1. *Eric Munson, c, U. of Southern California
Northern California *
This has been one of the quietest years on record in the northern half of the state. It should be a gold mine next year with four college players--San Francisco 1B/3B Taggert Bozied, California 3B Xavier Nady, and Stanford RHPs Justin Wayne and Jason Young--already pegged as first-rounders . . . RHP Roney Johnson is the highest projected pick, a possible second-rounder. He missed a couple of late starts with a tender arm, so his status isn't clear. His best pitch is a 90-92-mph fastball, and he has a feel for a breaking ball and changeup. His overall approach to pitching is raw and his delivery erratic . . . OF Ricky Manning is the area's best athlete--and one of the best in the country--but his signability is a major issue and could slide him out of the early rounds. He is one of UCLA's top football recruits. Manning's best tool is his speed. He runs the 40 in a lightning-quick 4.3 seconds and his style of play is similar to Kenny Lofton. He can go get balls in center field and is a slasher, though at this stage of his career his bat is suspect . . . RHP Darin Moore is the most polished prospect in the area but still is viewed as a poor man's Dan Reichert--a first-round pick from Pacific in 1997. He's a smallish righthander who can reach 92 mph on occasion but more commonly pitches at 88-89. He gets better run on his fastball at that speed. His out pitch is a nasty knuckle-curve. He also throws in a cut fastball and slider--so he may have too many pitches . . . RHP Jake Joseph is the sleeper. He was almost unknown to scouts at the start of the season, having been out of school for more than a year before he enrolled at Cosumnes River JC to resume his pitching career. It was like he never left. He has good stuff and knows how to use it. The biggest concern is his size; he's only 6 feet and there's not much upside with his body . . . Stanford played a major role in the early rounds of the draft a year ago and will do so again in 2000, but its impact this year will be minimal . . . 3B Josh Hochgesang would have been about a fifth-rounder in 1998 if teams thought he would sign; they didn't and he slid to the 17th round. Now that he's a senior, he'll go where his talent dictates and signability won't be a factor. He's the same player this year, though may be a little bigger and faster. He plays the game hard and has all the tools, but his bat is inconsistent. He is an example of a player who projects to be better as a pro than a collegian . . . OF Edmund Muth's status is clouded for two reasons: He has a year remaining at Stanford and his season was hurt by a case of viral meningitis, which caused him to miss several weeks and left him weakened. The illness shouldn't cause any lingering effects but combined with a mediocre season, it may drop him far enough for him to go back to school. His bat is his best tool. He has legitimate power but struggles against lefthanders . . . California had one of the most disappointing college teams in the country this year, and no one underachieved more than RHP Kevin Johnson, who pitched just 12 innings, walked 21 and struck out 23. He spent most of the spring pitching for Cal's JV team, though he's the school's best prospect for this year's draft. Johnson began his career as a weak-hitting, strong-armed shortstop and made the conversion to pitcher last year. He has outstanding stuff--better than former Bear Tyler Walker, a second-round pick in 1997--but has trouble throwing strikes. More than anything, he just needs a chance to pitch . . . Among the other area collegians, 6-foot-6, 210-pound RHP Justin Reid added a changeup this year to go with a slider and an 87-90-mph fastball and pitched well. The downside is he's a 22-year-old senior with a limited ceiling . . . The high school talent in Northern California is abnormally thin, but a small pocket exists in Visalia, notably at Golden West High. C Sean Daly has two solid tools, power and arm strength, and will likely be the school's highest pick.
Southern California ***
By Southern California standards, the talent level this year is average, with one distinction. It is a cradle for catchers. Within a 50-mile radius are the nation's top college, junior college and high school catchers . . . The jury is still out on whether Eric Munson will remain behind the plate in pro ball. He's got the arm for the position but struggles with his footwork and accuracy and is not a quality receiver. Blocking is the weakest part of his game. It's possible he will end up at first base but that won't jeopardize his draft position. The Tigers, with the third pick, have locked in on Munson's bat and are unconcerned that his catching skills are suspect. He should reach the big leagues quickly regardless of what position he plays. Scouts say he's more advanced at the same stage than former UCLA third baseman Troy Glaus, the third pick in the 1997 draft who reached the big leagues in his first professional season. He has outstanding power and can handle hard stuff or soft stuff equally well. Munson had a bull's-eye on his back from the start of the season. He started on fire and pressed a bit as his team, ranked No. 1 in the preseason, struggled. Then he was sidelined for several weeks with a broken hand that came when he was crossed up on a pitch. He returned to action three weeks before the draft and stamped himself fit . . . Ryan Christianson easily ranks as the best high school catcher in the draft and is one of the few Southern California players who exceeded his hype this spring. He has a complete package. He has above-average power and his catching and throwing skills are top-notch. His swing tends to be a little long at times but he takes a strong, aggressive hack and drives balls hard to all fields. He is strong as an ox, but his body worries scouts a bit. He'll need to work hard to maintain it to keep his quickness behind the plate . . . C Gerald Laird was the second-highest unsigned pick from the 1998 draft and was expected to sign with the Athletics before the start of the closed period. He has admirable defensive skills and speed for his position but did not show the power that was expected this spring. Scouts believe he could become another Jason Kendall who is capable of hitting .290 with 25-30 stolen bases . . . LHP Barry Zito left UC Santa Barbara after his freshman year to make himself eligible for the draft as soon as possible. Two years and two schools later, he's still waiting to move on to pro ball. Zito transferred to Pierce Junior College for his sophomore year and was picked in the third round of the 1998 draft. But he rejected the Rangers' offer and returned to a four-year school. Last year's decision may have been the right one because he's expected to become one of the first 25 to 40 players drafted this year--and may go even higher. He dominated the Pacific-10 Conference, striking out 16 on three occasions. Though he lacks a big-time fastball, he has an outstanding breaking pitch and above-average change and should be a strikeout machine at any level. He has excellent command and should move quickly to the big leagues . . . RHP Justin Lehr was Zito's catcher at UCSB. Despite being drafted in the 10th round a year ago, Lehr also gambled that he could enhance his draft position by not only transferring to USC but becoming a full-time pitcher. It looks like he has succeeded. He was dominant at times with solid-average stuff and is still just learning how to pitch . . . USC's 1998 College World Series champions had more players drafted than anyone a year ago, but 1B/OF Jason Lane, now a senior, was not one of them. Scouts couldn't decide whether he was a pitcher or hitter, but he left little doubt this spring by hitting a team-leading 20 homers. On his power alone, he should be picked in the first six to eight rounds . . . LHP Steve Smyth turned down more than $100,000 from the Braves as a 13th-round pick in 1998. He projects to go in that range again because he has two college years remaining and his signability may be no easier. He throws 88 mph with a solid slider and is still learning to pitch . . . USC's influence on this draft extends to the high school level, as it has signed a number of the top high school prospects in the area . . . SS Pat Manning is one of the best high school hitters in the draft, but some scouts don't think he can play shortstop as a professional. He has the requisite arm strength but does not have pure shortstop actions. His bat will make Manning worth a shot at any position, possibly even catcher . . Six-foot-6 RHP Chad Clark seems so set on USC that he may be unsignable if he's not drafted in the first round or offered first-round money. His live body, easy arm action and 90-92-mph fastball warrant first-round consideration, though he rarely pitched to that standard this spring. His breaking ball is below-average at this point in his development . . . RHP Anthony Reyes also has let it be known that he is intent on attending USC--and, in effect, is unsignable. His talent and frame remind scouts of Jon Garland, the first Southern California high school pitcher drafted in 1997. He has a loose, projectable body with a fastball that consistently ranges from 89-91 mph and occasionally reaches 94 . . . C Alberto Concepcion made headlines when he pounded seven home runs and drove in 18 runs in a two-game spree early this season. His stock has continued to rise since. He's one of the few catchers with legitimate power. He is somewhat of a novice behind the plate, as he didn't begin catching regularly until this year. He had arm surgery at the beginning of his junior year, limiting him to first base in 1998 . . . RHP Colby Lewis is a beneficiary of modern-day medicine. He had Tommy John surgery two falls ago and has bounced back to become a legitimate first-round pick. His performance over the second half of the spring was not as impressive as his start, so his stock may have dropped marginally. He's a strong power pitcher with a quick arm capable of reaching 94-95 mph. He has trouble with his control, and his fastball generally tapers off after four or five innings . . . RHPs Jay Gehrke and Jeremy Ward transferred from out-of-state colleges after last season to enhance their draft status. Gehrke improved his stock dramatically, but Ward slipped . . . Despite having a fastball that ranged from 91-94 mph this spring and a nasty 82-mph slider, Gehrke rarely pitched at Arizona State last year. He excelled as the closer at Pepperdine, leading the nation with 18 saves. He has an ideal closer's mentality as he comes right at hitters . . . Ward began the season as a starter at Long Beach State after making a cross-country move from Wake Forest and floundered. He lacked command and was hit hard. He was installed as a closer in the waning weeks of the season and excelled in his new role. Almost overnight, he worked out his mechanical flaws and his 90-92-mph fastball and quality slider returned. Though his stock has risen again, Ward still won't be drafted quite as high as projected prior to this year . . . RHP Ryan Hamilton also emerged as a premium closer prospect. He was recruited from a California junior college to be a combination shortstop/reliever for San Diego, but it soon became clear that his future was on the mound and he focused on that role. He has a good pitcher's body with a loose arm and the requisite fastball that touches 93 mph though is more commonly thrown at 88-91 . . . Six foot-7 RHP Aaron Harang turned it on for scouts in the second half to challenge Hamilton as the best college pitcher in San Diego, with his 88-91-mph fastball and 82-mph slider creating plenty of interest . . . While most California high school players stay close to home to play college baseball, SSs Patrick Osborn and Kevin Howard are exceptions. Osborn has committed to Florida; Howard to Miami. The chances of both setting foot on campus may be slim, as they are in high demand by major league clubs--though Osborn reportedly has an extremely high price tag . . . The 6-foot-3 Osborn has juice in his bat. He led Team USA's junior squad that went to Venezuela in April in hitting (.500) and RBIs (11), as the United States earned a berth in the World Junior Championships this summer. He reminds scouts of Troy Glaus, a second-round pick as a shortstop out of high school but a prototype third baseman at higher levels . . . Howard is a sound lefthanded hitter with all the qualities needed to excel at shortstop except speed. He has excellent hands and feet and the athleticism to make the spectacular play, but he too may wind up away from shortstop . . . The struggle to identify a player's optimum position in pro ball also applies to Cal State Fullerton signees Michael Snyder and Hank Blalock, who were shortstops in high school and project more as third basemen. Both are lefthanded hitters with power and arm strength--the traits that led to third baseman Sean Burroughs becoming the highest draft pick in Southern California last year . . . C Drew McMillan is a fundamentally sound, athletic catcher with a quick release. Wary baserunners are reluctant to challenge his arm and he gave up only one stolen base all year. He has a ways to go as a hitter. He didn't get the bat head out well against good high school arms and needs to add strength . . . Six-foot-4, 225-pound OF Larry Brown has one of the least likely backgrounds for a top prospect. He did not play high school baseball before this year, choosing to concentrate on football. A new coach at San Fernando High recognized his athletic ability and talked him into playing baseball. The results were so spectacular that several scouting directors came by to take a look for themselves. Though his hitting mechanics are raw and he doesn't know how to use his power in games, Brown hit balls out of sight in batting practice. He also demonstrated above-average speed and surprising arm strength . . . The Southern California high school ranks are filled with big, hard-throwing projectable pitchers in almost every area . . . Six-foot-6 RHP Phil Wilson has the best arm in the San Diego area. He didn't enjoy much success this spring, going 5-5, 4.40, but scouts were quick to look beyond that to see a long, lanky pitcher with good acceleration and leverage, a fastball in the low 90s and an above-average split-finger . . . Six-foot-4 RHP Brian Wolfe has the best arm in Orange County. A good body and good fastball (91-93 mph) are his strengths . . . Six-foot-7, 215-pound RHP Kameron Loe is the class of the high school pitchers in the San Fernando Valley, north of Los Angeles. He doesn't throw as hard as Wilson but has the same body type and should pick up velocity as he fills out . . . To the west of Los Angeles in the Santa Monica mountains, 6-foot-6, 210-pound LHP Scott Rice stirred up the most interest. His reviews were mixed as he lacks a feel for pitching and has mechanical problems that need to be worked out . . . Up the coast in Santa Maria, LHP John Thomas stood out. He doesn't throw as hard as other pitchers in the region but has three serviceable pitches and added 3-4 mph to his fastball since last summer . . . Other pitchers who have generated strong support are 6-foot-3, 180-pound RHP Todd Gelatka, who has a loose, projectable arm but didn't pitch well this spring; RHP Matt Larson, who was clocked from 89-90, threw strikes and made big strides; 6-foot-4, 220-pound RHP Monte Mansfield, who throws 87-90 mph but does so with a maximum effort that concerns scouts . . . Cal State Fullerton got major production this season from SS/3B Ryan Owens and OF Spencer Oborn as it ran away with the Big West title . . . Owens led the team with a career-high 18 home runs, convincing scouts that he has enough pop to play a corner infield position. All his other tools are in place . . . Oborn hit better than .400 in his first two college seasons at Brigham Young and then elected to transfer back home to California to raise his profile for the draft. He hit close to .400 again and reeled off a 38-game hitting streak, though he has a swing that may take some time to adapt to wood. His outfield skills will probably limit him to left field in pro ball . . . OF Mike Riordan is a solid college hitter who runs well. His power and arm strength are considered short for pro ball.
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