Image credit: Jackson Rutledge (Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Welcome to Baseball America’s Draft Stock Watch. A recurring feature throughout draft season, we’ll use this space to explore rising and falling prospects in the 2020 draft class and also dive into various themes and topics at greater length. We’ve previously looked at the to-do list for first-round caliber prospects. Today’s edition focuses on junior college prospects and the benefits juco programs can offer players.
Jackson Rutledge never dreamed of going to San Jacinto (Texas) junior college.
A solid prospect out of high school, Rutledge, like most high school players around the country, dreamed of going off to a power five school where he would play big games in big stadiums in front of big crowds.
Things change though, and after dealing with a season-ending injury in his first year with Arkansas, Rutledge stumbled upon a small, two-year school just outside of Houston. A program that won’t ever appear in the College World Series, but one that had produced more than 40 professional players since 2006.
“That was the selling point when I decided to go to San Jac as opposed to staying at Arkansas or going to another school,” Rutledge told Baseball America in January, as he was getting ready for his first full professional season as the No. 3 prospect in the Nationals system.
“It was about the guys who move on and become really successful. I mean, even Roger Clemens—who almost made the Hall of Fame (recently)—to guys who are in the big leagues right now. Seeing those guys who were San Jac guys who got better there and really learned how to play the game, learned how to manage their schedules and all that, that is what sold me.”
Rutledge is one of the best recent examples of how the juco route can pay off for players. While he entered the year as a Top 100 draft prospect before pitching an inning for San Jacinto, Rutledge cited an environment that centered specifically on player development as the reason for his explosion up draft boards.
“I think the goals are certainly different going from the four-year school to a junior college,” Rutledge said. “At the junior college level it’s about moving guys on. It’s about seeing how many guys you can get committed to four-year schools or get drafted or get where they want to go. Whereas, with four-year schools it’s more a focus on winning games and championships. Which is great for a lot of guys, but for some guys it can be detrimental because they need to develop a little bit more.
“So that’s where I think going junior college can be really big for guys like myself … I could get healthy and get stronger and get better and adjust to the college game rather than just being pushed right out there into being expected to win games.”
While junior college prospects make up around just 10 percent of all players drafted and signed over the last decade—fewer than high school products and certainly fewer than four-year college products—Rutledge believes more players should strongly consider taking advantage of the path he and others like Blue Jays righthander Nate Pearson benefitted from. Though he did admit it wasn’t for everyone.
“If I know a guy who is a really hard working, independent, kind of knows what he needs to do and has a plan for how he needs to get better and how he needs to go about his season—I would absolutely tell him to go to a junior college,” Rutledge said. “Because there is that extra freedom, the extra time you have to get your work in. The coaching staffs are more accommodating towards what you need to do.
“Whereas if it’s a guy who needs to have someone, not really hold his hand but (needs) a little more structure … in my experience four-year schools were a lot more structured and detailed and kind of ‘(here’s) what you have to do each day.’ Which, personally for myself because I work a little bit different than most people as far as routine and all that, I preferred having the freedom of the junior college. But again it just depends on the player.”
Chipola (Fla) College coach Jeff Johnson has been running a two-year program for more than two decades and understands the benefits that jucos can offer more than most. To him, one of the most obvious is opportunity.
The opportunity is two-fold: one, to get on the field more frequently without competing against 27 other players on scholarship and two, to go through the draft process more frequently.
“I just think about juco people need to understand that to me, you’re able to get drafted each year, so if you go to junior college, you can technically get drafted five times in your career,” said Johnson, who has had players drafted and signed in each of the last six years and in each year this century outside of 2013, 2011 and 2007.
“The way it’s set up now if you get in the right spot with the slot and money per se and get in the top two or three rounds, you have a lot better chance of getting some money and those five years—or more money.
“(In Division I, there are) sophomores and juniors who are proven players and the freshmen, unless they are just exceptional, not many of the freshmen really go in and play as true freshmen very often,” Johnson said. “So I think there is a lot of that—having to wait your turn at the Division I level… The reality is reality is, you’re not getting better if you’re not playing and you’re not going to get better if you’re not getting any development.
“I think at the junior college level, what I would say is every option is still available for you. You go to a junior college in Texas, you go to a junior college in Florida—and some other places, but especially those places—the competition level you’re going to play at, day in and day out is probably as good as mid-major baseball, to be honest with you. Also you have the opportunity to get out and play every day, you’re eligible for the draft again probably less expensive on you to go to junior college.”
Johnson has also had to change his recruiting and coaching philosophies over the years. With the draft-and-follow process long gone, you can’t rely on scouts and MLB clubs to hand you prospects to fill out a roster. Juco coaches have to build networks with advisors and hop into the recruiting trenches with mid-major, Division II and Division III coaches, while also keeping an eye on the transfer portal.
While the recruiting job has gotten more difficult, top juco programs are still expected to keep up with the latest technology and implement it into player development like every other collegiate program in the country. Yes, having a track record of developing pro players does help the process, but the work doesn’t simply disappear because of that.
“You don’t get a lot of calls if people don’t think you’re working at it,” Johnson said. “And you have to be in the trenches to know where the guys are and for people to talk to you and get you information to where you can be in a situation where you receive those calls too.”
The strength of junior college classes in any given year is determined by the high-end players. With such a small percentage of juco players comprising the pool of players who are signed, it’s hard to have a strong juco year based on depth, with little impact talent at the top.
However, the depth of the 2020 class is interesting and many evaluators say the group is above-average, even without any prospects currently ranked on our Top 100 draft list. It’s possible that an arm or a bat pops up in the next few weeks, as the only games the scouting community will be watching until mid-February are junior college games—which is another small benefit for players to factor in when deciding whether or not to consider a juco program.
This year’s class of juco prospects is made up of a number of pitchers with impressive raw stuff, but more limited history of honing that pure potential and consistently throwing strikes. With a step forward in the command and control department, a player’s draft stock can change.
Here are 11 of the most interesting junior college prospects in the country:
1. Franco Aleman, RHP, St. Johns River (Fla.) JC
2. Luke Little, LHP, San Jacinto (Texas) JC
3. Brandon Birdsell, RHP, San Jacinto (Texas) JC
4. Hunter Ruth, RHP, Palm Beach State (Fla.) JC
5. Connor Phillips, RHP, McLennan (Texas) JC
6. Joshua Day, SS, Copiah-Lincoln (Miss.) JC
7. Beck Way, RHP, Northwest Florida State JC
8. Jermaine Vanheyningen, RHP, Florence-Darlington Tech (S.C.) JC
9. Bryson Ware, SS, Pearl River (Miss.) JC
10. Ryan Ritter, SS, John A. Logan (Ill.) JC
11. Jalen Battles, SS, McLennan (Texas) JC
There have been 13 first-round junior college draft picks this century. For the most part, those players have a solid track record of becoming valuable major league pieces: from backup and part-time players like Cory Spangenberg (2011, Padres); to consistent everyday players like Nick Markakis (2003, Orioles); to MVP-caliber superstars like Bryce Harper (2010, Nationals)
Below you can find the top five junior college prospects of the last decade, with their draft scouting reports included.
1. Bryce Harper, C, JC of Southern Nevada (No. 1, 2010)
“After Harper skipped out on his final two years of high school to enroll in a wood-bat junior college league, even his biggest supporters probably would have underestimated how he would perform this season. Over his 180 regular-season at-bats, the 17-year-old hit .417/.509/.917. The school record for home runs was 12, set when the school still used aluminum bats. Harper finished with 23. He has top-of-the-scale power, but scouts have differing opinions about what kind of hitter he’ll be. Some believe his exaggerated load and ferocious swings will cause him to strike out 125-140 times a season and keep his average around .250. Others believe in his exceptional hand-eye coordination and expect him to calm down his swing in pro ball, figuring .280-.300 isn’t out of the question. Harper also has 80 raw arm strength on the 20-80 scouting scale, but he needs to shorten up his arm action for it to play better behind the plate. Scouts are also split on where he’ll end up defensively. Some believe he’ll be fine at catcher. Others think he will either outgrow the position or that his bat will be too good to hold back, so a team will want to move him to the position that gets him to the big leagues the fastest—either third base or right field. Harper has done some incredible things on a baseball field, like hitting 500-foot home runs, throwing runners out at first from the outfield, and scoring from second base on a passed ball. He’s received more attention and unfounded criticism than any amateur player in years. Perhaps the biggest question now is: Is it possible for him to live up to the hype? He’s seeking to break Stephen Strasburg’s record bonus, and that certainly won’t reduce the hype or the pressure.”
2. Nate Pearson, RHP, JC of Central Florida (No. 14, 2019)
“As a high school senior, Pearson received little interest from pro teams. He was a tall righthander whose fastball could reach 93, but he had no usable offspeed pitch. So he enrolled at Florida International, where he got stronger and got some experience, earning more than 30 innings that spring. Following his freshman year, Pearson transferred to the JC of Central Florida, where his stock took off. In a bullpen during the fall, Pearson’s fastball touched 100, creating buzz throughout the amateur scouting community. In a starting role in the spring, Pearson pitched mostly at 93-94 and touched 97 in most starts. His fastball shows late running or sinking movement and he made tremendous growth with his command. His changeup now projects as a plus pitch, showing late fade when he locates it down in the zone. He throws both a slider and a curveball, and scouts see his slider as a more prominent part of his future. The pitch shows slurvy shape and sits in the low 80s. Pearson’s athleticism and rapid growth could lead him to come off the board as high as the back of the first round. Scouts have compared him to Carl Pavano because of his size, athleticism and potent fastball-changeup combo.”
3. Jackson Rutledge, RHP, San Jacinto (Texas) JC (No. 14, 2019)
“Rutledge entered the season as the second-ranked junior college prospect in the class after fellow righthander Carter Stewart because of his high school pedigree, tantalizing raw stuff and imposing, 6-foot-8, 260-pound frame. Out of high school, Rutledge had a solid, 90-93 mph fastball with impressive sinking life, but he needed to improve both his secondaries and overall control. Rutledge threw just 15.2 innings as a freshman at Arkansas before going down with a season-ending hip injury. Following the season, he decided to transfer to San Jacinto (Texas) JC and expected to enter the 2020 draft as a Kentucky commit. Those plans changed, however, when Rutledge came out this spring showing some of the best pure stuff of any pitcher in the country with improved control. Rutledge has regularly been into the upper 90s with his fastball, and he has held that velocity into the sixth and seventh innings of his starts throughout the season. In addition, he’s shown a pair of plus breaking balls in both a slider and curveball. Previously, Rutledge threw a hybrid breaking ball that was more slurve-like, but after interning with Pro Pitching Performance last summer (while he rehabbed from injury) Rutledge worked to differentiate those pitches with Rapsodo feedback and now has two distinct, swing-and-miss breaking pitches. He also has a changeup that could be a fourth above-average offering. While he isn’t facing the strongest competition, Rutledge struck out 123 batters through his first 12 starts and 77.2 innings (14.25 strikeouts per nine) this spring, with just 28 walks (3.25 walks per nine). Since his time in high school, Rutledge has significantly shortened his arm action. It’s now an incredibly tight and compact delivery, to the point that some scouts wonder how he’s able to generate and maintain his velocity. The upgrade in arm action has allowed him to improve his control, but scouts think he’ll need to continue refining his command when he faces stiffer competition at the pro level. Regardless, his pure stuff and the deception he creates with his delivery should give him plenty of room for error as he climbs the ladder. Rutledge has the upside of a No. 2 starter, but he carries some reliever risk due to his size and history of control problems.
4. Brady Aiken, LHP, IMG Academy, Bradenton, Fla. (No. 22, 2015)
“Aiken jumped to the front of the 2014 draft class when his velocity ticked up during his senior season at Cathedral Catholic High in San Diego. The Astros selected him first overall and worked out an agreement to sign him for $6.5 million. That fell apart after a difference of opinion of what an MRI of his elbow taken in a post-draft physical showed, and Aiken ultimately turned down a reported $5 million deal, becoming the first No. 1 overall pick not to sign in more than 30 years. After considerable fallout from the ordeal, Aiken chose to pitch for IMG Academy’s postgrad team along with Jacob Nix, whose own deal with the Astros was scuttled when Aiken’s deal fell apart. Aiken threw just 13 pitches in his first start for IMG, however. He exited the game with an injury and had Tommy John surgery six days later. Aiken had no physical problems leading up to the 2014 draft and, when he was healthy, had as much promise as anyone. His fastball touched 97 mph and sat in the low 90s. He located the pitch well to both sides of the plate while mixing in a plus curveball, a promising changeup and a developing slider. He has a clean, fluid delivery, an ideal pitcher’s frame and plenty of athleticism. Now, however, Aiken won’t be able to pitch again until 2016 and is the biggest wildcard in the draft. What teams think of his medical reports and the deal that can be struck will determine when and where he goes.”
5. Tim Anderson, SS, East Central (Miss.) JC (No. 26, 2013)
“It’s a banner year for Mississippi junior colleges, and Anderson has a chance to become the highest-drafted such player in a June draft. A Tuscaloosa, Ala., native, Anderson missed much of his high school baseball career due to basketball, first because of knee injuries as a sophomore, then because of a state title run as a junior that overlapped much of baseball season. He focused on baseball in junior college and hit .328 with five home runs in the Jayhawk League last summer. He has followed up by showing solid power this spring to go with his other prodigious tools. Anderson stands out in a draft class light on middle infielders. Scouts aren’t sold that he’ll stick at shortstop thanks to average arm strength. He has middle-infield actions and needs repetition at the pro level to see where he’ll stick. His athleticism and plus-plus speed would play in center field. Some scouts see power in Anderson’s bat and consider him a potential Brandon Phillips, while others see him as a faster version of Orlando Hudson. Either way, Anderson will be the first or second middle infielder picked and won’t be following through on his commitment to Alabama-Birmingham.”