I must say, it seems strange to be writing about a college sport this week that isn’t basketball. I mean, if I tell you that I like Arizona State and Clemson this weekend, how do you process that? I actually like the Sun Devils and Tigers in both sports, but on the maddest day of March, talking about the NCAA without mentioning Cinderella and sleepers seems… wrong. Still, I know enough to just send you over to Ken Pomeroy and John Gasaway at the other BP, and stick to what I know here.

We’re now a month into the season, and slowly getting to the point where statistics begin to have some significance (well, that’s if you believe college statistics have any significance at all). You can bet that scouts across the country have had their fair share of lone opportunities to see a player and file a report, and with each passing weekend, the June amateur draft seems nearer and nearer (as well as more and more defined as a result). The last five drafts have produced an average of 17.4 college players in the first 30 picks, so today we’ll just round down and give you 17 potential names for the first round. I’ve arranged them alphabetically for the sake of not ranking them (because, come on, it’s too early for that!), so please, don’t beg me to do so in the comments. I also haven’t included Aaron Crow and Tanner Scheppers, mostly because that would go against the premise of this article, and because I didn’t include Luke Hochevar in the average listed above.

Dustin Ackley, 1B/OF, North Carolina

.412/.529/.721, 4 2B, 1 3B, 5 HR, 16 BB, 8 K, 68 AB.

The undisputed best pure hitter in America, Ackley has added a power element to his game this season that had been missing before. I’ll have to get Will Carroll on the case to see if his off-season Tommy John surgery might be the issue. The surgery was supposed to finally move Ackley off of first base, but scouts haven’t been so lucky to see much of that; since playing the final two innings in center field on Opening Day, Ackley has logged just two further innings in the outfield.

Ryan Berry, RHP, Rice

3-0, 1.42 ERA, 31.2 IP, 9 H, 31 K, 5 BB, 1 HR

His combined totals from his last three starts are impressive, 27 IP, 28 Ks, no walks, and just seven baserunners. We’ll have to go deep into the history books to find a better three-game performance than that, so all of a sudden Berry is making me feel better about comparing his rise to that of James Simmons. The difference is that Berry’s knuckle-curve is a better out pitch than anything in Simmons’ repertoire, so the eye-popping statistics actually come with something that might be able to get big-league hitters out.

Brad Boxberger, RHP, USC

2-1, 1.69 ERA, 26.2 IP, 13 H, 37 K, 17 BB, 1 HR

Boxberger has done himself a lot of favors this season, though it remains to be seen if a major league organization really believes that he’s anything but a reliever; command problems and velocity swings both suggest that the right-hander should return to his Cape Cod League role. In his start against Winthrop last Friday, Boxberger followed a game-opening groundout with five consecutive strikeouts, continuing to give the scouts something to consider.

Kyle Gibson, RHP, Missouri

3-1, 0.90 ERA, 30 IP, 20 H, 38 K, 8 BB

I like Tim Jamieson, but I think he’s going to have me worrying about Gibson’s workload all season long. If you want an example of how dangerous conference play can be, Gibson earned a dominant win against the Texas Longhorns last weekend with a complete-game shutout. Clearly, Jamieson preferred Gibson to his closer in the ninth inning against the nation’s top-ranked team; allowing his pitch count to reach 124 was merely collateral risk (or damage). Sigh.

Grant Green, SS, USC

.298/.394/.421, 4 2B, 0 3B, 1 HR, 6 BB, 14 K, 8 SB, 57 AB

Yes, the pre-conference numbers should be much better from a player who was projected during the preseason to be this year’s #2 pick, and there’s no question that Green won’t be making life any easier for his “advisor” (Scott Boras) when he undoubtedly asks for a bonus trumping what Evan Longoria received. Green did collect six hits in his last two games, so maybe we’re starting to turn the corner. Robert Stock’s improved power and defense isn’t helping Green if comparisons are to be made. It’s time to step it up.

Brett Jackson, OF, California

.403/.476/.667, 8 2B, 1 3B, 3 HR, 10 BB, 16 K, 6 SB, 72 AB

In a draft thin on college-level position prospects, Jackson is beginning to look like the top five-tool talent. The rangy outfielder has pop, speed, patience, and a good throwing arm. We’ll need to see how he does in the rigorous Pac-10, but my guess is that he’s going to be a steal when he’s drafted in the 20s. Like Ackley, it’s nice to see the power once promised by scouts beginning to show, as Jackson is one home run away from matching his total from his first two seasons in Berkeley.

Mike Leake, RHP, Arizona State

4-1, 1.45 ERA, 31 IP, 16 H, 33 K, 6 BB, 0 HR

Aaron Fitt at Baseball America has grown fond of throwing the Tim Hudson comparison at Leake, and it’s much-deserved high praise. Like Hudson, Leake is an ultra-athletic pitcher; he was recruited at shortstop, and is already 8-for-19 in eight games at the plate this season. On the mound, Leake’s athleticism aids in his consistency and durability, and his velocity is up into the low 90s this season. If the secondary stuff keeps coming, Leake’s body of work would be deserving of a late first-round selection.

D.J. LeMahieu, SS, Louisiana State

.424/.533/.661, 2 2B, 3 3B, 2 HR, 11 BB, 11 K, 6 SB, 59 AB

He’s playing the right position to use the leverage of sophomore eligibility, especially with so few up-the-middle infielders in this draft. LeMahieu doesn’t have the star potential of so many on this list, but he’s among the most consistent, solid players in college baseball. Armed with a cannon at shortstop and above-average speed, LeMahieu has a little of every tool, but he has yet to show that one undeniable strength that scouts love to see.

Mike Minor, LHP, Vanderbilt

1-1, 3.65 ERA, 24.2 IP, 26 H, 20 K, 8 BB, 1 HR

Minor is going to need a big SEC season, because I could see him sliding on us at his current pace. Tim Corbin deserves some praise for not working Minor in the early going as he once did with David Price, but can you blame him? Minor was up to 81 pitches in the fifth inning when he was removed against Ole Miss last weekend. If he doesn’t show the ability to get right-handers out with his changeup at a high clip, there’s just no way that he ends up as a first-round pick.

Jared Mitchell, OF, Louisiana State

.425/.603/.775, 3 2B, 1 3B, 3 HR, 17 BB, 7 K, 19 SB, 40 AB

As improved as any other player in college baseball, Mitchell’s transformation in the walk and strikeout categories are astounding. Granted, the Tigers have had an extremely easy schedule so far, and they play in a hitter’s environment, but Mitchell is still a scout’s favorite who is matching praise with performance. I tell you this: if Mitchell can top 10 home runs and 40 stolen bases in a single season, he’ll be going in the first round.

Andy Oliver, LHP, Oklahoma State

3-1, 5.19 ERA, 26 IP, 25 H, 33 K, 9 BB, 3 HR

How nice things looked after Oliver’s first start, when he struck out 11 with just two hits allowed over six innings. Since then, he’s pitched against three Top 40 teams (East Carolina, Oregon State, Cal State Fullerton), and given up 14 earned runs in 20 innings. The strikeouts are encouraging, the home runs are not, but Oliver has certainly done enough to warrant forgiveness for the rust-it was only weeks ago that the NCAA ruled in favor of his eligibility. His size, pedigree, and left-handedness keep him in the first round, a la Nick Schmidt in 2007.

Brooks Raley, LHP, Texas A&M

4-0, 2.08 ERA, 26 IP, 19 H, 25 K, 8 BB, 2 HR, .403/.526/.597

His sophomore eligibility isn’t going to help in his pursuit of the first round or the bonus money he deserves, but Raley has been a Golden Spikes-caliber star in the season’s first month. Athletic, smooth southpaws don’t come around often, but Raley is going to be hurt from one comparison-Brian Bogusevic. The outfield prospect fallback is handy, but a team is going to have to be very sure of that left arm to draft Raley.

Tony Sanchez, C, Boston College

.433/.531/.716, 7 2B, 0 3B, 4 HR, 9 BB, 11 K, 67 AB

There’s a lot of depth at the catching position in this year’s draft, but Sanchez is emerging as the best of the bunch. He has shown some decent power from the right side, combined with a strong likelihood that he’ll stick at catcher defensively. Teams are not testing Sanchez in the early going as much as scouts would like, with just five stolen-base attempts against him this spring; he has thrown out three of those baserunners.

Stephen Strasburg, RHP, San Diego State

4-0, 1.98 ERA, 27.1 IP, 19 H, 59 K, 5 BB, 1 HR

The sub-1.00 ERA that I predicted to someone before the season began isn’t looking very accurate, but in retrospect, that seems less ridiculous than projecting him to strike out more than half of the batters he faces, as he is now. Strasburg is turning into a walking hyperbole at this point, with every start adding to his future eight-figure bonus (or, I should say, major league contract) request. I can’t wait to see the Nationals‘ approach to his development.

Kendal Volz, RHP, Baylor

1-1, 2.73 ERA, 26.1 IP, 13 H, 22 K, 12 BB, 2 HR

It’s becoming more and more likely that Volz will be a reliever in the end, as his command problems just don’t seem to be improving. The Bears’ big right-hander is still one of my favorite prospects in this draft, however, if only because of the natural movement he gets on that fastball. Take his March 7 start against UC Irvine for example-Volz generated 12 ground-ball outs against just four fly-ball outs and two strikeouts in 6 1/3 innings of work. When his slider is working, a lack of strikeouts is hardly his biggest problem. He also could be the least worn-down hurlers of any of the pitchers on this list, which counts for something.

Alex White, RHP, North Carolina

3-0, 3.86 ERA, 23.1 IP, 24 H, 28 K, 8 BB, 3 HR

Unlike a guy like Oliver, White has not had that one start yet that reminds us why we projected him in the top 10. Reports focus on his inconsistency with his secondary stuff, as he’s become more fastball-heavy than he was in Omaha last June. White’s at his best when he has his slider-and I believe a split-finger that he showed in the CWS-working for him, because the fastball is good, not great. He might be surpassed by his teammate, Ackley.

Alex Wilson, RHP, Texas A&M

2-2, 2.16 ERA, 25 IP, 14 H, 43 K, 5 BB, 2 HR

Wilson’s season has been a dream for an unsigned recovering Tommy John pitcher, as it now seems more likely that he’ll force a team’s hand in forgetting his injury history with that K/BB ratio. If I were a team drafting around 25-30, Wilson’s renewed plus slider and his 92-94 mph fastball could quickly make me forget about his freshman workload-especially given his rehabilitated arm.

Beyond this crew, here are some guys who I’d love to interview some scouts about: shortstops Robbie Shields (Florida Southern) and Ryan Jackson (Miami), outfielder/pitchers Blake Smith (Cal) and Aaron Miller (Baylor), and right-hander Ben Tootle (RHP, Jax State).

Baseball Prospectus NCAA Top 25: March 19, 2009

 1. Texas
 2. Louisiana State
 3. North Carolina
 4. Texas A&M
 5. Cal State Fullerton
 6. Baylor
 7. Georgia
 8. Georgia Tech
 9. Rice
10. UC Irvine
11. Miami
12. TCU
13. Clemson
14. Arizona State
15. Ole Miss
16. Oklahoma
17. Oklahoma State
18. Coastal Carolina
19. Arkansas
20. San Diego
21. Cal Poly
22. Pepperdine
23. Virginia
24. College of Charleston
25. UC Riverside

The top five goes unchanged for another week, and I feel really good about what we have there. Throughout the rest of the rankings, teams gave me a chance to revert back to my pre-season order: Baylor over Georgia, Rice over Irvine, Clemson over Arizona State. The bottom of the rankings are almost completely changed this week, as I’ve grown more fond of a few smaller programs. College of Charleston got their big week started yesterday in beating Coastal Carolina, and the series win over Western Carolina last weekend was huge for them. If the Cougars win 40 games this year, the top 25 is where they’ll belong. I was also overdue in recognizing Cal Poly, but a series win in Berkeley against the Cal Bears is a nice excuse to add them on; once this team gets Steven Fischback back to give them a legit ace, watch out. And the notice goes out to San Diego: it’s time to start winning games other than those against Ivy League opponents.

This has run entirely too long, so the Weekend Matchups section will be pushed to an Unfiltered tomorrow. In lieu of that, I’ll give you my mindless college basketball picks for the day: Butler, Memphis, BYU, Purdue, UNC, Cal, UConn, Washington, Texas, Clemson, Villanova, Gonzaga, Duke, Oklahoma, UCLA, and Western Kentucky.

Thank you for reading

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What does Rice have to do to move up a few more spots in your rankings? Just wondering since they've beaten 3 of the teams in front of them (Texas, A&M, Baylor) and haven't had the opportunity to beat the other 5 yet. Plus a series win against #20 San Diego (albeit at home).

Are you unduly weighting their sloppy opening series loss at Cal Poly? Or are you still concerned about their pitching depth? Or do you just keep contributing their wins against top-ranked teams to "its just one game" thinking?

Absent other teams falling on their faces (oh where have you gone UCLA?), Rice doesn't get much of a chance to prove themselves over the next month. They don't face a ranked team again until 4/14 (A&M). Are they at risk of falling out of your rankings if they lose a game to Memphis or Lamar along the way?

Since it doesn't come across in the written word, please note that the above was written with a smile on my face. The slightly sarcastic tone was used more to mock the "but what about my team" crowd, more than anything. My substantive points are still valid and I do think Rice should be bumped up at this point, but I'm not actually "that kind of fanboy." I am mocking that type of fanboy!
Maybe a better way to phrase things - has the gap between your top tier of teams (Texas, LSU, N.C., A&M, etc.) and someone like Rice narrowed, or do you still see a noticeable gap between the Rice-tier of teams and the top tier?
Ha, without question. I skipped Rice over Irvine this week because I just like what they're doing. I would say the top 5 is pretty ingrained at this point, but 6-9 is pretty fluid (though it's been relatively unchanged the last couple weeks). I'm a bit worried about Baylor's pitching depth, too, and obviously Berry/Ojala are throwing better than Volz and ... well, whoever the Bears are going with at #2 now. (Though it should be said, I almost included Aaron Miller in the list that starts the article.)

The Cal Poly series doesn't have much, if anything, to do with their rankings. But, I'm not going to take single games against teams ahead of them too seriously. I think you might see Rice at the 6 spot next week, or you might see them at 10. For me, they are trapped in that range indefinitely.
Remember, some of us don't care about basketball (seriously, I don't see the appeal of that sport at all), so thanks for writing about college baseball, regardless of the marchness or the madness.
3/19 you see anyway that Ackley is still around when the Tigers pick at #9? Do you think Gibson is worthy a top 10 selection?

Also I was wondering if you think that if the Nationals go crazy on a bonus to Strasburg will they then "under-draft" a guy at #10 (i.e. pick a guy not quite #10 caliber but who will agree to sign quick and relatively inexpensively)? Or will they just draft a guy and not sign him so that they'll get pick #11 next year? (that would seem mighty unfair to the guy the pick, not that they'd admit to it)
Does the pick carry over another year? I thought if they didn't sign someone for a second straight year they lost the pick. I could be wrong though, no expert on the draft.
The compensation pick is only good for one year. If they fail to sign the guy picked this year in the Aaron Crow selection slot, they don't get additional compensation next year. So they've pretty much got to sign that player too.
Thinking that they'll underdraft is quite possible. Depends on the new management in DC and how much they're willing to designate to the draft. Their farm club needs upper tier talent right now, so I can't believe they wouldn't take the best player available.
What happened with Oregon State? Are they really that far removed from their World Series winning years?
lemppi - no chance of Ackley falling that far to the Tigers at #9 - he is WAY too good of a hitter. I am a UNC alum and go to the games - it is awesome to watch how quiet and patient he is and just hits the pitch that he wants. If he signs with a tough agent and falls, maybe. If his demands are not out of this world, then there is now way he falls.