Northern Iowa may not have a baseball team, but it does have a baseball prospect. And if you watched the Panthers' upset of top-seeded Kansas in the NCAA basketball tournament, you saw him in action.
Forward Lucas O'Rear, who contributed three points, five rebounds and two steals in 17 minutes against the Jayhawks, also doubled as a pitcher until Northern Iowa dropped baseball following the 2009 season. He focused on basketball in his first year with the Panthers, then posted a 4.67 ERA and 15 strikeouts in 17 innings last spring.
O'Rear drew interest from baseball scouts at Nashville (Ill.) High, but they had no chance to divert him from playing basketball. He's a 6-foot-6, 255-pound righthander who throws an 89-93 mph fastball with little effort and also flashes a low-80s slider. Though he has been named the Missouri Valley Conference's sixth man of the year for two seasons running, his chances at a professional career are better in baseball than in basketball. But it's unclear if he'll pitch again and unlikely that he'll give up his senior season of basketball.
The 2011 draft is easily the strongest of the three. The 2010 crop is short on position players, while none of the 2012 prospects has scouts raving yet. I'm wary of the high schoolers from future years, because often the top-ranked sophomores and juniors don't turn out to be the most coveted members of their senior class when their draft rolls around.
With all that in mind, here's the 2010-12 Top 10, which consists of five players each from 2010 and 2011. Separating the pitchers fourth through eighth on my list was almost as difficult as it would be to hit them.
1. Bryce Harper, c, CC of Southern Nevada (2010)
Massive power and the chance to play a premium position.
2. Anthony Rendon, 3b, Rice (2011)
At worst, he'd be the second pick this June if he were eligible.
3. Gerrit Cole, rhp, UCLA (2011)
Has dramatically improved his command of college baseball's best pure stuff.
4. Taylor Jungmann, rhp, Texas (2011)
Leads NCAA Division I with 51 strikeouts in 36 innings, including 17 K's vs. Iowa.
5. Jameson Taillon, rhp, The Woodlands (Texas) HS (2010)
His stuff is comparable to Cole's, though he has been inconsistent recently.
6. Drew Pomeranz, lhp, Mississippi (2010)
Low-90s fastball and nasty curve have made him as dominant as any pitcher this spring.
7. Matt Purke, lhp, Texas Christian (2011)
The 14th overall pick in 2010 by the Rangers, he'll be a sophomore-eligible next year.
8. Deck McGuire, rhp, Georgia Tech (2010)
Flashes three potential out pitches, and hitters never seem to square him up.
9. Daniel Norris, lhp, Science Hill HS, Johnson City, Tenn. (2011)
Similar to Pomeranz with his velocity, curve and Tennessee roots.
10. Anthony Ranaudo, rhp, Lousiana State (2010)
Ranked right behind Harper for 2010 before missing last four starts with elbow issues.
If an injury shouldn't affect a player's long-term prognosis, then scouts don't get too concerned. Obviously, they prefer healthy players, but there's not much stigma attached to Tommy John surgery because there have been so many successful comebacks from elbow reconstruction.
In last year's draft, for example, the Rays gave fourth-round catcher Luke Bailey $750,000 and the Orioles paid 22nd-round lefthander Cameron Coffey $990,000 even though both players had Tommy John surgery in the spring. The only comparable previous deal for a player coming off a similar operation was the $710,000 the Angels gave 14th-round righthander Nick Adenhart in 2004. Adenhart won a spot in Los Angeles' Opening Day rotation a year ago before he was killed in an automobile accident.
Sports medicine has advanced so much that torn ACLs aren't anything close to the kiss of death they once were. Reconstructive knee surgery would be more of a concern for a speedster, but that isn't Cecchini's game. He's an average runner who projected to move to third base before he got hurt. His strengths are his fluid lefthanded swing, his power potential and his arm strength, none of which should be affected by his knee injury.
Cecchini is committed to Louisiana State and would be draft-eligible as a 21-year-old sophomore in 2012. He projected as a borderline first-round pick before he got hurt, and a team that loves his offensive potential could meet his asking price despite the fact that he won't be 100 percent before the Aug. 16 signing deadline.
As for pure shortstops, they aren't in abundance in the 2010 draft. The best is Brito High's (Miami) Manny Machado. The top college shortstop prospects, Cal State Fullerton's Christian Colon and Rice's Rick Hague, aren't locks to play the position in the major leagues.
I went straight to Aaron Fitt, our college maven, for the answer to this question. (Junior college players aren't eligible for the award, so that rules out Harper.) The first player who jumped to mind for Aaron was Purke. The fastball-slider combo that made Purke a first-round pick a year ago has enabled him to make an easy transition to college ball. He has gone 3-0, 3.14 in five starts for No. 5-ranked Texas Christian, with a 33-5 K-BB ratio in 29 innings, and will be in the mix to go No. 1 overall as a sophomore-eligible in 2011.
After Purke, Aaron's next two candidates are Stanford third baseman Kenny Diekroeger and Florida DH/first baseman Austin Maddox. Diekroeger was the second-highest selected high school player in the 2009 draft who turned down pro ball to attend a four-year college (second round, Rays). He's hitting .378/.442/.622 with two homers and 12 RBIs in 14 games, leading the No. 19-ranked Cardinal in all the triple-crown categories.
Maddox entered 2009 as a potential first-rounder, but he slumped and dropped all the way to the 37th round, where Tampa Bay drafted him. He has bounced back to become the biggest power threat for No. 2 Florida, hitting .367/.391/.671 with six homers and 27 RBIs in 19 games.