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With slip in power, Powell’s stock suffers

By Ron Morris
May 24, 2003

COLUMBIA, S.C.–It always has been difficult for professional baseball to get a good read on Landon Powell, the 21-year-old junior catcher for South Carolina.

Every major league team missed the fact that he passed the GED test after his junior year at Apex (N.C.) High and thus was eligible–but not selected–for the 2000 draft. Then they weren’t sure he was worth the more than $1 million price tag his father and agent Scott Boras placed on him as a free agent.

Now, three college seasons later, Powell finally is on the draft board. And it appears that Powell could be the next Jason Varitek, a switch-hitting catcher with outstanding defensive tools; or he could be the next Eddie Perez, a serviceable big league backup who never produced the kind of power many expected.

Scouts say he could be a late first-round selection, or could fall as far as the third round. Either spot is a drop from his projected selection prior to this season. That was before Powell hit far more balls to the warning track this season than he did out of ballparks. At the close of South Carolina’s regular season, Powell had hit just six home runs, compared to 12 a year ago.

"If he had just a tremendous year with the power numbers, there obviously would be no question about it," South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said of Powell being a high first-round pick. "But (the lack of power) might have hurt his stock a little bit."

Center Of Attention

There appears to be a simple reason for Powell’s power shortage. He batted eighth in the South Carolina batting order a year ago and generally saw a steady diet of fastballs. The Gamecocks were powered by Rangers first-round pick Drew Meyer at the top of the lineup and senior Yaron Peters (29 home runs) in the middle.

This season, as the Gamecocks’ cleanup hitter, Powell said he might see two fastballs a game.

Powell has made enough adjustments in hitting curveballs and changeups to raise his batting average from .292 last season to .332 through the end of the regular season. His patience at the plate helped Powell lead the Southeastern Conference in walks.

But it’s behind the plate where Powell opens the most eyes.

"The kid makes it look easy back there, and he’s got arm strength," said one National League scout.

However, Powell threw out just eight of 33 basestealers during the regular season, when most SEC teams opted to not test his arm. South Carolina assistant coach Jim Toman said Powell gets the ball from his mitt to the infielder’s glove at second base consistently between 1.9 and 2.0 seconds. Anything below 2.0 is considered above average.

Toman has watched Powell catch since he was a seventh-grader. Toman was then an assistant coach under Tanner at North Carolina State, and Powell often would catch Wolfpack pitchers in the bullpen.

"He’s pretty much the total package as far as a catcher goes," said Toman, a former all-conference catcher with the Wolfpack himself.

Easy, Big Fella

If there is any other area of concern for scouts it is Powell’s body type. He is a strapping 6-foot-3 and close to 250 pounds, but the bulk of Powell’s weight is in the lower part of his body. One scout said Powell will always have to monitor his body and keep his weight in check.

His size and strength have given him excellent durability. During the Gamecocks’ run to the College World Series last spring, Powell caught 73 of the team’s 75 games. After South Carolina lost to Texas in the national championship game, Powell hopped a morning plane for Tucson and USA Baseball’s national team trials. Powell started 27 of Team USA’s 30 games over the summer thanks to his own performance (he hit .263-3-17 in 95 at-bats while throwing out 13 of 32 baserunners) and an injury to a backup.

The extra workload has helped make up for lost time. When Powell didn’t sign as a free agent in 2000, he returned to high school for the fall semester before enrolling at South Carolina in January 2001. Instead of punishing high school pitching as a senior, he got just 77 at-bats and hit .169-3-13 as a freshman with the Gamecocks.

It’s all part of the Powell enigma. He is an outstanding receiver whose agility behind the plate might come into question. He is a solid switch-hitter who might not be able to produce big league power numbers. He is a hard worker who might have problems with his weight.

Tanner is not concerned about the projections. He said Powell is the best college catcher in the nation, and as good a receiver as many professionals.

"If somebody passes on him that needs a catcher, they’re making a mistake," Tanner said.

Ron Morris covers college sports for The (Columbia) State.

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