By Allan Simpson
(Talent Ranking: ** out of five) Dixie State Junior College defeated Southern Nevada and Central Arizona, the two most recent Junior College World Series champions, in the final two steps on its way to a berth in this year's juco World Series. Appropriately, Dixie State has the state's most draftable talent, including seven players under control from 2003. The team's two best prospects--catcher Matt Spring and lefthander Joe Wice, both freshmen--weren't even drafted a year ago. Brigham Young righthander Nick Lemon also was a late bloomer, but he announced his arrival with gusto, throwing a fastball that nearly hit triple digits.
Projected First-Round Picks
Second- to Fifth-Round Talent
• Nick Lemon, rhp
Lemon may be Nuke LaLoosh (of "Bull Durham" fame) brought to life. He has a live arm and one of the best fastballs in the country, with a fastball clocked as high as 98 mph this spring. The trouble is he doesn't know where the pitch is going most of the time. In 37 innings, he walked 50, hit eight batters and served up 19 wild pitches. Hitters feared him--with good reason--and that helped make him unhittable, with a .214 opponent average and no home runs. At 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, he looks like a big leaguer, but he's a 22-year-old with a limited pitching background and a long medical record. He rarely pitched in high school or at Cosumnes River (Calif.) JC before going on a Mormon mission. Scouts naturally became intrigued with his arm strength but said he might be too risky to draft in the first five rounds. His situation is not unlike that of Bill Bene, a 1988 Dodgers first-round pick who threw nearly 100 mph but ended up going 18-34 and walking 543 in 516 innings in a 10-year minor league career.
• Matt Spring, c
Undrafted in 2003 out of an Arizona high school and overlooked by teams in the traditionally strong Arizona juco ranks, the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Spring had something to prove at Dixie State. He responded by leading the wood-bat Scenic West Conference in batting (.360), home runs (10) and RBIs (55), and his stock has soared. He's now projected to go as early as the fifth round--and could go higher with a strong showing in the Junior College World Series. His catching skills are less developed than his bat, but he's been catching for only a year. While he has a good feel for the position, he's a below-average receiver and has a slightly below-average arm.
Others To Watch
• Like his batterymate Matt Spring, LHP Joe Wice was unheralded in high school and went undrafted, only to emerge as a top prospect as a freshman. The 6-foot-4 Wice went 12-2, 1.70 and led the Scenic West Conference, which could produce more than 20 draft picks, in wins and strikeouts (87 in 85 innings). He can throw three of his four pitches for strikes, including an 88-89 mph fastball and an above-average curve.
• Wice's performance overshadowed five other pitchers on the Dixie State staff who were drafted in 2003. Five-foot-11 RHPs Matt Elliott (Indians) and Brandon Kintzler (Yankees) both are experienced pitchers from Las Vegas whose fastballs have been clocked up to 94, but their size prevents them from being early-round picks. Kintzler, the Scenic West ERA leader, didn't give up his first run until late April. Six-foot-5 RHP Dave Horlacher (Indians) has the best stuff on the staff with a four-pitch repertoire that includes an 89-92 mph running fastball and a hard knuckleball. But he was erratic this spring and moved to the back end of the rotation. RHP Ty Stott (Reds), capable of throwing 88-91, lost his starting job altogether because of the surplus of pitchers, and was relegated to a set-up role. 3B/RHP Chad Barben (Dodgers) closed on occasion for Dixie State, but spent most of his time alternating between first and third base. He can put a charge in a ball and scouts say his future will be at third base, though his lack of range may push him to first.
• RHP Troy Grundy has leveled off since he threw 93-94 mph as a high school sophomore, but he was still Utah's best prospect entering 2004. When his fastball dipped to 85, however, he went to the sidelines for several weeks with a sore arm. Healthy again, he was soon back up to 90 and even touched 94 while racking up 19- and 20-strikeout games against weak competition. Everything rides on Grundy's velocity because he's a 6-footer with limited secondary stuff who lacks polish.
• Six-foot-5, 195-pound RHP Steve Hirschfield's was one of the two best high school players in Utah but had surgery for a stress fracture in his pitching elbow in late April. He was scheduled to be out several months. Hirschfield had made big strides before he got hurt, improving the velocity on his fastball from 84-85 mph in the fall to 90 this spring.
• RHP Mac Nelson, a Brigham Young signee, looks like a marginal high school prospect after rebounding from labrum surgery in 2003. His velocity has not returned to its previous 90 mph level, but he has become a more complete pitcher.
• Switch-hitting OF Matt Ciaramella should be the state's first college position player drafted, just ahead of SS Brandon Taylor. Both players led their teams in homers and RBIs. Ciaramella (.366-13-64) is an above-average runner with power potential, while Taylor's best tools (.309-14-54) are his power and arm strength. Taylor is eligible as a sophomore because he took a year off to go on a Mormon mission.
• Utah RHPs Doug Mackay and Clay Westmoreland both have good arms and flashed 93-94 mph fastballs, but went 7-14, 6.12 between them.
• OF Ryan Chambers had the best outfield arm in the Mountain West Conference and ran 60 yards in 6.7 seconds, but he struggled with the bat this spring.