WTNY Best College Hitters
To continue shooting from the armchair, if I was a Major League general manager, there are eighteen college hitters that I would consider taking in the first round. Eighteen players that I would offer six- or seven-figure bonuses to; eighteen that I would hope grace prospect lists before taking the field in my uniform. Should I be Walt Jocketty, with the last pick in the first round, my draft board of college hitters gets thrown out should number eighteen be chosen ahead of me.
I will admit that I do not have the bias towards college players like many of my peers, though I understand it is the safer choice. This year's crop is fairly deep in middle-of-the-road prospects, with one blue chipper, and a whole bunch that grade out as "solid" after that. With the June Amateur Draft a little less than a month away, and the College World Series inching closer and closer, I thought it time to look a how the eighteen were doing.
Here is a brief position-by-position analysis of the best hitters available from the NCAA this year...
At the catching position, the best hitters available are Jeff Clement (USC), Taylor Teagarden (Texas) and Nick Hundley (Arizona). Here are the statistics of the three through the weekend:
Name BA SLG BB/K SB AB JC 0.354 0.639 35/27 4 147 TT 0.327 0.497 35/34 3 165 NH 0.345 0.673 35/36 9 171
I have concerns about this group, as no player in this group is anywhere near perfect. Clement has a long documented history of power, including 21 home runs as a Freshman, but I wonder what else will translate to the pros. He is somewhat reminiscent to former USC backstop Eric Munson, another highly thought of Trojan catcher that never justified his top-10 selection. Clement has some defensive inadequacies to overcome, but his power and patience behind the plate will make him an early selection.
Taylor Teagarden is everything that Clement is not, a fabulously talented catcher with offensive questions. Teagarden will likely rise up a system quickly with a good defensive grades all over his resume. If I were drafting Taylor I would worry that I might be drafting a back-up catcher, as his bat might not make the jump well. Teagarden has very little power, but hopes to turn into a Brad Ausmus type behind the plate.
The sleeper of the group could be Hundley, who has out-hit Clement while playing better defense with the Wildcats. All these catchers have good patience, though Hundley has proven to be the most apt to strikeout of the group. There is a decent chance that he will slip in the draft to the twenties or so, but Hundley could be a similar pick to Kurt Suzuki last year, a player the A's are thanking their lucky stars for drafting.
Three interesting stories make up the group I selected to be a part of the list. They are Stephen Head (Miss.), John Mayberry Jr. (Stanford), and Jeff Larish (Az. St.). Their numbers:
Name BA SLG BB/K SB AB SH 0.316 0.615 18/31 3 187 JM 0.308 0.485 22/26 3 169 JL 0.328 0.678 39/45 8 180
Quite the group at first, as we have one of the nation's best two-way players, a former first-rounder with Major League pedigree, and the nation's best Senior who overcame a tough junior season. Head is the best of the group, a southpaw at Mississippi known for both his bat and his left arm. I love that Head has light-tower potential, doesn't strike out very much, and is very athletic. With that being said, the walks and batting average are fairly worrisome for a future corner player, and I do wonder whether Head will become an all-power, nothing else guy in the future.
It seems as though John Mayberry Jr. is a poor man's Stephen Head, especially with low numbers in the walks and strikeouts column. Mayberry's power has evaporated this season, and his batting average is the lowest on this list. There is no doubt in my mind that Mayberry comes into the draft a bit overrated, as his father may have more to do with his draft position than his junior season numbers.
Jeff Larish has the best numbers of the group by far, with the typical power-patience combination you look for in a first baseman. Larish was projected to be a first-round choice last year, but really struggled and decided to return to Tempe for his senior season. This definitely creates concerns that Larish will be the type that takes a while to adjust to levels, which is often the problem of a quad-A player.
Only one player at second base, but an impressive one in Jed Lowrie (Stanford), his numbers:
Name BA SLG BB/K SB AB JL 0.313 0.594 28/29 3 160
A few seasons ago, the Chicago Bulls drafted Kirk Hinrich out of Kansas with their first-round choice in the NBA Draft. A proven player from a well-respected school, Hinrich had less risk than any player in the draft. Lowrie could very well be baseball's Hinrich, as I don't believe his ceiling is that of some players, but he should be somewhat of a contributor in short order. I think the best explanation of Lowrie's skillset was given by Craig Burley, who chose him second among any second baseman younger than 24 years old alive:
A natural shortstop, Lowrie moved to second base as a freshman and was named the best defensive second baseman in the Pac-10 by Baseball America, so we know he can play there...What is really attractive, though, is his bat. For all intents and purposes, Lowrie was the best hitter in the NCAA last year (he ranked at the top of my Adjusted Hitters Rankings until the very end of the season and ended up third in a virtual dead heat). What's more impressive is that he did this as a sophomore. He does everything -- he hits for average, he hits for a ton of power, and he takes his walks. And he did it all against some of the toughest competition in college ball.
Moving to the left side, we have quite the talented group at shortstop with Tyler Greene (Georgia Tech), Troy Tulowitzki (Long Beach St.) and Cliff Pennington (Texas A&M). Great numbers for shortstops, too:
Name BA SLG BB/K SB AB TG 0.340 0.553 27/54 25 197 TT 0.372 0.673 10/24 2 113 CP 0.363 0.563 28/22 23 190
Top to bottom, the shortstops are in an intense battle with third basemen for the most talented position on this list. It all starts with Troy Tulowitzki, the Long Beach State shortstop that my partner Mr. Lederer has been boasting for two years. Troy has a .301 ISO this season, despite playing in an extreme pitcher's park in Blair Field. His power, teamed with his size (6-3) and arm (Big West's best) have drawn comparisons to former Dirtbag Bobby Crosby for years. He doesn't walk as much as his fellow shortstops, but Tulo has just about everything else to offer a Major League team.
Right behind Troy is Tyler Greene, who I contemplated ranking as the top shortstop in the draft. Greene was a second-round choice by the Atlanta Braves out of high school, when it was believed that Tyler already had Major League defense. While only improving in that area since then, Greene has slowly quieted those that doubted his bat. Tyler runs very well, walks a lot, and has added a power element to his game that gives him a little bit of everything. I do wonder whether he will consistently hit when reaching the professional level, and if he can stop striking out in about 27% of his at-bats.
The least-known player of the group is Cliff Pennington, known as a scrappy player that impresses scouts and statheads alike. Pennington has great contact skills, runs well, and shows very good defense up the middle. What power he has shown this season is unlikely to transfer over much professionally, though he could very well be hitting 30 doubles a year in the Bigs. I might go as far to say that Pennington is the most likely of the group to be a league-average player across the board in the Majors, as Cliff looks to be everything Russ Adams was coming out of college.
The hottest prospects may be at the hot corner this year, with Alex Gordon (Nebraska) leading the way, followed by Ryan Zimmerman (Virginia) and Ryan Braun (Miami):
Name BA SLG BB/K SB AB AG 0.404 0.749 48/26 19 171 RZ 0.402 0.614 23/9 14 184 RB 0.417 0.768 29/27 21 168
Three hitters above .400? OK, the men on the hot corner win for the most stacked group. Gordon is obviously not just on top of this heap, but I have said numerous times before that he sits atop my draft board. His combination of huge power, fantastic patience, and speed are unparalleled in this draft. Gordon has the athleticism to move to left should the Royals and Mariners ask, and his numbers already indicate a greater Major League career ahead than that of Major League all-star Darin Erstad.
In the close battle for second, Ryan Zimmerman wins out ahead of Braun, as Zimmerman is maybe the best defensive player in this draft. Combine his future Gold Glove with his great contact skills, just nine strikeouts this year, and you can see why Zimmerman is so well thought of. My worry is that Zimmerman will not have hot corner power, as everything I heard calls him a doubles hitter. Still, Ryan was the most prolific extra-base hitter on the USA National Team last summer, so there is some potential there. Bill Mueller is the current comparison, though I think Zimmerman could even top the 2003 batting champion down the road.
Still with all that being said about Zimmerman, he only beat out Miami third baseman Ryan Braun by a little bit. Braun has like offensive numbers to Alex Gordon, and Patrick Ebert has projected him to be a future 20-20 player. John Sickels has also touted Braun in the past, as there is very little to dislike with this kid. Miami doesn't have their normal crop of great players to give the draft this year, but Braun is the rare example of a great hitter from a historic program that just isn't garnering any respect.
The outfield encompasses five of the eighteen this year, Jeremy Slayden (Georgia Tech), Travis Buck (Az. St.), Trevor Crowe (Arizona), Daniel Carte (Winthrop) and Jacoby Ellsbury (Oregon St.):
Name BA SLG BB/K SB AB JS 0.349 0.570 23/42 1 186 TB 0.389 0.563 17/29 17 208 TC 0.426 0.775 30/26 20 204 DC 0.318 0.591 17/48 9 198 JE 0.446 0.640 25/8 20 175
This is my favorite group not because it has the best group of players, but instead has two players that I believe have flown under the radar.
Those two are a pair of speedsters that control the strike zone as well as anyone in the powerful Pac-10. The first is Arizona outfielder Trevor Crowe, who is doing just about everything with the Wildcats this season. Where Brian Anderson hit .366 with a .668 slugging in his last season, Crowe is well over .400 with a SLG over .100 points higher. He seems to be everything and more that Anderson was, and should be drafted ahead of the 15th slot that Brian was, and paid in excess of Anderson's $1.6 million.
My other sleeper is Jacoby Ellsbury, who looks like a future leadoff hitter from Oregon St. Ellsbury has struck out an amazing eight times in 175 at-bats this year, while hitting nearly .450, swiping 20 bases and walking a lot.
The top player of the group is Jeremy Slayden, the highly regarded Georgia Tech outfielder that has rebounded from injury well this season. Slayden is projected to be a right fielder in the future, showing good power and patience this year with the Yellow Jackets. My concern is that Slayden looks nothing more than a left-handed Matt Murton -- and while that hasn't looked like criticism through 45 games -- it isn't the highest praise for a top twenty selection.
The generally overrated pair of the fivesome are Travis Buck and Daniel Carte. While Buck was Baseball America's top-ranked outfielder heading into the season, unimpressive BB and ISO numbers have led to a freefall this year. Carte has just OK numbers, but that isn't great when you realize he plays at Winthrop. He is a project, similar in that regard to B.J. Szymanski from last year.
So, with all that being said, I think we have enough evidence for a ranking. Mind you that salt should be taken, as second-hand information and college statistics might not be enough. So, here is my inaugural attempt to rank the best hitters in the NCAA:
1. Alex Gordon, 3B- Nebraska