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Sowers Leads Pack Of Talented Lefties
Prospect Pulse By John Manuel
Major league organizations looking to add lefthanded pitching depth--which would include, oh, all 30 of them--are looking to the South for the 2004 draft.
The Southeastern Conference offers three lefthanders with a chance to go in the first round in South Carolina's Matt Campbell, Vanderbilt's Jeremy Sowers and Alabama's Taylor Tankersley. Throw in Tyler Lumsden of Clemson in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and scouting directors and crosscheckers have had plenty of southpaws to see in the South.
Sowers entered the season with the best reputation, having been the 20th overall pick (Reds) in the 2001 draft out of high school. The 6-foot-1, 175-pounder figures to be the first of the quartet drafted thanks to his high profile, polish and solid across-the-board stuff. He's around the plate so much, many teams attack him the same way hitters approached Greg Maddux in his prime--hacking at the first pitch they see in the strike zone.
However, he may have the least fastball velocity of the group. At his best and freshest, Sowers scrapes some 90s and 91s with his fastball, but he pitches at 86-89 mph. What sets Sowers apart is his command and solid-average quality of his curve, slider and changeup. He's 7-3, 2.99 this season after going 7-5, 2.50 last year, and has 83 strikeouts and just 14 walks in 78 innings.
"He's the ultimate pitchability guy," one college coach said. "I can't imagine that he's far from being ready for the major leagues."
Campbell has a bit more fastball than Sowers at times, though he's thrown so many breaking balls this year that his velocity has dipped into the 85-88 range. At 6-foot-3 and 180 pounds, he has some projection left and has shown an improved changeup to go with his plus curveball and show-me slider.
Campbell and Tankersley locked up in a 1-0, 10-inning duel two weeks ago, won by Campbell as he went the distance. About 30 scouts were on hand for the matchup, and neither pitcher disappointed.
Tankersley has the most helium in the group. A well-built 6-foot-2, 225-pounder, he has had an uneven career (5.88 ERA as a sophomore) but is finishing with a flourish, fully recovered from a cyst on his wrist that bothered him last year.
He has the quartet's best fastball, pitching at 88-92 and flashing some 94s in his relief appearances. Alabama has used him in a dual role, having him begin the weekend in the bullpen and only starting him on Sundays if he has yet to pitch in the series. He's 2-3, 1.40 with three saves and has a 62-17 strikeout-walk ratio in 58 innings. For his career, he has 224 strikeouts in 217 innings.
"The way he was used, I think he was something of a secret, but the cat's out of the bag now with the game against South Carolina," one area scout said. "He has a real strong body, just attacks hitters and is one tough SOB. Plus, he's shown some feel for his changeup and a power breaking ball."
Lumsden's results have varied over the course of his career. An unsigned fifth-round pick of the Marlins in 2001, the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Lumsden has had command issues, with 96 walks in 196 career innings. However, he has a pure arm, touching 93 mph with his fastball and adding a power slider and hard curveball.
He's just 3-2, 4.15 this season and has failed to maintain any consistency. After dominating North Carolina and North Carolina State in back-to-back starts, he couldn't find the plate against Florida State, walking five in three innings while coughing up a 6-1 lead.
"The rap on him always has been, 'What's he thinking?' Sometimes it seemed like he'd have an inning where he had no clue," one coach said. "When he's on, he has first-round stuff, really good hard stuff and a better change than in the past."
Don't call Texas the Lone Star State, at least when it comes to the 2004 draft. Though scouts say the overall crop is below average, that's far from the case in Texas. The state has eight projected first-round picks and plenty of talent behind them.
It's a given that Rice aces Jeff Niemann, Wade Townsend and Phil Humber will go in the upper half of the first round, but there's no consensus about the order in which the righthanders will be taken. Niemann entered the year as a possible No. 1 overall pick, but minor offseason elbow surgery and a midseason strained groin have slowed him. All three pitch in the low 90s, can touch 95 mph or higher and have above-average breaking balls.
So can LaGrange High righthander Homer Bailey, the nation's top prep prospect. He's committed to Texas but is expected to sign as a high first-rounder. Another Longhorns recruit, John B. Connally High (Austin) outfielder Greg Golson, has one of the best all-around packages of tools in the draft. There are some questions about his bat, but San Diego high school shortstop Matt Bush is the only consensus better prospect among high school position players.
Texas closer Huston Street isn't physically imposing with a 6-foot build and an 88-91 mph fastball, but he's the best money pitcher in college baseball. The righthander saved a record four College World Series games when the Longhorns won the national title two years ago, and he could rush to the majors nearly as quickly as the college righthanders taken in the first round of the 2003 draft, Ryan Wagner (Reds), Chad Cordero (Expos) and David Aardsma (Giants). Street gets tough outs with his plus slider, the life on his fastball and his ability to dial up his velocity a couple of notches when needed.
Texas A&M lefthander Zach Jackson's stock is rising down the stretch, and he didn't hurt himself by taking a perfect game into the ninth inning against Nebraska in his last start. A transfer from Louisville, he projects as an innings eater in the middle of a big league rotation with his durable 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame and solid fastball-slider-changeup repertoire.
Trimble Tech (Fort Worth) righthander Yovani Gallardo also has pitched himself into the first round this spring. His lower half has filled out, pushing his velocity into the 92-94 mph range. He also has made improvement with his curveball, a hard breaker that can get slurvy at times.
A team looking for a lefthander could pop Texas' J.P. Howell or Tomball High's Troy Patton in the supplemental first round. Neither has much in the way of size, but both have big-time curveballs and know how to pitch. And in a draft that's very lean in position players, slugging Montgomery High outfielder Brandon Allen might sneak into the same area.
Even if they don't, Texas should produce more first-rounders than any other state.
By The Time I Get To Arizona . . .
Arizona State first baseman Jeff Larish was the top-rated college hitter for year's draft at the start of the season. Teammate Dustin Pedroia might be the best player, performance-wise, this spring in the college ranks.
Yet in a draft starved for position players, it's possible neither Larish nor Pedroia will be the first pick out of Arizona this year. That honor could fall to unheralded South Mountain CC freshman righthander Luis Cota.
Cota has been the talk of scouts in Arizona this spring and was named player of the year in the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference, one of the nation's strongest junior college leagues. The 6-foot-1, 180-pounder is extremely athletic and has pumped 95-97 mph fastballs all spring with a free and easy arm action. He also has an above-average slider.
"With wood bats out here, it's been almost unfair," one scout said.
Scouts say Cota has first-round talent but he may not even make this year's draft. His negotiating rights belong to the Royals, who drafted him in the 10th round last year. As a draft-and-follow, Kansas City has until May 31 to sign Cota or risk allowing him to re-enter the draft. He's the top-rated draft-and-follow in this year's draft and is likely in line for a seven-figure bonus.
--ALLAN SIMPSONFEELING THE DRAFT
• Five Southern University players were drafted last year, led by No. 2 overall pick Rickie Weeks. The Jaguars could have four or five picked again, and could produce a first- or second-rounder for the fourth straight year. Righthander Jason Quarles, a junior college transfer from Glen Oaks (Mich.) CC, is the most likely candidate to go high. Scouts have compared the Jags' closer to Tom Gordon because of his fastball, which has touched 97-98 mph, and his curveball, which has been inconsistent but at times has been an absolute hammer. He arrived at Southern last fall as an outfielder, but moved to the mound because of Southern's depth at the position. Weeks' replacement at second base, Joshua LeBlanc, should be the first Southern hitter drafted and could go in the first five rounds. While he's raw (he entered the season with 71 at-bats in his first two seasons), LeBlanc has an athletic body (6-foot-2, 182 pounds), a sweet lefthanded swing and good speed.
• Notre Dame righthander Grant Johnson presents an interesting conundrum. A redshirt sophomore who had shoulder surgery in December 2002, he has shown signs that his arm strength is back by flashing some 92-94 mph fastballs. However, his redshirt season gives him the leverage to return to Notre Dame next year as a junior, and he's a strong student. Johnson is 2-0, 2.36 in 27 innings and has just started to throw breaking balls again.
• Virginia's strength lies in its deep college class, but Greensville County High (Emporia) outfielder Jamar Walton has been rising quickly, moving into the top 10 rounds. Scouts like his overall athletic ability--he was the two-time state player of the year in basketball and twice all-state in football—though he remains raw on the diamond. Walton is a plus runner with a good arm, and his bat shows some life.
• Mark Rogers entered the year as one of the top prep arms in the country, and the righthander has dominated the competition in his native Maine. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Mount Ararat High (Orr's Island) ace started the season with a four-inning outing in which he recorded every out by strikeout, then had back-to-back 20-strikeout efforts in seven-inning games. He then fanned 16 in a 5 2/3-inning relief outing. Just three of his 71 outs over that span weren't strikeouts. He was 3-0 and had yet to yield a run.