2008 Preseason College All-Americans
The 2007 draft marked the first time in five years that high schoolers outnumbered collegians in the first round, and the 17 prepsters selected were the most since 2000. Last year's high school crop was outstanding in terms of hitters and also offered more than its usual share of quality arms. By contrast, the college ranks were lacking in position players and featured an ordinary group of pitchers.
Scouting directors are more enthused about the college prospects for this year's draft. As they helped us select our annual preseason All-America teams, several noted that this looks like the best group of college bats this decade. There may not be a lot of obvious multitooled talents, but these guys can hit, led by Vanderbilt third baseman Pedro Alvarez, South Carolina first baseman Justin Smoak and Miami first baseman Yonder Alonso.
"These college bats are pretty good," a National League scouting director said. "They are kind of one-dimensional, but that's OK if they wind up hitting like we think they will."
College pitching depth is improved as well, led by San Diego lefthander Brian Matusz and Missouri righty Aaron Crow. There aren't many other arms who offer both quality stuff and polish, but at least another dozen pitchers are first-round candidates.
The one strength among 2007 college position players that stood out was catching, as Matt Wieters went fifth overall to the Orioles and six backstops went in the first and sandwich rounds. This year's catchers are less impressive. Florida State's Buster Posey is the clear favorite but may not have an impact bat, and there's no standout defender.
Buster Posey, Florida State
Posey played shortstop as a freshman and is still learning behind the plate, yet he has taken quickly to the position switch and is the best defensive catcher in this college crop. His arm and athleticism are above average—like Wieters did at Florida State, Posey is expected to be a closer as well—and he also receives and blocks well. He makes contact and hits for average, though his raw power is limited.
"I love Posey," an American League scouting director said. "I thought he was a premium shortstop, and only one year later, he was so good as a catcher. He can hit and throw and he's a leader, and he'll be an above-average catcher down the road."
College corner infielders are the obvious highlight of this draft. Alvarez is the consensus No. 1 overall prospect, while Smoak and Alonso should be the first college first basemen to go in the top 10 picks since Carlos Pena in 1998. First baseman Allan Dykstra (Wake Forest) and third basemen James Darnell (South Carolina), Conor Gillaspie (Wichita State) and Brett Wallace (Arizona State) all could factor into the end of the first round.
Yonder Alonso, Miami
Alonso was easily the best all-around hitter in the Cape Cod League last summer, batting .338 with league bests in walks (36) and on-base percentage (.468). He has patience and a willingness to use the whole field, not to mention a short stroke and good balance at the plate. He has led the Hurricanes in homers in each of the last two years, and he'll develop plus wood-bat power as he learns to pull and lift more pitches. His value lies solely in his bat, as he'll never be more than an adequate defender at first base.
Pedro Alvarez, Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt produced the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft in David Price, and he may not have been the most talented player on the team. Alvarez has been a first-team All-American and the top hitter on Team USA in each of his first two seasons, and his bat speed and strength make him the best hitter for both average and power in college baseball. His range is limited and his hands are average at best, but he has worked hard on his defense and has enough arm strength for the hot corner.
"He's the best position player in the draft," a front-office executive said. "He can hit and he can stay at third base. He stacks up with Evan Longoria and Alex Gordon, who got put in that same category. He's a better hitter than we had last year, when the top guys were Matt Wieters and Matt LaPorta."
Justin Smoak, South Carolina
Smoak faced adversity for the first time when he struggled with Team USA last summer, but scouts believe that was just an aberration. He proved he could hit with wood bats as the Cape Cod League MVP in 2006, and he's a switch-hitter with huge power from both sides of the plate and patience to boot. Though he's a below-average runner and athlete, he's agile around the bag and a potential Gold Glover at first base.
"I like Smoak more than Alvarez," the AL scouting director said. "Pedro has tremendous power but Smoak is more consistent with his at-bats. I like his approach better than Pedro's."
It's usually easier to dream on high school shortstops as compared to their college counterparts, and this year is no exception. The toolsiest (UCLA's Brandon Crawford) makes inconsistent contact and hit .189 on the Cape; the best hitter (Georgia's Gordon Beckham) is an average defender; and the best glove men (Long Beach State's Danny Espinosa, Baylor's Beamer Weems) have questionable bats. A college second baseman (Miami's Jemile Weeks) could get drafted before a college shortstop, which hasn't happened since 2003—when Weeks' brother Rickie went No. 2 overall.
Gordon Beckham, Georgia
Beckham led the Cape Cod League in homers (nine) and RBIs (35) last summer, and while he was helped by a hitter-friendly park, he does have good pop for a middle infielder thanks to his strong wrists and quick bat. He's one of the few top college position prospects who's an above-average athlete, as his speed and arm are plus tools. He can get out of control offensively and defensively when he tries to do too much.
"He has a live bat, a live body and he's very strong for his size," a second NL scouting director said. "He can throw and he'll have to work to stay at shortstop, but I think he can. He needs more consistency but he has improved."
Jemile Weeks, Miami
Weeks isn't as physically talented as his older brother, but he's not lacking for tools. He has 70 speed on the 20-80 scouting scale and unlike Rickie, he's a quality defender who leaves no doubt that he can play second base. His bat isn't as dynamic as his brother's, but he projects as a leadoff hitter and has shown occasional pop.
The weakest area in the 2008 draft is college outfielders. The lone potential first-rounder is Miami's Dennis Raben, who might be playing first base if he weren't on the same team as Alonso. Scouts voted Texas' Jordan Danks and Kyle Russell onto the first team but aren't fully convinced either will produce in pro ball.
Jordan Danks, Texas
As a 6-foot-5, 209-pounder who looks like he should hit for power, runs well and displays good instincts on the bases and in center field, Danks passes the eye test with ease. He could have been a first-round pick out of high school—as his brother, White Sox lefty John was in 2003—if he hadn't asked out of the 2005 draft, but he hasn't developed as hoped. He has hit just six homers in two college seasons and shows just average bat speed and an inconsistent feel for hitting.
Dennis Raben, Miami
Raben isn't as pure a hitter as Alonso but has more raw power. He hit better with wood on the Cape (.298) than he had with metal at Miami, and he tied Beckham for the RBI lead. Power is his primary tool, as he doesn't always make consistent contact and his range and arm are average at best in right field.
"He's an aggressive, confident hitter with legitimate power, and he's lefthanded," the second NL scouting director said. "He was on the map for us before the Cape, but not a premium guy. Now he's a premium guy."
Kyle Russell, Texas
Russell led NCAA Division I with 28 homers last year (eclipsing the previous Longhorns record of 20) and has a quick bat with power to all fields, yet scouts still aren't sold on his bat. Many think he has a grooved swing, and he has repeatedly made poor contact with wood bats. He's an average athlete and runner with a right-field arm, though his ability to hit will determine his ultimate value.
"I'm kind of in the middle on Russell," the first NL scouting director said. "I do really respect the lefthanded power. I do question how much he's really going to hit, though. But he has put up pretty good production at the highest level of amateur baseball."
In each of the last three drafts, a college two-way player has gone in the first-round as a pitcher: Brian Bogusevic (2005), Brad Lincoln (2006) and Joe Savery (2007). None of this year's two-way stars figures to go that high, but all three of our All-Americans—Michigan righthander/outfielder Zach Putnam, San Diego lefthander/outfielder Josh Romanski and Oklahoma State righthander/shortstop Jordy Mercer—project to become full-time pitchers in pro ball.
Zach Putnam, Michigan
Putnam was at his best in the super regionals last June, no-hitting eventual champion Oregon State for 82⁄3 innings before taking a 1-0 loss. He can touch 95 mph with good sink on his fastball and back it up with a tough splitter. But scouts still aren't sure what to make of him because his curveball and splitter are inconsistent, and he showed little interest in pitching while in the Cape Cod League last summer.
Putnam also begged out of playing the field, spending most of his time as a DH. He offers power and arm strength as a right fielder, but his future lies on the mound.
"He's an enigma," the AL scouting director said. "On the right day, he'll show heavy life to a low-90s fastball. He's big and physical. But his secondary pitches are not strong. To me, he's a definite relief pitcher at the next level."
It's typical for pitchers to blossom in college as they mature mentally and physically, and that has happened with four of this year's five first-team All-Americans. The lone exception was Matusz, who might have been a sandwich pick out of high school in 2005 if not for a seven-figure asking price. He turned down significant money from the Angels in the fourth round.
Crow, Eastern Kentucky's Christian Friedrich, Pepperdine's Brett Hunter, San Diego's Brian Matusz and Arizona's Ryan Perry all have seen their stuff improve dramatically since they went undrafted three years ago. Each has gained 8-10 mph on his fastball.
Aaron Crow, Missouri
Crow and Matusz are legitimate candidates to go No. 1 overall to the Rays. The top prospect in the Cape Cod League last summer, Crow's velocity (up to 98 mph), life and ability to hit both sides of the plate give him the best fastball in college baseball. The consensus is that he owns the best slider and arguably the best command as well. His changeup is a decent third pitch.
"In high school, he had a nice arm action but he was 84-86," a second front-office official said. "I saw him several times last year, and he sat at 93-96 with a good slider. The only question is durability. He's not a big guy and his delivery isn't effortless. How many innings he gives you is the question mark, but it's special stuff."
Christian Friedrich, Eastern Kentucky
Friedrich is comparable to Cubs pitcher Rich Hill as a tall lefthander with a devastating curveball, solid fastball and effective changeup. He can fall in love with his curveball and needs to use his changeup more often, but his biggest need is to harness his heater, which sat in the low 80s just three years ago.
"He's still learning how to pitch with his extra velocity, but he has a good curveball and he's a lefthander who can pitch at 90-92 with his fastball." the second NL scouting director said. "You could tweak his delivery but his arm action is clean. He's filling out and has a good frame."
Brett Hunter, Pepperdine
Hunter touched 99 mph in fall practice and sits in the mid-90s with his four-seam fastball. He also can cross batters up with a two-seamer that features life and sink, and backs his heaters up with a tight slider. He doesn't always repeat his delivery or command his pitches, and he hasn't shown much of a changeup, so he could be a reliever in the major leagues. He excelled in that role while leading Team USA with a 0.66 ERA last summer.
Brian Matusz, San Diego
Given that the Rays don't need a third baseman with Evan Longoria on the way, Matusz might be the leading candidate for the top pick right now. No college pitcher has a deeper repertoire of quality pitches, and as a bonus, he's a lefthander. He has good command of a low-90s fastball that reaches 94, the best changeup in this year's draft and a solid curveball. He's tall and could get a little stronger, and he maintains his mechanics.
"I like him more than any of the pitchers in the draft," the first front-office executive said. "He's a big lefthander with power and pitches. He was good in high school and he's gotten better in college."
Ryan Perry, Arizona
Perry had won just two games and posted a 6.75 ERA over two college seasons when he arrived at the Cape Cod League as an injury replacement for teammate Jason Stoffel last June. Perry opened eyes by sitting at 94-96 mph all summer and touching 98 in the all-star game, though his fastball is fairly straight. He throws strikes and his slider is a plus pitch at times, but he still needs to develop a changeup and prove he can succeed as a starter.
"His performance has been so average and even below, but his stuff is so good," the AL scouting director said. "He could be this year's Brandon Morrow, a guy who exploded onto the scene on the Cape and goes very high in the draft."