Only three of the football players with baseball connections whom I spotlighted in my last column got selected in the NFL draft over the weekend. The Dolphins took West Virginia quarterback Patrick White (a three-time draftee in baseball) in the second round. With back-to-back picks in the fifth round, the Giants grabbed Sam Houston State quarterback Rhett Bomar (a standout on the diamond as a Texas high schooler) and the Texans chose Rice tight end James Casey (who pitched three seasons in the White Sox system).
Raley is the best two-way prospect in the 2010 draft, ranking ahead of Plant HS (Tampa) righthander/shortstop Mychal Givens, California righthander/outfielder Blake Smith and Texas HS (Texarkana, Texas) outfielder/lefthander Slade Heathcott. I'm counting only players with a legitimate shot to get drafted either way. Mike Leake, who ranked No. 13 on our midseason Top 50 list , has played a variety of positions at Arizona State but will get drafted strictly as a righthanded pitcher.
Raley projects as a late-first-round or sandwich pick as a lefthander, and as a second- or third-rounder as an outfielder. He has starred in both roles while leading Texas A&M to first place in the Big 12 Conference. He's 7-1, 1.92 with 75 strikeouts in 71 innings as the Aggies' Friday-night starter, and he's batting .326/.455/.458 with 21 steals as their No. 2 hitter.
On the mound, Raley shows three solid pitches (an 88-93 mph fastball, along with a slider and a changeup) to go with fine command and a clean delivery. Though he has slumped at the plate in the second half of the season, he offers plus-plus speed, a good eye and gap power as a hitter, as well as above-average range and arm strength in the outfield. He plays the outfield corners for Texas A&M, in part to reduce the physical burden of playing both ways, but definitely is capable of playing center field as a pro.
Upton is more notable for his arm than his range in center field, so when Jennings is ready, he should take over with Upton shifting to right field. How soon Jennings will be ready to do that depends on whether he can stay healthy after totaling just 123 games in his first two full pro seasons with knee, back and shoulder injuries.
So far, so good, as Jennings has hit .333/.387/.594 with two homers and six steals in 17 games at Double-A Montgomery. If he keeps that up, he could challenge for a spot in Tampa Bay's 2010 lineup. Upton had spent time on the disabled list in each of the last two seasons, and if he does so again in the second half of this season, Jennings would be his logical replacement.
An all-American wide receiver at Itawamba (Miss.) JC, Jennings has shown surprising polish for a two-sport star signed out of a junior college. He recognizes pitches and controls the strike zone well, allowing to take advantage of his explosive speed on the basepaths. Though he possesses gap power, he understands his role as a table-setter, and he's a quality defender with a respectable arm.
Philip Humber, Jeff Niemann and Wade Townsend led Rice to the 2003 College World Series championship, then went off the board in the first eight picks in the 2004 draft. The Mets selected Humber at No. 3 and gave him a major league deal worth $4.2 million, and Niemann went one pick later to the Rays and signed a big league contract with a guarantee of $5.2 million. Townsend couldn't come to terms with the Orioles as the No. 8 choice, but went in the same slot to Tampa Bay a year later and signed for $1.5 million.
The Owls have had six pitchers drafted in the first round this decade, and five have had elbow or shoulder surgery in college or early in their pro career—including Humber, Niemann and Townsend. None of them project as frontline pitchers any longer.
Humber's fastball and curveball haven't been the same since he had Tommy John surgery midway through his first pro season in 2005. Traded to the Twins as part of the Johan Santana deal in January 2008, Humber has been unable to stick with Minnesota. He made the Opening Day roster this April, in part because he was out of options, but there weren't any takers when the Twins designated him for assignment. Humber currently is pitching in Triple-A Rochester.
Niemann likely would have been the No. 1 overall pick in 2004 had he been fully healthy, but he had arthroscopic elbow surgery the previous fall and battled a groin problem throughout the spring. He hasn't consistently shown the same stuff he did while tying an NCAA Division I record by going 17-0 in 2003, and he required a minor shoulder operation in 2006. Niemann is Tampa Bay's No. 5 starter—like Humber, he was helped by the fact that he was out of options—and has gone 1-2, 5.40 in three outings, but he's just keeping that spot warm until the Rays recall David Price or Wade Davis.
After making his pro debut in 2005, Townsend blew out his elbow in the Arizona Fall League and required Tommy John surgery. He missed all of 2006 and continued to have elbow problems in 2007-08, and he'll be sidelined for all of 2009 following a shoulder operation last November.