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ALABAMA ***

College position players are the weakest part of the 2001 draft, but Alabama has two of the better ones. Outfielder Gabe Gross should give Auburn a first-round pick for the second consecutive year, following Chris Bootcheck. The high school crop was hurt by the losses of two shortstops: Bryan Bass, who moved to Florida, and Brody Croyle, one of the nation's top quarterback prospects who enrolled early at the University of Alabama.

1.Gabe Gross, of, Auburn
2.Tim Merritt, ss, South Alabama
3.Mike Nickoli, rhp, Birmingham-Southern College
4.Sean Gamble, of, Jefferson Davis HS, Montgomery
5.Lance Cormier, rhp, Alabama
6.Cole Barthel, 3b, Decatur HS
7.Spencer Pennington, 3b, Fayette County HS
8.Allen Rice, ss, Pelham HS
9.Aaron Clark, 1b, Alabama
10.Mark Carter, lhp, Alabama
11.Jeremy Brown, c, Alabama
12.Trent Pratt, c, Auburn
13.Brandon Luna, rhp, Auburn
14.Todd Faulkner, 1b, Auburn
15.Eric Mennon, rhp, Decatur HS

Projected First-Round Picks

•Gabe Gross. Gross made a big splash as a freshman—in two sports. He started six games at quarterback and hit safely in his first 19 games as an outfielder. He gave up football after his first season at Auburn and has blossomed into one of the best all-around college players in the nation. He took a step back in scouts' eyes last summer when he was cut from Team USA and opted not to play in the Cape Cod League, but he has won them back over. He's reminiscent of former Red Sox outfielder Mike Greenwell, though Gross has more power and is a better athlete. A career .376 hitter in college, he projects to hit 30 homers annually in the majors. He also has a strong arm and makeup. The only college outfielder who projects to be drafted ahead of him is Kent State's John VanBenschoten. Gross should go anywhere from 15th to 25th overall.

Projected Second- to Fifth-Round Picks

•Tim Merritt. Merritt is a versatile player who elicits varying opinions from scouts. Those who like him think he might be able to play shortstop and give him credit for speed, arm strength and line-drive pop. Others don't believe he has a particular talent that stands out and project him as a second baseman. His best tool may be his bat. He has played the outfield in college and for Team USA, but he lacks the speed needed for center field and the power desired for the corners.

•Mike Nickoli. A key part of three consecutive NAIA College World Series clubs at Birmingham-Southern, Nickoli has come up big against top competition this spring. He beat Georgia with five innings of one-hit, shutout relief. In the regionals, he came out of the bullpen to work 8 1/3 innings to beat Chris Smith-led Cumberland (Tenn.) in an 11-inning thriller. Projectable at 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds, Nickoli throws in the low 90s. He also uses a curveball, slider and splitter.

•Sean Gamble. The son of Oscar Gamble, Sean has lots of athleticism and is growing into his body. He has a sweet lefthanded swing that should produce power once he beefs up his 6-foot-1, 165-pound frame. He runs a 6.8-second 60-yard dash and is a legitimate center fielder. Gamble started slowly this spring before coming on strong. Despite committing to Auburn, he should be the state's first high school player drafted because the other two contenders, third basemen Cole Barthel and Spencer Pennington, are Southeastern Conference quarterback recruits.

•Lance Cormier. Cormier ranked right behind Tennessee's Wyatt Allen as one of the best arms in the Southeastern Conference this spring, and he showed a much better feel for pitching. He led the league with a 2.30 ERA during the regular season, using a fastball that reached 94 mph with a quality breaking ball. At times, he may rely on his breaking ball too much. Because he's 6-foot-1 he probably won't get much better, but he does have two above-average pitches already.

•Cole Barthel. The north Alabama football player of the year as a senior, when he passed for 21 touchdowns, Barthel accepted a football scholarship from Arkansas. Six-foot-2 and 205 pounds, he's so athletic that some scouts compare him to Diamondbacks third baseman Matt Williams. Barthel has a quick bat and considerable power. He also has above-average speed and nice hands. He had a better season than Gamble, but football clouds his signability.

•Spencer Pennington. After passing Fayette County High to the state 4-A title, Pennington accepted a football scholarship from Alabama. He's in the same class as Barthel, though he's not quite as athletic. He's bigger at 6-foot-4, which should allow him to generate power as he adds to his 195-pound frame. There's some worry that he might outgrow third base. The lure of Crimson Tide football might be strong, as his brother Jeremy was an Alabama offensive lineman in the mid-1990s.

Others To Watch:

Scouts were coming in late to check out Allen Rice, an all-around shortstop committed to the University of Alabama. He could go as high as the sixth or seventh round . . . The Crimson Tide has several potential mid-round picks. Senior 1B Aaron Clark offers lefty power and led the Southeastern Conference with 20 homers and 71 RBIs entering NCAA tournament play. LHP Mark Carter is 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, and he has a solid fastball and a feel for a changeup. Former first baseman Jeremy Brown doesn't have the best body (5-foot-10, 208 pounds), but he was the best catcher in the SEC this year. He didn't make an error and gunned down 35 percent of basestealers. OF Scott McClanahan is a multitooled athlete who's still figuring out how to hit . . . Auburn has similar depth. C Trent Pratt, an Arizona State transfer, never has hit much but has is a good receiver with a strong arm. Sidearming RHP Brandon Luna didn't permit an earned run in 24 Cape Cod League innings last summer, which will get him drafted. 1B Todd Faulkner finished second in Division I with 103 RBIs last year. He missed the first 23 games this spring with a sprained left wrist and hit just two homers after returning. As a fifth-year senior, he's under control to the Mets, who took him in the 12th round in 2000. OF Mailon Kent can hit, run and chase balls down in center field . . . RHP Eric Mennon has a live arm capable of throwing 90-91 mph from a three-quarters arm angle . . . Murphy High (Mobile) OF Quendon Montgomery is a 6-foot-4, 195-pound athlete who offers speed and power . . . South Alabama RHP Tony Neal has an 89-92 mph fastball that runs and sinks, plus an effective straight change.

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