Pros took big bite out of Clemson's banner class
by Jim Callis
CHICAGO—College teams have to walk a fine line in recruiting. They have to pursue players good enough to take them to Omaha, yet not so obviously good that major league clubs will pay them big money to turn pro.
Clemson thought it had done just that with its recruiting class for the 2003 season. The Tigers took a gamble on projected first-rounders Jeff Francoeur and Matt Whitney, but backed them up with mid-level prospects such as Zack Greinke and Jeremy Hermida.
But by the time the 2002 draft arrived, Greinke had become the most polished pitcher in the high school class, and Hermida its most dangerous hitter. They joined Francoeur and Whitney as first-round picks and all signed for seven-figure bonuses.
If baseball was like football, and players were required to spend three years in college before becoming draft-eligible, Clemson wouldn't rank sixth in the Atlantic Coast Conference and 36th overall in our College Preview. The Tigers also wouldn't be shut out on our preseason All-America teams.
Here's what our first team would look like:
Daric Barton, c, Cal State Fullerton (Athletics). Perhaps the best player the A's received in the Mark Mulder trade, Barton is one of the most promising hitters in the minors. There are lots of questions about his catching ability, and he probably wouldn't have answered them by now with the Titans because All-American Kurt Suzuki would have pushed him to first base or DH.
Eric Duncan, 1b, Louisiana State (Yankees). First base would have been a tough call between Duncan and Cubs slugger Brian Dopirak, but Dopirak didn't qualify because he was headed to St. Petersburg (Fla.) Junior College out of high school.
Brandon Wood, 2b, Texas (Angels). The Longhorns thought they'd keep Wood, a slick fielder but a bit of a lightweight at the plate. Then he added a lot of strength and made a run at the Arizona prep home run record, boosting himself into 2003's first round.
Ian Stewart, 3b, Southern California (Rockies). The Trojans should have known that a third baseman with a sweet lefty swing would lead to disappointment. Southern California also couldn't keep Eric Chavez and Sean Burroughs from the pros.
B.J. Upton, ss, Florida State (Devil Rays). Upton's commitment to the Seminoles was a mere formality because both sides knew he would go near the top of the 2002 draft. But had he gone to Florida State, he would have pushed Stephen Drew off shortstop.
Jeff Francoeur, of, Clemson (Braves). The Tigers haven't made the end-of-the-season Top 25 since the pros blew apart their Francoeur/Greinke/Hermida recruiting class, though they did come within an inning of reaching the College World Series last June. After going 6-5 in 2004, Clemson's football team also could have used Francoeur, a high school all-America defensive back.
Jeremy Hermida, of, Clemson (Marlins). Francoeur and Hermida would have given Clemson its best outfield since 1993, which featured future big leaguers Billy McMillon, Shane Monahan and Keith Williams, as well as NFL cornerback Dexter McCleon.
Delmon Young, of, Arizona (Devil Rays). The Wildcats went to the 2004 College World Series without Young, who almost certainly would have topped Jordan Brown (.306-13-57) for the team lead in homers and RBIs.
Prince Fielder, dh, Arizona State (Brewers). Contrary to many reference sources, Prince's father Cecil never played college baseball at Nevada-Las Vegas. The two-time home run champ enrolled at UNLV in the fall of 1981, but dropped out and entered the June 1982 draft.
Ryan Sweeney, of/lhp, San Diego State (White Sox). The White Sox have no plans to pitch Sweeney, the only non-first-rounder on this team, but some clubs liked him better on the mound. He would have done both for the Aztecs while benefiting from the tutelage of Tony Gwynn.
Chad Billingsley, rhp, South Carolina (Dodgers). Billingsley's power arm would have fit nicely on a curveball-oriented Gamecocks staff led by Matt Campbell and Billy Buckner last spring. South Carolina finished third in its third straight trip to Omaha, and Billingsley might have put them over the top.
Matt Cain, rhp, Memphis (Giants). Cain and Sweeney are the only two players on this team who weren't headed to perennial powers. A late bloomer, Cain didn't emerge as the top starter on his Houston High (Germantown, Tenn.) staff until teammate Conor Lalor injured his elbow.
Zack Greinke, rhp, Clemson (Royals). The first player on this list to reach the majors, Greinke swiftly emerged as Kansas City's top starter last year. Hard to believe he entered his senior season regarded as perhaps a better infielder than pitcher.
Scott Kazmir, lhp, Texas (Devil Rays). If the Longhorns didn't have to battle the pros for players, they could have trotted out a sick all-southpaw rotation last season. J.P. Howell went 15-2, 2.13 before the Royals made him a supplemental first-rounder, but he would have taken a back seat to Kazmir and Rangers 2003 first-rounder John Danks.
Adam Miller, rhp, Arizona (Indians). Not only was Miller not the Wildcats' top recruit for 2004—that would be Young—he wasn't even the most coveted pitcher in their class. But drugs have since destroyed Jeff Allison's career, while Miller is one of the top five mound prospects in the game.
You can reach Jim Callis by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.