Players have reported to big league spring training camps, but even better, we have real games to get excited about. The NCAA Division I college season officially started on Friday, and the four leading candidates to go No. 1 overall in the 2011 draft all were in action. Here's how they fared:
•Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon collected just three singles in 12 plate appearances as the Owls lost two of three games against Stanford. That might turn out to be the quietest weekend of the season for the closest thing to Evan Longoria since Longoria.
•UCLA righthander Gerrit Cole showed why he's at the forefront of a deep crop of college pitchers. He pitched the first nine-inning complete game of his career to beat San Francisco 1-0, allowing four hits and one walk while striking out 11. He needed just 104 pitches.
•Because Texas Christian lefty Matt Purke didn't pitch in the summer or fall after working 116 innings as a freshman last spring, the Horned Frogs kept him on a tight pitch count against Kansas. He needed just 56 pitches to work four scoreless innings, improving his career record to 17-0. Purke permitted one hit and one walk while fanning three.
•Connecticut outfielder George Springer, the best college athlete in the draft, had a rough time as the Huskies went 1-2 at the Big East/Big Ten Challenge. In 15 plate appearances, he had two singles, two walks and a sacrifice fly.
Each Monday, the good folks at collegesplits.com will provide a statistical recap of what the draft's best college prospects did over the previous weekend. The first edition is up now at our Draft Blog.
We'll unveil our 2011 Top 100 Prospects online on Wednesday, and I'll give you a sneak preview and let you know that Belt will rank No. 23 on the list. No prospect boosted his stock more last year than Belt, a 2009 fifth-rounder who took off after making some adjustments to his stance. In his pro debut, he reached Triple-A, led the minors in hitting and OPS and batted .352/.455/.620 overall.
Which players who didn't make out 2011 Top 100 could rise the highest on our 2012 list? Here are my top half-dozen candidates:
1. Yasmani Grandal, c, Reds: The minor league catching pool isn't very deep right now, and Grandal could rise near the top of that group after he plays his first full pro season. The 12th overall pick in the 2010 draft, Grandal has the potential to be a .275 hitter with 20 homers and solid defense.
2. Alex Torres, lhp, Rays: The best player in the Scott Kazmir trade with the Angels in August 2009, Torres is the most unsung player in the deep Rays system. His best weapon is a lively low-90s fastball, and his curveball and changeup are plus pitches at times. He led the Double-A Southern League with 150 strikeouts in 143 innings last year as a 22-year-old.
3. Chad James, lhp, Marlins: The 2009 first-rounder took his lumps in his pro debut last year, going 5-10, 5.12 at low Class A Greensboro. However, he was just 19 and he consistently showed a 91-95 mph fastball. He also has a power breaking ball and flashes a plus changeup, and he'll move quickly once he gets more consistent with his delivery and command.
4. Josh Vitters, 3b, Cubs: On one hand, he hasn't had a breakout year in the minors and hit just .223/.292/.383 in Double-A last year. On the other, his bat got him drafted him third overall in 2007, he didn't turn 21 until last August and injuries have marred two of his three full pro seasons. The Cubs have noted a greater sense of urgency in Vitters this offseason and think he's on the verge of breakout. If it doesn't happen, then it's time to wonder if he's ever going to live up to his $3.2 million bonus.
5. Yorman Rodriguez, of, Reds: He's an 18-year-old with above-average raw power and speed, and he looks like a scouting blueprint for a right fielder. He batted .339/.361/.456 last year as the youngest regular in the Rookie-level Pioneer League, and he'll make his full-season debut in 2011 at low Class A Dayton.
6. Robbie Erlin, lhp, Rangers: He's just 6 feet and 175 pounds, and he usually works around 89-91 mph with his fastball. But if he keeps showing plus secondary stuff and outstanding command, and if he continues to pitch like he did in 2010, when he led the low Class A South Atlantic League in ERA (2.12) and K-BB ratio (7.4), he'll move up the charts.
Signability, or lack thereof, usually doesn't become apparent until a month or two before the draft. The one player who jumps out as a tough sign at this point is JSerra High (San Juan Capistrano, Calif.) catcher Austin Hedges, whom we rated No. 36 on our Top 50 Prospects list in our Early Draft Preview. Hedges is committed to UCLA, and as one scouting director says, "They've told people he's unsignable, and he may not get much play from teams at all." Hedges will be advised by the Boras Corp., which isn't afraid of having top high school prospects attend college rather than turn pro.
The second-toughest sign on the Top 50 may be New Trier High (Winnetka, Ill.) outfielder Charlie Tilson, who told area scouts last year that he was dead-set on attending Illinois. Tilson raised his profile significantly with a breakout performance at the Area Code Games, and a potential seven-figure bonus could change his mind. Ranked No. 42 on our list, he has yet to align himself with an advisor.
Our top two high school prospects, Broken Arrow (Okla.) High righthander Archie Bradley (No. 9) and Gardner-Edgerton High (Gardner, Kan.) outfielder Bubba Starling (No. 10), are quarterback recruits ticketed for Oklahoma and Nebraska. But the consensus is that while their football scholarships will give them extra leverage, both will wind up signing professional baseball contracts this summer.
Texas Christian lefthander Matt Purke, No. 3 on the Top 50, is in a potentially interesting situation. He agreed to a $6 million deal with the Rangers out of high school in 2009, only to have MLB kill it. I can't imagine that Purke feels he's worth any less after leading the Horned Frogs to their first-ever College World Series appearance and winning the first 17 decision of his college career, and his status as a draft-eligible sophomore gives him more leverage than most collegians. However, with the possibility of mandated bonuses for each draft slot coming into play with a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, it's unlikely he'd risk re-entering the 2012 draft.
Related to this subject, I usually get asked which players the Boras Corp. will be advising in the draft. Known Boras advisees include Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon (No. 1 on the Top 50), UCLA righthander Gerrit Cole (No. 2), South Carolina outfielder Jackie Bradley (No. 7), Starling, Searcy (Ark.) High righty Dillon Howard (No. 20), Jesuit College Prep (Dallas) outfielder Josh Bell (No. 21), Vanderbilt shortstop Jason Esposito (No. 26), Miami Dade outfielder Brian Goodwin (No. 28), Kentucky righty Alex Meyer (No. 34), Hedges, Georgia outfielder Zach Cone (No. 50), Stanford lefty Brett Mooneyham, Arizona State first baseman Zach Wilson and Cal State Fullerton righty Noe Ramirez.
Editor's note: We initially included Southern California first baseman Ricky Oropesa on the list of Boras Corp. advisees, but that isn't official.
It's close, but I'd give Yelich the slightest of advantages. And that's exactly what I did when I put together my personal Top 150 list as part of our Top 100 Prospects process. I ranked Yelich 138th and Lipka 140th. Yelich also came out ahead in our Top 200 Draft Prospects last May, checking in at No. 52 while Lipka was No. 76, and in the draft, going 23rd overall while Lipka went 35th.
Yelich has a chance to have a special bat, and that's what makes the difference for me. His lefthanded swing has drawn comparisons to Will Clark's, and he should hit for a high average with solid power. Though he was a first baseman in high school, he runs well enough to play the outfield and Florida will try him in center field this season. He fits better on a corner, though he'll have to improve his arm strength.
If Lipka were a lock to stay at shortstop, I'd take him over Yelich. Some scouts wonder if Lipka has the hands to stay there, though his arm and instincts aren't in question. His fallback position is center field. He's a quality athlete with well above-average speed, and his bat speed, hitting ability and quickness should allow him to hit for high averages with some gap power.