Perfect Game USA Releases Top 100 Junior College Baseball Players for MLB DraftMay 13, 2010
Led by Southern Nevada's Harper, Junior College Players On Center Stage in 2010
By ALLAN SIMPSON, Perfect Game USA (www.perfectgame.org)
With the near certainty that a junior-college player will be the No. 1 selection in the baseball draft for the first time, combined with an unsigned first-round pick from the 2009 draft ending up at a junior college for only the second time ever, this has been an historic season, of sorts, for junior-college baseball.
It matters little that one of the players, College of Southern Nevada catcher Bryce Harper, has had a big, breakout season, while the other, Chipola (Fla.) Junior College outfielder Levon Washington, struggled somewhat through injury-plagued fall and spring campaigns. The mere presence of the two high-profile players has shone rare national attention on the juco baseball ranks.
Harper, who made headlines last summer by electing to skip his final two years at a Las Vegas high school and enroll at a junior college, all with the express purpose of making himself eligible for the 2010 draft, has enjoyed considerable success this spring as a 17-year-old freshman. He has been so dominant that it has all but validated his becoming the top pick in June.
The teen prodigy has hit a robust .417-23-68, all team-leading figures, and excelled defensively, handling an ultra-talented Southern Nevada pitching staff that features as many as five or six arms that could be selected in the top 10 rounds-a draft first for a junior-college team, should that occur. Moreover, Harper has handled, with remarkable maturity, all the pressure and intense scrutiny that have accompanied his bold and unprecedented decision to circumvent the normal draft process.
Washington, meanwhile, struggled early as a freshman for a disappointing Chipola team, even though he picked up his pace considerably late in the season. He finished his freshman year by hitting .341-8-25 with eight stolen bases in 38 games. A second high-profile Chipola player, lefthander Jake Eliopoulos, a second-round pick a year ago, didn't even last the season at the Florida school, before returning home to Canada.
Though Harper and Washington continue to be the marquee names at the junior-college level, especially with the June 7-9 draft less than a month away, several other juco players have made an impact this spring, too. Collectively, they have helped to raise the profile of baseball at the junior-college level.
A year ago, the first JC player drafted was Chipola lefty Patrick Corbin, who lasted until the 80th pick-the final selection in the second round. There were also only eight players taken in the first five rounds, and 23 in the top 10.
By contrast, there's a chance this year that as many as five or six JC players could be drafted in the first two rounds, led obviously by Harper. Washington should also be in that mix, despite his somewhat ordinary 2010 season.
In Perfect Game's ranking of the top 200 junior college prospects for this year's draft, there are 10 players who are projected to go in the top three rounds. Harper ranks No. 1 on the list, Washington No. 2.
Others that have a realistic shot at being drafted in the first 100 selections overall (roughly the top three rounds) are St. Petersburg (Fla.) sophomore righthander Austin Wood, at No. 3 on the JC list; Connors State (Okla.) sophomore outfielder Marcus Knecht, at No. 4; Northeast Texas sophomore righthander Zach Cates, at No. 5; Wabash Valley (Ill.) freshman outfielder Mel Rojas Jr., at No. 6; Southern Nevada sophomore righthander Donn Roach, at No. 7; Western Oklahoma State freshman righthander/shortstop Andrelton Simmons, at No. 8; Howard (Texas) sophomore righthander Burch Smith, at No. 9; and Southern Nevada sophomore righthander Tyler Hanks, at No. 10.
While Harper and Washington came directly from the high-school ranks and were heavily-exposed commodities entering the 2010 season, the other eight had more varied backgrounds and evolved as legitimate prospects this spring with much less fanfare.
Wood (Florida State), Knecht (Oklahoma State) and Roach (Arizona) were transfers from major Division I programs, and as such were ineligible for last year's draft. Smith (a late-round pick in 2009) and Hanks (undrafted in 2009) simply elevated their games with breakthrough sophomore seasons. Rojas (Dominican Republic) and Simmons (Aruba) are foreign products who thrived as freshmen playing in more structured baseball environments, while Cates, an undrafted catcher in 2009, found his true calling this spring on the mound.
Among the Division I transfers, Knecht and Roach had breakout seasons as sophomores, while Wood struggled most of the spring. Yet Wood ranks slightly ahead of Knecht and Roach for purposes of the draft.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound righthander, a 36th-round pick in 2008 out of a Florida high school, went 0-0, 6.35 as a freshman at Florida State, walking 25 and striking out just 13 in 23 innings. When his fastball spiked to 97 mph last fall after transferring to St. Petersburg JC, Wood's stock for the 2010 draft predictably skyrocketed. He went just 3-4, 4.97 this season for the Titans, but maintained his superior velocity almost every time out.
"His fastball was anywhere from 91 to 97," said St. Pete coach Dave Pano. "He also tightened up his slider, and his change is now an average major-league pitch. He's received heavy, heavy interest all spring."
The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Knecht played sparingly in 2009 at Oklahoma State, getting just 12 at-bats, after being selected in the 23rd-round of the 2008 draft out of a Canadian high school. He elected soon after his freshman season to transfer down the road to Connors State, and that decision should pay off handsomely for Knecht in this year's draft as his combination of speed and power is nearly unmatched.
Knecht established his superior speed last fall with a 6.54-second clocking in the 60 on scout day, and his power has emerged this spring as an elite, viable tool. Knecht has hit a resounding .453-21-81 for a Connors State team that climbed to the top of the national rankings in April, wrestling the No. 1 spot from powerful Southern Nevada. It was apparent that a change of scenery and a chance to play everyday were all that Knecht needed for his immense raw talent to surface.
"I thought he might be a second- or third-rounder from what I saw last fall," said Connors State coach Perry Keith, "but now I think he might go as high as a sandwich pick. He's got all five tools. He was in over his head a bit when he was at Oklahoma State, and might have tried to do too much. His bat is his best tool, and once he realized that in the fall, he started to take off. He just had to learn to use the other side of the field more consistently.
"He's shown great improvement, and just might be one of those Canadians who is often a little bit behind in his development in his first year down here, but takes off in his sophomore year."
Roach, a 40th-round pick in 2008 out of a Las Vegas high school, has also experienced a dramatic turnaround after transferring back home to CSN from a year at Arizona. He was 10-3, 2.86 with 110 strikeouts in his first 86 innings.
"We changed his arm slot, back to three-quarters," said CSN coach Tim Chambers, "and he went from 86 mph to 93 almost overnight. He's been 90-96 all spring. His numbers would be even better than they are, but he got hammered in the one outing all year that we played with aluminum bats (10 runs against California's Cypress JC)."
Being on the same Southern Nevada team as the heavily-scouted Harper, Roach and Hanks have both gotten more than their share of exposure. Like Roach, Hanks has earned it with better velocity on his fastball.
Hanks has routinely reached 97 mph, and been consistently the hardest thrower on a staff that may have more hard throwers than any college team in the country-four-year college or junior college-with the possible exception of Texas, the No. 1-ranked NCAA Division I team. As a staff, CSN has 521 strikeouts in 422 innings.
In addition to Hanks (3-2, 1.52, 1 SV, 41 IP/43 SO), righthanders Aaron Kurcz (2-3, 3.56, 9 SV, 30 IP/46 SO) and Joe Robinson (9-1, 2.34, 77 IP/73 SO) have been clocked well in excess of 90 this spring. Even lefthander Bryan Harper (8-1, 1.98, 50 IP/78 SO), Bryce's older brother, has emerged as a potential fourth- to eighth-rounder after transferring from Cal State Northridge.
Still, most of the attention at CSN has been directed at the younger Harper.
"Bryce has been great," assistant coach Cooper Fouts said. "He has handled all the attention and pressure very well. But our arms have been great, as well. Robinson has been sitting at 92-94, and been up to 96. He pounds the zone better than anyone we have seen this spring. Every start, he has been seen by at least 10 scouts. Roach has been awesome, too.
"Hanks has been even better than we thought he would be. He has been 92-94, and will get up to 97. Kurcz has been great out of the pen, and is anywhere from 93-96 in most of his outings. Bryan Harper has been up and down, but has thrown great recently."
Rojas, the son of ex-major league reliever Mel Rojas, and Simmons weren't eligible for the 2009 draft as foreign players, but have made big strides this spring. The toolsy Rojas is hitting .391-12-63 and has stolen 55 bases in 57 attempts for Wabash Valley, while Simmons has shown nearly equal interest from scouts as a pitcher and shortstop.
Western Oklahoma State, a rising Division II power, has reached far and wide to secure talent in recent years, and its recruiting net in the Caribbean landed Simmons, who was primarily a soccer player growing up in Aruba.
Simmons began to generate immediate and significant interest from scouts last fall with his bat, powerful arm and athletic actions at shortstop. But when scouts returned for a second look this spring, Simmons proved even more dazzling as a pitching prospect with his loose, easy delivery and a fastball that was a steady 93-95 mph, topping at 96. His progress was slowed late in the spring by a fractured toe, affecting his velocity slightly when he returned.
"He does everything very easy at shortstop; he's very fluid and can really pick it," says Western Oklahoma coach Kurt Russell. "But right before he got hurt, his fastball was 94-96, touching 97. It's an interesting debate what position he plays, but I think more clubs see him as a position player at this point."
Cates, meanwhile, spent most of 2009 as a catcher, even as his upside potential as a pitcher was apparent. He has thoroughly blossomed this year on the mound.
"We recruited him as a pitcher," Northeast Texas coach Chris Smith said, "but he wanted to do both last year, catch and pitch. But when one of our catchers got hurt and the other quit, I had no one else to catch, and Zach ended up throwing only eight or nine innings. Last fall, we converted him full-time to the mound, and nothing he has thrown this spring has been under 90. His fastball sits at 93-95, and he has been up to 97. His change has also been exceptional, giving him two quality out-pitches.
The intriguing scenario that has surrounded Harper's bold gamble to enroll in junior college and become eligible for the draft a year ahead of schedule has undoubtedly been the biggest story in junior-college baseball this spring.
A year ago, the No. 1 storyline was authored by Texas' Howard College and the near-perfect season it engineered. The Hawks began 2009 with a record 57-game winning streak and went on to capture the Junior College World Series with an improbable 63-1 record. Yet only four players were drafted off that team, none higher than the 12th round.
Howard has posted a more-pedestrian 44-8 record this season, with injuries playing a factor. But sophomore righthander Burch Smith, a 49th-rounder in 2009, has posted a 10-2, 2.44 record and emerged as a significant prospect for this year's draft, a possible third- to fifth-rounder. Sophomore outfielder Joey Leftridge should fall right in line behind him.
"Smith is the only pitcher on our staff who has been healthy all season," Howard coach Britt Smith said. "His fastball has topped at 95, and his command is much improved. He has learned to pitch without trying to blow hitters away with his velocity."
While there are no stories from a team-oriented perspective this season to match Howard's unparalleled 2009 success, the individual talents of the immensely-gifted Harper are making this another season to remember at the underappreciated junior-college level. And the spotlight should only continue to intensify as Harper goes on to become the first junior-college talent ever picked No. 1 pick in the draft.