2006 Draft Dish: College Pitching Dominates Year's Crop
By Allan Simpson
“I see a minimum of 22 pitchers in the first round at this point, mostly college pitchers,” one American League scouting director said. “In fact, I’m getting some early indication that the first five or six players taken this year might be all college pitchers.”
“The best players this year, by far, are pitchers,” confirmed another AL scouting director. “But there will be some teams that think they must have a position player in the first round, and they’ll probably overpay to get one.”
Not only should pitching dominate this year’s draft, but in the season’s first month, few surprises had shown up on the radar. In recent years, players such as Princeton outfielder B.J. Szymanski (2004) and Kent State’s John Van Benschoten (2001) have emerged early in the season and put themselves in the mix for the first round.
Among the pitchers that appear to have helped themselves in the early going are Texas Christian lefthander Brad Furnish and UCLA lefthander David Huff. Furnish went 5-6, 4.14 for the Horned Frogs last year and left the Cape Cod League early last summer because of a pulled muscle. But his fastball was clocked at 93 mph in a season-opening start against Rice in early February at the Houston Astros College Classic, and he complemented that pitch with a plus curveball. A week later, he showed similar stuff while tossing a seven-inning no-hitter with 13 strikeouts against Stephen F. Austin at the Al Ogletree Classic in Edinburg, Texas.
A consensus fourth- to sixth-rounder at the start of the year, Furnish’s early success had him knocking on the door of the first round, according to several scouts.
But at least one scouting director uttered a word of caution before moving Furnish up the draft board so quickly.
“I’ve seen the same stuff from him in the past—an average fastball and a good breaking ball,” he said. “The difference is that he’s never had much success before. He’s getting guys out this year. But the stuff is the same.”
Huff made his own statement by striking out 15 in eight innings against Pacific, including the first nine batters of the game on 40 pitches. A transfer from Cypress (Calif.) Junior College, Huff was drafted in the 19th round last year after developing forearm soreness late in the spring, leading to significant loss of velocity on his fastball. He was expected to be a second- or third-rounder then, but could return to that range if he continues to pitch as he did in the early going. His fastball was clocked at 88-90 mph against Pacific, and he augmented it with two good breaking balls and a plus changeup.
“David has pitched very well in his first three starts,” UCLA coach John Savage said. “It’s only three starts, but he just looks different than he ever has before. We’ll see the big picture after eight or 10 starts.”
Meanwhile, the college pitchers who appear to have taken a step backward in the early going are Oregon State righthander Dallas Buck and Georgia Southern righthander Dustin Evans, both potential first-round picks at the start of the year.
Buck was a disappointment in the Cape Cod League last summer, with a fastball in the 88-90 mph range, and his velocity had not returned as he tended to be overly reliant on his sinker and slider, costing him velocity. His body language on the mound also remains a source of concern to scouts.
Evans was knocked around in his first two starts despite throwing his fastball in the mid-90s, but left his third start early with an undisclosed arm injury.
Closers In Demand
The preponderance of college relief candidates in this year’s draft has become a particularly hot topic among scouting directors. The list begins with UC Irvine righthander Blair Erickson, UCLA righthander Brant Rustich and Miami righthander Chris Perez, who have each been in the 94-96 mph range and performed as expected. The list has grown as San Diego State righthander Justin Masterson and Arizona righthander Mark Melancon, both of whom were expected to start this year, have proven much more effective when used in closing roles.
The 6-foot-5 Masterson, who transferred to San Diego State from NAIA Bethel (Ind.) College, appears better suited as a closer because he lacks a changeup. He struggled as a starter, despite a 93-94 mph sinking fastball.
Melancon has the best arm on the Arizona staff. He was used as a starter in one game primarily to get more innings, but was knocked around in that role. His two-pitch arsenal, a 94-95 mph sinking fastball and hard slider, proved much more effective in relief, his role his first two years at Arizona and last summer with Team USA.
“He still has two plus-plus pitches,” an area scout in the Southwest said. “But he will not start.”
In addition to those five pitchers, Clemson righthander Steve Richard and Cal Poly righthander Rocky Roquet have pitched well enough early on to get into the closer discussion. Roquet, a senior, showed a steady 94 mph fastball while racking up four saves and 10 strikeouts in his first six outings..
“Closers have been a college phenomenon since the days of Darren Dreifort,” an AL scouting director said. “Major league clubs are more willing than ever to take a reliever in the first round, and it seems like more colleges have that kind of guy—even if they are bringing them into games as early as the fourth or fifth inning.”
• The college player scouts remain the most divided on is Texas outfielder Drew Stubbs, often ranked as the top position player in the class. While one area scout said Stubbs still will be drafted high because of his 80 speed and defense on the 20-80 scouting scale, he has struggled at the plate, even as he was hitting .341-2-9 in his first 41 at-bats. “Stubbs can’t hit,” one scouting director said. “He never could hit, and he never will hit. All his other tools are outstanding—even his power, when he hits it--but I think he’ll be one player who will be disappointed this year.” Another scouting director added, “His approach has been horrible. It looks like he has lost all his confidence at the plate.”
• Long Beach State's Evan Longoria has passed Stubbs on most draft boards as the top position player available. Longoria, who had a breakout season in the Cape Cod League last summer, came out of the gates this spring hitting .438-3-7, and scouts say his talent is on a par with Troy Tulowitzki, the Long Beach State shortstop drafted seventh overall last year. Longoria has played third base for the Dirtbags this season, but could shift to the middle infield--especially second base--as a pro.
Contributing: Will Kimmey, John Manuel.
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