The NCAA Division I college baseball season begins on Friday, kicking off with several tantalizing matchups. I asked BA college guru Aaron Fitt which three series he'd attend if he had a private jet at his disposal, and these were his picks:
No. 10 Vanderbilt at No. 2 Stanford: This series features the potential top pick in the 2012 draft (Cardinal righthander Mark Appel) and the frontrunner to go No. 1 in 2014 (Commodores righty Tyler Beede). Stanford also has two more potential 2012 first-rounders in infielders Stephen Piscotty and Kenny Diekroeger.
No. 25 Cal State Fullerton at No. 1 Florida: The Titans' reconfigured weekend rotation will have its hands full with a Gators team that placed five hitters on our preseason All-America teams. Florida has a pair of possible top-10 selections in catcher Michael Zunino and lefthander/DH Brian Johnson.
No. 22 Mississippi at No. 15 Texas Christian: The Rebels' two best prospects, sophomore righthander Bobby Wahl and freshman outfielder Senquez Golson, are still works in progress. The Horned Frogs are led by junior catcher Josh Elander and sophomore Andrew Mitchell, who starred with Team USA last summer.
Of course, Aaron doesn't have a private jet at his disposal, so he'll check out No. 19 Oklahoma at Pepperdine and Jacksonville at Southern California this weekend. He and John Manuel quarterbacked our in-depth Season Preview, which is indexed here.
Though the deal won't become official until he passes a physical, Cespedes agreed today to a four-year, $36 million contract with the Athletics. If we revised our Oakland Top 10, he'd rank No. 1 ahead of righthander Jarrod Parker. We have yet to discuss where exactly Cespedes will fit on our overall Top 100 Prospects list—which will appear online Feb. 21—though I suspect he'll wind up just outside of the top 10.
Cespedes, 26, is a physically imposing 5-foot-11, 215-pounder who sticks out most with his bat speed and raw power potential. He's also a plus runner once he gets going, though he projects better in right field than in center. (Ben Badler wrote an expansive Cespedes scouting report back in November.)
The biggest question with Cespedes is how quickly and how well his bat will translate to the big leagues. Thirty-five at-bats in the Dominican Winter League playoffs are a small sample size, but he struggled with pitch recognition and put up a .143/.167/.257 line that included no walks and 10 strikeouts. He'll likely need some time to adjust against consistently better pitching than he faced in Cuba.
Cespedes' contract allows him to become a free agent once it expires, rather than making him wait to accrue the normal six years of big league service time.
Though the Cubs gave Concepcion a $7 million major league contract, he projects more as a No. 4 starter than as a front-of-the-rotation option. The 19-year-old stands out more with his advanced feel for pitching than he does for his pure stuff. His fastball ranges from 86-92 mph and his curveball ranges from inconsistent to solid. "If everything works out," one scout said, "maybe he becomes Randy Wolf."
In the BA Grade system we introduced in the 2012 Prospect Handbook, Concepcion merits a 50/High. I'd put him at No. 19 on a revised Cubs Top 30, between outfielders Reggie Golden and Jae-Hoon Ha, and he's not a Top 100-caliber prospect.
The fact that Johnson isn't at an NCAA Division I program shouldn't work against him in the draft. Even at the Division I level, the quality of competition can vary widely. Johnson proved himself last summer in the California Collegiate League, where he worked consistently at 94-96 mph with his fastball and peaked in the upper 90s as a reliever.
After starting for his first two seasons at St. Edward's, Johnson will move into the closer's role this spring. He has good size (6-foot-4, 205 pounds) to go with his fastball, and if he can refine a breaking ball and his delivery, he could go as high as the sandwich round in June.
In the past five drafts, nine small college players have been selected in the first three rounds, including first-rounders Hayden Simpson (Southern Arkansas, 2010) and Beau Mills (Lewis-Clark State, Idaho, 2007). The highest-drafted small college player last June was Mariners supplemental third-rounder Carter Capps from Mount Olive (N.C.).