By John Manuel
(Talent Ranking: **** out of five) Tennessee has as much talent as it has ever had, but it's not clear how much of it will make an impact in the draft. The high school ranks are replete with projectable pitchers, toolsy players at premium positions and raw athletes. Many of them have complicating factors such as strong academic commitments that cloud their signability, however. Among college players, Tennessee offers depth and a closely watched, surefire first-rounder in Vanderbilt lefthander Jeremy Sowers.
Projected First-Round Picks
• Jeremy Sowers, lhp
After three years, Sowers and the draft meet again, and he's ready to sign this time. The Reds picked Sowers 20th overall in 2001 out of Louisville's Ballard High but made little attempt to sign him, and he honored his Vanderbilt commitment. Sowers has been the Commodores' No. 1 starter for three seasons, and Southeastern Conference teams have tried to attack him by swinging early in the count. It's the best approach against this slender, efficient strike-throwing machine. Sowers pounds the zone with four pitches: an accurate, active fastball he throws anywhere from 85-91 mph, a solid-average slider and curveball, and a changeup with good movement that he uses sparingly. His consistency and makeup impress scouts nearly as much as his stuff and command. Sowers' twin brother Josh pitches at Yale with similar pitches and command from the right side.
Second- To Fifth-Round Talent
• David Price, lhp
Price's senior season has not been perfect. He had a losing record, as did Blackman High, and his coach was suspended for an on-field incident with a player. Price pitched well and shot to the top of the state's deep prep class, though, posting a 0.43 ERA striking out 151 in his first 65 innings of work. Price, an honorable mention all-state selection in basketball, has a 6-foot-5, 180-pound frame that oozes projection. He's lean, loose and has a live arm, with a fastball that sits in the 89-90 mph and touches 93-94. On occasion, his curveball is an average to plus pitch. A Vanderbilt signee, Price is an excellent student who is just scratching the surface of his prodigious talent. He'll either go high in this draft or replace Sowers in the Commodores rotation and try to follow his path.
• Kyle Waldrop, rhp/1b
Like Price, Waldrop is considered a tough sign and has committed to Vanderbilt. He's had considerable success in high school, leading Farragut High to the state 3-A title last year and a No. 3 national ranking this season. He didn't yield an earned run in his first 51 innings while batting .477-13-63. Scouts like him better on the mound for pro ball, as he throws an easy 88-91 mph fastball with an above-average spike curveball, while showing a feel for his changeup. The 6-foot-4, 190-pound Waldrop would go both ways for Vanderbilt. He has excellent raw power, enough athletic ability to play the outfield and runs well under way. The Braves are said to be looking at him with their first pick, the 71st overall, but it may take seven figures to sign him away from Vanderbilt.
• Cale Iorg, ss
Iorg, the son of former big league infielder Garth and nephew of big league outfielder Dane, adds to the prep intrigue in Tennessee. Cale's bloodlines are evident in his savvy play. He's never out of position and always makes the right decision. He has big league tools--athletic ability, plenty of range and arm for shortstop (though he did have shoulder surgery in 2002) and natural infield actions. Yet two issues prevent Iorg, an Alabama signee, from being a first-rounder. Despite hitting .500-13-52 this spring, his swing and lack of physical maturity force scouts to do a lot of projecting with his offensive ability. Iorg also says he plans to take a two-year Mormon mission before he begins professional baseball. Several scouts cite his maturity and makeup as major pluses, however.
• James Adkins, lhp
Adkins is the prototypical flaky lefthander who needs to mature. The Tennessee signee's long, lean frame is similar to Price's (though Adkins is taller and a bit thicker), and his stuff is similar. Adkins' fastball touches 91, but he's thrown more consistently in the 83-88 range this spring. His best pitch is his curveball, which at times is a true power pitch in the upper 70s with good tilt. He has shown he can throw strikes with some consistency, but physical and emotional maturity could make Adkins a monster. He's considered an easier sign than Price or Waldrop.
Others To Watch
• Memphis was just a .500 college team, but scouts had several reasons to go see the Tigers, starting with three righthanders. Billy Edwards has perhaps the best stuff of the trio with a low 90s fastball, playable change and an inconsistent (but at times nasty) slider. However, Edwards has a lengthy medical history, with arm and knee surgeries that caused him to miss the 2002 season, and this is the first year he's experienced success. Jarrett Grube, a senior, has a workhorse's body at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, and his arm works relatively well. He's got an average 88-91 mph fastball and decent, though slurvy, slider that he commands well. He lacks a third pitch, though, leaving Derek Hankins as the Tigers' top pro prospect on the mound. Hankins used a plus curveball, solid 88-91 mph fastball and a changeup for which he's shown enough feel to strike out 17 against Murray State early in the season. Scouts project more velocity to come from his 6-foot-3, 185-pound body.
• Memphis' best prospect is Brent Dlugach, one of three college shortstops in the state who could be single-digit drafts. Long, lanky and coordinated, Dlugach has fluid infield actions at short despite his 6-foot-5 frame. He's an average runner with soft hands and enough arm and range. His bat is too short for third base anyway, though he made strides in adding strength and better plate discipline during his career. Vanderbilt's Ryan Klosterman lacks Dlugach's size while surpassing him in speed (getting to first in 4.2 seconds), polish and offensive ability. Klosterman was a Cape Cod League all-star in 2003 and carried that momentum to the spring, showing solid bat speed and loads of baseball savvy. His footwork, deft hands and quick transfer help him get away with fringy arm strength. Tennessee's Brian Cleveland is a clear third in this trio, with solid athletic ability and tools across the board. He's been drafted twice before, and as a bargain senior he could slip into the first 10 rounds.
• LHP Derek Tharpe might still be an excellent senior sign, having showed a four-pitch mix similar to Sowers' with less velocity and less command. An elbow strain kept him out of action for a month down the stretch; his expected return at the Southeastern Conference tournament could decide how high he gets drafted.
• Middle Tennessee State surged in the second half of the season behind pitchers John Williams and Chris Mobley and 3B Brett Carroll. Mobley has intriguing stuff--a four-pitch mix topped by an 88-91 mph fastball--but his 5-foot-11, 171-pound frame raises doubts he'll be drafted. Williams, meanwhile, could be a good senior bargain, with a 6-foot-4, 190-pound frame that helps him throw on a good downhill plane. His fastball sits in the 85-89 mph range, complemented by a solid average curveball and changeup. Carroll hit 19 homers as a sophomore and was recovering from a slow start this season, when his lack of plate discipline and penchant to try to pull everything hurt him. He's a scrappy player with solid tools for third base, and he's shown the bat speed to hit good fastballs.
• An Alabama signee along with Iorg, Chris Kirkland is the state's top defensive catcher and has the best pure arm, regularly showing 1.8-1.9-second pop times to second base. His bat is "very, very light," as one scout put it; opposing teams intentionally walked hitters to get to Kirkland in high school. He also could be a tough sign unless he goes in the first five rounds. Kirkland has shown low 90s velocity off the mound in showcases as well, making pitching a possibility.
• Scouts expect John Lalor (Mississippi State), Matt Spencer (North Carolina) and Matt McGahey (Virginia Tech) to end up in college. The 6-foot-7 Lalor, whose brother Conor is at South Carolina, pitched well at several showcases in the summer and fall. His mid-80s velocity this spring and a fringe breaking ball leave scouts wanting. Spencer and McGahey both have shown lefthanded pop, particularly Spencer, who also has shown more of an inkling for pro ball. Spencer has kept his strong 6-foot-4, 220-pound body under control this year and uses it well on the mound, where he's shown average velocity and an idea for a breaking ball. McGahey has touched some 90s and has more arm strength, and scouts laud his aggressiveness. His slow, looping curveball needs significant improvement.
• Shelbyville OF Jonathan White is the typical raw, toolsy prep outfielder who has upside and needs time to develop offensively. He lacks arm strength and baseball instincts while showing speed and athleticism to spare, earning comparisons to Rangers farmhand Anthony Webster, also a Tennessee native.
• Vanderbilt has several players with power tools who should be picked on the draft's first day. Senior 1B Cesar Nicholas figures to go to a team that saw him win the Cape Cod League's home run derby during its all-star game last summer, but power is Nicholas' only tool. His intelligence and makeup should help him be an excellent organizational player. RHP Jeff Sues has performed inconsistently and is a redshirt sophomore thanks to an elbow injury that scotched his 2003 season, and he's had hip and back woes as well. He's shown average fastball velocity and does it with an easy delivery. Sues has touched 94 in shorter stints this season with a true power slider at 84-85 mph, and he's developed some feel for his changeup. It may be difficult, however, to buy him out of Vanderbilt, and the medical issues throw up more red flags. Closer Ryan Rote also has shown excellent arm strength, touching 92-94 mph at times, but he lacks command, especially of his secondary pitches. His grandfather Tobin Rote played quarterback for Rice and later in the NFL for parts of 13 seasons, making two Pro Bowls.