Georgia, Arizona State Win Big While Others Go Small
Rounding up the early signing period
See also: High school top 100 prospects with commitments
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The message from college baseball's academic reformers is loud and clear: when it comes to recruiting, bigger is bad.
The NCAA believed that over-recruiting was a major problem in college baseball, one that resulted in players being run off and Academic Progress Rates plummeting. So to prevent schools from bringing in huge classes in August and then forcing half the class to transfer after fall ball, the NCAA instituted fall certification and a 35-man roster cap while requiring players to sit out a year when transferring.
The plan is far from flawless, but it has had the desired effect with most recruiters, if the early signing period is any indication. Coaches are already having to be much more judicious when offering scholarships because missing on player evaluation is very costly, now that all scholarship players must receive a minimum aid package of 25 percent. And almost across the board, recruiting classes have gotten smaller.
"The difference now is you've got to be at the scholarship limit at the beginning of school—there's no gray area," said one recruiting coordinator at a major public school. "The people that are going to overload in the summer will have to unload before school starts. Most of us are going to have to go over by a little bit, but how do you sign 10 more kids (than you have roster spots for)?"
Many recruiting coordinators expressed bewilderment that a few schools were still able to sign 20 or more recruits, but there are mitigating factors that can make it wise to cast a wide net.
Georgia and Arizona State brought in two of the larger classes in the country, netting 21 and 24 recruits, respectively. But both schools are loaded with seniors and talented juniors who they expect to lose to the draft in June, meaning both will have plenty of holes to fill.
Of course, neither school expects all of its signees to bypass the draft in favor of college, because both signed a number of high-profile recruits (see our top 100
and top 300
prospects lists). Georgia boasts seven signees among the national top 100 (counting outfielder Xavier Avery, who will sign with the Georgia football team and could play both sports in college), while Arizona State has four, including a pair of top-10 recruits in Florida first baseman Eric Hosmer and California catcher Kyle Skipworth.
The aggressive approach is nothing new for the Sun Devils, who signed 26 recruits (six of them in the top 100) a year ago knowing full well that many of them were unlikely to make it to campus. Indeed, ASU netted just one of its top-100 signees (69th-ranked righthander Seth Blair) while losing its five top-35 recruits to the draft.
But rolling the dice with elite recruits can also pay major dividends, as it did for Arizona State in 2004. That year, the Sun Devils signed seven top-100 recruits and kept four of them—Ike Davis (12), Preston Paramore (26), Matt Hall (41), Brett Wallace (69)—while losing three—righthanders Michael Bowden (24) and Jeff Lyman (44) and lefty Mark Pawelek (74).
So even if Hosmer and Skipworth sign pro contracts—and while there are indications Hosmer wants to go to school, Skipworth seems likely to sign—Arizona State is in good shape to bring in a solid nucleus, potentially including slick middle infielder Riccio Torrez (56), corner bats Zach Wilson (161) and Abe Ruiz (145), athletic outfielder John Ruettiger (210), towering righthander Ray Hanson (208), and two-way players Jordan Swagerty (61), Brad Hand (140) and Jaff Decker (150). Decker is a hitting machine who de-committed from UCLA and opted for conference-rival ASU.
"The top-end guys jump out at you, but the strength (of the recruiting class) is the middle to the end of it," Arizona State recruiting coordinator Josh Holliday said. "Those guys are pretty stinking good ballplayers."
Georgia, meanwhile, focused on landing most of the top talent in its own baseball-rich state—16 of its 21 signees are in-state products. The Bulldogs could lose their entire weekend rotation and closer after the spring, and recruiting coordinator Jason Eller said they signed a true Southeastern Conference weekend rotation.
Among the power arms that committed to Georgia were 19th-ranked lefty Brett DeVall (who commands an 88-92 mph fastball and excellent slider); No. 20 Michael Palazzone (a projectable righthander who already reaches 94 and flashes a plus downer curveball); No. 27 Cecil Tanner (a raw righty with an excellent sinking fastball); and No. 44 Zeke Spruill (a competitive righty with a quality three-pitch mix).
"We were blessed this year because our state was loaded with those guys," Eller said. "They were right in our own backyard, and it's our job to take care of our state, and a lot of them wanted to be Bulldogs.
"The odds of us keeping all these guys are very slim. If we get half of them, I think we'd be very happy. We've got a lot of draft-eligible juniors that are hoping to have big seasons and sign, and this (freshman) class that we brought (in August) in is a little smaller; that allowed this class to be a little bigger."
That depth makes Georgia and Arizona State two of the biggest winners from the early signing period.
• Like Avery, Sarasota (Fla.) High shortstop Casey Kelly (15) is a two-sport star who figures to sign with a major football program. But while Avery has made it clear he intends to commit to Georgia, the son of former big leaguer Pat Kelly is one of the few elite recruits who is still up for grabs.
• Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan continued to work as hard on the recruiting trail as he did when he was an assistant coach at Clemson, and his first class with the Gators looks flush with talented players who have a good chance to reach campus. Florida signed six players in the top 100 but just one in the top 20 (lefthander Nick Maronde). The other five rank in the back third of the top 100—territory that is usually much safer from the draft.
"I feel as good as I guess you can right now," O'Sullivan said. "They're all good students who want to go to school."
• Other big winners, according to coaches surveyed informally, are Vanderbilt, UCLA, Kentucky, UNC, Texas and Oregon State.
Vandy's class stood out for its arms, but also for its balance. Electric-armed righthander Sonny Gray (6) will be coveted on draft day thanks to a 94 mph fastball and hard hammer curveball, but scouts are always uneasy about Vanderbilt commitments, which could cause him to drop in the draft and wind up at school. For the same reason, it's tough to bet against the Commodores landing 6-foot-5 lefty Grayson Garvin (55), third baseman Jason Esposito (63) and outfielder Matt Marquis (80). Rival recruiting coordinators also applauded Vanderbilt for landing solid college players like Minnesota corner bat Joseph Loftus. The wild card of the class is righthander Navery Moore (174), who could be drafted in the first five rounds if he recovers from Tommy John surgery that he had during his junior season. Moore flashed a fastball up to 93 mph in August, 2006 before his junior season.
• North Atlanta High outfielder Jay Austin (114) de-committed from Georgia and opted for Southern California, giving the Trojans another very talented signee. One rival recruiting coordinator dubbed Austin the "Cedric Hunter of this draft," based on his quick bat and solid outfield skills. Unlike Hunter, who signed with the Padres in the '06 draft, Austin is a plus runner who can handle center field, which raises his pro stock considerably. Austin, 6-foot-6 righthander Mike Tonkin (53) and raw-but-powerful first baseman Ricky Oropresa (91) are the key to USC's class, because top-10 signees Tim Beckham and Aaron Hicks will be tough to usher through the draft.
"Southern Cal's class sounds good, but Beckham and Hicks aren't coming," the recruiting coordinator said. "Hicks has been up to the 94-96 area and flashed a slider in the mid-to-upper 80s."
• Not to be outdone by in-state rival Arizona State, Arizona landed an impressive group headlined by lefthander Kyle Lobstein (7), who has run his fastball up to 92 to go along with a promising hard cutter in the 80-82 range and a picture-perfect delivery. Lobstein struggled offensively this summer but will play both ways if he chooses to bypass the draft in favor of school; and the Wildcats are optimistic he will do just that, despite his high profile. Anthony Gose (22) is another impact two-way player who has signed with Arizona. In addition to being one of the fastest runners in the nation, Gose has touched 95 mph off the mound.
• Some coaches expressed concerns that the new minimum scholarship rule could actually provide cover for schools to promise recruits bigger aid packages in order to secure a commitment now, then go back on their word later. "One thing the 25 percent hasn't changed is you can still offer a kid whatever he wants to hear to get him on campus," said one recruiting coordinator. "This would be a great excuse: 'The NCAA is sticking it to us, we've got to take some of your money back.' It can be the truth or not."