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February 28, 2008

Wait 'Til Next Year

NCAA Weekend Review and Preview

by Bryan Smith

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Normally, the presence of four Top 25 teams would be enough to make a six-team weekend tournament the highlight of the weekend. This weekend's San Diego tournament--hosted both by Rich Hill's San Diego Toreros and Tony Gwynn's San Diego State Aztecs--will indeed bring together those two programs in a four-cornered contest with Missouri and Fresno State. However, the weekend tournament promises to not only be exciting but also historic--never before has such a collection of high-profile arms been brought together for one regular season tournament.

It's possible that over its four days visitors to the tournament will see eight arms that eventually are drafted in the first half of a first round. Last weekend, the eight pitchers combined to allow 13 earned runs in 43 2/3 innings (2.68 ERA), striking out 57 and walking just nine. At the head of the class, the 2008 cadre has four representatives, including the nation's top two arms, Brian Matusz and Aaron Crow. Two of the best pitchers from last weekend, and first-round profilers themselves, Tanner Scheppers (more on him below) and Tyson Ross, will also be pitching.

We also know that we'll see Kyle Gibson and Steven Strausburg, the two top arms from the 2009 draft class. Both pitchers were brilliant, both in breakout summer campaigns in 2007 and their 2008 season debuts last week. If things break right and you watch the bullpens carefully, you might just see two of 2010's best arms, Kyle Blair and Nick Tepesch.

The Toreros will be saving Brian Matusz until a Friday afternoon game against Fresno State, setting up a potential matchup against Scheppers. Missouri coach Tim Jamieson's decision when to throw Aaron Crow on Friday--against Cal in the afternoon or San Diego State at night--should determine whether he faces Ross or Strausburg. Jamieson will also decide between pitching Gibson or the veteran Rick Zagone on Saturday against San Diego, with the other not pitching until Sunday against Cal Poly.

Even on the periphery of this tourney, there's talent worth noting. Though the Toreros' Josh Romanski and A.J. Griffin struggled last week, both are coming off fantastic 2007 seasons that built up expectations for San Diego's season this year. Romanski, who plays the outfield when he is not pitching, has the athleticism and loose left arm to go in the top six rounds this June, while Griffin is one of the better closers in the 2009 draft class. Even Cal Poly, the tournament's weakest team, can pitch. Last Sunday, Mustang sophomore Steven Fischback struck out 11 on the strength of a good curveball and low-90s fastball. If the Mustangs can build a lead, closer Kevin Castner can save it; he touched 97 mph in the summer. Both pitchers are sleepers for the 2009 draft, and both are in a position to put their names on the draft map by pitching in front of a host of scouts this weekend.

So, with a dozen or more impressive arms, offense certainly promises to be infrequent. Perusing the rosters, it's clear there could be at least five pitchers from this tournament drafted in June before a single hitter who will be on these same fields. The best of the 2008 crop is David Cooper, the California first baseman who had his supporters for my Cape Cod League top 30 prospect list. Like so many first basemen from the 2008 draft class, Carter provides good left-handed power and patience at the plate. Behind Cooper, San Diego State third baseman Nick Romero certainly raised his profile after hitting a home run off Brian Matusz last Friday. Romero hit .319/.403/.500 last year, but more than his bat, what might be key to his draft status will be proving to scouts that he could move to second base.

Outside of that pair, the best two hitters are two underclassmen catchers with big bats and iffy defense. Missouri catcher Trevor Coleman hit nine home runs in his freshman season last year, earning an invitation to try out for Team USA, but losing his spot to Santa Clara sophomore Tommy Medica. A year younger, San Diego's Victor Sanchez represents the best raw hitter from the 2010 draft class, and he's been off to a quick start in the Toreros' first five games, batting .375, slugging two home runs and even stealing two bases. Sanchez has already started a move to the hot corner, but early returns look like his bat will play at any position.

However, this is where the list ends: with the four hurlers likely to land early in the first round this June. The scouts at the San Diego tournament will surely be most focused on their radar guns, and you can bet the final scores will reflect the tournament's historic collection of arms.

Predictions for the USD Tournament
Thursday: Fresno State over Cal; San Diego State over Cal Poly
Friday: San Diego over Cal Poly, Cal over Missouri, San Diego over Fresno State, Missouri over San Diego State
Saturday: Cal Poly over Fresno State, Missouri over San Diego, San Diego State over Cal
Sunday: Missouri over Cal Poly, San Diego over Cal, San Diego State over Fresno State

Final Records: San Diego (3-1), Missouri (3-1), San Diego State (3-1), Cal (1-3), Fresno State (1-3), Cal Poly (1-3)

Weekend Preview Notes

  • Three major injuries need to be discussed, as three of the best 25 players in the nation all were not up to full capacity last weekend. Most devastating will be the six-week loss of Vanderbilt's Pedro Alvarez, as the Commodores will now spend the next six weeks without their three best players from 2007 (David Price and Casey Weathers are now both in professional baseball). According to the Nashville City Paper, Alvarez broke his hand in his first at-bat of an 0-for-2, two-walk day. During the next six weeks, Alvarez will miss Vanderbilt's SEC opener with South Carolina, as well as Alabama, Arkansas, and potentially against the nation's top team, Ole Miss.
  • There's better news on Miami All-American outfielder Dennis Raben, who sat out last weekend with a sore back. What's odd is that it appears that even Raben wasn't expecting it, as he blogged at CSTV on Friday: "We're looking forward to starting that journey tomorrow night against Cincinnati." Raben sat out on Tuesday as Miami scrimmaged with the Florida Marlins, but expect him back in action on Friday.
  • Michigan's Zach Putnam did not miss his chance to play against a major league squad, DHing in Michigan's 4-4 tie with the Mets on Tuesday. Putnam did not pitch in the Wolverines' weekend sweep of Villanova because of shoulder tenderness, but he did hit all weekend, going 6-for-11 with five runs scored in three games. Putnam has battled similar problems throughout his career, but it's likely this was precautionary, as Michigan still could pitch Putnam against Arizona State in Tempe tonight.
  • Outside of the USD Tournament, the other matchups to watch on the weekend are the Friday night duel between Tulane's Shooter Hunt and Pepperdine's Brett Hunter. Expect a host of area scouts, cross-checkers and scouting directors in attendance to evaluate two of the 2008 class' best right-handers as they go up against one another. Also look for Aaron Shafer's season debut against Long Beach State (written about below) and Vance Worley, as well as the pitchers going in the Texas A&M-hosted Domino's Pizza Classic: Luke Burnett (Louisiana Tech), Kyle Thebeau (A&M), and J.B. Shuck (Ohio State).

Last Weekend's Big Winner, Player Edition
Each week, I will attempt to pinpoint one performance that should be noted by draft nuts. Side note: if Kevin Goldstein beats me to it in the Monday Morning Ten Pack, we'll go with the backup choice.

2/22-24 Winner: RHP Tanner Scheppers, Fresno State

Honorable Mentions
RHP Jordan Brown, LSU: 6 IP, 5 H, 0 ER, 3 K, 2 BB
SS Tony Delmonico, FSU: 4/9, 4 BB, 2 2B, 1 HR, 1 SB
LHP David Duncan, Georgia Tech: 7 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 6 K, 2 BB
RHP Josh Fields, Georgia: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 ER, 3 K, 1 BB; 2/12, 1 HR
SS Reese Havens, USC: 7/14, 4 BB, 2 HR, 0 K
RHP Shooter Hunt, Tulane: 6 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 8 K, 0 BB
RHP Lance Lynn, Ole Miss: 5 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 12 K, 1 BB
RHP Tyson Ross, Cal: 5 IP, 1 H, 1 ER, 7 K, 1 BB
3B Brett Wallace, Arizona State: 5/12, 3 BB, 3 HR

There were rumblings from Fresno since last fall about Scheppers, a bit of a secret since an unfavorable ERA (4.74) and H/9 (10.3) perhaps overshadowed his 94 strikeouts of a year ago. However, there were whispers that Scheppers--who didn't pitch over the summer--had turned a corner in a way not seen in Fresno since Matt Garza. Suddenly, the projectable 6-4 right-hander was pumping out fastball that sits around 95 mph, and his slider was an out pitch to be reckoned with. With that, Scheppers went on lists as a possible first-rounder.

Last Saturday, things came to fruition a bit, as the seemingly reborn Scheppers made his first start against UC Davis. The ball rarely left the infield; when Scheppers got in trouble, he pitched out of it. In the fifth, he struck out the side. After seven innings, Scheppers had allowed just four hits, a hit by pitch, no earned runs, and he had struck out ten. I talked with UC Davis coach Rex Peters about Scheppers yesterday. (He first told me about Davis' pitcher who shut down Fresno State on Saturday, Brad McAtee, a 6-5 hulk with an 89-92 mph fastball and plus change. Peters' comments make it obvious that last fall's rumblings were true:

He's an exceptional arm. The fastball is very good. I think he was probably in that 93-95 range the whole game. The slider was good with some good downward tilt. He's definitely predominantly a fastball/slider guy. He mixed in a few changeups, but not a lot. I think when he learns to command that pitch, he's going to be pretty special at the pro level.

I think you gotta gear up for that fastball. It's certainly good but you have to try and be aggressive early in the count and try and get it up, even if he doesn't leave it there very often, because if you're going to wait until late in the count, that slider is too good.

Last Weekend's Big Winner, Team Edition Similarly, each week I will point out one team that proved itself worthy with a big weekend series win. Hint: you might read about them first in Monday's Weekend Review.

2/22-24 Winner: Long Beach State

Given the rainy, muggy weather, given the spacious ballpark, and given the pitching staffs, last weekend's Rice vs. Long Beach State series promised to be low-scoring. But hey, this is college baseball: 10 runs divided between two teams over three games is math we can't comprehend down here. But since these two schools had played four previous games over the last two years, and then scored just 28 runs between them in those, perhaps we should have been expecting it.

Long Beach State coach Mike Weathers certainly was expecting it on Friday, as he prepared his offense for Rice ace Ryan Berry, whom he had coached on Team USA just over six months ago. He told them Berry was a "pick your poison" type of pitcher, but he would suggest they wait for a low-90s fastball rather than attempt to swing at his "unreal knuckle-curve." It didn't work, though, as the curve looked too good too often to the Dirtbags' hitters.

Luckily, Long Beach veteran Andrew Liebel was just as good. While not quite in line stuff-wise with the Dirtbags' previous Friday night pitchers, Liebel does bring the best command to the role since--at least--Jered Weaver. Weathers cited Liebel's command as the reason for his 11 strikeouts and eight shutout innings, quoting a 70 percent first-pitch strike percentage. Liebel sat around 90 mph on his fastball and showed two versions of a curveball and a plus change, but it was his pinpoint command kept the Owls on their toes.

The rest of the weekend was a celebration of the Dirtbags' pitching depth. On Saturday, last year's ace, Vance Worley, returned from injury with "the best body of his life, including high school," according to Weathers. He outlasted Rice's Cole St. Clair, whose fastball sat around 90 mph, while Worley pitched in the 92-93 range. Bryan Shaw closed things out, touching 95 and striking out the game's final two hitters. On Sunday, in a loss, Jake Thompson shined in his college debut, showing unbelievable poise and allowing just two hits over six innings against a perennial Omaha contender.

Danny Espinosa, the Dirtbags' All-American caliber shortstop, recorded six hits on the weekend, including the game-winner in the tenth inning on Friday. The rest of the team? Just 14 in three games. Weathers is certainly not ready to hit the panic button, confident in a veteran lineup that he believes caught Shane Peterson and Brandon Godfrey and Chris Nelson in a funk. The past history of this lineup is just too strong--his Friday 1-9 had a total of 1710 Division I at-bats under their belts--for them to score just five runs every weekend. As Weathers, the grizzled veteran coach, will tell you: "Where I come from, good pitching still beats good hitting."

Bryan Smith is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bryan's other articles. You can contact Bryan by clicking here

Related Content:  Missouri,  Tanner Scheppers,  The Who,  San Diego,  A.J. Griffin

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