With the college baseball season about to get underway, check in with BP's columnist on the NCAA beat, Bryan Smith.
Bryan Smith: Hi everyone, can't tell you how pleased I am to be back in the saddle chatting again. This weekend brings us the beginning of the college baseball (and, in a sense, draft) season, and on Sunday, we have the Oscars. I feel spoiled. Spring isn't far.
Mike (Jax, FL): Care to put the Ole Miss curse on anyone this year?
Who's got a better chance to make some noise this year after high turnover; FSU or Georgia?
Bryan Smith: Let's start here, with a reminder that I have an article out today releasing the BP NCAA Top 25. I guess by definition, I've thrown my Ole Miss curse (my #1 team a year ago) onto LSU. However, I took a different approach to my rankings this year, going with a team less dependent on turning their non-performing talent around. The teams I see as most similar to last year's Rebels squad are Missouri and UCLA, both programs with great talent that just hasn't got it done so far. Both have great potential, but 2008 Ole Miss is a good template for what could happen. Finally, I also recognize that I've cursed the Rebels yet again, so sorry for that...
lemppi (Ankeny, IA): Bryan, who are the 3 most interesting pitchers in the NCAA, not named named Strasburg or White, who will likely be in the next draft? Thanks.
Bryan Smith: This draft has some really good arms, but frustratingly, many of them look destined for the bullpen. Kendal Volz (Baylor) could be a starter, but given how good he looked as the USA Baseball closer last summer, it's become a natural role for him. Ben Tootle is similar, going from solid starter at Jacksonville State to dynamic closer in the Cape Cod League, albeit reminding a bit too much of Luke Burnett a year ago. Jason Stoffel, Blake Smith, Drew Storen, it's clear that relievers are the strength of this draft. That said, the two most interesting arms outside the top are 6-4 lefties, Andy Oliver and Mike Minor. I like them both quite a bit. Fifth on my list is Kyle Gibson at Missouri, the projectable right-hander with the fantastic slider.
Jay J. (Tacoma, WA): What do you think of Seattle's decision to sign Josh Fields relative to the option of just taking the pick in the upcoming draft?
Bryan Smith: I understand the heat the move has taken with Mariners fans, but I don't really mind the move. As I noted above, a lot of the college pitchers that will be available around pick 21 are future relievers themselves, and Fields is probably better than the lot of them (except maybe Volz). Also, as I saw Dave Cameron note, there's a real possibility that Fields starts in West Tenn, dominates, and ends up contributing for Seattle this season. It's not a terrible move given this draft, although I am a bit confused why in a baseball economy that has Manny Ramirez unsigned on February 17, a college senior managed to get over slot money with no discernible leverage.
Landon Powell (Papago Park): What's to stop Bryce Harper from taking the GED like I did and declaring for the draft a year or two early? Seems like the hype couldn't be higher and he would command a several million dollar signing bonus while starting his professional development much earlier.
Bryan Smith: Well, the story of Landon Powell just might be enough to stop Bryce Harper from doing that, though granted, the silence surrounding Powell's decision to take the GED wouldn't exist in this information-driven Internet era. In reality, it's hard for me to say that anyone should stop their education so early, but given his hype, Harper would be the definite favorite to go first in 2010 or 2011. It does seem that the latter season, his natural draft season, is going to be thinner, so Harper might be best served to continue on the same path.
Josh Phegley (Ind): My season was out of control. Is my bat for real?
Bryan Smith: For those unaware, Phegley, the Indiana catcher, hit an unreal .438/.507/.746 last season. I was expecting something solid after good reports from the Cape Cod League in 2007, but not that good. And the amazing thing is that his BABIP, .423, is not other-worldly for this level. Phegley makes good contact, he makes consistent contact, and he's patient. He can hit, and he has the athleticism to defend. He should be a top-two round guy, for sure.
lemppi (Ankeny, IA): Bryan, I'm glad your NCAA coverage will be resuming soon! Could you give us a brief rundown on the Big Ten this year and Michigan/Minnesota in particular? Thanks.
Bryan Smith: Michigan lost a lot more than just Zach Putnam; at the very least, another draft star in Justin Christian, and a college star in Nate Recknagel. Six members of the starting nine are gone, as well as the ace (Putnam) and closer (Michael Powers). However, much of the pitching staff is still in tact, which gives the Wolverines the edge in the conference. However, don't sleep on the upstart Indiana Hoosiers, who return much of the offense that hit .339/.411/.476 last season, Phegley being the obvious star. The key will be an improvement from a pitching staff that had a 6.22 ERA -- no doubt let down by the nation's 258th-ranked defense. Matt Bashore is a true ace, and the team has some interesting arms in Blake Monar and Kyle Leiendecker. I just love what Tracy Smith has done with this program, and a conference title is not out of the question.
joe (joetown, ny): You just reappear with no explanation? Did Bud fire you? Did you burn down Lisa Winston's house? What's the deal?
Bryan Smith: This is a fair question. No, my agreement with MLB.com was just through the summer, and since then, my circumstances have changed significantly. I've joined the working world, and the one-article-per-week format at BP fits best. Luckily, the BP higher-ups welcomed me back, and thus, I get to be back with BP's awesome readership. I apologize I couldn't finish things out on the college beat last spring, but I can promise that that won't happen this time around. Some fun things planned on this beat.
Shane (Bucktown): Bryan, have you picked up on Jim Hendry's fondness for Notre Dame players? I'm wondering if you think it's beginning to cloud his judgment (i.e. the acquisition of Aaron Heilman)?
Bryan Smith: I brought this up to Paul Mainieri -- coach of LSU, former coach of Notre Dame, who was with the Irish when Heilman and Samardzija and Grant Johnson and the rest went there. Mainieri laughed, and reminded that the connection runs deeper: Paul and Ryan Dempster are still good friends since Dempster committed to ND (ultimately choosing pro ball out of high school), and infields Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot are LSU grads, both of whom Mainieri has become friendly with. Don't be surprised if the Cubs draft a LSU player or two in the upcoming draft ... it's always been a fondness for Mainieri moreso than for Notre Dame.
Hugh Jackman (Oscars): So, who are you rooting for on Oscar night? Predictions for the five big categories, perhaps?
Bryan Smith: You know, I've come to terms with Slumdog taking the night; it's not my favorite movie of the year, but it's in the top five, and it's better than the competition. Certainly glad that it has up-ended The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. For the big five, I'm going: Slumdog, Mickey Rourke, Merryl Streep (who I love at 3.5-to-1, by the way), Heath Ledger and Penelope Cruz. Rooting for Taraji P. Henson in the latter, however.
Christina (Brookline): Hey Bryan, long time no chat. I've been reading your stuff for years, and I remember Jon Lester was always one of your favorites, going back to when he was a little-known prospect and you correctly predicted a breakout 2005 double A season for him. You said back then that lefties with his kind of stuff are very rare. Now that he's more polished, I'm curious to hear how you think his stuff rates on the scouting scale. Were you surprised by his stellar 2008 season, and what do you see in his future? Do you think he could be great, as opposed to just very good? Would you take Lester or Sabathia for the next five years? THANKS, and great to see you around again!
Bryan Smith: Thanks Christina, good to be here. That was a good year for my breakout prospect list, and I've been admiring Lester ever since. As far as southpaws go, few have better stuff than Lester, who really broke through after adding that final pitch a year ago. I have to admit I didn't see such success coming as soon as 2008, when he really wasn't far down the Cy Young ballot. I think you have to take Sabathia for the next five years, but I do think Lester can develop into a real ace.
schmub (Gainesville, FL): Last year saw a few teams (LSU, Stanford, and Georgia) make it to Omaha after having missed postseason play in 2007. Who do you see as having the best chance of making such a turnaround this year?
Bryan Smith: Good question. Well the two from my top 25 that missed the postseason last year are Baylor and Clemson, both of whom I think have real CWS potential. Clemson sort of fits the LSU-Stanford mold of esteemed program takes a year to rebuild; you knew Jack Leggett wouldn't be down for long. I do really like this Clemson team; the pitching depth combined with the power is going to play in the postseason. See, right now, you have me questioning if I should have ranked them over Baylor... I also think Oregon State, who just missed the top 25, fits the bill, although there is a lot of new blood and underperforming talent there.
steven (Vancouver): Bryan,
Thanks for the chat. I have two questions: Do you think Lance Lynn develops into a quality big league starter, and is this the year Ole Miss finally breaks through to the CWS.
Bryan Smith: I think Lance Lynn was a good value pick when the Cardinals got him, but I also think that Lynn is done growing -- his present stuff and his future stuff will be pretty much the same. I'd feel better projecting a Major League future if his sophomore season -- 2.85 ERA, 94 H, 146 K, 123 IP -- wasn't followed up by his junior season: 4.52 ERA, 90 H, 110 K, 11 HR, 90 IP. As far as the Rebels go, I really do believe they are better geared for success this season. I like the improvement the defense is going to make, and that should correlate with better pitching numbers. Plus I really like Drew Pomeranz, who I think could become the best pitcher in the SEC this season -- and that's with top ten pick Mike Minor in the conference.
Grant Green (Seattle Soon): Last year you tipped us off on Grant Green. Who do you see as the top sophomore hitters and pitchers this year?
Bryan Smith: Well thanks, I'm glad I made somebody aware of Green...he's been on the scouting radar for quite some time. The 2010 draft looks like a real hodgepodge, but if I had to guess right now, the four players with the best chance of going 1-1 are Matt Harvey (UNC RHP), Kyle Blair (USD RHP), Derek Dietrich (GT SS) and Rick Hague (Rice SS). I think the latter player is of the same ilk as Green, Longoria, Tulo ... shortstops that literally seem to be capable of every skill. I also think this season we will see Yasmani Grandal (Miami's catcher) come back on the radar -- he's a real talent across the board.
fantasy (ny): How good do you think Gordon Beckham will be in the majors? 2B or SS?
Bryan Smith: You know, Gordon Beckham did not get enough publicity for the improvements he made defensively last season -- his offense even managed to overshadow those contributions. A year ago, there was little question that Beckham would move, but he has done a lot to make this a legitimate question. Still, I think his skillset is better served to be an offensive-minded second baseman -- a position where he might even be a plus defender.
John (Las Vegas): I'm surprised to see TCU absent from your top 25. They return almost their entire team and look to have one of the deepest pitching staffs in the nation. You have 4 Texas teams in your top 10, but the Frogs who have played fairly even with them over the last several years don't appear in your rankings. Where do you see TCU this year, and is this the year the Mountain West gets more than 1 bid?
Bryan Smith: TCU was the last team that I eliminated from the rankings, and it took a lot. I can't wait for their series this weekend against Cal State Fullerton -- hopefully we'll get an Unfiltered post up Friday previewing that a little bit. TCU needs to make sure they don't regress to the mean defensively, because the pitching staff is groundball-heavy (Lockwood the poster boy there). I think there's a good chance the offense takes a nice step forward this season, so hopefully that takes care of any regression in run prevention.
BL (Bozeman, MT): If you could catch some college games this weekend, where would you go? I'd start at TCU-Fullerton Friday, see Rice at Cal Poly twice on Saturday, then catch a Riverside-Stanford DH on Sunday.
Bryan Smith: Fun question. I think I would start on Friday night in Palo Alto, to see Mike Minor of Vanderbilt pitch against Stanford and Jeffrey Inman. Then on Saturday, you could see Fullerton-TCU, and check in on my breakout pick, Titans Saturday starter Michael Morrison. Sunday would be tough -- but I think I'd fly across the country and try to check out either Louisville-Florida (will that be Lea vs. Maronde? If so, definitely) or Coastal Carolina vs. Kentucky.
fsumatthunter (Tallahassee): You touched on D'Vontrey's teammates not forgiving him leaving the team last year. Do you think that influences the play on the field? I mean he can hit, and is really athletic, I'm sure they like him being there.
Bryan Smith: It probably doesn't have a direct influence on the play, no, but after watching Fresno State in Omaha last year, I do think a good locker room can benefit a team positively. Richardson is a huge boon for the Seminoles offense, and they need that after losing the nation's Most Valuable Player. I'm sure the teammates are glad to have that kind of talent back on the field, and I'm under the belief that winning cures everything, but I wonder if things might snowball a little if the team falls into the middle of the ACC pack.
Scott (Greenville, SC): Couldn't college baseball benefit a great deal from using wooden bats? It seems to me the talent at a major conference is on par with the talent at A and AA, with the biggest difference being the aluminum bat. But if college was treated more like a MLB tryout (the way it is in say football) wouldn't the die-hard MLB fan, now become extremely interested in college ball?
Bryan Smith: As to the latter point, I think that's a big assumption that might not pay off. The problem, I think, that college baseball faces with the public at large is that it isn't the step before the Major Leagues. The minors have gained a lot of interest in the last 10 years, because I think people are more and more excited to see the future. College baseball doesn't have that claim. As far as wood bats go, the only explanation I've really had is that it isn't cost-friendly, and that the most important thing is to make the transition between high school and college easy for prepsters. Student-athletes are going to get the edge over MLB in the minds of the NCAA every time.
Mike (MD): Mr. Smith, what are your thoughts on Brian Matusz?
Bryan Smith: I think Matusz will be a revelation in the Minor Leagues -- he's going to fly through the Baltimore system. I don't think he's a future ace, necessarily, but he's going to be a good 2/3 starter for an Orioles future that is looking brighter by the day.
Will (NOLA): Bryan, what's to like on the Tulane squad this year? I know they're young, but I'm planning on seeing some games while I'm here, so anyone I should keep my eye out for?
Bryan Smith: Yeah, it's not a great season for Tulane, especially because the draft ravaged what looked to be a pretty good recruiting class. But while you're there, check out closer Preston Claiborne, who was a high profile recruit that hasn't really produced for the Green Wave. With a big showing in the closer role, he could pop back on the draft radar in no time. Josh Prince is similar in that regard.
John (Las Vegas): TCU opens the first 2 weekends at Cal State Fullerton and at Ole Miss surrounding a game against Dallas Baptist. How many of those 7 do they need to win to crack the top 25?
Bryan Smith: If they won either weekend series, the Horned Frogs would absolutely pop into the top 25. But, really, if I like what I hear, and they beat Baptist and get one game in the Fullerton-Mississippi series, he still could find a way into the back-end of the top 25. They are, truly, close.
John (Las Vegas): How can Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn have the nation's top player, the nation's best weather, and total commitment from San Diego State and still not even build the best program in the city? Is he just that bad of coach?
Bryan Smith: No, he's not that bad a coach, but he certainly needs to start producing. He needs the publicity that this spring affords as a result of Strasburg to put SDSU on the recruiting map. He needs to move past TCU in the MWC standings, eventually. With Strasburg, the team would really benefit from a regional. But I can't help but think the program missed the ball not getting more out of last season, when the team had an offensive star (Nick Romero) to give the solid pitching staff some leg room. That won't be a luxury this time around.
Back in five minutes or so.
fantasy (ny): Better late than never. So, who were "your guys" in last year's draft? You can a similar article in 2007.
Bryan Smith: I know I didn't write the article last year, but I definitely touched on my favorites throughout the spring. Looking through the rounds, I love the Ethan Martin pick in the first round, Jeremy Bleich in the supplemental round, Tyler Ladendorf in the second, Tyler Sample in the third, and Drew O'Neil in the fourth. Dan Hudson was a great pick in the fifth round, Robbie Grossman in the sixth round, and I loved the Eric Thames pick in round seven. That's probably enough.
mattcox28 (Keymar,md): What place do you think the Baltimore Orioles will end up in ? Honestly
Bryan Smith: I've learned to not stray too far from PECOTA when picking the standings, so it's hard for me to guess anything but fifth place for the Orioles. But I will say that it wouldn't shock me if the Blue Jays fell on their face a little bit this season, and the Orioles found a way to pass them. However bright the future might be in Baltimore, it's not bright this season.
jaymoff (Salem, OR): What are your thoughts on the state of Oregon baseball - Oregon State and the newly formed Ducks of Oregon? What does the 2009 season hold for each?
Bryan Smith: Hi Jay, good to hear from you. Oregon State has some real talent on their team; Ryan Ortiz is a star behind the plate, Kevin Rhoderick among the nation's best closers, and there's some potential on that pitching staff. But still, 50 home runs is a stretch for this offense, and it's hard to win with that brand of baseball. As for Oregon, it should be fun to see what George Horton puts together in Year 1 for the Ducks. I'll write about it at some point, I'm sure, but anything besides last place in the conference would be very impressive. You have to start somewhere.
John (Baltimore, MD): What do you think the early Top 5 picks in the 09 draft will be? Will Boras players fall to teams like Seattle and Baltimore?
Bryan Smith: Here's my best guess at this point: 1. Nationals: Steven Strasburg. 2. Mariners: Grant Green. 3. San Diego: Alex White. 4. Pirates: Matt Purke. 5. Orioles: Dustin Ackley.
mymrbig (New Orleans): Earlier you dropped a Tulowitski/Longoria comp and it appeared to be on Rick Hague, as opposed to Derek Dietrich. Most sites seem to like Dietrich more than Hague. How do you think they compare both as college players for the next 2 seasons and as pro prospects? Is Hague the true power hitter that Rice hasn't really had since 1998 (Bubba Crosby & Damon Thames)?
Bryan Smith: Sorry if I wasn't clear there, yes, I think Hague is a better comp to Tulowitzki/Longoria, while Dietrich is more similar to Gordon Beckham. Hague is going to stick at shortstop -- which, let's face it, Longoria could have -- and he has that fluidity that those two possess. Dietrich has much more present power, but he's not going to stick at shortstop. He's a third baseman in the end. Both are awesome talents, and both will be top 10 picks a year from now.
Ryan (Charlottesville, VA): Did UVA miss their window a few years ago to make the big leap into the elite college programs (i.e. consistent top 20 team)? This will probably be a down year since they're so young, but I'm wondering if the team will ever have enough offense to go with the strong pitching staffs.
Bryan Smith: I considered Virginia for the bottom of this list, but in the end, I just really couldn't justify it. You're right, I do think Virginia didn't take that step forward; they should have reached Omaha at some point with Sean Doolittle or David Adams. There's some decent players on that offense, but in Jeremy Farrell, the team lost 11 of their 25 home runs from last season. Power is so hard to come by at Davenport, but at this point, that's really only an excuse for a non-park related issue. Enjoy Andrew Carraway though ... he's fun to watch.
fsumatthunter (Tallahassee): Do you think Stidham can play SS?
Bryan Smith: I think he'll be okay there, and from what I've heard about Tony Delmonico, it sounds like he won't even be the most extreme regression. But still, it's going to cost the team a few runs on the pitching side, and they just can't afford that. I have a problem with the team-wide philosophy of foregoing defense that the Seminoles have shown -- they should know that runs wouldn't be a problem no matter who filled their lineup.
jaymoff (Salem, OR): Is Oregon State's SS Joey Wong a top 5 round draft pick if he can show something with the bat this year?
Bryan Smith: Probably not, although I guess it depends how you define "something." Wong is a very good defender -- on his best days, maybe the best shortstop in the country. But 19 extra-base hits in two seasons, a career OPS of above .700, that's just not enough. I don't see anything higher than round 8 or so for Wong.
John (Las Vegas): Has Nebraska fallen off the map in baseball? For several years they regularly have appeared in the top 10, but now they are nowhere to be found.
Bryan Smith: Well, this was always going to be a down year for the Huskers ... they have just sustained so many losses. The Big 12 is as good this season as it has been in years, so you need some real stars to be able to compete. I think Nebraska will be fine in a year or so, and I'm sure they won't be out of the top 10 for long. But this year, in this conference, I don't see it happening.
jaymoff (Salem, OR): Is there any possible way that the Nats pass on Straburg and he goes to Seattle? Does the fact that the Nats have 2 pick towards the top of the draft make signing both an issue, especially if one of them is the Boras represented Strasburg, which would push them in another direction? As an M's fan I'm hoping . . .
Bryan Smith: I suppose if Mark Prior can slip to number 2, then it's possible for Strasburg to do the same. However, Strasburg has so much helium -- he's become relatively familiar to even the common fan, it seems -- so it would be a big PR hit for the Nationals to pass on him. Something tells me they have money set aside for this year's draft, and that they are going to use it to galvanize the fan base. I just don't see anything besides a Green/White/Ackley choice available for the Mariners.
John (Las Vegas): Which coaches are the best at developing talent around the nation? Who really makes their players better?
Bryan Smith: I called out Dan McConnell at Louisville in my article today -- I think what he's done in two years at Louisville is amazing. Kevin O'Sullivan at Florida is pretty similar in that regard. But the best coaches at this are the ones you've heard the most about -- Wayne Graham, Jim Morris, Pat Casey, Mike Fox. I think Dave Serrano and Jim Schlossnagle are proving they belong in that mix, and I really like what Tim Corbin does at Vanderbilt.
lowellfield (Brooklyn): How many innings does Max Scherzer throw in 2009, and how good are they?
Bryan Smith: I know PECOTA loves Scherzer, and I couldn't agree more. He's really improved his secondary stuff over the years -- remember, he was mostly a fastball guy at Missouri. I think he probably throws 140 innings or so, and I think they'll be pretty good. A good sleeper for you fantasy players.
BL (Bozeman): Great to have you back, Bryan! How do you see the Mo Valley shaking down after Wichita State, and can you comment on the job Servais does with the Creighton program?
Bryan Smith: I think it's going to be a dogfight at the top of the conference, as Wichita State is going to regress quite a bit this season. I think Missouri State is going to be right in the thick of things, and yes, I think Creighton could step up. Servais has done a great job, but I don't think he will get the vindication he deserves until he gets that conference title. This could be the season with their weekend rotation back in tact.
John (Las Vegas): Has the Big 10 been able to improve enough to justify this later starting season? Is there any chance we can go back to the way it used to be?
Bryan Smith: I think it's still too soon to really say, but we're at the beginning of a weak season for the Big 10, so that doesn't help matters. Still, I think what we've seen out of Louisville is proof that the late season start can help -- the combination of Big Ten and Big East last season was a good sign. I think Louisville and Notre Dame will both be competitive this season, and I think we will gradually see more hope for Northern teams.
BL (Bozeman): Your favorite non-BCS/non-Big West teams heading into the season?
Bryan Smith: Coastal Carolina is my favorite with Bobby Gagg back on campus. I respect what Baseball America did with their ranking of Kent State; there's no denying the strength of that pitching staff. And still, I refuse to sleep on Fresno State, who should definitely be back in the postseason in a weak conference. The Bulldogs have much work to do on their pitching staff, but Tommy Mendonca and Alan Ahmady gives them a good pair on the corners.
scottlong (indy): Good to see you back.
There seems to be no general consensus on Tyler Flowers. What is your projection?
Bryan Smith: Always good to hear from an ex-colleague and a fellow Hawkeye. I think Flowers future really depends on whether or not the White Sox are willing to take the hit on defense. He's like Jeff Clement in the sense that there's just no way to project anything but a negative in his fielding column. With Paul Konerko nearing the end of days, I think I might just move Flowers to first base and let him hit. However, that's a big positional adjustment, and it's not like A.J. Pierzynski has been providing fantastic defense the last few seasons. I wouldn't, but don't be surprised if the White Sox let him be behind the plate.
Bryan Smith: Lunch has arrived, so it's my time to exit. Thanks all for an enjoyable chat. I'll be back mini-previewing the weekend on Unfiltered Friday, and then we'll get started on a regular schedule next week. Baseball is beginning. Be excited.