Now that we’ve made our way around to understanding the college game, it’s time to start getting you focused on the players and programs primed to shine in 2008. The talent pool currently in college baseball is very deep, and the 2008 draft class is loaded at a few positions, particularly first base and shortstop. As we continue to preview the 2008 season, I wanted to give you a list of the most talented juniors in the country by position, the players who really should be the best in the nation this year. We’ll be hitting on a lot more players before the college baseball season starts in a month, but through my conversations with people in the game, these are the players mentioned most often.
Head of the Class: Buster Posey, Florida State. Recruited to the Seminoles to pitch and play shortstop, Posey wound up doing neither during his time on campus. Mike Martin’s decision to move the athletic Posey behind the plate is going to do a lot for the young player’s career. At the plate, Posey is a smart, intelligent contact hitter who put up a .900 OPS as a freshman, followed by a .382/.453/.520 line a year ago. Behind the plate Posey is still developing, but he moves well and has a great arm-with months of practice under his belt since the Cape Cod practicing the nuances of catching, it’s not hard to expect improvement.
Honorable Mention: Petey Paramore, Arizona State.
Underclassmen to watch: Robert Stock would be a freshman in college had he attended his senior year of high school, but in hopes of being drafted a year earlier, he left to play for Chad Kreuter at USC a year early. While his game is still a bit immature, even opposing coaches rave about his potential. Trevor Coleman from Missouri is another player to watch; the freshman showed fantastic power last season, and he calls a smart game from behind the plate.
Head of the Class: Justin Smoak, South Carolina. We all know this name by now. Smoak is likely to be a top ten overall pick this season, and ESPN’s Keith Law has him ranked as the best player in the 2008 draft class. Smoak does the two things that first basemen need to do very well: he hits for power, and he plays good defense. In 504 at-bats at South Carolina in two years, Smoak has 73 extra-base hits, including 39 home runs. This should be an accurate preview of his ceiling as an offensive player when he makes the conversion to wood bats.
Honorable Mentions: Yonder Alonso, Miami; Brett Wallace, Arizona State.
Transfer to watch: Andrew Clark moved from Ole Miss to Louisville in the last offseason, and after sitting out last year Clark will move right into the heart of the Louisville lineup. With equally all-or-nothing third baseman Chris Dominguez already in the lineup, Louisville will now have two home run threats in the middle of their order.
Head of the Class: Jemile Weeks, Miami. When the Brewers drafted Weeks in 2005, many assumed it was the type of nepotism pick we see in the draft every year. Weeks had a scholarship offer from Miami, so it was seen as a case of paying respect to his older brother, Rickie Weeks. Or so we thought, because it now seems that the Brewers actually very much wanted the younger brother, and offered him money well over slot, even though in the end that was not enough. Jemile doesn’t have the power of his big brother, but he’s quicker, both in the legs and the wrists, a better defender, and he offers the same patience at the plate. He was Miami’s best player as a freshman in 2006, hitting .352/.446/.555, so if he can stay healthy this spring, he could easily vault back into the first round.
Honorable Mentions: David Adams, Virginia; Jermaine Curtis, UCLA.
Future Second Baseman to Watch: As the most talented player in a struggling program, Cole Figueroa plays shortstop for the Florida Gators. But most I have spoken to believe that Figueroa’s lack of a great throwing arm will cause him to ultimately be moved to second base. He will still be a fantastic asset there, as Figueroa made the smoothest transition to college-level ball of any freshman last season. He certainly needs patience-a .383 on-base percentage could stand to be improved-but Figueroa makes consistent, hard contact on almost every swing.
Head of the Class: Brandon Crawford, UCLA. Fresh off a disappointing summer in the Cape Cod League, Crawford nevertheless retains his title as the most talented shortstop of his class. He’s probably not the one that will help his college team the most this spring, but he’s the best bet to make an impact at the professional level. Crawford shows hints of all five tools, hitting .335/.405/.504 last season while stealing 11 bases in 12 attempts. He’s a gifted athlete in the field, capable of throwing strikes to first from deep in the hole thanks to his great arm. His problem is strikeouts, as Crawford has 104 in 490 college at-bats. Some have compared him to Tyler Greene, which isn’t a compliment, but given his defensive value and offensive potential, he should end up much better than Greene.
Honorable Mentions: Danny Espinosa, Long Beach State; Reese Havens, South Carolina; Ryan Flaherty, Vanderbilt.
Underclassmen to Watch: In the same week that Troy Tulowitzki signed a six-year contract, it’s probably fitting to talk about Grant Green. USC’s other sophomore phenom (beyond the already-mentioned Stock behind the plate), Green had a great freshman season with the Trojans, hitting .316/.388/.491. Like Tulo, he’s a big shortstop who offers both good range and a good throwing arm. Their best basis for comparison is their power, especially in light of the power that Tulo also didn’t show in the home run column until after his freshman season. Expect Green to turn more of those 24 doubles and triples into home runs in each of the next two seasons, and then expect him to get some consideration as the first overall selection in the 2009 draft.
Head of the Class: Pedro Alvarez, Vanderbilt. We move to the likely first overall selection in 2008, assuming of course that his contract demands don’t get too out of whack and create signability issues. Alvarez seems to be the one college player everybody knows by now. He’s built like Albert Pujols, and like Pujols delivers fantastic power from good strength in his core and legs. Alvarez does strike out a bit much, but nothing out of the ordinary for a power source in the middle of the lineup. He’s agile enough to stick at third base, but could be a very good first baseman as well. Especially notable is that Alvarez has been better during the summers with wood than anyone else in the nation. There’s reason to think he’ll hit 20 home runs this spring en route to Rule Four fame.
Honorable Mentions: James Darnell, South Carolina; Logan Forsythe, Arkansas.
Underclassmen to Watch: The Seminoles surprised many when they started unheralded recruit Jason Stidham at third base last season, but then he started hitting and only kept hitting, not stopping the entire season, and finishing with a .366/.448/.540 line in his first run through the ACC. Critics still feel that Stidham is nothing special, but he has a good swing and is never cheated at the plate. Scouts will never love him enough to elevate him to a first-round guy, but his production will get him drafted higher than anyone would have thought a year ago.
Head of the Class, Center: Jordan Danks, Texas. I still believe. Danks came to Texas as one of the Longhorns most heralded recruits in a long time, a five-star talent expected to replace Drew Stubbs without anybody noticing he was gone. And while it’s hard to argue with two 900-plus OPS seasons, Danks’ .147 Isolated Slugging Percentage wasn’t up to par last spring. In the end, he might just be a leadoff hitter, one with great patience, a 26-for-26 baserunning record in two years, while also kicking in really good center field defense. But if the power does come around, he’s a superstar.
Honorable Mention: Aja Barto, Tulane.
Heads of the Class, Corners: Dennis Raben, Miami. One of the players who the Cape Cod spotlight shined especially happily upon, Raben used wooden bats to position himself as one of the nation’s most dangerous players. He swings a big left-handed bat with a lot of power in it, and he especially crushes right-handed pitching. But with a big swing come big misses, and Raben has those too often. He’s a good defender in the outfield corners. Raben is one of the more volatile players on this list; a big year means the first round, while a lackluster junior campaign could see him fall.
Roger Kieschnick, Texas Tech. A bit of a surprise invite on the 2006 USA Baseball summer team coached by Tim Corbin, Kieschnick was brought back onto the team by Mike Weathers last summer. In his second go ’round, Kieschnick hit seven home runs with the wood bats, which tied for the team lead with Pedro Alvarez. You should also note that only three players hit more than two home runs on the entire team. So yeah, Kieschnick has power and then some, and he really impressed scouts with his play in right field both summers. By matching his current career home run total this spring (20), Kieschnick has the natural talent to justify a first-round pick.
Honorable Mentions: Kyle Russell, Texas; Aaron Luna, Rice.
Junior College Outfielder to Watch: Devin Shepherd was one of the nation’s most talented high school outfielders in 2006, and despite being drafted by the Twins in the first round, decided to attend Oklahoma. His time with the Sooners didn’t go well, as he hit just .235/.348/.287 before being granted a release from the program. Shepherd transferred to the College of Southern Nevada, and he’ll re-enter the draft this summer. He has all five tools and patience to go with it, so keep your eyes on him.
Underclassmen to Watch: Including Shepherd, last year was a bit of a disappointment in regards to how well the heralded freshman outfielders panned out. Baylor’s Aaron Miller was as highly regarded as anyone in the country, but he had trouble making contact and really struggled against left-handed pitching. Georgia Tech’s Curtis Dupart has all the talent in the world, but again, his game proved too raw for the ACC in his first season. Florida’s