By John Manuel
(Talent Ranking: *** out of five) Ole Miss outfielder Seth Smith, an athletic outfielder coming off a solid summer with Team USA, gave scouts plenty of reason to visit the Magnolia State, to say nothing of a pair of talented catchers. The state's college class had decent depth, with few impact players in the prep ranks. Mississippi does have the intriguing story of Terrell Young, several junior-college players worthy of a second look and plenty of good sophomores for 2005, led by Ole Miss' Mark Holliman and Stephen Head.
Projected First-Round Picks
Second- to Fifth-Round Talent
• Seth Smith, of
Smith won't go No. 1 overall in the draft, as his Ole Miss football teammate Eli Manning did in the NFL draft. Smith never got into a game backing up Manning at quarterback for three seasons, but his baseball career blossomed. Most scouts agree there's much more to come once Smith, who is on a football scholarship, gives up football for good. He played for Team USA last summer, his first extended experience with a wood bat, and ranked second on the team in batting (.322) and home runs (four) while also playing some center field. His spring didn't start well, but his performance picked up as he stopped thinking about hitting for power and let his natural hitting ability take over. He was batting .310-7-39 overall. Blessed with excellent hand-eye coordination, Smith makes consistent, hard contact and projects to hit for power with more experience and strength. His other tools play well. He's a 6.7 runner over 60 yards, has an average arm and is decent in center, though he profiles better for right. He won't be a fast-moving college pick because of his relative baseball inexperience.
• Ed Easley, c
A Mississippi State signee, Easley is considered a tough sign but could go high enough to buy out his commitment, his family's fandom (their RV has the Mississippi State logo painted on the side) and ties to the school (his sister is a current student). Easley has a plus arm, usually getting the ball to second base in less than 2.0 seconds. He's solid as a receiver, blocks balls in the dirt well and has athletic ability that draws comparisons to Jason Kendall. He's versatile enough to play middle infield down the line if teams deem his bat too valuable. He's shown gap power with a good line-drive swing, with a chance to add more power as he matures. He hit .90-12-50 for his high school team this spring. Scouts also love his makeup.
• Craig Tatum, c
Highly regarded as a pitcher coming out of high school, Tatum has developed into one of the better defensive catchers in college baseball. His arm strength rates 65 on the 20-80 scale, and he consistently delivers the ball to second base in 1.85-1.92 seconds. He's become a sound receiver as a redshirt sophomore, and has gained strength offensively and developed some of his raw power. He still struggles to make consistent contact and has worn down from his catching load. While he has a strong body, he often skips infield and bullpen sessions to stay fresh for games, leading some to question his durability.
• Terrell Young, rhp
One of the draft's more intriguing cases, Young has scouts befuddled. He earned a high grade from the Major League Scouting Bureau based on his pure stuff, which can be filthy. He has the state's best arm, loose and quick from a sound delivery. His fastball can sit in the 90-94 range, and at times he spins a plus breaking ball. His personal history causes the most doubts. He's considered a good bet to sign because he has a 3-year-old son and is not a strong student--he's a Meridian CC signee). He'll need an organization willing to monitor him closely and shepherd him through the minor leagues to reach his considerable ceiling.
Others To Watch
• Mississippi has three premium junior college prospects, and all have committed to Ole Miss. Ranked the top prospect in the Central Illinois Collegiate League last summer, 3B/RHP Van Pope has played like the state's best junior-college player all spring, leading Meridian CC into postseason play with his bat and a power arm. While Pope throws a 90-92 mph fastball and had five saves this spring, his tools as an infielder make him a better draft as a position player. He takes a big hack and can be too aggressive at the plate, but he hit 15 homers despite a steady diet of breaking balls and saved his best play for the postseason. His pitch recognition and strike-zone judgment have improved. Defensively, his feet, hands and range might be good enough for second, and he has plenty of arm for third.
• Strong-bodied RHP Chris Rayborn was Meridian's ace all spring, ringing up a 9-0 record and a team-best 76 strikeouts thanks to a fastball in the 88-92 mph range. At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Rayborn needs to better develop his secondary pitches, but he's shown improvement every year. With his low three-quarters arm slot, he'd be better served dropping his curve for a slider. OF Rhyne Hughes had 18 homers this spring and was a prime candidate to be the state's juco player of the year. A part-time pitcher, he has enough arm for right field. He has a college-ready bat and projects to hit for at least average power with a strong lefthanded swing.
• Vicksburg's James Jackson, a Meridian signee, has tools just shy of those of Tony Sipp, who led Meridian to the NJCAA World Series last year before transferring to Clemson. He's similar as an athletic two-way talent who throws in the high 80s, though his delivery has proved difficult for him to repeat, downgrading his command. Jackson's a plus runner and good defensive center fielder with quick hands at the plate; he's expected to be a draft-and-follow so teams can better judge his raw offensive tools.
• Two of the state's college teams should lose their middle-infield combos. Jarrett Hoffpauir, whose brother Josh plays in the independent Central League, profiles as an offensive second baseman. He reminds scouts of Craig Biggio because his uniform is always dirty and he makes consistent hard contact, though he's not nearly that caliber of player. Hoffpauir hit an authoritative .327 with wood last summer in the New England Collegiate League and was hitting .401 with fewer than 10 strikeouts this season. His plate discipline could make him attractive to statistically-savvy organizations, and his other tools are fringy. His double-play partner, Matt Shepherd, has improved his stock by showing a better-than-expected bat (from both sides of the plate), though he lacks power. He's fairly athletic, runs average and has some strength; he may not have enough arm or range to be a big league shortstop but could easily slide to second. He's a steadier player than Matt Tolbert, a solid senior sign best described as an "energy guy." Tolbert runs better than Shepherd (6.6 in the 60) and has a solid arm, though he profiles better for second base, his position the previous three seasons. Shepherd's stronger bat gives him the edge. Some teams like Tolbert's teammate, second baseman Cooper Osteen, better because he's stronger and more physical at the plate. He's not the defender Tolbert is, though, limiting him to second base.
• The younger brother of Royals righthander Ryan, Brett Bukvich is a Tommy John alumnus who has returned from the surgery quicker than expected, shaking off the rust this spring. The Mississippi signee's mid-80s velocity indicates he's not all the way back; a probable two-way college player, he has some power but needs a more disciplined approach at the plate. His bloodlines and mature (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) body could persuade a team to take a late flier on him.
• Raw OF Jeff Moore is better known as a wide receiver with a football scholarship to Samford. His plus speed and flycatching ability are his best tools. Scouts question his bat and most expect him to play football.
• Mississippi State RHP Jamie Gant had a high profile coming into the season after living in the low 90s with his fastball in 2003. A redshirt sophomore, he's not expected to be drafted high anymore after falling out of the Bulldogs rotation. He didn't miss bats with his 92-93 mph fastball, a two-seamer with excellent movement down in the zone, and lacks a feel for his slider.
• OF Charlie Babineaux made his strong body leaner this year, got healthy (he's had ankle and chest injuries in the past) and was leading Mississippi with 12 home runs. He still swings and misses a lot, though, making him not much more than a solid senior sign. Teammate Jeremy Zick is different; he hadn't performed as well (5.33 ERA in 25 innings), but the 6-foot-1, 210-pound righthander has thrown 88-92 out of the bullpen with a solid power slider in the high 70s. The Riverside (Calif.) CC transfer was drafted in the 39th round in 2001 and should go higher than Babineaux.
• A 14th-round pick of the Padres in 2003, 3B Steve Gendron isn't expected to be drafted much higher as a senior. He's a solid defender, but still hasn't shown the power scouts expect from a player with a 6-foot-3, 195-pound frame.