Gazing Through Binoculars
Scouts were ready to turn the page. After spending a year preparing for one of the weakest draft classes in years, the page has been turned on the 2006 June Amateur Draft. With its exit go complaints about star power and depth; the 2007 draft offers both.
In fact, early returns on the 2007 draft promise one of the better classes in years, competing with 2004 and 2001 for the decade's best. The junior high school class had a fantastic season, and college sophomores around the country left their imprints in the minds of scouts.
As summer and showcase season gets underway, I wanted to allow you the first look at the offerings of the 2007 draft. Today, we'll look at the position players whose aluminum bats will be followed next spring, and Friday, we'll look at the class of pitchers.
Presently, Matt Wieters stands atop the college position player list, and is in the mix to be the first college player drafted with David Price. Both Georgia Tech's catcher and closer, Wieters showed with 5 postseason home runs that he was destined to swing the bat. Expect whichever team drafts him to project him as a hitter.
They will have a hard time, however, projecting a position. Currently a catcher, Wieters' arm would probably rank in the utmost tier of baseball at the Major League level. Given a top-flight career as a hurler, he also should call games and handle pitchers well. So what's the problem? Height.
The tallest catcher in Major League history was Larry McLean, standing 6-5. In 2004, Joe Sheehan wrote an article showing the problems tall catchers have faced at the big league level. Sandy Alomar Jr. is the perfect example. If Wieters was to make the Majors as a catcher, and assuming his listed height is the truth, he would pass McLean to top the list. When you're talking about multi-million dollar bonuses, biases can scare teams off, ask Tim Lincecum.
Plain and simple, Wieters offers the best bat in the 2007 draft class. But to draft him in the top five, a team would have to ask themselves whether such a high pick should be used on a future first baseman. While Wieters might make the Majors as a catcher, it's doubtful he would last too long there.
Catching feasibility is a problem with another projected first rounder, Tennessee's J.P. Arencibia. The switch hitter started his ascension up draft lists as a catcher, when he was one of the Vols' best bats in their Luke Hochevar-powered College World Series run. While success in Knoxville has stalled since the exit of Hochevar, Iorg and Headley, Arencibia remains a highly thought of prospect.
While Arencibia could stand to be more patient at the plate, his power projects well at the big league level. His defense, however, does not. Arencibia lacks athleticism; his mobility behind the plate is greatly in question. Teams will still take him as a catcher with the pipe dream that he will last there, but to do so, he'll have to hit like Victor Martinez. Because he won't field much better.
Seeing as though Evan Longoria and Bill Rowell both should end up at the hot corner, the lack of shortstops in the 2006 draft was unprecedented. The most important position on the defensive spectrum was completely unaccounted for. That will change next year, as currently three college shortstops project as first rounders: Todd Frazier (Rutgers), Josh Horton (UNC) and Zack Cozart (Mississippi).
Cozart is the best shortstop in the group, a well-skilled player defensively that won't have to think about changing positions. At the plate there are some questions, and they start with Cozart's inability to draw a walk. However, his contact rates are the best in the group, and he hit for more power than Horton did on the year. Add enough quickness to steal a base, and he seems a top 15 pick.
The title for best hitter is one to be wrestled over, depending on who you talk to. I think the choice is Frazier, who has superior statistics despite playing in a conference (Big East) that is far from the ACC's caliber. Still, Frazier is a very disciplined hitter who shows the most power of the group. His strikeout rates indicate he might be the worst hitter-for-average, but if he can stay at short (and he should, though third base is possible), his power will make up for it and then some.
Horton is very interesting, a player that should make for a safe choice in some respects, a risky one in others. At the plate, Horton is fantastic, he has a beautiful left-handed stroke that allowed him to hit .400+ in the regular season. He is a patient hitter, and very intelligent on the basepaths. His pop will play in the middle infield. The question, however, is whether his glove will. Horton made 23 errors on the season; he's as mistake-prone as they come. But the athleticism is there, undoubtedly, leaving some to think he could stick. My guess? Second base, where the bat still profiles as above average.
While it's likely that more players will rise to the level in the next year, I feel comfortable proclaiming only two more hitters as 2007 first rounders: Corey Brown (Oklahoma State) and Beau Mills (Fresno State). Both have fantastic bats; two of the best power hitters available.
Brown had a scholarship offer rescinded from Virginia after his senior season in which he pleaded guilty to felony battery. The incident stemmed from a sexual encounter with an underage girl. Questions about this incident will follow Brown around during his junior season, as scouts will be forced to answer whether his head is in the right place for seven figures. Mills will also have to answer those questions, though his problems are in the classroom, not the police blotter. FSU's best hitter in 2006, Mills was suspended for the postseason after failing to meet academic standards.
On the field, both are very gifted players. Brown is the best five tool player that college baseball will offer in 2007, a center fielder that had 30 extra-base hits and 14 stolen bases in 2006. He walks and strikes out at insane rates, passing 40 in both categories on the season.
Mills, a third baseman, is the most powerful hitter in the draft. In just 200 at-bats, Mills had 35 extra-base hits on the season, and could very well project to hit 30 HR annually in the pros. His contact rate is fine (31 K), but questions about his patience (just 17 BB) and athleticism will be his only deterrent.
Finally, I want to finish today talking about one player that I think belongs in the mix for the first round, though his actual status is up in the air. Damon Sublett, of Wichita State, won the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year award, despite missing two months with a broken hand. Why? Well, his two-way numbers are about as good as it gets.
In two years at Wichita State, Sublett has yet to allow a run on the mound. He is the Shockers' periodic closer, and his K/9 rate is above 15. However, his stuff is just a tick above average as a pitcher, so it appears that he will end up drafted as a hitter. Oh yeah, his numbers there are pretty good, too.
In just 165 at-bats on the season, Sublett had 20 extra-base hits, 10 of which went for home runs. He walked 31 times, and stole 12 bases while playing second base. The only question is Sublett's ability to make contact, as he whiffed 34 times on the season. However, given his awesome performance in every other column, this shouldn't hold Sublett back.
It also makes little sense to keep Sublett at second, given an arm that has done such damage off the college mound. The team that drafts Sublett has a player who has the athleticism to play either shortstop or center in the Majors, which helps his value even more. Sublett belongs in the first round, and with a healthy season in 2007, expect him to get there.
Sleeper: Sergio Miranda, Virginia Commonwealth. Another shortstop in a loaded class, Miranda hit .400 this season while named the Colonial American Association's defensive player of the year. Miranda has shown good contact abilties at VCU, and has continued to do so in his first few games in the Cape Cod League, not striking out through his first seven games. However, Miranda will have to prove he has (at least) gap power to get drafted highly.
Deep Sleeper: Curt Smith (Maine). I saw Smith play at the Chapel Hill regional a few weeks ago, and I came away very impressed. A shortstop from Curacao, Smith's body type envokes instant comparisons to Deivi Cruz. His play supports it, and I think he could have a similar career under the right scenario. He won't go highly in the 2007 draft, I don't think, but I'll support the pick wherever he ends up.
Those to look out for: Danny Payne (GTech), Matt Rizzotti (Manhattan), Chad Flack (UNC), Warren McFadden (Tulane), Taylor Harbin (Clemson), Michael Taylor (Stanford), Andrew Romine (ASU), Ryan Wehrle (Nebraska), Kellen Kulbacki (James Madison), Brian Friday (Rice).