By Allan Simpson
(Talent Ranking: ** out of five) The disappointing season of Arizona State first baseman Jeff Larish and early signing of righthander Luis Cota, the premier draft-and-follow from 2003, took the shine off this year's group. Larish was an early favorite to be the first college position player drafted but struggled with the bat, and now he might not go in the first round at all. Overachieving Sun Devils shortstop Dustin Pedroia helped to prop up an otherwise disappointing crop.
Projected First-Round Picks
• Luis Cota, rhp
The 6-foot-1, 180-pound Cota won't be around on draft day. He was the top draft-and-follow in this year's group and signed with the Royals, who selected him in the 10th round a year ago, for $1.05 million. He would have re-entered the draft as a late first-rounder or sandwich pick. Cota was a relative unknown at the start of his senior year at Tucson's Sunnyside High but made huge strides. He has electric stuff with a fastball that peaks at 97 mph, and he can spot his breaking ball and changeup. His arm works free and easy, and he's athletic. He pounces off the mound to field his position and holds runners well. He's still learning the craft of pitching. Even though he had superior stuff and went 12-0, 0.86 with 117 strikeouts in 93 innings this spring at South Mountain CC and was the Arizona Community College Athletic Association player of the year, he did not always dominate junior college hitters using wood bats.
Second- to Fifth-Round Talent
• Jeff Larish, 1b
Larish was a candidate to be the first position player drafted this year after hitting .372-18-95 in 2003 and leading the nation with 78 walks. He led Team USA in home runs during the summer. But the 6-foot-2, 180-pounder wasn't himself this spring, hitting a pedestrian .310-6-45, though he had picked up his pace late in the season. Observers espoused all kinds of theories to explain Larish's struggles: a more passive approach at the plate, a change in his mechanics, a lack of support in the batting order, impatience at being pitched around, cutting off his swing and not using his hands all the way through his stroke, a wrist injury and a lack of confidence. More likely, it was a bit of all of that as he pressed under the weight of lofty expectations. His supporters say he just had an untimely slump. He still has a smooth, graceful swing and exceptional hand speed and bat speed. Through his offensive troubles, Larish made a successful transition to left field from first base, catching everything hit in his direction and displaying a solid, accurate arm. Even with agent Scott Boras as his adviser, Larish still could be drafted late in the first round.
• Dustin Pedroia, ss
Pedroia's tools are below-average across the board, but people have learned not to sell him short. Scouts expect him to be a big leaguer, and probably an everyday player. He's not physically gifted at 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds, but Pedroia is a classic overachiever and possibly the best player in college baseball. He has a great work ethic and exceptional sense of the game. He's hard-nosed and competitive, and without peer as a team leader. He's a blood-and-guts player who thrives under pressure and makes everyone around him better. Scouts question whether he can be an everyday shortstop on a good team because his arm and range are short, but he catches almost everything hit at him. He has sure hands, a quick release and excellent hand-eye coordination, and is adept at anticipating plays. He doesn't profile any better as a second baseman, a more offensive position. While he led the Sun Devils with a .409 average and nine home runs, he doesn't have a pretty swing and is a slap hitter. But he has good strike zone judgment and is a tough out. He struck only 11 times while drawing 43 walks. He compares to Angels shortstop David Eckstein, though Eckstein is a better runner. On tools, Pedroia is not a high-round pick but he's a perfect fit for a performance-based organization like the Athletics, who have four of the first 40 picks.
• John Poterson, c/1b
Poterson should be one of the first high school catchers drafted, but not all scouts see him at the position in pro ball. He's a below-average receiver with an average arm and will need to work on his deficiencies to remain behind the plate. His bat will play anywhere. A switch-hitter, he has excellent balance at the plate and stays inside balls well, with more polish from the left side. Powerfully built at 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, he's capable of hitting balls 450 feet in batting practice. His power doesn't play as well in games, though he hit 13 home runs this spring. Poterson is athletic enough to play on an outfield corner, but has a history of hamstring problems. He has committed to Chandler-Gilbert JC, so college is not a primary option.
• John Hardy, 2b
Hardy is the cousin of shortstop J.J. Hardy, one of the top prospects in the Brewers organization. They're the same age and intended to enroll at Arizona before J.J., an Arizona high school product, went in the second round of the 2001 draft and signed, while John, an Idaho high school product, slipped to the 10th round. Both players' fathers played tennis professionally. Hardy started at shortstop for Arizona his first two years and moved to second base this year, where he adapted nicely. He was Arizona's leading hitter most of the spring before a late slump dropped his average to .330. Hardy's tools are a tad short across the board. He doesn't possess his cousin's speed, power or arm strength, though their hands are about the same. Scouts disagree on John's future value. Some see him going in the first four or five rounds; others don't see him going in the first 10.
Others To Watch
• The University of Arizona's best prospects are its underclassmen, so the pickings this year are slim. RHP Koley Kolberg, a junior-college transfer from Texas, was the Wildcats' No. 1 starter and had an up-and-down season, going 7-6, 4.55 with 52 walks and 104 strikeouts in 115 innings. He's not overly physical and his stuff--an 88 mph fastball that touches 90-92, a change with good sinking action and a below-average breaking ball--is just marginal, so he'll need to throw strikes more consistently to succeed in pro ball.
• Nick Hundley, a fifth-round pick in 2002 and one of Arizona's early-round hopes for the 2005 draft, was supposed to handle the catching duties but was upstaged by junior Richard Mercado, a backup in his first two seasons. A tireless work ethic enabled Mercado to expand his role, and he not only took charge behind the plate but also led the Wildcats with a .343 average. Pitchers preferred throwing to him, and he threw out 13 of 30 basestealers with just an average arm. He displayed sound blocking and receiving skills. Scouts didn't see much power from Mercado, but he's shown it with wood in batting practice.
• Six-foot-4, 205-pound RHP Kevin Guyette, a touted Arizona high school product who attended Georgia Tech as a freshman, has never fulfilled expectations in college because of an inconsistent delivery.
• Jeff Larish and Dustin Pedroia are Arizona State's best prospects, but overall the talent isn't strong by the school's considerable standards. RHP Jason Urquidez is expected to go in the first 10 rounds after going 11-2, 2.90 as the No. 1 starter for the Sun Devils. He doesn't have overwhelming stuff but has four pitches he uses effectively from different arm slots, including an 87-88 mph fastball that touches 90.
• Josh Asanovich's best position is shortstop, but he had a limited opportunity to play there because of the considerable presence of Pedroia. He has solid tools, but none that stand out.
• Overachieving C Tuffy Gosewisch has good catch-and-throw skills but is a second-day selection, at best.
• Grand Canyon's best prospect is 6-foot-5 RHP Jeff Swanson, who is 24 and was eligible to sign before the draft as a fifth-year senior. He has pitched for only two years but impressed scouts with an 18-strikeout game against San Francisco State in his final college outing. He was a closer in 2003, a role that seems made to order for his bulldog approach. He tended to pace himself too much as a starter, and a 93 mph fastball became a marginal 86-87 mph offering with his expanded workload this year.
• Arizona's junior college ranks are among the nation's best, and with the notable exception of Luis Cota, a Tucson high school product, have become a popular destination for out-of-state players. 2B Eric Young Jr., son of the big leaguer, came to Arizona from a New Jersey high school after originally committing to play football at Villanova. He signed with the Rockies, who drafted him in the 30th round a year ago. He's the spitting image of his father, a 13-year major league veteran. Young has outstanding speed and has been clocked to first base in 3.9 seconds and 6.2 seconds over 60 yards. He finished second in the Arizona Community College ranks with 30 stolen bases, even though he missed half the season with an injury. A natural righthanded hitter, Young just started to switch-hit but must put the ball in play more often to take advantage of his speed. He showed he's capable of making the spectacular play at second base, but he lacks fluid middle infield actions and his hands are stiff.
• Six-foot-3 OF Leon Johnson relies on speed and led Arizona junior colleges with 43 steals while hitting .434--second best in the state. He has good leadoff skills and patterns his game after the Angels' Darin Erstad. Johnson is under control to the Devil Rays, the organization his brother Elliot plays for. He is considered too raw to be a premium pick should he re-enter the draft, and his standing could be further affected because he has indicated he wants to go on a Mormon mission before playing professional baseball.
• Central Arizona College fell short of returning to Grand Junction, Colo., where it won the 2002 Junior College World Series, but could be a big winner in the draft. It had 10 players on its roster who had previously been drafted. RHP Doug Mathis, a Missouri high school product drafted by Seattle in 2002 and Los Angeles in 2003, was the ace of the Vaqueros staff and went 11-2, 0.65. His fastball was in the 87-90 mph range but touched 92 and he supplemented it with a solid slider and changeup. CAC pitchers not under control who could be drafted are RHP Jeff Duda, a former Canadian Little League World Series star whose fastball topped at 90, and 6-foot-4 RHP Garrett Halloran, who peaked at 92 while leading Arizona junior colleges with 10 saves. RHP Lino Valenzuela, a Rangers draft-and-follow, might have been the team's best pitching prospect if he hadn't dropped out of school for personal reasons. OFs Chris Dunn (.325-3-14) and Randy Youtsey (.380-0-25) were one-two on the team in stolen bases and have been clocked over 60 yards in 6.6 seconds. Both are fine defenders. 3B Alberto Cruz and 2B/3B Scott Campbell are two of the team's more intriguing prospects. Cruz is the son of former big leaguer Tommy Cruz, while Campbell is from New Zealand. Campbell had played little baseball before coming to the United States but led Arizona juco players with a .477 average; Cruz struggled, hitting .197.
• C Steven Lopez led the Arizona juco ranks with 27 doubles, but scouts were more impressed with his catching skills and outstanding arm.
• LHP/1B Patrick Caldwell was compared to the Indians' C.C. Sabathia, mostly because of his physique but also because of his potential to be a big, dominant lefthander. Caldwell threw 81-82 mph in high school and weighed 280 pounds when he enrolled in junior college. He dropped 40 pounds and his velocity improved by 8-10 mph, with the possibility of more.
• Like Luis Cota, RHP Philip Andersen is a converted shortstop drafted by the Royals. In his first full year pitching, his fastball was mostly in the 88-91 mph range, topping at 92, but he has a ways to go with his other pitches.
• RHP Gilbert DeLaVera has a smaller frame, but shared the state lead with Cota with 12 wins and was second to Cota with 87 strikeouts. He flashed an 89 mph fastball with a good slider and hitters rarely got good cuts against him.
• 3B Nick Evans may have the best bat speed in the state. He drives balls with excellent pull power, though he'll need to make better contact, especially on offspeed pitches. He's a one-dimensional talent as his other tools are just so-so. He committed to Texas Tech.
• RHP Rene Garcia hails from the same high school that produced Cota and could follow Cota to South Mountain CC. The state's No. 2 prep player at the start of the year, Garcia came out throwing 92-93 mph but soon backed off to 86-87 and didn't throw a lot of strikes. He throws with a maximum-effort delivery.
• C Louis Marson and RHP Craig Heyer, batterymates at Coronado High, elevated their draft stock and could be picked in the first seven to 10 rounds. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Marson has been catching for only a year and made significant strides. He also has a near-perfect physique for the position. Heyer has plenty of upside in his 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame, along with a good fastball/slider mix.
• Five-foot-11 LHP Brandon Thompson is Arizona's most polished high school pitcher, according to some scouts, but his upside is limited. He has three solid pitches, including an 87-89 mph fastball.
• Curt Miaso and J.J. Sferra are both advanced high school outfielders headed for Arizona State. Sferra, the son of ASU assistant coach Jay Sferra, is an adept hitter and baserunner, and an excellent defensive center fielder.
• Cristen Tapia and C.J. Ziegler are power-hitting first basemen from Tucson. Tapia's bat has been compared to former Tucson high school star Erubiel Durazo's, while Ziegler may have even more power as he hammered 30 home runs in his high school career, one shy of the city record.