Fall Notebook: Around The Nation
Notes from fall practice from coast to coast
To prepare for the 2013 college baseball season, we have spent the fall talking with coaches and scouts around the nation, watching scrimmages and filling up our notebooks. Our preseason Top 25, which kicks off our annual College Preview coverage, is still about six weeks away, but to whet your appetite we will shake out our fall notebook below. Here are some assorted nuggets picked up between September and December, listed alphabetically by school.
The Crimson Tide's fourth-ranked recruiting class generated plenty of excitement around Tuscaloosa this fall, and three up-the-middle newcomers figure to start right away: catcher Wade Wass, shortstop Mikey White and center fielder Georgie Salem. Salem showed off electrifying tools this fall. "He was a football player, and he's as good an athlete as we've had around here for a long time," Bama coach Mitch Gaspard said this week. "I don't know if he's ready to hit .300 yet, but he can change the game defensively. And he's a physical player—not like he's a little guy that can run."
The Tigers think their pitching depth is better than it has been in the John Pawlowski era. Righthander Rocky McCord threw just 18 innings as a freshman last spring, but he took a huge step forward over the summer and fall, working at 90-94 with a power slider in the mid-80s. He's slated to join ace lefty Daniel Koger in the rotation, and a third sophomore—righthander Trey Cochran-Gill—could be effective in a starting role or a moment-of-truth bullpen role thanks to his power sinker.
Offensively, Auburn's top four hitters are back in the fold: Ryan Tella, Cullen Wacker, Garrett Cooper and Dan Glevenyak. Injuries hindered Cooper and Wacker down the stretch last year, but they were healthy and performed well this fall.
The defending national champs have their share of holes to fill in the lineup, and highly regarded freshmen Jackson Willeford and Kevin Newman will help fill them, as expected. The heady Newman will start at shortstop, while Willeford was pushing incumbent Trent Gilbert at second base, though left field or third base seem like more likely destinations for the sweet-swinging Willeford. The big surprise of the fall was the performance of recruited walk-on Scott Kingery, a 5-foot-9, 160-pound sparkplug who is in the mix for the everyday center field job.
"He's gone bananas," Arizona coach Andy Lopez said. "He's a plus runner, he's got a good arm, and he started off the fall 10-for-14—and not infield hits, we're talking balls in the gaps. He's the surprise of all surprises."
The Mustangs were toying with the idea of moving hard-throwing junior righthander Chase Johnson into a starting role. But Johnson needs to improve his command to succeed as a starter, so Poly asked him to exert himself less this fall in order to improve his feel. Instead of working in the mid-90s like he did in the Cape Cod League this summer, Johnson sat at 88-91 this fall. "Their plan was to get him to command stuff at 80 percent, but he looked more robotic, not athletic," a National League area scout said. "He lacks deception—you're playing with fire at 88 mph in the middle of the zone. We'll see how it plays out."
Cal State Fullerton
Fullerton's top recruit, freshman righthander Justin Garza, was just as electric this fall as he was in high school this spring. In a dominating relief appearance at the end of the fall, the 5-foot-11 Garza worked in the 91-94 range and got several swings and misses with his sharp 75-78 curveball. Garza struck out the side in his inning of work. Sophomore righty Jose Cardona also looked solid, working in the 88-91 range with some run and mixing in a decent 73-75 curveball with 11-to-5 break.
And two-way talent J.D. Davis made a nice recovery from the broken clavicle he suffered in a nasty car accident this summer in the Northwoods League. Titans coach Rick Vanderhook said Davis was 90-92 with a good breaking ball in his final outing of the fall.
The Titans are loaded with athleticism and depth in the lineup. Senior Richy Pedroza, coming off a strong defensive summer in the Cal Collegiate League, figures to assume the everyday shortstop job, with talented sophomore Matt Chapman moving to third. Speedy sophomores Austin Diemer and Clay Williamson have gotten much stronger and better this fall, creating stellar competition with veterans Anthony Hutting, Austin Kingsolver and Greg Velasquez.
As usual, the Anteaters will rely on strike-throwers rather than power arms on the mound, but ace junior righty Andrew Thurman has quality stuff. His fastball played up a bit in a relief role during one fall scrimmage, sitting at 91-92 rather than in the high-80s. He has outstanding feel for his 78-79 mph changeup, which he throws to both righties and lefties, and he mixes in a serviceable slurvy breaking ball. Other UCI veterans like Kyle Hooper, Evan Brock and Phil Ferragamo worked in the mid-to-high 80s but know how to pitch.
In Ronnie Shaeffer, Irvine is fortunate to have a quality fifth-year senior catcher to run its defense and anchor its lineup. Shaeffer swung a hot bat in the scrimmage I caught, ripping doubles into the left-center gap and down the right-field line, and staying back on a curveball for a single through the left side. Sophomore Jerry McClanahan also showed a good feel for his barrel, collecting three hits to various parts of the field. And a number of freshmen bolster UCI's athleticism—particularly speed merchant Jonathan Herkins (who twice got up the line from the right side in 3.72 seconds on bunts) and outfielder Jordan Morrison, who showed a nice, compact lefthanded swing. Six-foot-4 freshman Andrew Martinez has intriguing strength in his righthanded swing.
UCLA's pitching-rich recruiting class—which ranked second in the nation this October—made a strong first impression in fall ball. Bruins coach John Savage said righthander James Kaprielian worked in the 90-94 range with a hard curveball and good changeup before he was shut down with a nerve issue in his lower back. He'll be ready to go in the spring and is the front-runner for the closer job. Fellow righty Cody Poteet showed good velocity (90-93) and better feel than he did in the spring, putting him in the mix for the Sunday starter job along with junior righty Zack Weiss, sophomore lefty Grant Watson and freshman lefty Hunter Virant. Those four are competing for two starting spots—Sunday and Tuesday—behind stalwarts Adam Plutko and Nick Vander Tuig. Virant was solid in a fall world series start, working at 87-90 and getting a couple of strikeouts with an 80-82 slider.
A key for the Bruins will be replacing catcher Tyler Heineman. Sophomore Shane Zeille is the favorite for the job, but a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder sidelined him this fall. He is expected to be ready to go when spring practice begins in January.
Bluejays coach Ed Servais said this week that he has a more athletic group than he's had in the last four or five years. He also said he expects six freshmen to see meaningful innings off the mound this spring. "I can't say we've ever had that many freshmen that early," Servais said. "We have a few more power arms than we've had in the past—more guys in the 88-92 range than in the past."
Freshman Nick Highberger, a slightly built righty from Colorado, works in that range, and he could carve out a role as a late-innings reliever. Creighton is also excited about a pair of freshman righties from Omaha: the wiry, projectable Taylor Elman and the strike-throwing Matt Warren.
As of this week, coach Kevin O'Sullivan wasn't ready to commit to a No. 3 starter behind Jonathon Crawford and Karsten Whitson. Five pitchers were in the mix for the Sunday job and the Tuesday job: lefthander Daniel Gibson, sophomore righthanders Keenan Kish and Johnny Magliozzi, plus freshman righties Tucker Simpson and Eric Hanhold. That leaves hard-throwing righty Ryan Harris—who worked consistently at 93-96 this fall—and lefty Corey Stump to anchor the bullpen.
The Rainbows were stacked with righthanded hitters last year, and they struggled against righthanded pitching. They remedied that by bringing in a strong collection of lefthanded bats this fall, and coach Mike Trapasso said he expects his lineup to feature about six lefties in 2013.
Hawaii will also be southpaw-dominant on the mound, with five lefties expected to fill important roles. Crafty junior Jarrett Arakawa and sophomore Scott Squier return to the rotation. Squier, the best professional prospect on the team, has taken a step forward this fall, holding his 88-92 mph velocity more consistently and having success with a swing-and-miss slider after jettisoning his curveball. Grayson County (Texas) CC transfer Andrew Jones—an Australian—could give the rotation a third lefty; Jones showed good stuff in the fall, working at 88-91 mph, though he needs to improve his consistency within the strike zone. And strike-throwing southpaws Lawrence Chew and Quintin Torres-Costa figure to occupy key bullpen roles, with chances to start.
The Wildcats are loaded with proven impact players in the lineup and on the mound, but Kentucky also has a very intriguing X-factor: outfielder/first baseman Jacob Russell. After starting his collegiate career as a quarterback for Eastern Kentucky's football team, Russell transferred to UK and sat out the 2011 football season because of transfer rules. He left the football team to play baseball this summer, and while his skills are raw, his physicality could be an asset on the diamond.
"He is the most physical kid on our team, which is really something," UK assistant Brad Bohanon said. "He's jacked; he looks like a linebacker, not a former quarterback. I don't know what his role will be, but he's pretty intriguing. Considering he hasn't played baseball in two and a half years, he's progressing in a hurry."
On the mound, one of the big stories of the fall was the improvement of senior lefthander Jerad Grundy. "Grundy is much better than he was last June," Wildcats coach Gary Henderson said. "His command is way better—that's the No. 1 thing. The second thing is his control of his slider is a lot better."
Long Beach State
The Dirtbags have improved their athleticism, their physicality and their pitching depth. Junior-college transfer Shane Carle will anchor the rotation, and scouts like what they saw from him this fall. "He was up to 92-93 with some sink, a swing-and-miss slider and feel for a change," one scout said. "He's 6-foot-4 and projectable."
There is plenty of competition behind Carle; candidates include lefthanders Ryan Strufing and Nick Sabo and righties Jon Maciel, Ryan Millison and David Hill. Maciel showed a solid four-pitch mix in one fall world series game, working at 88-91 and flashing decent 81-84 slider with good tilt. He was opposed by the 6-foot-4 Sabo, who dominated by spotting an 85-89 fastball and a nice 77-78 changeup with good sink and fade.
The lineup will be anchored by sophomore outfielder Richard Prigatano and junior shortstop Michael Hill, who both make consistent, hard contact. The versatile, scrappy Jeff McNeil showed good plate discipline and could be a sparkplug near the top of the lineup.
Heralded freshman Alex Bregman impressed enough this fall to win the starting shortstop job; junior second baseman JaCoby Jones will remain at second base, with Mason Katz moving from the outfield to first. On the mound, righthander Aaron Nola looks poised to build upon his freshman All-America 2012 campaign and team with Ryan Eades to make a killer one-two punch.
"Their guy who's going to take the big step forward is Aaron Nola," an NL crosschecker said. "He's 90-91, 92, occasionally more, with a plus changeup, plus fastball life. He's got way more stuff than people think. He's going to be a good pick in two years—he's good. Fastball movement is what separates him."
The Cardinals have no shortage of power arms on the roster, but the most electrifying stuff belongs to sophomore righthander Nick Burdi—perhaps the hardest thrower in college baseball. After lighting up radar guns in the Cape Cod League this summer, Burdi continued to show overpowering velocity this fall, and also progressed as a pitcher.
"Burdi is averaging 99, in one-inning stints," Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said in November. "He's throwing 10, 12, 15 pitches per inning, bumping some 102s, 101s, 100s, then some 96s and 99s. It's an electric 92 mph slider, downward. He's working on the changeup. He's the sexy pick to close, but you've still got to be able to do it. He's learning how to control the running game, field his position—everything college teaches you. He's maturing in all those areas. He arguably could be the hardest worker on the team—he's so passionate, works so hard, wants to be great."
The Rebels were delighted this fall with the progress of big sophomore righthanders Chris Ellis and Hawtin Buchanan. Ellis worked in the 88-90 range as a freshman last spring, but his velocity jumped this summer and he sat consistently at 90-93 this fall. His changeup and breaking ball are quality offerings, making him a likely fit in the weekend rotation along with returnees Bobby Wahl and Mike Mayers. Buchanan, meanwhile, was 94-97 every time out in the Cape Cod League this summer, and he has made great strides with his 83-85 mph slider. "He's gone from a guy with a good fastball and no secondary stuff, to now he's got the great slider," Ole Miss pitching coach Carl Lafferty said. Buchanan looks like a natural choice for the back of the bullpen.
The other player creating a buzz for the Rebels this spring was sophomore center fielder Auston Bousfield, who is stronger and faster than he used to be. He was clocked at 6.5 seconds in the 60-yard dash on scout day. "Bousfield is getting better every time I see him," an NL scout said. "He's got the tools to be a good draft pick. He's got more juice than you think, he's getting stronger, and he hits with frequency."
North Carolina State
Carlos Rodon gets all the headlines, but Wolfpack coach Elliott Avent says his pitching staff is deeper than any he's ever coached. The 'Pack will be outstanding on the mound, and it should score plenty of runs, but the key to its season will be its defense. The biggest thing to watch will be the development of sophomore Trea Turner, who is moving from third base to short. Replacing departed steady shortstop Chris Diaz won't be easy, but Turner is a supreme athlete who can make the spectacular play at times. He is still learning the position, however.
"He did good there," Avent said. "He's not as consistent as Chris was, but I think he'll be OK over there. His feet move pretty fast—his feet are like the roadrunner."
The Waves need ace righthander Scott Frazier to have a big year, and he appears poised to take a big step forward. "I saw him up to 95 with life," an AL scout said. "His body looked great, and he cleaned up his arm action—it looks shorter in the back, not as long. He had that kind of stab in the back, but he doesn't have that anymore. Because of that his breaking ball's gotten better."
Lefthander Aaron Brown, a draft-eligible sophomore in 2013, also looked good this fall, running his fastball up to 94 mph and showing a fringe-average changeup and a fringe-average slider. Brown made 16 relief appearances and also played 38 games in the outfield as a freshman, but he could step into the No. 2 starter role this spring.
The Toreros toyed with the idea of moving All-American Kris Bryant to right field, where he played in a fall scrimmage against San Diego State. USD coach Rich Hill has said in the past that he could envision Bryant being a star right fielder someday, but as of this week the Toreros were leaning toward keeping him at third base this spring, though they haven't committed either way. Wherever he plays, Bryant will hit, as he did in the scrimmage against the Aztecs. In that game, he struck out against Michael Cederoth in his first at-bat, but he hit an RBI double to right-center on a 92 mph fastball later in the game, then launched a solo homer to left-center.
San Diego State
Cederoth, SDSU's ace sophomore righthander, struck out the side in order in his impressive inning against USD. His fastball ranged from 92-97 mph, sitting comfortably at 93-95, and he showed a pair of swing-and-miss breaking balls in a 79 mph curveball and an 85-86 slider. He looks poised for a breakout year.
Another breakout candidate for the Aztecs is sophomore center fielder Greg Allen, a switch-hitter with plenty of athleticism. Allen wreaked havoc atop the order for SDSU against the Toreros, singling twice, drawing a walk and executing a sacrifice bunt. Allen and second baseman Tim Zier figure to make the Aztec offense go this spring.
A year after Kyle Zimmer was drafted fifth overall, the Dons have a chance to produce another first-rounder on the mound. Junior righthander Alex Balog showed flashes of brilliance last spring, and he was generating plenty of interest from scouts this fall.
"He didn't pitch all summer, and he completely transformed his body into a dude," an NL area scout said. "He was more kind of a soft body, now he looks the part: 6-4, 220, and a stud. It's great stuff: a heavy sinking fastball—last year I saw him 93-97 under the lights with some adrenaline. It wasn't consistent all year, I think because his body wasn't in shape. Now his body is in shape, the confidence is there—you can see it oozing out of him. He's got a chance for three plus pitches in his arsenal with good command."
The Gamecocks got more out of their freshman class in 2012 than most teams, and that group of players is improved heading into their sophomore years. Catcher Grayson Greiner, shortstop Joey Pankake and center fielder Tanner English are ready to anchor South Carolina's lineup, as well as its defense.
"They are going to be even better players than they were a year ago," South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook said. "Joey's looked like a first-team all-SEC guy. He's strong, he hits, he's putting the ball out of the park now and then; last year he couldn't hit it to the warning track. And he's very comfortable defensively, which we were worried about last year. So we feel good about our shortstop, our catcher and our center fielder."
The Gamecocks were also tinkering with the idea of using Pankake and Greiner in the bullpen. Holbrook said Pankake "plays catch at 94-95 mph" and has flashed an 84 mph slider, while Greiner has a 90-92 mph fastball and a swing-and-miss split-finger.
At the end of the fall, the Longhorns still hadn't decided what junior righthander Corey Knebel's role will be. Knebel posted a 1.13 ERA and 19 saves as UT's closer in 2011, then spent most of last year anchoring the bullpen before making three starts down the stretch. But attrition in the sophomore class—the dismissal of Ricky Jacquez and the injury of John Curtiss—has created some uncertainty about the best way to utilize Knebel next year.
"It depends what the younger guys do," pitching coach Skip Johnson said. "We lost John Curtiss for the year with Tommy John surgery; we could have tried to rehab him, but if it didn't work out he would have lost two years instead of one year. Parker French will be back, and he should be pretty good."
Johnson said the biggest thing that jumped out to him in the fall was the improvement in UT's team speed. "We can really run," he said.
The Commodores had a nice battle going for the starting shortstop job between talented freshman Dansby Swanson and junior Joel McKeithan. Swanson is a smooth defender who struggled somewhat offensively this fall, but McKeithan looked dramatically improved from the player who hit .171/.292/.195 in 41 at-bats as a sophomore.
"McKeithan's a tall, rangy shortstop who moves pretty well, he's got a good arm—he's a pretty good defender, makes it look easy," Vandy coach Tim Corbin said. "Offense has been the area you never knew if he would pick that up or not. He's definitely stronger, driving the baseball, pretty well balanced. He's giving himself much more of a chance to hit. I like him; he likes to run the bases.
"Swanson, on the other hand, will be offensive some day, but he really can move his feet—that's a plus when he plays defense and on the bases. He's got a gear inside that's a little bit quicker than most."