The NCAA Division I season starts on Friday. Here are the four best prospect matchups to watch:
•The best pairing of teams sends No. 13 Stanford to No. 18 Rice for a three-game series. They won't directly compete against each other, but Owls third baseman Anthony Rendon is the leading candidate to go No. 1 overall in the 2011 draft and Stanford shortstop Kenny Diekroeger is on the short list to be the top pick in 2012.
•Hawaii second baseman Kolten Wong vs. Oregon lefthander Tyler Anderson. Both starred last summer, with Wong winning MVP honors in the Cape Cod League and Anderson twirling 16 scoreless innings for Team USA.
•Southern California righthander Austin Wood vs. North Carolina shortstop Levi Michael. If the Trojans decide to use Wood in the Saturday game of their weekend tournament, scouts will see a live arm capable of hitting 99 mph facing college baseball's top draft-eligible shortstop.
•Georgia Tech lefthander Jed Bradley vs. Kent State lefty Andrew Chafin. If both teams go with their best arm in the season opener, they'll send a pitcher one American League scouting director said he'd take over any other in this draft (Bradley) vs. one who threw 95 mph this fall after coming back from Tommy John surgery (Chafin).
There's no question that the draft crop is stronger this year than it was in 2010. Using the 20-80 scouting scale to rate the talent pools, 2010 would get a 40-45 and 2011 would get a 60-65. No matter how you slice it—college or high school, hitters or pitchers, various combinations thereof—this year's draft is stronger.
In 2010, Bryce Harper, Jameson Taillon and Manny Machado were clearly the best three prospects available. They're also the only three players from a year ago who would be definite top-10 choices this June. Chris Sale and Drew Pomeranz are the only 2010 draftees who'd be locks to go in the top half of 2011's first round, which will last 33 picks.
Thirteen 2010 draft picks made our 2011 Top 100 Prospects list, which we'll unveil online Feb. 23. It's fair to say that all of them would be 2011 first-rounders based on what we know now, but three of them didn't go in the first round. (I'll let you guess which ones; I'm giving away no Top 100 secrets!) Perhaps one or two more would have gone in the first round on talent, but if we combined the two talent pools, the 2011 players would account for 18-20 of the top 33 selections.
The clear standout at shortstop in the 2011 draft is Montverde (Fla.) Academy's Francisco Lindor, who's not quite in Machado's class but isn't far off either. Lindor has five-tool potential and won the home run derby at the 2010 Aflac All-American Baseball Classic.
In an odd twist, there are more standout second-base prospects than shortstop prospects in college baseball this year. The best college shortstops are Stanford's Kenny Diekroeger and Arizona State's Deven Marrero, sophomores who won't be eligible until 2012. The best 2011-eligible college shortstop is North Carolina's Levi Michael, who has to prove himself at the position after starting at second and third base in his first two college seasons. Michael has the chance to be a solid all-around shortstop, but he's not going to make a large impact with his bat at the major league level.
Lindor and Michael are the only shortstops on our overall Top 50 Prospects list in our Early Draft Preview, so don't expect a huge influx of shortstop talent from the draft.
Russell, who plays at Pace (Fla.) High, still looks like an early first-rounder for 2012 and likely would a first-round pick in 2011 if he were eligible as a junior. He has five-tool potential, too.
The last time our top two preseason position prospects came from four-year colleges was just two years ago, when Southern California shortstop Grant Green and North Carolina first baseman Dustin Ackley ranked second and fourth overall. Both struck it rich in the draft, with Ackley signing a $7.5 million big league contract as the No. 2 overall pick by the Mariners and Green getting a $2.75 million bonus as the 13th overall choice by the Athletics. Both ranked as the No. 1 prospect in their organization in the 2011 Prospect Handbook.
Looking at this from a different perspective, the last time the two best position prospects in our final predraft rankings were collegians was in 2006, with Long Beach State third baseman Evan Longoria (No. 4) and Texas center fielder Drew Stubbs (No. 11). The Rays drafted Longoria with the third overall pick and the Reds grabbed Stubbs with the eight overall selection, and both clubs have been delighted with their choices.
Longoria and Stubbs were also the last pair of college products to be the first two position players taken, something that has happened only seven times in 46 drafts. The other combos: B.J. Surhoff (No. 1, Brewers) and Will Clark (No. 2, Giants) in 1985; Jeff King (No. 1, Pirates) and Matt Williams (No. 3, Giants) in 1986; Mike Kelly (No. 2, Braves) and Dave McCarty (No. 3, Twins) in 1991; Phil Nevin (No. 1, Astros) and Jeffrey Hammonds (No. 4, Orioles) in 1992; Travis Lee (No. 2, Twins) and Chad Green (No. 8, Brewers) in 1996; and J.D. Drew (No. 2, Phillies) and Troy Glaus (No. 3, Angels) in 1997.