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By John Manuel and Alan Matthews
Ranking college recruiting classes in November can often be a wasted exercise, considering no one really knows which players will make it to campus and which ones will be snapped up in the 2004 draft.
But with more than 60 percent of the players on last year's top 100 list ending up in college, it means that the NCAA's week-long, early-signing period, which ended Wednesday, will likely significantly impact a number of top college programs--even if the recruits won't play their first college game for 15 months.
Texas' 15-member class looks like the nation's best at this point, as it includes speedster Greg Golson (No. 2 on the Prospects Plus Top 100), and righthanders Homer Bailey (No. 5) and Kenn Kasparek (No. 10). The Longhorns got national letter of intents from five of the nation's top 33 high school seniors. They also signed four top junior college players.
Georgia Tech, with seven recruits in the Prospects Plus Top 100, and North Carolina, with two of the top four, also check in near the top of the list.
The Tar Heels provide good evidence why ranking the November classes has value. At this time last year, UNC's commitments from lefthander Andrew Miller (then the 11th-ranked player) and Daniel Bard (then-No. 31) seemed frivolous. But Bard and Miller ended up in school, along with every other Tar Heel recruit, and the Tar Heels' current class of freshmen arguably ranks as the nation's best.
Other highly ranked players a year ago such as Drew Stubbs (Texas), Jeff Manship (Notre Dame) and Jared Hughes (Santa Clara) also made it to campus.
Here's a sampling of some of the nation's top classes:
Jackets Go Deep
Once again, Georgia Tech landed a distinguished recruiting class, with seven of its 11 signees in the Prospects Plus Top 100.
If those players end up on campus, it will be up to them to reverse the perception that Georgia Tech is great at recruiting talent and not as good at winning big games. It's a reputation that lost steam in 2002 when the Yellow Jackets advanced to the College World Series, but regained momentum last year when Georgia Tech, ranked No. 1 at the start of the 2003 season, went 0-2 in a regional in Atlanta.
"Until you win 'the big game,' people are going to talk about it, but there's only one national champion every year," Yellow Jackets recruiting coordinator Scott Stricklin said. "This will be our third year in the new ballpark, and in the first two years we've made one trip to Omaha and won an (Atlantic Coast Conference) championship. We have no excuses for last year; we got beat. But we have a lot to sell to recruits about our school and our program."
The Jackets' latest class has unrivaled depth. Catcher Matt Wieters (13th) is the highest-ranked player in the class at this point, but righthanders Eddie Burns (22nd) and Brian Futral (29th) aren't far behind. Burns and Wieters both have fathers who played in the minor leagues.
Switch-hitting shortstop Michael Fisher (91st) could move up the charts rapidly in the spring with his quarterback days now behind him. Lefthander Tim Ladd (69th) reminds Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall of former Yellow Jackets ace Corey Vance, while infielder Blake DeWitt (76th) and outfielder Danny Payne (64th) have advanced approaches at the plate that could make them early contributors.
"It's a year where we are planning on losing a bunch of players and we are counting on many of these guys to be able to step in right away and hopefully keep our program at an elite level," Hall said.
Wieters moved to the head of Tech's class after a strong showing at the recent Perfect Game/Baseball America World Wood Bat Fall Championship in Jupiter, Fla. He has shown prowess on the mound to match his switch-hitting bat and athleticism behind the plate. The Jackets recruited him as a catcher, but will give his 88-91 mph fastball a long look if he comes to campus.
Another power arm in the class belongs to righthander Jon Michael Vidic of powerhouse Lassiter High in Marietta, Ga. Vidic ranked as one of the nation's top sophomores in 2002, then broke down in 2003 and required Tommy John surgery. He's seven months removed from the surgery and is expected to pitch at some point in the spring, though he has fallen out of the Top 100 in the interim. If Vidic is healthy for his senior season, the Yellow Jackets' class will look even stronger.
Burns, Futral, Ladd, Payne and Vidic are all products of the East Cobb summer program in nearby Marietta, the nation's most successful youth program.
Tar Heels Do It Again
If the athletic departmentís legacy and the revelry of Franklin Street can lure even a couple of the players the Tar Heels signed to campus, their touted 2003 freshman class suddenly might look pedestrian.
North Carolina signed the top draft prospect in the high school class of 2004 in righthander Nick Adenhart (Williamsport, Md., High) as well as four other Top 100 players. Righthanders Andy Gale (ranked fourth) and Luke Putkonen (38th) have weekend starter potential as underclassmen.
Gale's struggles at the World Wood Bat Championship in October didn't dissuade scouts, who look at his big league bloodlines (father Rich pitched for the Royals) and body (6-foot-6, 230 points). Putkonen, meanwhile, showed a projectable body and loose, easy arm action while throwing consistently in the 87-90 mph range in Jupiter.
The Heels also have a commitment from promising lefthander Mike Rozier (20th), who is expected to sign a football scholarship in February but could contribute on the mound, as well. Shortstop Josh Horton (100th), who grew up just down the road from the Tar Heels' Chapel Hill campus in Hillsborough, N.C., has improved his stock rapidly of late. Scouts caught on to his defense last spring at Orange High, and now Horton has shown tremendous strides with the bat.
Cardinal Lures Talent Near, Far
Once again Stanford, which has a history of not losing its recruits to pro ball, boasts one of the nationís top classes. Its incoming crop includes a pair of top prospects in Florida outfielder Mike Taylor (8th) and California righthander Erik Davis (15th). Though both players are well known nationally as two of the top players in the Class of '04, they came to their decision to commit to Stanford differently.
Davis, a righthander from Mountainview High, grew up 10 minutes from Stanford's Sunken Diamond. His family purchased season tickets to Stanford baseball games throughout his high school years, and ultimately it was his familiarity with the school, campus and baseball program that persuaded him to head to Palo Alto. Davis, armed with a fastball that sits in the low-90s with sharp sink and run, chose Stanford over Arizona State, California, Notre Dame and Santa Clara.
The weekend before he officially signed with the Cardinal, Davis made his scheduled visit to campus, which was somewhat of a formality at the time but turned into a significant occurrence as Davis met one his favorite Cardinal pitchers, Jeremy Guthrie, a 2002 first-rounder and now a top prospect in the Indians system.
"It was really cool because I got to meet a guy that I have looked up to ever since I was 13 or 14, and that was special," Davis said.
Taylor, meanwhile, chose Stanford despite the fact that its campus is on the opposite side of the country from where he was raised. A 6-foot-6, 234-pound outfielder at Apopka (Fla.) High, Taylorís decision to attend Stanford was as much about the schoolís academic reputation as its long-standing tradition in baseball.
When talking to Taylor, a 4.0 student and a member of the National Honor Society, he comes across as a skilled politician more than a 17-year-old star athlete. He said he and his father mapped out his college future long before he entered high school and Stanford was atop their first list, along with Miami, with baseball a secondary consideration.
"For me personally . . . working hard academically was a huge factor for me,Ē Taylor said. ďI cross-referenced the top academic institutions with the top baseball programs and it came down to Stanford and Miami. It just turned out that the baseball talent matched the academic talent. It's almost like a fairytale."
Taylor even boasts an America Online screen name and e-mail address that incorporate his intent to attend Stanford. And, though heís lauded as one of the best all-around athletes in the 2004 draft class, he seems serious about pursuing his professional ambitions off the field. During his visit to Stanford, he met professors in the political science department and said he felt strongly that they would help him further his education, perhaps in a law-related field. But thatís not to say Taylor plans on trading in his bat for a gavel any time soon.
ďI want to be major league baseball player, and whether or not that career starts in three years or five years . . . it will remain to be seen,Ē he said.
Though Taylor conceded that a negative stigma is often attached to Stanford signeesí immediate professional aspirations, he was unwavering in his decision.
ďObviously when you have people telling you you're going to drop in the draft (by signing at Stanford), you think about your decision,Ē he said. ďBut my rebuttal is that Iíve done all the right things to this point and I donít think I should shortchange myself.
"The signability thing shouldn't be a problem. And in June if someone thinks Iím good enough to put on a uniform, then thatís something Iíll consider. I'm not looking to set any signing bonus records; as long as itís a fair slot amount, Iíll definitely go play baseball.Ē
'Canes Break New Ground
Miami coach Jim Morris routinely says his program has two recruiting bases--south Florida and California. Those two talent-rich regions have provided Morris' club with the ammunition for eight College World Series trips in 10 years, so why recruit anywhere else?
This year, the Hurricanes again tapped heavily into the rich south Florida high school ranks, but they also broke new ground by landing two players from areas they have rarely ventured: righthander Mark Rogers (14th) from Maine and outfielder Dexter Fowler (17th) from suburban Atlanta. The pair headlines a seven-member class that the Hurricanes signed in the early period.
Recruiting coordinator Gino DiMare hopes the signing of Fowler will constitute a new trend of funneling talent from the prolific East Cobb amateur program to Miami. The other, he admits, should be a rare occurrence.
"Dexter could open the gates for us," DiMare said. "Even though coach Morris was at Georgia Tech and has a lot of good relationships up there, we have not been able to bring impact talent here from that area. Dexter wanted to come to Miami, though, and we also have another commitment from there in (righthander) Mike Sanders (McDonough, Ga.). That's not the usual recruiting ground for us."
Neither is Maine, but then talents like Rogers don't come along often. Like Massachusetts product Jeff Allison, Baseball America's 2003 High School Player of the Year, Rogers will have to contend with a short playing season in the spring. He's already shown scouts plenty at the East Coast Showcase in Wilmington, N.C., and again at the Area Code Games in Long Beach, flashing a mid-90s fastball.
By choosing Miami, the three-sport star has chosen baseball over hockey and soccer, his other top sports.
"He's a great student and a great athlete," DiMare said. "I don't think anybody knew about him until he showed up on the map at Wilmington throwing in the 90s. Then everybody knew about him."
The rest of Miami's class is south Florida-heavy, and DiMare hopes the 'Canes' retention rate is high. Miami had only one player (junior first baseman Jim Burt) drafted off its 2003 team but that won't be the case in 2004, when the team expects to lose several players.
"It could be a very significant class for us because we feel like we could lose a lot of talent off our '04 team," DiMare said. "We had 13 players sign pro contracts after the 2001 season, and this team could be close to that."
Broncos Bucking For Attention
Santa Clara hasn't earned a regional bid since 1997. That year, two-way star Mike Frank led the Broncos to their last West Coast Conference championship.
In his third season as head coach, Mark O'Brien may have found the answer to Frank, who later played in the big leagues with the Reds, to continue Santa Clara's move toward national prominence the program hasn't known since the '60s.
O'Brien and assistant coaches Mike Oakland and Tom Myers put together another solid recruiting class, led by two top 20 recruits from California, lefthander/outfielder Chuck Lofgren (7th) of Burlingame and righthander Phillip Hughes (12th) of Santa Ana. Lofgren could be an impact player both at the plate and on the mound, just like Frank.
"He's more polished at the plate, but he may have more potential on the mound," said Myers, the team's pitching coach. "He's 88-92 miles an hour with his fastball, and he gets guys out right now on sheer competitiveness."
Oakland, the team's hitting coach, naturally likes Lofgren better with a bat in his hands. "He's a better Mike Frank in both areas," Oakland said. "And Mike is one of the best players in Santa Clara history. In reality, with Chuck, we signed six players, not five, because he'll do both and do both well in college."
The key will be getting Lofgren and Hughes, a righty with a 90-93 mph fastball, solid slider and good command, onto campus. It's a similar situation to last year, when righthander Jared Hughes (no relation) was considered a likely first-round pick. Hughes had a so-so spring, though; combined with his firm commitment to Santa Clara, he fell to the 16th-round of the draft and ended up in school.
"I think we do a pretty good job of doing our homework and finding kids who are academically inclined," Oakland said. "Both these guys could be real good draft picks in 2004, but I'm confident they want to come here. I don't think they will sell out their college education, just like Jared Hughes didn't sell out.
"The draft is going toward more college players right now, and that's going to help us and college baseball. Kids now are more persuaded to go to college for three years, improve themselves on and off the field, and three years later start their pro careers. The payday is usually better coming out of college anyway. And for pro clubs, there are just too many risks with high school players, especially pitchers, to spend all that money."