly in the Alaska League, and followed up with a poor season for UAB. He's a 6-foot righty whose fastball tops out at 94 mph but flattens out and lacks life. Woolley doesn't throw his secondary stuff for strikes and falls back to his heater, which explains his 3-4, 7.03 season.

The lack of four-year college pitchers led to more attention to the juco ranks. Chattahoochee Valley's Jeff Shields was the biggest name coming into the season after flashing plus velocity last year as a closer. Shields gave up playing shortstop this year to focus on pitching and dominated, going 12-1, 1.37 with 92 strikeouts in 85 innings. He's still more about arm strength than pitching, but the 6-foot-3 righty has hit 95 mph and has a solid-average slider, if not a tick above at times.

Several other college pitchers will get drafted. Troy closer Chase Whitley, a two-way player and solid hitter, was attracting more late interest thanks in part to a five-inning, nine-strikeout outing against struggling New Orleans that showed he could go through a lineup more than once. Whitley is physical at 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, and has solid-average velocity at 88-92 mph. His changeup is a plus pitch, but his curve is fringy at best and usually below-average. He had performed (7-3, 3.68, 7 SV), giving him a leg up on Alabama relievers Tyler White, who runs his fastball up to 94 mph at times but doesn't throw enough strikes, and Jason Townsend, who threw well at LSU, touching 94, and has a loose arm. Townsend lacks a feel for pitching and a consistent breaking ball. Samford righty Grant Sides could have gone to the top of this list, as he was hitting some 96s as the Bulldogs' closer before requiring Tommy John surgery.

The most effective college pitcher was Alabama's Nathan Kilcrease, a 5-foot-6 dynamo who had moved into the rotation late in the year for the Tide and ranked second, behind Mississippi's Drew Pomeranz, in the SEC in ERA at 2.47. Kilcrease commands his fastball at 88-91 mph and has an excellent slurve. At his height, he misses up when he misses and his fastball lacks plane, so he can be home run prone. He's more likely a senior sign despite his success this season.