May 26, 2009

DURHAM, N.C. -- Everyone assumes that San Diego State's Stephen Strasburg will be the top pick in next month's draft, but who will be No. 2? Scouts may have seen the answer at this weekend's ACC tournament, where North Carolina first baseman Dustin Ackley solidified his place as the top college hitter available.

Ackley's hitting .399 with 20 HRs and 61 RBIs and ranks second in the ACC in on-base percentage (.505) and first in slugging (.759). The 6-foot-1, 184-pounder, praised as an above-average runner who could move to the outfield or perhaps second base in pro ball, is eliminating concerns about his power by tying for the league lead in homers. He smashed three in the ACC tournament, including a deep shot to right and an opposite-field smash against Clemson.

"I've only seen him get three hits all year, and I've seen him a lot," said one national scout with a National League club, "but even though I haven't seen him play great, I'm still impressed. When he leaks out with his front shoulder, he gets out of rhythm a little, but he has such good hands, his bat stays in the hitting zone a long time. And he's more physical than you'd think. He's got solid size and he definitely looks the part."

The Mariners pick second, and general manager Jack Zduriencik is famous for keeping his choices secret until the draft. But the other teams picking in the top 10 assume that Ackley will be off the board with the No. 2 selection, and that if he's not taken second, he won't last long. The Padres, Pirates and Orioles round out the top five selections.

The Memorial Day weekend brings pro scouts out in droves to Division I conference tournaments, especially to those in power conferences. In baseball, that means the Atlantic Coast, Big 12 and Southeastern conferences, as the Pac-10 doesn't have a tournament.

The ACC tournament was supposed to be played in Boston's Fenway Park this year, but a scheduling snafu forced a late relocation to the home of the Triple-A Durham Bulls. Several major league scouting directors and dozens of scouts were on hand for most of the action, and every team with a top-10 pick in next month's draft was on hand to watch North Carolina's duo of Ackley and right hander Alex White.

The Tar Heels went 1-2 on the week (with losses to Virginia and Clemson and a win against Duke), and the 6-foot-3, 200-pound White didn't make it out of the third inning against Virginia in an 11-1 loss on Thursday, throwing just 51 pitches. Some observers speculated that White would have been used in relief on one day's rest had the Tar Heels advanced to Sunday's championship game.

White's fastball touched 97 mph and mostly sat anywhere from 91-96, but command of that fastball remains his bugaboo. His slider has become less consistent this spring, and his split-finger fastball, while a plus pitch, is more of a chase pitch than one he throws for strikes. He has not helped his cause to be the second college pitcher drafted after Strasburg, a near-lock to go No. 1 overall to the Nationals.

Memorial Day was selection day for the NCAA Division I baseball tournament, and it brought surprising good news for Baylor and Oklahoma State. The Bears were swept in their last three Big 12 series and are just 29-24 overall, while the 32-22 Cowboys finished in ninth place in the 10-team Big 12 (Iowa State and Colorado don't play baseball) and didn't even qualify for the league tournament.

However, both teams had high enough RPIs that they were included in the NCAA's 64-team field. That gives scouts one more weekend to see their disappointing crops of prospects, particularly Bears righty Kendal Volz and Cowboys left-hander Andy Oliver.

Volz's stock has dropped significantly this spring, after rocketing last summer, when he shined in a relief role for USA Baseball's college national team. Volz was just 3-6 with a 4.67 ERA and has moved to the bullpen late in the season, where his fastball-slider approach might be a better fit. His velocity was up this weekend in the Big 12 tournament, as he hit 93 mph several times.

Oliver, who a year ago was suspended by the NCAA for involvement with an agent, returned to the field this season but hasn't been the same pitcher, helping contribute to Oklahoma State's disappointing season. While he has run his fastball up to 97 mph, his inconsistent secondary stuff has contributed to his fluctuating draft stock and a 5-6, 5.58 ERA season. He still has 91 strikeouts and just 33 walks in 80.2 innings, so he should be drafted high, but he's not impressing scouts like he did in 2008, when he was 7-2 with a 2.20 ERA.

"He's really kind of fallen off the board from where he was," a National League cross-checker told BA earlier in May. "His struggles and inability to throw a breaking ball have dropped him off a little bit. I know guys that have seen him have seen a curveball out of him, and now he's trying to throw a slider. Sometimes it's fair, and sometimes it's a little non-existent. He's still got a good fastball and he's got a good body [6-3, 212 pounds]). But you can't pitch with just one pitch."

On the flip side, scouts won't get to see any more of Kennesaw State's hard-throwing tandem of right-handers, Kyle Heckathorn and Chad Jenkins. The Owls are in their last season transitioning from Division II to D-I and are ineligible for the NCAA postseason. Another player whom scouts would love to get another look at, Eastern Illinois outfielder Brett Nommensen, saw his team passed over for an at-large berth despite winning the Ohio Valley Conference's regular-season title. The senior outfielder was leading D-I with a 1.670 OPS, batting .521 with 11 HRs and 26 RBIs through 29 games before a broken wrist ended his season. He returned for the OVC tournament and went 3 for 5 with a double after having missed five weeks.

Scouts won't get to see Cal anymore, either, as the talented Bears finished just 24-29, 9-18 in the Pac-10. The Bears have seven-to-10 players who should be drafted, highlighted by outfielder Brett Jackson, two-way talent Blake Smith (who both pitches and hits) and infielder Jeff Kobernus. Kobernus, a second baseman/third baseman, has greatly helped his cause this season, hitting .351 with eight homers, 40 RBIs and 17 stolen bases.

Jackson, who draws J.D. Drew comparisons physically, could have joined Ackley in the first half of the first round with a big season. Instead, he struck out 58 times in just 206 at-bats while hitting .320 with eight home runs and 37 RBIs. Smith, who touches 96 mph off the mound and is a legitimate prospect in both roles, posted a 5.85 ERA in 20 innings, walking 20. A lat muscle strain limited him to first base/DH duty the last two weekends, and the scouting consensus seems to have tipped to profiling him as a right fielder. He hit .325 with 10 bombs and 36 RBIs, but also had 56 strikeouts in 197 at-bats.

"He's got a chance to be a really good defender out there," one national evaluator said. "I think he's got good size [6-2, 220 pounds], obviously he has the arm, and I like the power potential."


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