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July 8, 2007

Wait 'Til Next Year

Cape Cod League Hitters

by Bryan Smith

There aren't many baseball leagues where a 700 OPS is above-average, and anything much higher guarantees a player major dollars, but you can bet Neifi Perez wants to live there. The Cape Cod League is college baseball's biggest summer stage, but with college hitters becoming re-introduced to wooden bats, the pitchers always end up with better numbers. In the last two summers the average hitter has hit .230/.311/.313, and last summer, just seven hitters had an average above .300. Many hitters from the College World Series, including a couple from the championship Oregon State Beavers, will begin to arrive this week, and thereby give the offensive crop some depth, but the league is already more than two weeks underway. While offense is as scarce as ever, coaches have nevertheless found a new group of players that have impressed them at the plate in the early going.

If a slugger can prove his offense with wooden bats, and facing reduced expectations, first round doors are opened, as seen by Evan Longoria, Matt Mangini, Matt Antonelli, and others. In the spring of 2006, the nation's best hitter through postseason play was Georgia Tech catcher Matt Wieters. The top-ranked hitter in his class, Wieters had just one thing left to accomplish--prove that his power would transfer to his hitting with wood bats. After the Yellow Jacket hit eight home runs in 127 Cape at-bats last summer, Wieters was all-but guaranteed a spot in the top ten, even after failing to show grandiose improvements as a junior. Wieters' experience represents one of the uses for players in the Cape-for the elite, it is a way to lock in a draft position.

This summer, the Orleans Cardinals are without Wieters, but the team still is a draw for organizations with likely top 15 selections in the 2008 draft. That's because replacing Wieters as nominal team superstar is UCLA shortstop Brandon Crawford. While Crawford's sophomore line of .318/.387/.500 is a fraction of Wieters' sophomore season, the Bruin has athleticism and a throwing arm that are unrivaled in his class. Scouts tabbed Crawford as a top choice for 2008 last summer when he played on Team USA, and continued their high praise for him this season. All that seems to be holding Crawford back is his current slow start on the Cape, hitting just .132 after his first ten games. However, the talent is there-coach Kelly Nicholson particularly raves about Crawford's defense up the middle, probably the best in the league. Despite his slump, Crawford has also made a real impression on opposing coaches-three of them mentioned Crawford as one of the top players in this league.

Beyond Crawford, Buster Posey is a further example of how playing every day in the summer can really help show scouts a player's defensive skill. Posey converted from shortstop to catcher as a sophomore at Florida State, and has drawn a lot of praise despite a 613 OPS in 12 games. "What's impressed me most [about Buster] is how quickly he's taken to catching, his athleticism and throwing arm back there," Yarmouth-Dennis coach Scott Pickler said. Another coach and former catcher, Cotuit's Mike Roberts, said Posey had undeniable "major league catching skills." At Florida State, scouts saw a contact hitter with gap power, and while the offensive results haven't been there, Posey's ability behind the plate puts him above where Josh Donaldson-another catcher conversion who hit in the Cape last summer, but struggled a bit with his defense-was a year ago.

Posey also has the advantage of showing an offensive body of work at the Cape that extends beyond this season. Posey hit with wooden bats last summer when he wasn't learning a new position, and batted .289/.345/.377 with Yarmouth-Dennis. So, scouts know the bat is there, so they give Posey's slump the benefit of the doubt by stating that he's "focusing on his defense."

For other returnees, the second tour around the Cape gives the ability to showcase improvements that have been made over the course of a year. This has been critical for another catcher, UCLA's Ryan Babineau, who hit just .197/.341/.282 last summer. "Everything is improved from last season. He's bigger, stronger, more confident. His pop time is quicker," said coach Bob Macaluso, who says Babineau's pop time is down to an impressive 1.83 seconds. "His swing is also shorter, and his approach is better. Last year he chased a lot more pitches out of the zone." The last statement also bears out in the numbers, as last summer, Babineau struck out in 38 percent of his at-bats. This season, through 22 at-bats Babineau has yet to strike out, hitting .364 with four extra-base hits.

Five other players are making better impressions their second time through the league, and all five are likely to find homes in the top two rounds of the amateur draft next June. While he's already left the league, Arizona outfielder Diallo Fon showed much in 15 games (where he hit .340) than he did as a freshman, where he was once one of the league's worst regulars. Fon walked as many times in his second tour as he did in 33 games last summer, where he also had a 446 OPS and struck out too often. Another toolsy outfielder, Aja Barto, is starting to put together results with his five tools. "He's a 6.6 (60-yard dash) runner, and he has great power, but he's starting to see it come to fruition. His approach is much more solid this year, he's laying off pitches, driving the ball up the middle." Barto's OPS is up 76 points from last season and he's showing more aptitude at the plate and on the basepaths.

Completing the quintet are a trio of middle infielders have also been much better in 2007, albeit with less telling numbers. David Adams is hitting just .213, and while that's at the same level as last season, he's already surpassed last season's power total in 22 fewer games. Adams has also been playing shortstop rather than second base-his usual position at Virginia-and coaches insist his numbers will go up as he returns to his usual position this week. Baylor's Beemer Weems really impressed coaches a year ago, hitting just .243 but with 11 extra-base hits and good defense. This season his defense has been even better, and Weems is hitting .333, though his power could stand improvement. On the surface, Reese Havens looks as if he's doing a lot worse. His OPS is down 173 points, but Cotuit coach Mike Roberts has seen improvements in the South Carolina Gamecock: "His shortstop skills are up. He's lightened his feet, really improved his ability to go left and right. In 2006 he struggled with certain plays to his left, but he's been much better this season. He still needs to use his legs better at the plate, he's very stiff with his lower body. When the velocity goes up, he sometimes struggles catching up with it. He does have tremendous power, he just needs to show it in the games."

Roberts is one of the Cape's most accomplished coaches, and used to head up the North Carolina program. In this league, he is usually entrusted with some of the nation's better freshmen, as Division I coaches trust his teaching skills. Last season Roberts had Havens, Tony Delmonico, and Justin Smoak, and this season, he has another impressive triumvirate. Replacing Smoak at first base is Aaron Baker, a big left-handed slugger at Oklahoma. Baker has tried catching unsuccessfully, but he's a good line-drive hitter with above-average power potential. In the outfield, Roberts has Georgia Tech's Curtis Dupart, who Roberts acknowledges needs a lot of work. "Curtis is very athletic and very raw. He's not sound mechanically as a hitter. He has great wrists which helps make up for it, but his swing can get very long." The top talent on the Kettleers, however, is Robert Stock. The accomplished Californian prospect left high school after only his junior season to join Chad Kreuter's program at USC, becoming the youngest player in college in the nation this spring. Stock had high-round potential out of high school as a catcher and pitcher, and while he's relieving some on the Cape, Stock's future is as a backstop. "His overall defense is average for a college catcher, but he's got one really good skill in his throwing mechanics. His ability to get the ball out of his glove, get set and fire a strike to all the bases... well, he has the best mechanics I've ever seen."

A trio of freshman shortstops have also been impressive. Stock's teammate at USC, Grant Green, has shown gap power and patience along with defensive versatility in the early going. Miami's Ryan Jackson has been a mess with the bat, but he's a very talented defender at shortstop. The best has been Florida's Cole Figueroa, who has more walks than strikeouts through 13 games. The most impressive freshman, however, has been the only one eligible for next year's draft. Big Louisville third baseman Chris Dominguez was late to join the Cape after playing in the College World Series, but he's made a quick impression, slugging five extra-base hits in six games for Harwich. "He had an unbelievable batting practice before our game," said Bob Macaluso, the manager at Brewster, who saw Dominguez hit a home run and double on Saturday. "He's got really good power, but he can run too. He hit a ball up the middle and then just flew. Later in the game we hung a curveball against him, and he knocked it right out." Dominguez is playing his way into having nice sophomore-eligibility leverage in the early rounds next June.

The talk of the league in the first two weeks was Yarmouth-Dennis shortstop Gordon Beckham, who in his first two seasons at Georgia has hit 25 home runs. Beckham has not slowed down with wood, and while he ultimately might move to third base, his nine extra-base hits in 61 at-bats are the best power display for a middle infielder in the league since Evan Longoria. Joining Beckham at the top of the power totem pole has been Miami's Dennis Raben, an athletic outfielder teamed up with Brandon Crawford for Orleans. Raben clubs right-handed pitchers from the left side, showing power potential that rivals that of anyone else in the league. Raben strikes out a lot, but the good news is that he hasn't had a drop-off with wood bats, hitting .288/.381/.635 compared to .280/.378/.514 in his sophomore season with the Hurricanes.

Rivaling Raben for the honors of top Hurricane power prospect is Yonder Alonso; Alonso clubbed six more home runs than Raben in his sophomore season down at the U. Alonso draws loads of praise for his approach at the plate, as he's already drawn 13 walks in 15 games. While yet to hit a home run, he has six doubles, reflecting his good power potential.

However, coaches across the league-even his own with Brewster-are hesitant to choose between the Whitecaps' two first base sluggers, Alonso and Cal's David Cooper. In his first season in the league last year, Cooper hit .304, but didn't show enough loft in his swing, an improvement he showed as a sophomore, slugging .621 to lead the Bears. He has continued his power display at the Cape with six extra-base hits including two home runs, and has been very selective, drawing 10 walks. Cooper needs more work at first base than Alonso, but as hitters, it's been hard to find a consensus favorite between the two. In the end, everyone might opt out and agree that Wareham's Ike Davis, a sometime outfielder at Arizona State as a sophomore, might be the best left-handed slugger of the bunch.

Rounding out the rest of the hitters in the league drawing notice, many coaches comment on how good the Arizona Wildcats will be in 2008. Diallo Fon has been mentioned, but joining him in the outfield next season are T.J. Steele and Brad Glenn, both making positive impressions in the league. Steele is supremely athletic with good power potential; he's also caught a game for Bourne, and his value would skyrocket if he moved behind the plate. Glenn is the team's best slugger, but is perhaps overlooked on a Brewster club with Alonso and Cooper because he's more raw than they are. "He needs some work," Brewster coach Bob Macaluso said. "He needs to see the ball a little deeper so he can start hitting the breaking ball. He can hit that inside fastball as well as anyone, but he struggles when they work him away."

For me, the most exciting aspect of the Cape Cod League might be its annual cadre of sleepers. One player really initially under the radar was Jason Castro, who hit just .167 in 42 games at Stanford while battling an injury. Castro is splitting time with Buster Posey behind the plate at Yarmouth-Dennis, but coach Scott Pickler notes that Castro is the more polished defender. At the plate, he's a good contact hitter with a line-drive stroke and a little power potential. Catchers are in demand, so Castro has already been moving up draft boards in the season's first two weeks. Also moving up is Matt Hague, who was drafted in the 11th round by the Indians following his junior season at Washington, but is likely moving to Clemson for his final collegiate season. Hague has drawn 14 walks in as many games, and he's also hit six extra-base hits. He's expected to replace Andy D'Alessio with the Tigers. My favorite early-round sleeper is Wichita State's Conor Gillaspie, a third baseman with a well-rounded game and an intelligent approach, and showing power potential through his first six games in the Cape.

Bryan Smith is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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