By Allan Simpson
(Talent Ranking: *** out of five) The unexpected emergence of first baseman Mike Ferris as a possible first-round pick has offset the continued uncertainty around righthander Marc Cornell and lefthander Scott Lewis, high-profile college pitchers who once had first-round aspirations. Both had season-ending arm injuries in 2003 that prevented them from making full comebacks in 2004, clouding their future. The once robust Cincinnati high school ranks have thinned in recent years, but righthander Andrew Brackman, a Moeller product, is the state's top prep prospect in both baseball and basketball.
Projected First-Round Picks
• Mike Ferris, 1b
No area scout envisioned Ferris' overnight transformation from a middle-of-the-road prospect to a potential first-rounder. An undrafted Cincinnati high school product, he hit .226 with four homers as a freshman at Kentucky before transferring to Miami, where he hit .360 with five homers as a sophomore. He added 20 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-2, 225-pound frame in the offseason and it made an immediate difference in his bat speed. He hit 13 homers in his first 21 games this year. He developed a knack for hitting pitches he could handle, and drove them hard with a short, quick, powerful stroke like those of big leaguers Sean Casey and Rafael Palmeiro. He uses his hands well and has good pitch recognition. He drew 50 walks this season against 25 strikeouts, which will make him a primary target of clubs that covet plate discipline. Ferris may have lost mobility with his added bulk, but he's still an average defender at first base. He's a below-average runner.
Second- to Fifth-Round Talent
• Adam Russell, rhp
The 6-foot-8, 250-pound Russell is an intimidating presence on the mound. His fastball also can be intimidating when it reaches 95 mph with electric life in the zone, and he works with a free, easy motion. He hasn't had success at the college level because he doesn't throw a quality breaking pitch for strikes consistently. In the absence of injured righthander Marc Cornell, Ohio's ace a year ago, Russell was expected to provide more than a 1-3, 4.75 record this year. Because of his ceiling, he should be drafted in the first three or four rounds.
• Scott Lewis, lhp
Lewis had 16- and 20-strikeout games in consecutive Big 10 Conference starts a year ago on his way to a 9-1, 1.61 record, but then needed Tommy John surgery. The recovery time is usually a year to 12-to-18 months, but Lewis was back in April, 11 months later. He pitched well at first, though he lacked the snap on his trademark curveball and the velocity on his fastball was a tick short, at 87-89 mph. In his first three starts, the 6-foot, 185-pounder had a 4.05 ERA with 17 strikeouts in 13 innings. But he missed consecutive starts in conference play in early May because his arm was a little tender. Lewis pitches across his body, which puts added stress on his arm. As the draft approached, teams were taking a wait-and-see posture on Lewis. He could climb as high as the third round if he returns to action and it's clear his elbow is healthy, though Dr. James Andrews, who performed the operation, has indicated it is.
• Andrew Brackman, rhp
The 6-foot-9, 200-pound Brackman is the top high school baseball and basketball player in Ohio. Because of basketball and a bout with tendinitis, Brackman didn't make his baseball debut this spring until late April. His fastball came out of the chute at 90-91 mph, supplemented with an outstanding spike curve. Scouts say Brackman is unusually coordinated for his size and should have solid mechanics even if he reaches 7 feet, his projected size. He could throw in the mid-90s one day, an intriguing notion considering the downward plane he would have on his pitches. The biggest issue with Brackman is signability. He improved from a Mid-American Conference-caliber hoops player to an Atlantic Coast Conference talent in his final two years at Moeller High--which produced big leaguers Ken Griffey, Barry Larkin and David Bell--and it may take a seven-figure bonus to buy him out of a basketball scholarship at North Carolina State. Teams would be able to spread Brackman's bonus over five years because of his dual-sport status, but it might be pricey for a consensus third- or fourth-round talent.
• Andrew Sonnanstine, rhp
Sonnanstine has improved significantly since redshirting his freshman year at Kent State because he wasn't considered strong enough to compete in Division I. He dominated the New England Collegiate last summer, giving up just 28 hits in 58 innings, and was the league's No. 8 prospect. Now solidly built at 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds, Sonnanstine was 7-4, 2.69 this year with averages of 8.4 strikeouts and 1.7 walks per nine innings. He throws four pitches consistently for strikes, including an 88-92 mph fastball with sink and boring action, and an 83-86 mph slider. He adds deception to his delivery by varying his arm slot. Opinions are mixed on Sonnanstine, though some teams see him as a fifth- to eighth-round pick. His detractors say he has a below-average fastball and limited projection.
Others To Watch
• RHP Marc Cornell was so impressive leading up to last year's draft that his name was floated as a possible No. 1 overall pick. But the 6-foot-2, 215-pounder hurt his arm late in the year and slipped to the fifth round, and it has been downhill since. He missed several starts this season with persistent arm problems. When he did pitch, his fastball was in the 90-93 mph range--down 3-4 mph from a year ago--and it lacked sharpness as he struggled to regain his confidence. The result was a 1-2, 10.42 record. Cornell's arm problems in 2003 were traced to tendinitis, the same malady that plagued him in 2002. After a summer of rest, he seemed to be back on track last fall when he experienced no soreness, but he knew something wasn't right when he heard a clicking sound in the front of his shoulder when his fastball reached 90 and above. An MRI revealed nothing, but arthroscopic surgery detected a flap of tissue growing across the humerus bone and he had it removed. Tendinitis persisted this spring, leaving his draft status unclear.
• In Cornell's absence and with the inability of towering Adam Russell to assume the role, RHP Chris Bova became Ohio's No. 1 starter. He showed good command of an 88-92 mph fastball and a changeup, but his curveball is below-average.
• While Lewis recovered from Tommy John surgery at Ohio State, senior LHP Josh Newman assumed the role of Friday starter for the Buckeyes. He was drafted by the Reds in the 31st round last year, but was not as consistent this spring as he was in 2003. He's a bulldog competitor and capable of throwing three pitches for strikes, but his velocity fluctuated from 88-90 mph in some starts to 83-84 in others. With a fastball consistently at 88-89 and a plus slider, Trent Luyster gave Ohio State a second reliable lefthander in its rotation.
• RHP Tyler Saneholtz became a dependable No. 1 starter at Bowling Green with a fastball that topped out at 91-92, though it was more frequently 87-88. There's some question how much he'll improve, as he's already a relatively polished product.
• Ohio's traditionally strong Division III ranks generally yield a quality pitcher or two. Six-foot-5, 215-pound Ohio Dominican RHP Benny Cepeda had designs on being an early-round pick, but a lack of command and his failure to develop a third pitch hurt his chances. LHP Jonathan Sanchez emerged in Cepeda's absence, however, showcasing an 89-91 mph fastball that enabled him to strike out hitters at the rate of 13.6 per nine innings.
• The talent in Ohio is so slanted toward pitching this year that once Mike Ferris is drafted, 2B Drew Anderson is the only other position player expected to be selected among the next 12-15 rounds. Powerfully built in a small package, Anderson has been compared with Braves 2B Marcus Giles, without the power. Anderson runs and hits well, and has proven to be a capable defender at second, especially in turning the double play. There were concerns his hands were too hard and that he may have to move to the outfield.
• OF Steve Caravati was Ohio State's leading hitter this year, but scouts don't have a consensus on his professional worth. His bat and speed should carry him, but 2003 surgery for a torn labrum could relegate him to a left field.
• A year after producing Royals first-round pick Mitch Maier, Toledo's only potential draft pick is OF Sean Dobson, whose best tool is also his bat.
• Ferris' teammate, C John Slone received significant exposure this spring. Scouts were impressed with his offensive potential--he led the RedHawks with a .398 average and stole 14 bases--and his ability to block balls and call a game. But they were less impressed with his arm and receiving skills and believe he could wind up in the outfield, where he could be take better advantage of his speed.
• Steve Pickerell, who should be Cincinnati's only draft pick, is another offensive-oriented catcher. He hit .401-11-39 this spring for the Bearcats.
• Six-foot-6, 225-pound RHP Connor Graham projected as a possible early-round pick when he was clocked at 92-93 mph last fall, but his velocity dipped to 86-87 early in the spring before it rebounded. Graham is a good student and likely to fulfill his commitment to Miami (Ohio), but he could be a premium pick in three years--though he'll need to watch his weight.
• Like Andrew Brackman, RHP Brian Hoyer and LHP Cory Luebke have impressive athletic resumes. Hoyer's days on the diamond may be numbered because he's one of the nation's top quarterback recruits. He is committed to playing football at Michigan State and likely wouldn't play both sports in college, at least initially. The 6-foot-4, 195-pound Hoyer generates 90 mph heat more through brute strength than a sound delivery. The 6-foot-3, 195-pound Luebke was also the quarterback on his high school football team and an excellent basketball player. He doesn't have leverage to command a significant signing bonus, but he will be a tough sign because he is intent on attending Ohio State, where cousin Todd Beckman is contending for the starting QB job. With a fastball in the 86-87 mph range, Luebke's stuff is fringy now but it has a chance to improve significantly in college.
• RHP Chris Carpenter had hopes of being a high draft pick entering 2004, but his season was derailed by shoulder tendinitis. Last fall, he flashed an 89-91 mph fastball with good life and a hard, sharp slider from a three-quarters arm angle. Both his parents are teachers, so like most of Ohio's top prep pitching prospects he's probably headed to college. He has committed to Kent State.
• RHP Andrew Shisila, an Ohio signee, can throw strikes consistently with a low 90s fastball and 76-77 mph slider, but at 6-foot and 200 pounds he lacks the stature of Ohio's elite pitchers.
• SS Andrew Spaulding highlights a thin crop of position players and is considered signable because he has few college options. His tools are suited for professional baseball. He's an excellent defensive shortstop with good speed.