The Usual Suspects Stand Out In Early Signing Period

See also: Top 100 high school prospects with college commitments

College baseball’s weeklong early signing period ended Wednesday, and the list of big winners has a familiar look to it. Another year, another sterling recruiting class for Florida, UCLA, Louisiana State and Vanderbilt. Ho, hum.

Those schools have become annual fixtures near the top of the recruiting rankings over the last half-decade, and they seem destined to factor heavily into the 2011 recruiting rankings as well, once the dust from next year’s draft settles and some of the players who committed this week actually set foot on campus.

Texas has been a recruiting juggernaut since Baseball America’s recruiting class rankings began in 2000—the Longhorns have had nine classes that ranked among the nation’s top 12 in that time. They topped the rankings in 2004, and they look poised to make a run at their second recruiting crown in 2011. The Longhorns were the biggest winner of all from the early signing period, inking eight members of Baseball America’s Top 100 high school prospects, including three of the top 10.

Texas knows there is a strong risk that righthander Dylan Bundy (No. 5 on the Top 100), outfielder Josh Bell (No.6) and catcher Blake Swihart (No. 8) could be premium draft picks who sign for big money. But the ‘Horns also know there is a chance they could get lucky with one or more of them. After all, over the last three years, 10 players who ranked in the top 10 on this list wound up at school the following fall.

Baseball America does not rank recruiting classes during the early signing period because only about half of the Top 100 typically set foot on college campuses the following fall. Many coaches expressed frustration this year that professional teams were even more aggressive in signing the top high school players than usual, perhaps because a new collective bargaining agreement after the 2011 season threatens to implement a strict slotting system that would drive more top talents to college.

It turns out, there might be some legitimacy to those concerns from coaches. Of last year’s Top 100, just 40 showed up on college campuses this fall (including three who wound up at junior colleges after originally committing to four-year schools). Over the previous four years, an average of 50.25 players from the Top 100 made it to school.

“They’re not safe anymore no matter where they get drafted, that’s my biggest gripe,” Perno said. “I think a lot has to do with trying to get it done before this collective bargaining.”

It’s worth noting, however, than an unusually high percentage of truly elite players wound up at school this fall. Four of last year’s top 10 arrived on campuses (No. 2 Karsten Whitson, No. 6 Dylan Covey, No. 7 Kevin Gausman and No. 9 Austin Wilson), and eight of the top 20 made it through the draft. Both those numbers are double the previous year’s, and higher than any year in the last five.

Private schools typically have better luck getting their top recruits to school (and indeed, No. 1 class Stanford landed all four of its Top 100 recruits, including three of the top 30). But of the eight players who ranked in the top 20 last year and wound up at school, five went to public schools. Overall, disregarding the seven players who were uncommitted at the end of the early signing period last fall as well as one football player dealing with disciplinary issues, public schools landed 38 percent of their Top 100 recruits—not too far behind the 44 percent mark for private schools.

“We’re excited but we’re cautious, as you have to be,” Texas recruiting coordinator Tommy Harmon said. “One of the things in our total process that we look at is guys that we think are potentially high draft picks but also have a big interest in getting their education . . . Bell’s a corner outfielder who could blossom into a big-time power guy, and those guys don’t come along that often. His family is very into education, his mother’s a professor at UT Arlington, his father is very educated, and going to school is very important to them. That’s one of the things that makes him such a good fit for us. The guys like (Taylor) Jungmann or (Jordan) Danks or (Kyle) Russell, those guys come along that want to go to school. It comes down to if somebody’s going to give them life-changing money or not.”

Swihart’s greatest attribute is his ability to consistently square balls up, according to Harmon. He also has a strong arm and excellent feel for the game. Bundy has one of the biggest arms in the high school class of 2011, capable of generating 93-96 mph fastballs and power breaking balls, Harmon said.

But the reason Texas’ class stands out is because of its depth and balance. Even if Texas loses its top three recruits to the draft, it has a stellar security blanket. Harmon said righthanders John Curtiss (No. 41) and Parker French (No. 94) plus lefty Dillon Peters (78) are all exceptional students, which means they give Texas a strong chance to reload its stable of premium arms. Curtiss and fellow righty Ricardo Jacquez (61) both have power arms with huge upside, while Peters and French have less present velocity but more polish, with the ability to command the strike zone with two or three pitches.

Then there’s third baseman Matthew Dean (60), a big thumper who resembles Troy Glaus, according to Harmon. Add in lefthanded hitting machine Brooks Marlow, athletic outfielder Collin Shaw and strike-throwing lefty Toller Boardman, and Texas has the makings of a deep, versatile class with a nice mixture of arms, bats and athleticism.

“It was just a total effort from everyone on our staff, and it kind of just came together for us,” Harmon said. “As long as I’ve been in it, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But right now you’ve got to be happy about it.”

Georgia Reloads

Two years ago, Georgia coach David Perno had his team a win away from the national championship. His Bulldogs reached the College World Series in 2004, ’06 and ’08, and they reached back-to-back regionals in 2008-09 for just the second time in school history.

Still, after a spate of injuries and a pitching implosion caused the Bulldogs to go 16-37 (5-23 in the Southeastern Conference) in 2010, Perno is aware of a popular perception that, “I’m on the hot seat.”

“It just goes to show you that the perception isn’t always reality,” he said. “The perception is we’re scuffling backwards and out of control, yet we’ve signed what might be our best class ever.”

Two autumns ago, Perno and everyone else thought the Bulldogs brought in their best class ever. That 2008 class ranked third in the nation, but it has yet to live up to its sky-high expectations in its first two seasons. Perhaps the core players in that group will blossom as juniors in 2011, but either way the Bulldogs will have plenty of holes to fill—especially after the draft decimated their 2009 and ’10 recruiting classes.

Georgia’s top four pitching recruits all signed pro contracts this summer, but the Bulldogs took a much different approach to building a pitching staff with this class. Of the six players in this class who ranked among BA’s Top 100, four are position players: catcher/third baseman Nicky Delmonico (No. 13), shortstops Tyler Greene (No. 36) and Patrick Leonard (No. 62), and third basemen Dante Bichette (No. 37) and Hunter Cole (No. 95). Certainly, Georgia hopes to land as many of those players as possible, but it’s not taking many big risks with its pitching.

“We did take an approach from a pitching standpoint that we have to get guys to school,” Perno said. “We have to get back to the kind of guys we had in ’09 and ’08. They weren’t guys who got drafted in high school, and if they did get drafted, they weren’t drafted extremely high. So we went after a couple of dual guys in Jared Walsh and Heath Holder, who can swing and help us there but also are bullpen arms, a lefty and a righty. David Sosebee, Matt Taylor, Mike Mancuso, Luke Crumley, John Taylor (No. 95), Pete Nagel, Reggie McClain, Jarrett Brown—those are all really good pitchers, and I think you’ll hear more about them when the season comes around.”

Georgia’s large, 18-man class looks like a cornerstone group that will secure the program’s future. And Perno is confident the Bulldogs will get back on their feet even before the next wave arrives.

“We struggled in ’07 because we went with a young group, took our lumps, and it paid off in ’08,” Perno said. “We struggled in ’05 and it paid off in ’06. We struggled in ’03 and it paid off in ’04. There’s a little bit of a trend there, which is why I’m surprised people are overreacting to last year. We have a history of bouncing back.”

Cruz Control

Like Georgia, Southern California is trying to regain some momentum after a last-place finish in 2010. The Trojans made a coaching change in the offseason, as new athletics director Pat Haden fired head coach Chad Kreuter and installed former USC assistant and Loyola Marymount head coach Frank Cruz as interim head coach.

It did not take long for Cruz (and third-year recruiting coordinator Doyle Wilson) to make a splash. USC signed three members of the Top 100 in the early signing period, forming the foundation of what is shaping up as a second consecutive strong class.

During the Kreuter era, the Trojans often built their classes around elite recruits with no chance to show up at school, like Mike Stanton, Mike Moustakas, Aaron Hicks and Tim Beckham. This year, all four of their Top 100 signees have a shot to make it through the draft, as none ranks inside the top 30.

“We’re trying to find out: Who’s committed to going to school?” Cruz said. “Stanford and UCLA are getting guys to go to school, doing a great job doing it, so want to follow that. Unfortunately that’s really hurt SC in the last years, the Moustakases and the (Brooks) Pounders and the (Matt) Davidsons. Just on and on, the list of great recruits they’ve had, but they’ve all signed. We’re trying to talk to the families and find out, ‘What is your priority? To start your professional career or go to college?’

“Hopefully it’ll be the second class we’ve been able to keep, because this year we had six guys drafted and we kept five of them. That’s the first time we’ve had that happen here.”

Third baseman Travis Harrison (No. 40) leads the pack and stands out for having some of the best raw power in this year’s class. Christian Lopes (No. 37) and Dante Flores (No. 99) give the class a pair of athletic up-the-middle talents and two others in the class barely missed making the list, including lefthander Stephen Tarpley and first baseman/outfielder Ryan Garvey. Tarpley is a polished, projectable lefty with a smooth delivery and a good breaking ball and Garvey, who is the son of former Dodgers great Steve Garvey, has big offensive potential and has come on strong with the bat recently.

Cruz said during his first stint on the USC coaching staff from 1993-96, the Trojans did an excellent job using financial and academic aid to build quality depth. “We’re trying to exploit that again as an institution,” he said.

He’s very excited about several recruits outside the Top 100, notably catcher Garrett Stubbs, and two-way player Nigel Nootbaar. Stubbs and Nootbaar have the look of quality college players who can help early on.

And while Cruz is focused on what he can control, he acknowledges that putting together a strong class could help him shed that “interim” tag next summer.

“It’s going to help USC in the long run,” he said of his early signing class. “My agreement with Pat Haden was to continue to try to push this program in the right direction, and whatever decision he makes in June, he makes—I’ve got no control over it. Hopefully he says, ‘Shoot, they’re doing a pretty good job recruiting, I’ll have to make that part of my evaluation.’ But I can’t really worry about that.

“We tell recruits, ‘SC’s not going to change. The education’s not going to change, the conference won’t change, and we’re hoping the baseball program will continue to get better.’ That’s the attitude I have to take.”