Prospecting In the Southeast

ATHENS, Ga.—Five games, four days, three nights on a couch and two premier college conferences all in one weekend. At this time of year, with a month to go until the draft, so is the life of a major league scout (substitute the couch for a queen size bed in a Courtyard Marriott), and in an attempt to get a better grip on some players in the Southeast, I hit the road as well.

The first three games featured a Southeastern Conference showdown as Georgia hosted Mississippi at Foley Field. Five of the six starting pitchers that took the mound in the series are draft eligible and expected to be drafted in the top 10 rounds come June. However, the top two pitchers in the park were the closers from each respective school—Georgia’s Joshua Fields and Mississippi’s Scott Bittle–both potential first-rounders.

Also on display were Georgia shortstop and top 10 overall prospect Gordon Beckham, and top 200 player Mississippi third baseman Cody Overbeck.

On Sunday, after Georgia wrapped up a 2-1 series victory over the Rebels at just past 5 p.m., I hopped in my car and headed to Clemson, South Carolina to catch the second game of an ACC series between the Tigers and Florida State, beginning at 7 p.m. Florida State’s starter on the mound was Elih Villanueva who has continued to increase his draft stock into the top 10 rounds with solid outings over the past month.

To top it all off, fixated behind the plate in both games for the Seminoles was potential No. 1overall pick Buster Posey. That’s a total of nine pitchers and three position players–all eligible for this year’s draft—containing impact draft status. Here’s what I saw and my pref list from the weekend:

• There is no question that even among all the pitchers I saw this weekend, the top two prospects for the upcoming draft were the two position players Beckham and Posey. Both play premium positions and are considered top 10 overall talents with potential to go in the top five. The question of Posey vs. Beckham is an interesting one because a strong case can be made for either, and in choosing between the two a team’s draft philosophy or need will be exposed.

Catcher and shortstop are the two most sought-after positions for everyday players, and both of these guys are good enough defensively to stay there into the major league level. However, Posey is the better defender. Behind the plate he is a quiet receiver with a natural athleticism that makes it seem as if he has been catching his whole life (when in reality this is his second year behind the dish). He receives, transfers and throws with good mechanics and is very accurate with plus arm strength.

Beckham has the athleticism and instincts of Posey but not quite the hands or arm strength. While I saw him make two spectacular backhanded plays, I also saw him field routine balls deeper into his body than desired, displaying a hint of unsure hands. The thing that did stand out about him was his ability to make the tough athletic plays, such as ranging deep in the whole or charging a ball behind the mound, look easy. It was obvious that his instincts and athleticism took over in those instances.

As far as at the plate, it’s the other way around. Both are above-average hitters and are the probable leaders among position players for the College Player of the Year award. However, Beckham has an edge over Posey and it starts in his wrists. The first thing I noticed about Beckham at the plate was a slight hand-dropping loop in his load, but I quickly forgot about that when I saw his hands were in position to hit and the way his strong wrists allow his bat to explode through the ball at contact. He had two hits on the weekend, both of them home runs (he now has a nation-leading 22 on the season), but he made solid contact in eight of his 11 at-bats. I saw him chase two pitches, both curveballs in the dirt, all weekend and he rarely swung and missed. He seems like a guy who will consistently square balls up, hitting for average and plus power into the major leagues.

Posey is similar in that he is strong with bat speed and consistently makes good contact, but his bat is not as explosive as Beckham’s. His approach trails Beckham’s as well, as on occasion he will come out of balance to lunge at an outside pitch. He doesn’t strike out much, but he doesn’t square the ball up with the explosion that Beckham displayed. Posey has the ability to be a slightly above-average hitter with average power.

Both players seem to have great makeup and play the game hard—Beckham nearly sprints around the bases following a home run. With these two, it comes down to which is preferred more, catcher or shortstop, plus fielding at a premium position or plus hitting.

If a team needs a solid catcher that can defend at the position for years to come while providing proficient offense as well, Posey is the choice. A team that wants a can’t-miss impact bat in a player that should be playable at shortstop would take Beckham. Rumors are circling that Posey is in serious contention for the No. 1 overall pick, and both Rays scouting director R.J. Harrison and Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman were in Clemson bearing down on him. However, if Posey isn’t the Rays’ selection, it is probable that he will slide past the fourth slot, as the Orioles are rumored to prefer Beckham.

• Moving from the field to the mound, the next two guys from the weekend that should be selected in the draft just happen to be two of the top closers in college baseball. Fields and Bittle have similar numbers—dominating hitters, striking out almost two an inning and almost never allowing a runner past second base—but go about their business in different ways.

Fields is somewhat of a freak of nature similar to a righthanded Billy Wagner. Listed at 6-foot, 180 pounds, he is not blessed with an imposing figure but is blessed with imposing stuff. His fastball reaches 97 mph and his downer curveball comes in hard around 81. When he’s locating, those two pitches are nearly unhittable as they have a combination of late life and downward plane.

However, the issue with Fields is command. After watching his delivery—one in which he tilts his shoulders back in attempt to gain leverage going forward—Fields has instances of inconsistencies in not finishing his pitches. Often, that results in fastballs and curveballs left up and out of the zone.

Coming into the weekend, Fields had yet to surrender an earned run on the season. He pitched a scoreless ninth to lock up his 13th save of the season on Friday and with the score tilted 11-2 in the Bulldogs’ favor on Sunday, Fields pitched the ninth inning in a non-save situation. In the inning, Fields flashed both ends of his spectrum. The first hitter walked on four straight pitches: 97, 95, 96, 94  mph, all high and well out of the zone. The next at-bat was completely opposite: 96 strike, 81 curveball strike, 96 ball, 79—the best curveball I’ve seen this year—for strike three. Fields would go on to allow two runs in the inning, one of which was earned, giving up one hit and one more walk. On the season, Fields has 24.1 innings pitched, 44 strikeouts, 14 walks and now one earned run allowed.

Bittle made his only appearance of the weekend on Saturday, pitching the final eight outs of the game for the Rebels, striking out six and earning the win. His repertoire is founded on a mid-80s late-breaking cut fastball that he is able to command at the knees repeatedly. Pitching backwards, Bittle throws this pitch almost 80 percent of the time, and in the location that he is able to consistently command it, hitters swing and miss a lot. Bittle also offers a 91 mph fastball that he uses sparingly to keep hitters honest and a split-finger changeup. The split is his surprise strikeout pitch as he may have thrown it four times, gaining a backwards K in three of those instances. All three of Bittle’s pitches are plus pitches when you mix in his plus command and pitchability.

In deciding between Fields and Bittle, you’re either choosing the big arm and lightning stuff with questionable command and delivery issues or a guy with lesser velocity and knockout stuff but has superior command and pitchability. If you put them side-by-side on their best day, Fields would put hitters away with more ease than Bittle, but neither would allow a baserunner. Both are top 50 picks come June with Fields the industry favorite. However, with every outing Bittle is closing the gap.

• The other six pitchers I saw over the weekend were starters, and for five of them the most striking feature was their similarity. Mississippi’s Lance Lynn, Florida State’s Elih Villanueva, and Georgia’s Trevor Holder, Nathan Moreau and Stephen Dodson were all eerily similar, pitching around 90 with below average secondary stuff. However, Lynn, Villanueva and Holder rank ahead of the rest because of command and pitchability.

The final prospect to mention is Ole Miss righty CodySatterwhite. He may have the best raw stuff of any of the players mentioned, including Fields, but remains inconsistent with command and lacks pitchability. Right now, Satterwhite is the Rebels’ Sunday starter but he may be more suited for the bullpen at the professional level. His fastball touched 96 more than once and he flashed remnants of an above-average changeup, curveball and slider. The problem is, he leaves balls up in the zone, his four-seam fastball is straight and his secondary stuff is hit or miss—often missing. In drafting Satterwhite, teams will be drafting  pure stuff and hoping he can harness it in the future. Draftwise, he probably fits in behind Lynn and in front of Villanueva. (For more on Lynn and Satterwhite, subscribers can read Aaron Fitt’s feature here.)

Being on the road was fun, now it’s time to work. Our draft preview is an issue away.