As Opening Day arrives, so does the draft crunch. “You think you have a lot of time,” said one scouting director I talked to this week. “Then all of a sudden you have just two months to go.”

College Players Disappoint

On both the hitting and pitching sides, the college talent level has disappointed. When it comes to position players, there’s Georgia Tech catcher Matt Wieters, and then an uninspiring group of low-ceiling safe picks that many evaluators have trouble getting excited about. “It’s a very, very, thin position group in the college ranks,” said one scouting director. “Health is definitely a factor here,” he added. “If guys like the pair at Tennessee, [outfielder Julio] Borbon and [catcher J.P.] Arencibia can get healthy, they might separate themselves — but overall, the talent is just all right at best.”

Another scouting director saw the lack of elite talent moving some players into draft positions that are significantly higher than the talent merits.

“There are those teams out there, that for philosophical purposes, are going to focus on college players,” said the lead scout. “That’s going to push some guys up into the first round that don’t belong there. So you’re drafting a decent player, but his draft status and bonus is that of a future star.” Another agreed with the assessment by adding, “There’s just not a lot of guys where you look at them and say, ‘This guy is really going to hit’.”

The situation with pitching is much the same. There is Vanderbilt southpaw David Price, and then there is the rest, though multiple scouts singled out Missouri State lefty Ross Detwiler as one name who has put himself ahead of the pack for now. After that, it’s anybody’s guess.

“I just look around and I see an awful lot of guys getting publicity who are righthanders sitting at 88-90 mph. It’s hard to separate one from the other.”

Prep Class Offers More Optimism, But Questions At The Top

Scouts are nearly universal in their belief that year’s high school talent pool is deep with both pitchers and position players, with a number of players from warm-weather areas, including Georgia outfielder Jason Heyward, and Southern California infielders Ryan Dent and Nick Noonan all improving their stock with early season performances.

Yet it’s the calendar and the cold weather schools that are creating stress for some teams selecting at the top. Generally considered the top two high school arms available, Connecticut’s Matt Harvey and New Jersey’s Rick Porcello are both big, physical righthanders who can get it easily into the mid-90s, but with schedules that don’t begin until after Easter, scouts will get limited looks at them.

“If I was picking at the top, it would make me nervous no matter how good they looked,” said one scouting director. “You need to hang your hat on a track record. If I saw every one of their starts I would still be uncomfortable in spending that kind of money if I only have 40 or so innings to go on.” Another scouting director agreed. “They have some history, at least in showcases and the like, but they’ll get seven to ten starts max, without even thinking about any weather issues. You better be real comfortable.”

When Will It End?

Organizations are also preparing for the first draft without the draft-and-follow process, which was eliminated by the new collective bargaining agreement. This elimination has left many wondering why the draft is still 50 rounds. “MLB could have [reduced the number of rounds] this year easily,” said one scouting director. “It wasn’t a sticking point in the new agreement, but I think they just weren’t sure yet how it would all play out. They’ll probably adjust next year.”

So how many players will be selected? “We normally take 20 or so draft-and-follows a year, plus all the guys who are fillers for all our rosters,” said one scouting director. “I can’t see us going more than 35, and I’ll be surprised if there are still a lot of teams around after 35.”

35 seems to be the magic number, as another scouting director threw out the exact same number. “I have a hard time seeing us go the distance this year,” he said. “We need to figure out how many guys we need, but without the follows, simple math puts us at around 35 picks.”

A third scouting director was in the same range, but doesn’t think that will be universal. “My initial reaction is that we’ll be done somewhere in the early 30s, but there will be teams taking 50 just out of habit,” he said. “With the signing deadline, we still have the concept of the summer follow, where we can monitor a guy on the Cape or something, and I think pretty much every iffy signability guy will be taken as a flyer at some point.”

College Notes

  • One of the better college bats around belongs to Oklahoma State third baseman Matt Mangini, who enters the weekend with a .382/.460/.667 batting line along with persistent criticisms about the bat being his only plus tool. One scouting director who recently saw Mangini understood the concerns, but still thinks the bat is potentially special.

    “I can see the concerns, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater,” he said. “The power is legit, as good as anyone in this class, and you have to respect it.” The scout also discussed his shortcomings with the glove. “He needs some work defensively, but a lot of it is footwork,” he continued. “He fields strangely with his right foot way in front of his left so once he fields the ball he needs to flip his feet first – you can fix that.”

  • Florida first base Matt LaPorta entered the 2006 season as the top power prospect in the game, but an injury-plagued, ineffective junior year cost him potentially millions, and he returned the school for his senior year after not coming to terms with the Red Sox, who drafted him as a flyer in the 14th round. Despite missing a pair of games with an ankle sprain, LaPorta has come back with a vengeance, batting .416/.570/.809 with nine home runs in 89 at-bats. Like Mangini, scouts are concerned with the one-dimensional aspect of his game.

    “He’s an American League player,” said one scouting director. “You’re hoping he can be a first baseman, and he’s not very good there. He has tons of power, but a long swing, so you need to believe there is enough hit ability to get to the power. He’s kind of a glorified Ryan Garko for me, and Garko went in the third round – LaPorta is more of a later pick like that, but he’ll get inflated.”

    Another scouting director was concerned about the health record. “He always has a sore this or a strained that,” he said. “You start to worry about a 21-year-old who already has nagging injuries.”

  • On the mound, 6-foot-10 North Carolina State righty Andrew Brackman got off to a great start, but has struggled in his last few starts, now sitting with a 3.79 ERA in seven starts with 38 strikeouts in 40.1 innings. Some are concerned, some aren’t.

    “I saw one of those starts where he got hit around and his stuff was still really good,” said one scout. “He was still sitting at 93, touching 97, though the curve was as inconsistent as it has been all year.”

    Another was more concerned about the downward trend. “You know going in that he’s a guy who is going to need development,” said one scouting director. “But with only 30-40 innings of experience coming into the year, the questions are about his holding up for an entire season and right now the answers aren’t so great.”

  • Every draft has a number of teams looking for that next Huston Street or Chad Cordero – the polished college reliever who can help quickly. This year’s top candidate is looking like Clemson lefthander Daniel Moskos, who has given up 12 hits in 17.2 innings while striking out 23, though he has walked 10. One scouting director thinks Moskos’ surprisingly deep arsenal could be the cause of the high walk total.

    “He’s up to 95 mph with a put-away slider, a plus change and a decent splitter,” he said. “The command might be an issue of the repertoire – it will improve if he just goes fastball/slider.” A larger question remains as to what Moskos’ future role really is. As a power lefty with three or four average-to-above pitches, why not start him? “The development path is a question,” continued the scouting director. “He has all the ingredients to start and there are not delivery, effort or arm action concerns. He’s not far away from the big leagues as a bullpen guy, but for me, he has starter weapons.”

    Another scouting director agreed that there are open questions as to why Moskos doesn’t start. “I’m not sure if there’s a makeup thing or a stamina thing,” he said. “Some guys are better sprinters than marathon runner. He might just be better off taking the mound an inning at a time and letting it fly.”

  • Falling in the college reliever race is Georgia’s Josh Fields, who has a 5.82 ERA so far this year, despite striking out 26 in 17 innings. The culprit? 14 walks. “It’s weird, because he’s always thrown strikes in the past,” said one scouting director. “He might have some draft-itis, but right now he is constantly pitching behind in the count and trying to be too fine.” Adding to the issues is what another scouting director saw from him on a Sunday. “He had just pitched on Friday, so it was on a days rest,” the evaluator explained. “And just everyone was down for him – the fastball was only 90-92 mph, the breaking stuff didn’t have the same bite – that’s the real concern for me.”

Heyward On Fire

Rocketing to the top of the position player group is Georgia prep outfielder Jason Heyward. At six-foot-four and 220 pounds, Heyward is a five-tool plus plus athlete who is getting raves despite the fact that he’s getting limited opportunity to show off while playing against highly inferior competition that constantly pitches around him.

“The good news is that he’s been at every big showcase,” said one scouting director. “So we have a history we’re comfortable with and he’s responded to every challenge.” Nonetheless, scouts are frustrated with the inability to see him display his tools in games. “He never gets a pitch to swing at, so he’s tough to scout,” said another scouting director. “I saw a whole game of him where he swung the bat three times.” A third agrees, and wondered if his limited exposure would slow his development a bit.

“He’s basically playing against girls at this point, so it’s impossible to translate,” he said. “Has he ever seen a quality lefty? The acclimation to the pros could take awhile.” But all agree that the raw package was arguably the most impressive in the draft. “The upside, athleticism, and body just doesn’t get any better,” said one. “He’s the most impressive guy you are going to see physically,” added another. “When that team takes the field, you don’t have to ask the area guy which one he is.” A third summed it up with everyone’s favorite cliché. “He sure looks good in a uniform.”

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