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MAC earns scouts' respect
By Brad Del Barba
Last year scouting directors and crosscheckers were making the trek to the Midwest to see Ball State righthander Bryan Bullington pitch his way to the No. 1 overall selection of the 2002 draft. Two years ago they journeyed to watch Kent State's John VanBenschoten launch balls into orbit and pitch his way to the No. 8 overall selection. Before those trips, they ventured to see Jeff Urban and Larry Bigbie play for Ball State in 1998 and 1999.
That has been the recent trend in the Midwest as the Mid-American Conference has become the auditioning stage for first-round picks in four of the last five years. This season the scouts have been making the trip to see Ohio hurler Mark Cornell, who could be next.
Cornell has been the buzz of the MAC, with his 92-94 mph fastball that has occasionally reached 97. He complements it with a hard curveball and changeup.
"I didn't expect any of this," Cornell said. "All of the compliments coming out of the professional organizations has been extremely exciting."
In recent weeks, scouts speculated that Cornell could be selected in the draft's first 10 picks. Scouts now have their work cut out for themselves as they attempt to figure out what to do with a great arm that has come up tender at the close of the season.
The 6-foot-3, 215-pound righthander lasted just two innings in an April 26 start versus Kent State. After a pain-free midweek bullpen session, Cornell returned to the mound the next Sunday against Buffalo to throw just four pitches (topping out at 84 mph) before Bobcats coach Joe Carbone removed him from the game. Following the Buffalo start, medical tests revealed no damage to the shoulder; Cornell was diagnosed as having a slight case of tendonitis, which shelved him last summer for six weeks. He returned to the mound two weeks later, showing his normal velocity.
"To be honest, I knew it wasn't going to be serious and I know I am going to be back and to be healthy," Cornell said.
Cornell was an unheralded prep while at St. Charles High in Columbus, Ohio. Carbone noticed him during a winter pitchers' showcase, and Cornell ultimately chose the Bobcats over Division III Ohio Wesleyan and the other MAC schools. He's been a conference starter for three years, but Carbone attributes his hard work in the weight room last winter to producing a plus fastball. Cornell was 6-3, 4.02, while registering 66 strikeouts in 56 innings this spring.
As the draft approaches, scouts are zeroing in on more than just Cornell. Toledo catcher Mitch Maier (.448-9-61) could go in the first three rounds. While scouts question his future as a catcher, Maier has a good lefthanded bat, strong arm and runs well, as evidenced by his 29 stolen bases in 34 attempts.
"Catching is what I have done all my life and I feel most comfortable, but if a team asks me to change positions to help the team, it would be something that I am willing to do," said Maier, who finished the season with a career average above .400.
Ball State outfielder Brad Snyder has a power-speed combination that should allow him to challenge Maier for the honor of first MAC position player drafted. Also earning notice are Kent State righthander Matt Lorenzo, who has a 90-92 mph fastball; Eastern Michigan outfielder Ryan Goleski, who has good raw power; and Western Michigan crafty lefthander Pat Misch, a fifth-round pick of the Astros last year.
Know Your History
While the injury clouds Cornell's draft position, his past is prototypical of the previous first-rounders that the MAC has produced.
It was 1993 when the conference began to make national news as Kent State pitchers Dustin Hermanson and Travis Miller helped lead the Golden Flashes to the national ERA title. In 1994, the Padres drafted Hermanson third overall while Miller was the Twins' supplemental first-round pick.
"I think that it started when the field house was built in 1991," said Kent State coach Rick Rembielak who was the assistant coach at the time. "That really took us over the hump and it showed the recruits that commitment to baseball by the athletic department."
The next three years would produce four future major league players: Western Michigan righthander Brian Sikorski (1995, Astros, fourth round) appeared with the Rangers; Rockies righthander Denny Stark of Toledo (1996, Mariners, fourth), Bowling Green infielder Andy Tracy (1996, Expos, 16th) and Kent State shortstop Paul Hoover (1997, Devil Rays, 23rd) as a catcher with the Devil Rays.
"I came from a small farm town of Edgerton, Ohio, and I didn't have a lot of opportunities," said Stark. "Being at Toledo provided me with an opportunity to go to a Division I school and play against the good competition."
By 1998 the MAC was ready to roll out the string of high draft choices. Ball State's Urban was a projectable kid from Alexandria, Ind., who developed into a lefty with an average fastball and a power curveball. The Giants drafted him 41st overall and he reached the majors briefly this spring with San Francisco. The following spring Cardinals' outfielder Larry Bigbie catapulted himself into the first round, hitting .419-17-54 en route to becoming the Orioles' first-round pick (21st overall).
"Urban and Bigbie had a huge impact in not only the success of our program, but also from the recruiting standpoint," said former Ball State coach Rich Maloney, who is now at Michigan. "Both were undrafted (players), offered low dollar scholarships who developed into top draft choices, which allowed us to recruit other great talents, such as Bryan Bullington and Luke Hagerty."
Recent MAC Daddies
After a year without a first-round pick, the scouts made their way back to the MAC as VanBenschoten burst onto the scene, leading the nation with 31 home runs. Scouts labeled him the "Tool Shed" as the 6-foot-4 righthander topped 90 mph easily while also hitting .440. The Pirates moved him to the mound, and he has made the move look smart so far with 202 strikeouts and a 2.78 ERA in his first 210 minor league innings.
While VanBenshoten was leading Kent State to the MAC tournament championship in 2001, Bullington was emerging. The righthander from Madison, Ind., was a 37th-round pick of the Royals out of high school but went on to become the MAC's all-time strikeouts leader during his Ball State career. He has since joined VanBenschoten in the Pirates' farm system after becoming the first MAC player ever drafted No. 1 overall last year.
"Their adjustments to professional baseball were smooth, which points to the maturity of those players and the competitiveness of the league," Pirates general manager David Littlefield said.
Bullington's Cardinals teammate, 6-foot-8 lefthander Hagerty, also blossomed in 2002 and was drafted 32nd overall by the Cubs.
"From top to bottom, this is a conference that scouts must bear down on," said Tigers crosschecker Pat Murtaugh. "That is the result of the coaches in the league."
Ten of the 13 head coaches played in the MAC, giving them an understanding of the conference and baseball in the Midwest.
"We've all kind of grown up together in the MAC," Eastern Michigan's Roger Coryell said. "We feel that the kids in the Midwest are late bloomers."
Many of the coaches in the MAC understand their conference is one of projection and development. High-profile players in the Ohio Valley often go south to schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference or Southeastern Conference, or play in the Big 10. "The last four or five years, you have really seen the MAC grow to where they are on a par with the Big 10," said Rockies area scout Ed Santa, who coached at both Kent and Ohio State.
MAC schools are digging up their talent. None of the MAC's first-round picks were early drafts out of high school. Others, such as Mets righthander Jeremy Griffiths (Toledo, 1999, third round), Pirates righty Matt Guerrier (Kent State, 1999, 10th) and Mariners lefty Mark Malaska (Akron, 2000, eighth), are all enjoying careers at the Double-A level or higher this year despite being shunned as preps.
As Bowling Green coach Danny Schmitz put it, "The MAC has been an outstanding conference that is just now getting the recognition that it deserves."
Brad Del Barba is a freelance writer and former scout based in Ft. Mitchell, Ky.