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25 College Players to Watch: 2009 Edition

Stephen StrasburgI know it is less than an hour before the draft, but I just got back from a two week trip to China yesterday, which started the day after I graduated from college. It has been a busy last three weeks to say the least, and this helps explain the slow start to the year as far as Mariners Musings go. However, I have my list of 25 college prospects to watch this year, and it is a very intriguing one to say the least.

Media coverage has centered on Stephen Strasburg this year, and to a certain extent rightly so with his incredible stuff and eye-popping numbers. However, while the draft certainly did not have a pitcher of Strasburg's caliber last year, it in general is a much deeper draft for college pitching prospects in my opinion. On the other hand, the depth is weaker for hitters from the college ranks at the very top, but also appears to have more decent to good position prospects. This draft does not appear to have many potential stars unfortunately, but it has significant depth. It made this year's list difficult to sort in many ways, and without a doubt there are many college players not on the watchlist that can/will have solid professional careers. Without further ado, my 25 college baseball prospects to watch for in the 2009 draft:

25. Austin Hyatt, RHP, Alabama - Hyatt got shelled by Oklahoma State in his last start ever as a collegiate pitcher, but it was the worst start of this senior's entire career. Hyatt was clearly the best starter in the SEC this year, and had been a solid pitcher in previous seasons. Going off of only this year's numbers, Hyatt should be higher on this list. However, at this point a year ago today he did not project to be on this list at all. Hyatt is not a one-year wonder, but he may have played at a level above his actual talent level for most of this season. Still, how many times is the best starter in the SEC not a legitimate pro prospect?

24. Ben Tootle, RHP, Jacksonville State - Tootle was not even close to this list a year ago, but he was dazzling as a relief pitcher in the Cape Cod league last summer, and carried his momentum into the 2009 college season to take a quantam leap forward. He was even picked as a preseason first-team All-American, despite playing for a relatively unknown baseball program.

23. Daniel Bibona, LHP, UC Irvine - The Big West conference is known for producing quality major league talent (Evan Longoria comes to mind, but the list is much longer than just him), and Bibona was the best of the Big West this year. He has taken significant steps forward each year and blossomed into one of college's best starters this year. On top of that, UC Irvine has been a quality program the past couple years, so he has some postseason experience, and has faced the pressure of rising expectations.

22. Jason Stidham, OF, Florida State - Nothing jumps out about Stidham; he is simply a good ballplayer. He has steadily improved each year, and comes from a perennial powerhouse. Nothing about his game indicates star power to me, but there are no real red flags in his game either.

21. Andrew Carraway, RHP, Virginia - Rather quietly, Virgina has been churning out pitching prospects in recent years (you may recall both Jacob Thompson and Michael Schwimer from last year's 25TW list). Carraway is the next in the group. His track record is not overwhelming from the past couple years, but over the summer he proved he could more than hold his own in the Cape Cod league, and he followed that up with a very good senior season, by far the best season of his college career.

20. Andrew Wolcott, RHP, Duke - The Blue Devils have an underrated baseball program, and quietly Wolcott has been one of the best pitchers in the ACC the past two years. He has good size, and between that and the high level of competition he has encountered in the ACC, he has a good chance to continue to succeed as a professional.

19. Justin Marks, LHP, Louisville - Marks is a rare pitcher that started regularly as a true freshman, so he has three years worth of starts to look at. That alone says something about his talent. More impressive than that is his high level of production, highlighted by a very low home run rate. Marks may ultimately have to rely heavily on control to be productive as a professional, but I'll take my chances on a lefty starter with three years of quality production in college.

18. Louis Coleman, RHP, LSU - Last year, Coleman was light-out in the bullpen for the Tigers, and this year he was their best starter. That he pulled the trick in the SEC, always one of the premier college baseball conferences in Division I, makes it all the more impressive. I do not put a ton of stock into pitcher versatility, but is nice to see that Coleman has already shown such flexibility. More than that, his ability to thrive in multiple roles against some of the best competition college has to offer says something about the caliber of his stuff.

17. Aaron Miller, OF, Baylor - Kind of like Stidham, Miller has flashed a solid offensive game in college. That did not translate over the summer in the Cape Cod league, where he struggled, but I still weight his three years of progress and good production over a couple months over one summer. What makes Miller more intriguing than Stidham for me is that Miller has also pitched for Baylor. His future as a professional is in the outfield, but he obviously has a good arm, and focusing on only hitting makes him a candidate to potentially blossom more at the plate than might otherwise be expected.

16. Ryan Berry, RHP, Rice - I had a tough time placing Berry on this list. He has been in the Rice rotation for three years now, but took a major leap forward this year. However, he also missed time. It would have been really nice to see if he would have regressed to more of the level I expected out of him this year, or if he could have kept up the spectacular year he was putting together. I essentially split the difference between the two, and he landed right around here. My gut feeling is that his performance level would have slipped. Ultimately, Berry is kind of the dividing line between guys I see developing into potentially useful major-leaguers, and guys I see becoming potentially valuable major-leaguers.

15. Mike Sodders, INF, New Mexico State - 2009 was Mike's only year at the Division I level, but he had no problem against Mountain West pitching. It is not the strongest conference, but his ability to jump up to Division I without missing a beat is admirable. However, what gets him this high of a rating on this list is his versatility. He played all over the infield for New Mexico State, so between that and a somewhat intriguing bat, he has the beginnings of being a super sub.

14. Kyle Gibson, RHP, Missouri - Gibson has one of the best arms in the draft, as evidenced by his extremely high strikeout rates. However, he has also been a little prone to giving up home runs. He is pretty much a classic power arm, which means at worst he should be able to contribute in a Major League bullpen. It appears most people like Gibson more than I do, because I see some potential for him to simply become a hard-thrower going for strikeouts every time. That can work just fine in the bullpen, but most starters with that approach are not successful.

13. Joe Patterson, C, Texas A&M - Similar to Sodders, Patterson's lone year at the Division I level was 2009, but he showed tremendous power. It is likely not a fluke either, because at the junior college level he also hit tons of home runs. Even though such a short track record makes Patterson a bit of a boom-or-bust candidate, the upside he brings as a power-hitting catcher is very intriguing.

12. Ben Paulsen, 1B, Clemson - A completely prototypical first baseman has more power than Paulsen has shown so far, but other than that Paulsen's credentials are excellent. He has steadily improved, did a fine job in the Cape Cod league this summer, and followed it up with a tremendous junior season. Paulsen knows what he is doing at the plate, and everything about his career thus far indicates further development and good pro potential.

11. Kent Matthes, OF, Alabama - Matthes is pretty much a prototypical slugging outfielder. He has slugged his way through the SEC the past couple years, but has the plate discipline necessary to hopefully see it translate in the pros. He is right-handed, which perhaps diminishes his value some, especially for the M's in Safeco Field.

10. Luke Murton, OF, Georgia Tech - Luke is the younger brother of Matt Murton, who is with the Rockies and whom I still think has a place in the major leagues. Luke looks similar to his older brother to me, which means gap power with solid plate discipline and good batting average. This gives you a feel for the lack of star power in this draft that I talked about in the opening. Luke did not fare well in the Cape Cod league this summer, but a promising pedigree and highly productive college career more than overshadow it.

9. Mike Leake, RHP, Arizona State - The Pac 10 produces its fair share of pitchers (Tim Lincecum and Brandon Morrow in recent memory), and Leake is the best of this year's bunch. The Pac 10 was not nearly as good as it usually is this year though, and so not surprisingly Leake is not the same caliber as some of the Pac 10's best in recent memory. Still, it is nice to see all these pitching prospects on the list this year, after 2008 was dominated by hitters.

8. Scott Bittle, RHP, Mississippi - Bittle makes history as the first player ever to appear on multiple watch lists! You may recall he was my 17th ranked prospect in 2008. The fact that he is so much higher again shows the lack of star power in this draft, but also says something about Bittle. I still do not understand while Ole Miss did not make him a full time starter, but he was even better this year than last, and for two years now has completely blown away SEC hitters. He was drafted by the Yankees last year and did not sign, which I will admit earns some bonus points in my book. It looks like it will end up being a good professional decision for him though. Especially with how big the sandwich round is this year, he should go earlier than he did a year ago.

7. Alex White, RHP, North Carolina - Alex White has been highly thought of since high school, and not much has happened to sway opinions within professional circles from what I have seen and read. Personally, for as much as some people like him, I would have liked to have seen a little more production in college. His home run and strikeout rates were certainly great in college, but do not justify the level that some scouts seem to put him at. Still, White would be a good prospect in any year, and is helped even more by the lack of star power in this draft.

6. Brian Moran, LHP, North Carolina - This tells you both what I think of Alex White, and Brian Moran. I doubt anyone else has Moran over White, and he certainly will not get drafted ahead of White. Here is why I prefer him though, particularly in this draft. Moran is the UNC closer, and has been even better than his predecessor, Andrew Carignan (now in the A's organization). He has been completely dominant, and took his game to an insane level this year. Moran is unhittable, and as a lefty, is even more valuable with his filthy stuff. Though I am usually against drafting relievers high, he has the potential to be a shut-down closer, and in a draft lacking stars, it puts him near the top.

5. Kyle Bellamy, RHP, Miami (FL) - Bellamy makes it back-to-back reliever on my watchlist, both well inside my top 10! Kyle became the Miami closer this year, taking over for Carlos Gutierrez (now with the Twins, and a first round draft pick last year), but he has been a known commodity for several years. In fact, his numbers were clearly superior to Gutierrez's last year. At 6'4" and 220 pounds or so, Bellamy has prototypical power pitcher size. However, he does not really use it to his advantage. Instead, he uses a bit of a scrunched over sidearm approach that clearly works for him. All of his stuff sinks out of sight, to the point that college hitters tend to not even make contact with it. His delivery may lead to some durability issues, but I am not so worried because he is a reliever, and also because it has not been an issue in college despite about as heavy of a workload as a college reliever can have. Bellamy's track record is even better than Moran's, though Moran outperformed him just slightly this year. Still, like Moran, Bellamy looks like an impact reliever, and impact guys are rather scarce in this draft.

4. Tony Sanchez, C, Boston College - Recent drafts have been blessed with incredible catching prospects, most recently Buster Posey and Matt Wieters. Sanchez is not at the level of either of those two, but he is more than worthy of being the top catching prospect in this class, at least in my eyes. Sanchez is a great hitter that continues to come on stronger and stronger. He flashed some power in the Cape Cod league this summer, and proved it was not a fluke with his improved power numbers in the 2009 college season. Sanchez is one of the best bats in this draft regardless of position, and the fact that he is a catcher makes him even more valuable.

3. Rich Poythress, 3B, Georgia - You may recall that Gordon Beckham was a Georgia Bulldog, and the 5th ranked prospect on the 2008 list. Though Poythress is ranked even higher on this list, he is not quite at the same level as Beckham, partly because Beckham's bat is even more valuable at shortstop. Poythress has more power than Beckham though, certainly enough to make him valuable even at a corner outfield spot or first base. I think Poythress is the best power-hitting prospect coming out of college this year.

2. Stephen Strasburg, RHP, San Diego State - This is obviously my most provocative ranking by far. To say that Strasburg is the consensus top pick is an understatement. Many are calling him the best pitching prospect in decades, or even a prospect of the kind that we have never seen before. I will spare that debate for later, but provide my scouting report of Strasburg right now. Strasburg has been on the radar screen for a few years now, and his incredible stuff by the end of last year was well known. This year, he really started to figure out how to harness it with mind-numbing results. He struck out nearly two batters an inning, and threw multiple no-hitters. As much as I have said that this draft lacks star power, it does not lack it at the top. Strasburg is among the best pitching prospects in recent memory. His fastball alone makes him an MLB-ready reliever right now, and with a little development he will be ready to start. He has the tools to develop into an ace, but it is not a guarantee in my eyes. That puts me in a pretty slim minority right now.

1. Dustin Ackley, OF/1B, North Carolina - So, why Ackley over Strasburg? It was a remarkably tough decision. I will admit that Strasburg has more upside, so this has the potential to make me look bad. However, people are heaping unbelievable (and I would argue even unattainable) expectations on Strasburg, and I am concerned about how those will impact him. Aside from that, Ackley is a rare talent in his own right. He stepped right in at North Carolina as a true freshman, and asserted himself as one of the best bats on the team. He has continued to progress, and switched from first base to center field this past season. Ackley has played on two teams that made it all the way to the CWS championship two years in a row, and this year's team is among the best in the nation again. He has played with some of college baseball's best talent, against college baseball's best talent, and under as much pressure as college baseball can offer, and shined through it all. People are forgetting how much better the ACC is than Strasburg's conference, the Mountain West, and Ackley this year has flashed more power, speed, and defensive ability than in years past. At worst, Ackley looks like a 10-year starter in the majors that will only take a couple years max to work through the minors. At best, he may be a blossoming five-tool talent. Ultimately, Strasburg has more upside than Ackley, but Ackley is more of a sure thing. I try to not err on the side of danger or caution, so with a tie I went to their track records. Until this year, Ackley was clearly more productive than Strasburg, so Ackley's body of work is what ultimately tipped the scale for me by the slimmest of margins.

The draft is less than an hour away, so time to post this, and watch the draft! I will delve into my worries about Stephen Strasburg with a separate post soon, perhaps as early as tonight. If I were the Nationals I would take him with the first overall pick, but to be honest I am glad I am not in their shoes. I am happy to be a Mariners fan, picking at number two.