Prospecting in Long Beach
The first two weekends of the college baseball season brought three-ranked teams into Long Beach to play the Dirtbags. I was able to see a number of pro prospects, most of whom will be eligible for the draft this June.
The newly implemented uniform start date pushed back the opening of the season to February 22, four weeks after last season's first games. Prior to 2008, schools could begin playing competitively once the spring semester was underway with many Sun Belt teams hosting games as early as mid-January. As it now stands, teams aren't even allowed to practice until February 1. Rolling back the start was obviously designed to level the playing field in the hope that schools in the north and midwest could return to the prominence achieved in the 1950s and 1960s when three programs from the Big 10 won six College World Series titles in a span of 14 years.
Ironically, these changes come on the heels of Oregon State, located in chilly and rainy Corvallis, Oregon, winning back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007. However, Oregon State and Wichita State are the only two cold-weather schools to have won the CWS since 1967. Colleges from California, Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, and Florida have captured all but five of the national titles in the past 40 years.
The current season will cover 56 games over 13 weeks, meaning schools will be required to play four contests every week and five in four of those weeks. Pushing the season forward or back a week would do away with the hardships involving five-game weeks. Alternatively, the NCAA could reduce the schedules from 56 to 52 games. Look for a change perhaps as early as next year.
In the meantime, schools with deep pitching staffs are going to have a competitive advantage, especially in the mid-week games. With scholarships already spread thin, a by-product of the new schedule may favor public schools with in-state tuitions that are affordable for walk-on pitchers. One such university is Long Beach State, ranked 13th in Baseball America's pre-season poll. The Dirtbags have played in 16 NCAA Regionals since the field was expanded to 48 teams in 1987 and made it all the way to Omaha four times. That said, it has been 10 years since Long Beach found itself playing at Rosenblatt Stadium in June.
Chomping at the bit to go to a baseball game, my brother and I went to the opener vs. 14th-ranked Rice a week ago Friday. The Dirtbags, behind outstanding pitching and the play of shortstop Danny Espinosa, won two of three from the Owls. Long Beach lost a Tuesday night game to 11th-ranked San Diego, then bounced back and swept a three-game series from 20th-ranked Wichita State last weekend. At 5-2 and playing perhaps the most difficult schedule in the country, albeit at home, the Dirtbags are likely to join the ranks of the Top 10 when the new polls are unveiled this week.
Senior righthander Andrew Liebel (pronounced LEE-bull) has struck out 22 batters without allowing an earned run over 15 1/3 innings in his two Friday night starts vs. Rice and Wichita State. On the smallish side at 6-foot and 196 pounds, Liebel commands three pitches: a fastball that sits at 89-90 mph and touches as high as 93, as well as a solid-average curveball and changeup. Drafted in the 47th round in 2004 out of Damien High School in Pomona, CA, Liebel chose to attend Long Beach State, where he spent the bulk of his first 2 1/2 years as a reliever. Liebel emerged from the bullpen in the middle of last season and became the ace of the staff, finishing with a 9-3 record and a 2.84 ERA. His experience has earned him the Friday night role in 2008 and he has pitched as well as possible, striking out 11 batters in each of his first two starts while allowing a total of just two walks.
Long Beach's Saturday night starter, Vance Worley, was a prized recruit out of McClatchy HS in Sacramento in 2005. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound righthander suffered an elbow strain during his senior season that limited his time and effectiveness on the mound and Baseball America's premier pitching prospect in Northern California slipped to the 20th round in the draft that June. Beset by inexperience and injuries during his first two seasons at Long Beach, Worley has failed to live up to his potential but still possesses the type of stuff that causes scouts to sit up and take notice. His fastball ranges from 90 to 95 and his curveball, while inconsistent, can be a plus pitch at times. He didn't play summer ball last year, choosing instead to rehab his elbow and tone his body while working out back home at Sacramento City College. Worley may have more upside than Liebel although the latter definitely has superior polish at this point in their careers.
Although only a freshman, Jake Thompson, who has performed well in his two Sunday starts, just may be the best of the bunch. A mere 18, Thompson passed the GED and skipped his senior season in high school to sign with the Dirtbags last fall. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound righthander, who was impressing scouts at Mayfair HS in Lakewood, CA during his sophomore season in 2006, transferred to Long Beach Wilson HS for his junior year in 2007 but was ruled ineligible. With his status still up in the air, Thompson earned his high school diploma a year early and is now one of the top three starting pitchers on the Dirtbags. He pitched six solid innings in his college debut a week ago Sunday and another seven strong yesterday, striking out eight without allowing a walk. Thompson throws a low-90s fastball, has a curve and change that are on the verge of being plus pitches, and has uncommon poise for someone his age.
Thompson surrendered a two-run home run to Wichita State shortstop Dusty Coleman in the first inning but shut down the Shockers the rest of the way. Coleman's roundtripper, his third of the young season, was a more than 400-foot blast to dead center. The 6-foot-2, 185-pound sophomore will be a highly regarded prospect next season. Meanwhile, his fellow infielders, third baseman Conor Gillaspie (pronounced Ga-LESS-pee) and second baseman Josh Workman, are draft eligible this year. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound lefthanded-hitting Gillaspie was the MVP of the Cape Cod League last summer, leading the circuit in AVG (.345) and SLG (.673). Baseball America ranks him as the 23rd best junior and pegs him as the Player of the Year and No. 1 prospect from the Missouri Valley Conference. He went 6-for-14 during the series with a triple off the right field wall on Sunday.
Workman appears to be healthy following two shoulder surgeries. The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder is strong and athletic. He generates power out of a pronounced crouch from the left side and was clocked to first base on a drag bunt single in 3.75 seconds. I liked what I saw of him and would be surprised if he doesn't move up the draft boards in a big way this spring.
Long Beach's Espinosa is off to a terrific start and is a multi-tooled shortstop with good range and a rocket arm reminiscent of his predecessor's, none other than Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki, who should have won the NL Gold Glove as a rookie in 2007. A starter for Team USA last summer, I believe the 6-foot, 180-pound, switch-hitting Espinosa will be drafted higher than Baseball America's current projections and could see him going as early as the second round.
Whether Espinosa is drafted before or after first baseman Shane Peterson is up for debate. The lefthanded-hitting Peterson earned All-Cape Cod League honors last summer when he led in hits (52) while batting .338 with a .436 on-base average. After a slow start, he went 7-for-14 in the just-completed weekend series with two hard-hit doubles on Sunday. A two-way performer as a sophomore, the 6-foot, 200-pounder out of Chaparral HS in Temecula, CA came on strong last year, hitting in 22 straight games and in 30 of the final 31.
Other prospects to keep an eye on who have made their way through town are Long Beach's Bryan Shaw, a righthanded relief pitcher with a 91-95 mph fastball and a major league-caliber slider; Rice's Cole St. Clair, whose fastball is way down from last year while returning from a shoulder injury and making a transition from a closer to a starter; relief pitcher Bryan Price and his 94-95 mph fastball; catcher Adam Zornes and OF/DH Aaron Luna; San Diego's Brian Matusz, a LHP who didn't pitch but struck out 11 last Friday in a highly anticipated duel with Fresno State's Tanner Scheppers; Josh Romanski, a CF/LHP; and Wichita State's Aaron Shafer, a righty whose fastball was unimpressive at 86-89, and Rob Musgrave, a finesse southpaw who was working throughout the 80s.
The future looks good for Rice's sophomore righthander Ryan Berry, who shut out the Dirtbags for seven innings, striking out eight with no walks while fashioning a Burt Hooton-like knuckle curve, and freshman shortstop Rick Hague. The same can be said for San Diego's triumvirate of underclassmen pitchers Kyle Blair, A.J. Griffin, and Matt Thomson, and perhaps most of all freshman third baseman Victor Sanchez, who went 3-for-3 and cranked two home runs in his lone appearance at Blair Field.