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Powell's Strange Journey Nears End
by John Manuel
On a hot August day in 2000, Landon Powell was the center of attention. Scouts from several major league organizations had dropped in to see a private workout Powell's father Ron and his advisor, agent Scott Boras, had set up at Apex (N.C.) High's baseball field.
Powell was a rising high school senior, but his father and Boras had hatched a plan to make Powell a free agent. He took and passed his GED (General Educational Development) test prior to the draft in June, and entered his name into the draft as a high school graduate. Major League Baseball didn't inform any teams that Powell was eligible, and no one noticed. When he wasn't drafted, the switch-hitting catcher with power and second-team prep All-America status became a free agent.
Suffice it to say, the scheme didn't go over well. MLB investigated the case and declared Powell a free agent in August, but he lost negotiating time in the process. The majority of organizations seemed put off by the ploy and showed no interest in Powell. Eventually, he went back to Apex High for the fall semester, then enrolled at South Carolina in January 2001, in time to play that spring as a freshman.
"Baseball's pretty irritated at something we've done," Ron Powell said at the time. "They're irritated that Landon became a free agent and he used their rules to do it. I think they held that against him. Baseball exerted pressure not to sign him."
The thing is, baseball stayed pretty irritated at Landon Powell, who has since shed his association with the Boras Corporation. He hit just .169-3-13 in 77 at-bats as a freshman, and scouts didn't shed a tear. Didn't he have it coming, after all?
Powell went back into the draft last year as a junior, and for a variety of reasons, he fell to the 25th round, where the Cubs selected him. After some negotiations, he returned to South Carolina for his senior season, and one last pass through the draft.
And most scouts still don't know how the story will end.
"He's changed his body for the better this year," one American League area scout said. "He's got a ton of experience and he's so durable; I think he's really improved. I know a lot of (scouts) still talk about the shenanigans from a few years ago, though. By now, you'd hope for the kid's sake that's all been shoved onto the dad and Boras."
Which Numbers Matter?
Powell serves as a unique case study on how pro clubs treat college players, because on the surface, he offers a lot of plusses.
He has improved markedly since his freshman season. He earned the Gamecocks' catching job and held onto it like grim death, and had started at catcher in 191 of South Carolina's last 195 games. He batted .292-12-53 as a sophomore, then rallied as a junior in the postseason, hitting four homers to help lead South Carolina to its second consecutive College World Series berth. He finished the year with .339-10-61 numbers, including 23 doubles and a 46-48 walk-strikeout ratio.
However, when the Cubs drafted him, they did so only as insurance in case their third- and fourth-round picks--college catchers Jake Fox of Michigan and Tony Richie of Florida State--failed to sign. He was the 733rd overall player selected. Powell had hit just six homers by the time the draft was held, and he was significantly less effective throwing out runners attempting to steal. After nabbing 23 of 64 runners (36 percent) in 2002, he caught just 11 of 42 (26 percent) last year.
A big reason for the slide was the number scouts were most interested in. A 6-foot-3, 260-pound catcher with six home runs probably shouldn't have expected to get drafted higher than the 25th round.
Work with a personal trainer with a football background got Powell too big last season, as did his genetics. Scouts constantly point out his father's considerable girth when discussing Powell. "He gets bigger during the season, even catching all those games," one AL scout said. "That has to be in his genes."
Powell changed his workouts between his junior and senior seasons to trim down to 235 pounds. As a result, he's shown a quicker bat and better footwork behind the plate, and his performance shows it. He was leading the Gamecocks in batting, tied in RBIs and ranked second in homers at .356-15-58, had a 29-25 walk-strikeout ratio and had thrown out 12 of 27 basestealers (44 percent).
"I knew I needed to lose some weight," Powell told The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C. "I felt like I was a little out of shape. My goal this year was to maintain the weight, to make sure I don't gain any weight . . . It wasn't just about baseball. It was about changing my lifestyle forever."
And about changing scouts' perceptions of him. Most had little positive to say about Powell prior to this season. South Carolina's coaching staff points out that Sarge Frye Field, one of the Southeastern Conference's coziest parks, has played big in recent years because the wind has blown in. Scouts disdain that argument, citing that second baseman Kevin Melillo still out-homered Powell last year 12-10. "What, did the wind only blow in for Landon?" one laughed.
This year, though, the draft will treat Powell a lot better than it has in the past. Everyone knows he's in. While he might have to sign for a bit of a senior discount, he won't be one of those college seniors offered a $1,000, take-it-or-leave it bonus. A consensus of area scouts contacted for Baseball America's draft coverage list him as a third- to fourth-round talent, who might even go a tad higher.
"He's not Jason Varitek," one said, "but he's gotten better."
And he's come a long way from Apex High.