Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana are the only states in the Midwest with strong youth baseball programs, and it shows in 2001. The other 10 states have a combined four projected high school picks in the first five rounds, while Oklahoma alone has five. The state's colleges don't have much to offer beyond seniors, led by Oklahoma outfielder Greg Dobbs, who can sign as a free agent before the draft because he's a fifth-year senior.
Projected First-Round Picks
Michael Wilson. The top three outfield prospects in the draft all have football connections. South Carolina high schooler Roscoe Crosby is a Clemson recruit as a wide receiver, Auburn's Gabe Gross quarterbacked the Tigers as a freshman, and Wilson has a scholarship to play linebacker at Oklahoma. He's a 6-foot-2, 215-pound athlete loaded with raw ability. He runs the 60-yard dash in 6.6-6.7 seconds, has power to go with his speed and plays a fine center field. He even was clocked throwing 90 mphas a sophomore. Though he's a bit stiff, Wilson made the U.S. junior national team last summer. Team USA officials persuaded him to bat solely righthanded, though he's switch-hitting again this spring. His future lies in baseball, and he's expected to turn pro as a supplemental first-rounder.
Possible Second- to Fifth-Round Picks
Steven Shell. Shell has one of the easiest arm actions in the draft, which may tempt a team to take him in the supplemental first round. Long and loose at 6-foot-5 and 195 pounds, he looks like he's on cruise control but delivers a consistent 88-92 mph fastball that tops out at 94. He projects to develop a hard slider, though his changeup will need work. Shell and fellow high school prospects Kole Strayhorn, Billy Bajema and Travis Wendte helped an Oklahoma team go 110-6 during the summer of 1997, including winning the National Amateur Baseball Federation's Sophomore World Series.
Mike Hinckley. Shell, Strayhorn and Justin James were established talents entering the spring, but Hinckley has come on to join them as early-round picks. His arm works nearly as well as Shell's, allowing him to throw 90-91 mph. Rail-thin at 6-foot-3 and 160 pounds, Hinckley is projectable. His curveball is one of the better breaking balls in the state. He plays on the same Moore High team as Wendte, a righthander who's more mature but otherwise is similar to Hinckley.
Kole Strayhorn. Another Oklahoma high school pitcher, another guy with fantastic arm speed. Strayhorn tantalized scouts by touching 96 mph at last summer's Area Code Games, but he hasn't thrown quite as well this spring. He reached 94, tends to overthrow and is getting tagged with a maximum-effort label. At 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, he doesn't have as much room as Shell and Hinckley to add velocity. Strayhorn's hard curveball has its moments.
Ryan Budde. Scouting directors voted Budde as the catcher on Baseball America's preseason All-America first team, though they wanted him to prove that he could hit. He hit just .275 and .291 in his first two years at Oklahoma State, and dipped to .172 when using a wood bat with Team USA last summer. Budde didn't prove anything, batting .209 in 14 games before rupturing the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in March. Some scouts still think he's the best college catcher available, while others think he needs to come back next year and answer the questions about his bat. His defense isn't challenged. He's an athletic receiver with a strong arm. He threw out four of 10 basestealers before getting hurt.
Justin James. James isn't as smooth as the state's other top pitchers, but he does throw 90-91 mph when he's at his best. He has an unusual arm action where he looks like he releases the ball with a flick of his wrist, which may explain why his velocity is up and down. Some days he doesn't get much better than 86 mph. A linebacker on Yukon High's football team, he's a solid 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds. He too was part of a championship youth team, winning the 1999 Amateur Athletic Union national tournament for 17-year-olds.
Others To Watch:
After sitting out last year because he was academically ineligible after transferring from Long Beach State, Oklahoma OF/3B Greg Dobbs was leading the Big 12 Conference in hitting at .428 entering the NCAA postseason. He's a lefthanded hitter with a quality bat, but he may not have more than gap power and is limited to left field or first base as a pro. He's eligible to sign before the draft as a fifth-year senior . . . Many of the state's best college prospects are seniors, including Oklahoma State's OF Luke Scott, RHP Darren Heal and Oklahoma State LHP Josh Merrigan. Scott's best tool is his power, which he showcased last summer by winning the Cape Cod League home run title. Heal caught briefly after Budde got hurt and had no success as a catcher or pitcher. He throws in the mid-90s, which got him drafted in the 11th round by the Orioles last year. Merrigan doesn't throw as hard as his size (6-foot-4, 225 pounds) might dictate, but he has a good feel for pitching . . . 3B Eric Thornton was the best high school hitter in the state, and his speed and arm are playable. He broke a 67-year-old state record by stroking hits in 18 consecutive at-bats . . . RHP Michael Rogers returned from Tommy John surgery to win his first 14 decisions this spring. He throws three pitches for strikes, including a fastball that peaks in the low 90s . . . RHP/OF Billy Bajema played two positions in baseball and two more in football (tight end and defensive end), and was a member of the Westmoore High basketball team. An Oklahoma State football recruit, he's 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds. Bajema has an 87-89 mph fastball and is raw . . . On a good day, RHP Rocky Cherry shows a 90-91 mph sinker, which will get him drafted . . . Connors State JC C Kyle Roat is Oklahoma's top juco prospect. He has a strong arm and quick bat, though some question his hitting ability. Some scouts like him better than Budde. He's under control to the Braves and probably won't get back into the draft . . . Seminole State JC RHP Joe Coppinger is the best prospect among the state's juco players who weren't drafted last year. He's the younger brother of former big leaguer Rocky Coppinger.
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