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March 6, 2008

Wait 'Til Next Year

College Action Preview

by Bryan Smith

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When you're 10-0, everything can be seen through rose-colored glasses. To my knowledge, the Virginia Cavaliers were the first team to reach the ten-win mark when they finished their sweep of Cornell and Siena with a 12-3 Sunday win. It was the fifth time in ten games the Cavaliers scored ten runs, and they continued their season-long streak of allowing less than five runs in every game. Their offense is hitting .383/.475/.548 and has scored 109 runs; their pitching staff has a 1.09 ERA, 12.4 K/9 and has allowed just 19 runs. I'm pretty sure that Pythagoras would tell you that 10-0 sounds right.

But then again, this is a team that has played Lehigh three times, Siena and Cornell twice apiece, and took on Old Dominion and Coppin State for a pair of mid-week games. Oh yeah, and that Coppin State game: 27-1. The Cavaliers also have yet to leave the cavernous confines of Davenport Field. So, with about a sixth of their season already played, we know absolutely nothing about the Cavaliers that we didn't already know on New Year's Day.

Thankfully, for the host of ACC teams that seem to have padded their Februarys with easy schedules, this weekend brings the opening of in-conference play. For Virginia, it brings the first road series, against the NC State Wolfpack. For the Wolfpack, it begins a four-weekend stretch with a murderer's row of opponents: Virginia, Miami, Clemson, and North Carolina. For us, their purpose the next two weekends is to prove just how legit the Cavaliers and Hurricanes really are, because while not in the mix for a national ranking after losses to Appalachian State and Louisville already the Wolfpack aren't bad. On Friday, they have lefty Eric Surkamp slated to throw against All-American Jake Thompson in a battle of potential second-rounders. Expect to hear good things about big bodies, Surkamp's changeup and Thompson's curve. On Saturday, Eryk McConnell brings loads of experience for NC State, and this is a bullpen that generates a lot of strikeouts. NC State can pitch.

What will happen when that good pitching staff meets this Virginia offense is anyone's guess. We need to know if UVa third baseman Jeremy Farrell--who was held back by injuries last year before proving whether or not he has legit power for a corner infielder--is really as good as his seven extra-base hits and four steals are telling us. And how about that Virginia middle infield? Surely David Adams' .605 SLG and Greg Miclat's .533 OBP (powered by an insane 12-0 BB-K ratio) are products of the schedule, but by how much?

I don't expect, however, to see a whole lot of regression from the Virginia pitching staff. Sure, they won't end the weekend with that 1.39 ERA intact, but NC State's offense isn't enough to muster much against a staff this talented. For those counting at home, the staff ace, Thompson, has allowed just 19 earned runs in 126 innings since his sophomore year began. He's yet to allow his 50th run in college. On Saturday, the Cavaliers will fight experience with experience, running big lefty Pat McAnaney out there; he has 20 strikeouts in two starts this season. Sunday pitcher Andrew Carraway has surrendered just three home runs in 90 innings in college, and that bullpen--closer Michael Schwimer, the versatile Matt Packer, and all-world freshman Jake Cowan--looks dominant.

I won't really be going out on a limb suggesting the Cavaliers are looking at a weekend sweep, nor would I by saying that on Monday, things won't be looking quite this rosy.

Weekend Preview Notes

  • To follow up on last week's notes on injuries, it should be noted that Zach Putnam did indeed pitch on the weekend, just not on Thursday against Arizona State like we guessed, pitching instead on Saturday against the Sun Devils instead. The outing started rough--a single, double, strikeout and two walks to the first five batters--but he was good after that, retiring seven of the next ten. Miami's Dennis Raben played just one game on the weekend getting in just two at-bats as his sore back continues. And to add to the injury list, Cal's Tyson Ross sat out with soreness in his lat muscle, robbing the University of San Diego of one ace amidst a half-dozen others.
  • Another good tourney will be played in the San Diego area this weekend, this time called the San Diego State Tournament. Oregon State will be there, along with Oklahoma State, Loyola Marymount, Santa Clara, and, of course, San Diego and San Diego State. Also, for the second straight weekend, Shooter Hunt will be involved in the matchup of the weekend, this week against UC Irvine's Scott Gorgen. Amazingly, the Anteaters are riding a 36-inning scoreless streak, with four straight shutouts, including Gorgen's one-hit, 12-strikeout gem against San Francisco last Friday.
  • While we have talked a lot about the names that are rising up draft boards--and I'll discuss another addition to that group in a moment--there are also names falling down after two weeks of play. Most prominently, two right-handed stars from the Cape Cod League have proven far too hittable in the early season to continue to garner first-round mention. Most surprising to me is Louisiana Tech ace Luke Burnett--my #2 prospect in the league--who has been battered about in two Friday night appearances. Burnett's stuff surely plays better in a relief role, because 22 hits in just 14 innings is not acceptable.
  • Secondly, while Vanderbilt has been crippled by the loss of Pedro Alvarez, we should note the team has only lost on Saturdays this season. The common thread in those games? Brett Jacobsen starting the game, and Jacobsen not starting it well. While the right-hander was in the mid-90s in the Cape, only his breaking ball is still garnering praise this year. Jacobsen's command problems extend outside the box score, so more important than his five walks and 14 hits allowed in 7 1/3 innings are the high number of fastballs he continues to leave up in the zone.

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.

2/29-3/2 Winner: SS Reese Havens, South Carolina
2/22-24 Winner: RHP Tanner Scheppers, Fresno State

If Reese Havens hadn't been so adamant about his commitment to playing at the University of South Carolina coming out of high school, he would have been drafted in the first three rounds. Havens' left-handed swing was a beauty, and his batting practice home runs didn't worry scouts who thought he might not stick at shortstop. But Havens never wavered from wanting to become a Gamecock, so he slipped until the 29th round, and after making the selection the Colorado Rockies never made signing Havens a priority.

In his first two seasons, Havens was not the confident hitter scouts had projected in high school. Starting at shortstop in the SEC for his first two seasons, Havens was nothing if not consistent, putting up a 716 OPS as a freshman, then a 726 OPS as a sophomore. That's with aluminum. His stock was at a new low until the Cape Cod League, when a return to wood brought on a .314/.371/.487 batting line. That prompted me to rank Havens as the league's #8 prospect, and he hasn't let the ranking down yet.

In six games this season, Havens is now 12-for-24, with four home runs. He has also walked seven times, good for an insane on-base percentage of .606. He has outperformed fellow Gamecocks Justin Smoak and James Darnell, and has cemented his standing as one of the nation's best leadoff men. I spoke with South Carolina head coach Ray Tanner on Tuesday, before South Carolina's mid-week game against Gardner-Webb, to talk about the new and improved Reese Havens:

"He's in that comfort zone. He made some hand adjustments with his swing with Coach [Mike] Roberts up in the Cape Cod League. He's just been searching to find that right hand positioning for a while, and when he lowered his hands the lights went on. I don't know how many home runs he's going to hit, but I know he always had power. It's not like he couldn't hit home runs his freshman and sophomore year, and now all the sudden he can. He's just in that comfort zone, and I think he will probably get into the double digits."

Havens' stock was at an all-time low a year ago, not only because his power wasn't present but because scouts did not believe Havens would stay at shortstop. Over the summer, Mike Roberts told me that Havens' lateral quickness improved over the course of the summer in the field. I also asked Tanner about how Havens has looked in the field:

"Much better, even though he was always a pretty good defender. You know the first two years I thought he would have to end up moving to the corners, but I'm not so convinced anymore. He has worked really hard on his conditioning, and he had a good summer for that and a good fall. His agility really improved. I just think he's a better athlete."

If Havens can convince a scout of something similar--that his power will play beyond batting practice and his athleticism will allow him to stay up the middle--he's certainly a first-round talent. However, given Havens' patience and power through the Gamecocks' start, Havens could even be drafted in the second and third round on the newfound strength in his bat alone.

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.

2/29-3/2 Winner: Stanford
2/22-24 Winner: Long Beach State

On a different day, the Stanford-Cal State Fullerton series would be among the most anticipated in college baseball. But between Fullerton legend George Horton leaving for Oregon, and Stanford coming off a lackluster 28-28 season and last year's sweep at the hands of a dominant Fullerton team, this year's matchup was merely a blip on the radar of interesting weekend series.

Three box scores later, I wondered if we had returned to the late '90s, as Stanford handled Fullerton in a similar way to the Titans' beating up on the Cardinal a year ago. Now I don't want to become too hyperbolic regarding Stanford--they lost 3-8 to California on Tuesday and had a 7-7 game be postponed due to darkness with Saint Mary's yesterday--because we aren't looking at a College World Series contender. But the return of good baseball to Palo Alto--postseason-caliber baseball--is something to be excited about.

Unfortunately, due to two mid-week games, calls to the Stanford office were not returned as this went to press. So, instead, I'll give you three reasons that Stanford is relevant again, compared to last year's club:

1. The emergence of Jason Castro. If you wanted to argue that last year Castro was among the worst regulars playing for a major college baseball program, the numbers would back you up. He started 26 games behind the dish for the Cardinal, and his season ended with a 512 OPS. But between a fantastic summer in the Cape Cod League (where he was an honorable mention for my top 30) and a good fall, Castro has emerged as one of the nation's most offensive catchers, hitting .406/.487/.875 in nine games.

2. Overall inspired offensive play. Beyond Castro, there has been enough depth on this team to hit .295/.369/.481. Freshman third baseman Zach Jones has six extra-base hits in his first 33 at-bats, and three hits in Stanford's Sunday victory. First baseman Randy Molina hit his first Division I home run over the weekend, and looks a sure bet to improve on his career-high .346 slugging. Cord Phelps has been fantastic atop the lineup, with four extra-base hits and four steals, and last year's MVP, outfielder Sean Ratliff, looks poised to improve as a junior. This team is going to hit.

3. A Friday night pitcher. Nolan Gallagher always showed great stuff in his three years at Stanford, but last year was a disaster. Tabbed with Stanford's opening weekend start, Gallagher never looked right, walking 34 in 64 1/3 innings en route to posting a 7.27 ERA. No one else emerged, which is a nice way of saying no other starter had an ERA under 5.00. However, Jeremy Bleich is not the same pitcher that delivered 2007's 5.56 ERA version; after a good summer in the Cape, Bleich looks like one of the nation's best southpaw starters, and should help stabilize the opening to every series this year.

We need to wait before jumping too heavily onto the Stanford bandwagon. This team still has a 4.84 ERA, and perhaps even scarier, is only getting 5.3 K/9. Erik Davis has been a disaster on Saturdays, and David Stringer is merely mediocre as a closer. If the Cardinal continue down the road with a 1.24 K/BB, they're a fringe tournament team. If they can find a good enough core to pitch and let the offense do the work, last weekend showed they have the potential as a regional two-seed. We'll know more after a weekend battle with the Longhorns.

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:  The Streak,  The Who,  Stanford,  Ten Pack,  Year Of The Injury

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