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June 2, 2004

2004 Amateur Draft Preview

A Look at the 1A Prospects

by Boyd Nation

One of the things I've always meant to learn but never quite cared enough about to actually do the research on is to find out what the other draft ratings were. I mean, everyone knows about 4F and 1A, but what was in between? Was there something like 2C--OK, but left-handed and prone to excessive flatulence? 3B--healthy but a little too fond of bad political discussions? I suppose I should ask someone from an earlier generation for some insight into that one of these days.

Anyway, this is the first of a series of three pieces I'll be doing for Baseball Prospectus about college prospects who could draw varying levels of interest in the draft next week. Today, you get the 1A's--the guys that every club knows about and would love to have if they'd play for free. This isn't an encyclopedic listing, since the best pro player to come out of this draft will probably end up being someone neither you nor I have ever heard of, but it should give you a good feel for what's out there this year. There's no one in this year's crop who makes scouts' eyes light up the way Mark Prior or Rickie Weeks did when they were drafted, but there's still some solid talent available.

I'll try to give you a feel for each of these guys and what to expect from them.

The Pitchers

Since college pitchers these days are being regarded by major league organizations the same way Ivy League business school grads are regarded by large financial conglomerates, we'll start with them.

  • Jered Weaver, Long Beach State, 1.68 ERA, 128.1 IP, 193 K, 18 BB, 4 HR. Weaver's early-season numbers were reminiscent of Mark Prior's in his last year at Southern California, putting up low numbers against an extremely tough schedule. The ERA's a bit deceptive; he gave up seven runs in taking his first loss last week against Miami, pushing his ERA up from an absurd 1.27. His pitch counts have been high by professional standards but, unfortunately, normal for the college ranks; virtually every start has come in between 110 and 125 pitches, with three of them at 120 or higher.

    Physically, Weaver, the younger brother of Dodgers pitcher Jeff Weaver, is a big right-hander at 6'6", 200 pounds. He throws a bit smaller than his size, though, with a low-90s fastball and great control.

  • Wade Townsend, Rice, 1.68 ERA, 112.2 IP, 141 K, 43 BB, 5 HR. It's something of an odd year, in that the top handful of college pitchers are all right-handers. Rice, as you will see, actually has most of a decent Double-A rotation of righties by itself, all returned from last year's National Champion team. It's an interesting experiment in looking at how the top talent performs against the same schedule, I suppose. Townsend has been the most successful of the Rice starters this year, but he's had a couple of rough outings recently, giving up at least four runs and going over 120 pitches in two of his last four starts. Rice's odd schedule (they play in a weaker conference but schedule an extremely tough mid-week schedule) means that the starting rotation sometimes faces easier opposition than you might expect at first glance.

  • Philip Humber, Rice, 1.80 ERA, 105.0 IP, 141 IP, 33 BB, 5 HR. At 6'4", 210, Humber is the lightweight physically among the Rice pitchers, but his results are right in line with the other two big guns--sometimes a little extra control will do that for you. There hasn't been any Kenny Baugh-style abuse on this year's Rice staff, but Humber has gone over 120 pitches a couple of times, and the recent increase in his ERA, similar to Townsend's, may point to some fatigue.

  • Jeff Niemann, Rice, 3.34 ERA, 70.0 IP, 83K, 26 BB, 4 HR. Niemann had off-season elbow surgery and basically lost the first two months of the season to a kind of on-field rehab. His numbers for the last month are more in line with his 1.70 ERA from 2003, which came with a silly 156-35 K-BB ratio. Recent reports on the elbow seem good. At a listed 6'9" that's probably pretty accurate, Niemann's downright scary-looking out there at times.

  • Justin Verlander, Old Dominion, 3.49 ERA, 105.2 IP, 151 K, 43BB, 8 HR. A handy chart:
    
    Year     PAP       ERA
    2002     510616    1.90
    2003     666398    2.40
    2004    <100000    3.49
    
    

    In addition, he served as the staff ace for Team USA over the summer of 2003. Verlander is, by most accounts, a really nice kid, but if your local GM drafts him, think about moving.

  • Jeremy Sowers, Vanderbilt, 2.75 ERA, 111.1 IP, 107 K, 21 BB, 6 HR. Sowers is one of those guys who's been a top prospect so long it's hard to believe he's finally draftable. He's probably the best left-hander available. At 6'1" and 175, he's going to be relying more on control than gas, but he's got plenty of that and, befitting his status as top lefty, has some really nasty breaking stuff to go with it. He's one of those guys where you'll sometimes wonder how he ever gets anyone out, but he's done so reliably against stiff competition for the last two years that he starts to look like he's for real.

  • Thomas Diamond, New Orleans, 2.38 ERA, 113.2 IP, 138 K, 45 BB, 8 HR. Diamond has faced easier competition than anyone on this list but Verlander, but scouts really seem to like him. The eight HR are a bit scary, though, and there's nothing in his numbers to suggest that those strikeouts will hold up against better competition.

The Hitters

Hitters seem to be much harder to project right now than pitchers. You have to make the proper adjustment for context (park and competition), but you also have to allow for a position slide or two for most players. The SoS (Strength of Schedule) numbers below are centered around an average value of 100; higher is tougher. The park factor number is the average of the values for the parks the team has played in this year; lower is tougher.

  • Stephen Drew, Florida State, SS, .353/.469/.692, 14 HR, 109 SoS, 86 PF. Yes, that Drew family. The number of guys who played shortstop in college that you would be surprised to know had ever played shortstop is long, and Drew will most likely be joining that list, but his bat should survive a position switch. Drew's numbers look even better once you adjust for park and schedule.

  • Josh Fields, Oklahoma State, 3B, .370/.472/.596, 10 HR, 110 SoS, 103 PF. I'm required to mention at this point that he also played quarterback for the Cowboys. That's actually a useful piece of information, since there should be a Beware of Athlete sign over every GM's door. The numbers aren't bad, but they're nothing earth-shattering either.

  • Danny Putnam, Stanford, OF, .388/.464/.659, 15 HR, 114 SoS, 98 PF. Putnam can handle a corner well enough to probably stick there. At 5'10", 200 pounds, he'll need to put on a little more muscle to maintain that power, but there's a lot to like about him. As with a lot of college guys, his plate discipline is a little uncertain, simply because it's hard to take that many walks when you're hitting .388.

  • Jon Zeringue, Louisiana State, OF, .396/.452/.643, 11 HR, 110 SoS, 92 PF. Zeringue will find himself at first fairly quickly professionally. He'll have to learn how to take a walk more often to progress, and you'd like to see a little more power, but the adjustments for schedule and park work in his favor, and moving to first might allow him to add a bit more bulk.

  • Jeff Larish, Arizona State, 1B, .308/.401/.478, 7 HR, 114 SoS, 117 PF. The nice thing about drafting college first basemen is that you know exactly where they're going to play in the pros. The reason Larish is on this list is that he hit .372/.528/.697 with 18 homers as a sophomore in 2003. He may very well stay in Tempe another year to reestablish himself.

  • Kurt Suzuki, Cal State Fullerton, C, .438/.535/.726, 13 HR, 114 SoS, 101 PF. Nothing in Suzuki's first two years at Fullerton showed any sign that he would turn out what has been one of the two or three best offensive seasons in the country this year, so take those numbers with a small grain of salt. Nonetheless, you've got to be impressed by what he's done, especially when you realize he has a chance to stick behind the plate. Has an excellent chance to be the best player ever from Maui.

  • Landon Powell, South Carolina, C, .356/.440/.674, 19 HR, 109 SoS, 79 PF. Powell's been high-profile even longer than Sowers. He tried to force his way into the draft as a GED-holding 18-year-old high school junior, went undrafted, and went on to be listed on most prospect lists ever since, based more on defense and potential than actual performance. After a lackluster showing in last year's draft as a junior, he hit the weights hard and turned in a season that actually deserves some attention. His body is still closer to Jeremy Brown than Foxy Brown, but he's added the power this year that had been missing, and his defense is still top-notch.

  • Ryan Jones, East Carolina, CF, .402/.504/.834, 18 HR, 104 SoS, 97 PF. The strength of schedule isn't quite up to the level of the rest of the guys on the list, but we're not talking Rickie-Weeks-at-Southern levels here, either. This has definitely been a breakout year for Jones after a couple of mediocre seasons, he's a senior, and he's only listed at 5'7". There's all of that, and then there's .504/.834. Call it an IQ test.

  • Eddy Martinez-Esteve, Florida State, OF, .401/.470/.745, 19 HR, 109 SoS, 86 PF. Martinez-Esteve is a draft-eligible sophomore, so he has a little more flexibility in negotiating than most of these guys. There's a long list of guys who wish they had grabbed the brass ring while it was out there, though, so he may want to be cautious about returning to school. He played 3B as a freshman and should survive OK anywhere around the middle of the defensive spectrum.

Coming up next, I'll take a look at the guys who look to be closest to the show for a variety of reasons.

Boyd Nation is the sole author and Webmaster of Boyd's World, a Web site devoted to college baseball rankings, analysis, and opinions. In real life, he's an information security analyst with an energy company. He can be reached at boyd.nation@mindspring.com.

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