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Compiled By John Manuel
With the top college programs starting conference play and having played more than 25 games by now, no single player has emerged from a pack of five to seven top talents, according to scouts contacted for this story. While none wanted to speak for attribution, most consider this draft class a good one.
"This draft has more position players than pitchers, and that never happens," an American League scouting director said. "Everybody is comfortable with drafting college pitching, and the lack of deep college pitching is pushing some (other) guys up. There's a lot of depth in this draft, a lot of good players, but maybe not the star guys at the top. But with a third-round choice you can still get a guy who can contribute in the majors."
That's certainly the consensus view. While the No. 1 overall talent remains prep shortstop/outfielder Justin Upton, the top of the college crop has seen only a subtle reorganization since the season began. The names remain the same, only with Tennessee righthander Luke Hochevar moving past his former Team USA rotation mate, Wichita State's Mike Pelfrey, to the top spot among pitchers.
Pelfrey throws harder more consistently than Hochevar, touching 96 mph regularly with his fastball, but Hochevar's command and steady four-pitch mix have earned universal raves from scouts this spring. Pelfrey was impressive in two starts in mid-March, particularly in 1-0 loss to Cesar Ramos and Long Beach State.
The biggest red flag for either pitcher is their representation. Hochevar and Pelfrey join several other top pitchers in the '05 class--such as Baylor's Mark McCormick, Georgia Tech's Jason Neighborgall and St. John's Craig Hansen--in having agent Scott Boras as their adviser. Georgia Tech shortstop Tyler Greene, Texas catcher Taylor Teagarden and Arizona State first baseman/outfielder Jeff Larish are among the other possible top picks who are Boras clients.
"There's no discount with any of those guys," one scouting director noted dryly.
The AL scouting director added, "Hochevar and Pelfrey will get what they want in the top 10 picks, as long as they don't ask for the moon."
Bats To Spare?
Nebraska third baseman Alex Gordon remains the top-ranked college player. He hasn't had many pitches to hit and when he has, he has feasted on a parade of poor teams. However, scouts still like his upside and believe he's capable of staying at third base.
"When I saw him recently, the kid was getting frustrated because he's getting pitched around quite a bit," one National League scouting director. "He was chasing some balls out of the strike zone, but I think he'll be all right. The swing was there. His defense will be fine; he has skills to play third base. No one thought of Wade Boggs as a defensive player either, and he won some Gold Gloves."
Teams that won't get a shot at Gordon have other infield options. Virginia third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who was Team USA's top hitter last summer, is a potential Gold Glover down the line at third, and some scouts wonder if Zimmerman's soft hands and clean footwork could handle a move to shortstop, similar to the shift Khalil Greene made in college. Zimmerman's power isn't prototypical for third base, but he had three homers so far this season after hitting one in his first two years.
The '05 crop also offers two premium shortstops: Greene and Troy Tulowitzki of Long Beach State. Tulowitzki is favored on most clubs' lists and draw comparisons to former Dirtbags shortstop Bobby Crosby, though he could be better defensively. Scouts give Greene's bat and glove mixed reviews; his best asset is his track record with wood bats, as he led Team USA in batting in 2003 and hit .296 with 11 extra-base hits in the Cape Cod League last summer.
Tulowitzki has missed most of the season with a broken hamate bone in his left hand, and injuries have been a factor for other players. Maryland's Justin Maxwell has seen his status take a hit after another broken arm. Other players hampered are Winthrop outfielder Daniel Carte, battling an oblique strain, and McNeese State righthander Jacob Marceaux, who was rising on team's draft lists before a rib cage injury.
One college bat on the rise this spring is Miami's Ryan Braun, Baseball America’s 2003 Freshman of the Year. While Braun gets pull-happy at times and has a hitch in his swing, he has athleticism, above-average speed and loft power, a rare combination in a college position player. He also has excellent makeup and probably has enough arm and athleticism to play a corner outfield spot if he continues to struggle at his new college position, third base.
One NL scouting director, though, disagreed strongly about the strength of this year’s college crop. He cites the possibility of 20 supplemental picks—still yet to be determined, due to the still-ongoing negotiations with 2004 first-rounders Jered Weaver and Stephen Drew—and the underwhelming talent in college baseball's four power conferences (Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Pacific-10 and Southeastern). While Drew and Weaver could join Wade Townsend in re-entering the draft, this scouting director still sees more picks than he sees talent.
"Guys are saying that, that it's a strong draft, but I don't see it," he said. "First, the depth that there is, with all the supplemental picks, it's going to be like there's an extra round in there. Second, the college pitching is just not that strong. Look at the Pac-10, SEC, ACC and Big 12. You go through the best conferences, and there's not a lot of college pitching, not a lot of quality major leaguers."
Of course, that won't be known for several years. Most scouts, it appears, are choosing to look on the bright side with this year's college crop.
• Junior outfielder Jeremy Slayden (.388-7-33) has come back with authority from shoulder surgery that sidelined him almost all of last season, working his way toward the first round. While one scout graded his throwing arm as a 30 on the 20-80 scale, Slayden's bat is what has scouts talking. His lefthanded power compares favorably with other players in the draft class other than third baseman Alex Gordon and catcher Jeff Clement. "I don't really feel like it affects my hitting at all," Slayden said. "I just feel like throwing, I don't have quite the jump on my ball that I'd like to have, but some days it is great."
• Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin suspended junior lefthander Ryan Mullins (2-0, 3.93) indefinitely prior to the team's recent series against Baylor. Mullins was reinstated after missing two series, during which the Commodores fell out of the Top 25 and went 1-5. The (Nashville) Tennessean reported that Mullins was charged March 6 with a DUI after recorded a .09 blood-alcohol content. The legal limit in Tennessee is .09. "He's human so he feels bad about it, but he didn't feel bad about it enough that particular night to stop himself from making that decision," Corbin told the newspaper. "That is where the youth comes in that he's got to correct." Mullins apologized publicly for the incident, which may affect his standing with some teams for this year's draft.
"I don't think this kid has any prior baggage or issues. He's a pretty solid kid," one American League scouting director said. "It's a lapse in judgment, a bad decision at a very bad time in his career, but we're still pretty comfortable that he's a solid kid."
• Troy outfielder Adam Godwin was setting up to be a solid senior sign. A 6.5-second runner over 60 yards, Godwin was leading the nation with 34 stolen bases in 37 tries while hitting .390 with a .457 on-base percentage.
Contributing: Will Kimmey.