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The rise, fall, and rise of Stephen Drew and Jeff Niemann
Compiled By John Manuel
They're two of the biggest names in college baseball: Stephen Drew and Jeff Niemann. And midway through the season, if they were moving on draft boards, it was down, not up.
Drew is attempting to join older brothers J.D. and Tim (both '97, with J.D. repeating in '98) as first-round picks and make the Drews the first trio of brothers ever drafted in the first round. But this spring, he missed 10 games with a hip injury, after missing two super-regional games last year with a hamstring pull and 25 games as a freshman with a broken foot.
Yep, he's like J.D., you could hear scouts say. He only plays if he's 100 percent, and he only plays when he wants to.
Meanwhile, Niemann had shown rust after arthroscopic elbow surgery in the fall, then pulled a groin in an outing against Texas. Yep, you could hear scouts say, those Jeff Juden comparisons don't sound too off base now.
But as May advanced, Drew and Niemann were doing enough in scouts' eyes to move themselves back to the top of many draft boards, and both remained in contention to go No. 1 overall.
That's despite the statistical dominance of Long Beach State righthander Jered Weaver, who was leading the nation in wins (14) and strikeouts (171) while posting a 1.27 ERA. He's allowed just 55 hits and 14 walks. If you're in a college fantasy league, that's a WHIP of 0.61.
Meanwhile, Niemann is 5-2, 2.58 with 70 whiffs and 20 walks in 59 innings, while Drew is hitting .338-12-38 with a 38-34 walk-strikeout ratio.
That didn't stop Padres general manager Kevin Towers from leading a parade of Padres scouts through Tallahassee, Fla., and Houston as well as Long Beach. Niemann was under many microscopes Tuesday night in Waco, Texas, as Rice beat Baylor 6-4.
The Owls had announced Niemann as the starter as he returns from his groin woes, but he didn't pitch until the eighth. As consolation, the Owls also rolled out righthander Philip Humber, who should go in the first 10 picks as well.
Niemann threw better last Saturday, hitting 94-98 mph with a power curveball, then he did Tuesday night, according to people who were there. He told friend of BA Jason Becker of TexasBaseballNews.com that his mechanics were rusty, which led to a pair of walks and struggles with his command. Niemann pitched in the 93-94 range, touched 95 and showed his plus-plus curveball. (Humber was impressive in his outing, retiring all five batters and striking out two while throwing in the 91-93 mph range with a plus curve.)
Drew, meanwhile, leads the surging Seminoles to Wake Forest for their final regular season series this weekend. Florida State has won seven of 10 since getting swept at home by Georgia Tech, and Drew has helped lead the way. He went 4-for-8 against Clemson as the Seminoles won two of three on the road, then scored five runs in three games against Duke in a sweep.
With Niemann, scouts have questions about his health and the track record of pitchers with his 6-foot-9, 260-pound frame (hence the Juden comparisons). With Drew, all the questions center around his makeup. Even if Drew lacks the first-step quickness to play shortstop as a pro, he profiles as an excellent offensive second baseman. But scouting his desire has proven elusive.
"The first time I ever saw him, he did nothing against us," said one coach whose team has played Drew over the last three seasons. "Then when we were in Tallahassee once, he just had the quickest hands at the plate that I have ever seen. He ripped the bat through the strike zone, just unreal bat speed. But I think he only does that when he wants to play.
"I've seen the scouts make those Todd Walker comparisons. Todd was a great player, but Stephen is better because he is more athletic and he's a better runner. And I think he'll be a better hitter, if he wants to be."
It seems that teams like the Padres, Tigers and Mets--which hold the first three picks in the draft--are banking that he wants it.
• Florida's Wolfson High in Jacksonville had an outside shot at producing two first-round picks. Infielder Billy Butler profiles more as a first baseman and second-rounder, but he has shown one of the more advanced power bats in the prep ranks this season. His teammate, righthander Eric Hurley, is a much safer bet to go in the first round. Hurley is in a stretch of eight straight outings when he has hit 96 mph on radar guns, and he appears to have cleaned up his mechanics this spring, giving a better breaking ball and improving his command. "He's doing a better job of staying upright and smoother in his delivery," said a Florida coach who'd seen Hurley in the last two weeks. "His freshman and sophomore years, he'd get his elbow outside of him a bit, and he was more of a slinger. They've done a good job over at Wolfson and getting his mechanics together."
• The draft has a plethora of players with multi-sport backgrounds, including college football players like Princeton outfielder B.J. Szymanski and Oklahoma State third baseman Josh Fields. But you'll also find plenty of players with hockey ties, even South Florida catcher Devin Ivany, a high school hockey player. Almost all the best pitchers in the Northeast have excelled on skates as well. Boston College righty Chris Lambert was a defenseman in high school in New Hampshire, while Maine prep righty Mark Rogers captained both his high school hockey and soccer teams. New Hampshire prep righthander Andrew Gale, son of big leaguer Rich Gale, also is considered a solid hockey prospect. And Rhode Island prep righty Jay Rainville, like Rogers a possible first-rounder, was a second-team all-state hockey player before giving the sport up to focus on baseball.
• As a fifth-year senior, Louisville's Mark Jurich gets treated like a draft-and-follow, and the Braves control his rights after picking in the 13th round last season. A member of Team USA in 2002, Jurich has solid-average tools, a good lefthanded bat and plenty of plate discipline, and could be drafted high by a statistics-savvy organization in the first two rounds--if the Braves don't sign him. Louisville, where Jurich's father Tom is the athletic director, has a tenuous hold on the eighth and final spot in the Conference USA tournament. If the Cardinals don't make the tourney field, the Braves can start negotiating with the 5-foot-10, 185-pound outfielder.