The upcoming draft is even more wide open than it was when last we checked in. As more players continue to take steps backwards instead of forwards, the first round remains highly unstable–teams are struggling to find players they believe will be worth the slot money defined by their draft position.
“It’s unbelievable,” said one team executive. “It’s now appalling how bad this draft is. It’s that extreme.” With the lack of talent–and, more importantly, lack of separation between talents–this year’s draft is beginning to look eerily similar to 2000’s draft, when a weak pool led to lower bonuses as a number of teams spent the final week before the draft working on pre-draft deals for bonuses below slot. “The top is very shaky,” said one scouting director. “You spend a lot of time wondering if you want to give first-round money to these guys.” A team executive added that the lack of positional talent could lead to hitters getting over-drafted. “After the first round, it could end up like a fantasy draft,” quipped the exec. “Teams might just start drafting position guys early to make sure they get one of the few decent ones available.”
College arms are still the name of the game this year, and the only area of talent that’s even above average. Most of the top hitters have failed to impress, leaving one executive to classify the college hitting class as a “bottomless pit of despair.” With conference play beginning in March, scouts began working the college classes a little heavier, as they no longer have to worry about the often lopsided level of competition found in early-season contests.
- Washington righthander Tim Lincecum is definitely the flavor of the month right now. After pitching eight shutout innings at California in the Huskies’ Pac-10 opening series, Lincecum delivered one for the ages last Friday, striking out 18 in a complete game two-hitter against UCLA. One scout in attendance said the performance was “as dominating as I’ve ever seen.” Lincecum, who sat at 95-96 mph throughout the game and touched 99 mph, also features among the best curveballs in the draft. His pure stuff has never been in question, and he has quieted his mechanics slightly from his sophomore year. By throwing more strikes of late, he’s worked his way into the first 15 picks and the only thing keeping him away from the very top of the draft is his size (somewhere under six feet, and around 165 pounds). “You don’t like him and he’s small and scrawny,” said one scouting director. “You like him and he’s built like Tim Hudson.”
- Another Pac-10 pitcher whose stock continues to rise is California righthander Brandon Morrow, who has put himself in the mix at the top with a series of impressive outings. Not only is Morrow showing improved command, but he’s finally found a breaking ball that is earning praise from scouts, with a solid curve ball that is plus at times and shows plenty of potential. “With that velocity, and now the second pitch, there’s no way he’s getting out of the top 10,” said one scouting director. He may go even higher than that, as high-level representatives from many teams selecting among the first six picks attended Morrow’s last start.
- Also gaining some buzz is University of Houston righthander Brad Lincoln, who has a 1.62 ERA in nine starts with a nifty 83-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 66.2 innings. Lincoln, who also leads the Cougars at the plate in home runs and RBI, has shown good command of a low-to-mid 90s fastball and an excellent curveball, while being one of the rare pitchers this year who has been good nearly every time out. “He’s got the stats, he’s got the stuff, he’s got the athleticism,” said one team executive. “If you had to knock him, all you would have is the fact that he’s a little undersized,” he added, referring to Lincoln’s 6-foot frame. Assuming no complications, expect Lincoln to go in the mid-first round come June.
- While one bad start rarely makes a difference in a pitcher’s draft status, three in a row certainly can. While North Carolina lefty Andrew Miller has begun to lay some cement in his status as the No. 1 overall pick with back-to-back dominating starts against two very good hitting teams (Georgia Tech and Florida State), righthanded teammate Daniel Bard, once considered in the mix for the Royals with the top pick, has fallen apart of late, allowing 17 runs on 15 hits and 11 walks over 12.2 innings in his last three starts. One scout indicates that Bard has fallen back into some bad habits he showed earlier in his career, dropping his arm slot and losing both command on his fastball and tilt on his slider.
- Bard’s recent performance is not the only recent disappointment. Scouts flocked to Stanford last weekend to see a matchup of potential first-rounders in Cardinal ace Greg Reynolds and Southern California’s Ian Kennedy, but both disappointed as they surrendered a combined 12 runs in 11.2 innings. After missing a pair of starts due to triceps soreness, Nebraska righthander Joba Chamberlain‘s stuff has dropped off considerably, with his fastball only 89-92 mph and his command erratic as he failed to get out of the third inning last Friday against Kansas State. Missouri’s Max Scherzer, considered by some as the top college righthander, took the mound for the first time since March 10th (sore biceps) and was rusty; he was clearly tired by the fourth inning.
- While there are no college closers on the level of Chad Cordero or Huston Street in this year’s college class, scouts have shown some interest in University of Arizona reliever Mark Melancon, who has a 1.46 ERA in 37 innings with 49 strikeouts. He doesn’t have closer velocity, but he features a low-90s fastball as part of a quality three-pitch mix, and some teams would like to try him out as a starter. Cal-Irvine’s Blair Erickson, Tennessee’s Sean Watson, and Arizona State’s Zechry Zinicola are three more college relievers who have drawn some early-round interest.
- The college positional talent continues to reside in the shallow pool, and while Long Beach State infielder Evan Longoria remains the consensus top player, it’s more because he’s treading water as the rest of the hitters are seemingly drowning. One of the biggest disappointments has occurred on a team level at the University of Florida. Entering the year with one of the top rated teams and three of the top positional prospects in first baseman Matt LaPorta, infielder Adam Davis, and catcher Brian Jerolman, the Gators have gone a disappointing 19-14 so far and are hitting just .258/.363/.389 as a team. While LaPorta (.236/.391/.403) has an injury excuse (strained oblique), Davis (.271/.385/.326) and Jerolman (.231/.399/.356) have rarely impressed. “You look at that stat sheet and you wonder what happened,” said one scouting director. “It looks like something from the Cape Cod League.”
- One player who is putting up numbers in the Sunshine State is Florida State leadoff man Shane Robinson, who is batting .381/.455/.567 with 19 stolen bases and 44 runs scored in 32 games. While Robinson has plus speed, great makeup and an excellent feel for contact (12 Ks in 134 at-bats), his size (5’9″, 165) limits his projection and will keep him out of the first round. “He’s basically David Eckstein as a center fielder,” said one team executive. “He’s a fourth outfielder for me, maybe a starter on a second-division club.”
Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at who’s hot and who’s not (unfortunately, once again, it’s more of the latter) at the high school level.