February 25, 2008

The college baseball season kicked off on Friday and unlike previous seasons, the NCAA mandated a uniform start date for all teams. The date marked the true beginning of scout season and leaves the nation's top juniors with four months to prove their mettle. All Major League teams have scouting reports on college baseball's top players, but this is the season most important for their draft futures. Entering the season, here are the top 20 collegiate prospects eligible for the 2008 draft.

Quite simply, Alvarez is the best offensive player college baseball has seen in years. Both his body type and power profile match up favorably with Albert Pujols. Alvarez approaches each plate appearance with a solid, patient mentality atypical for someone his age. He is the top baseball prospect not currently participating in spring training.

The Los Angeles Angels offered Matusz a fortune to sign out of high school, but the southpaw wanted to honor his commitment to the Torreros. The decision was a good one as Matusz has stood out above the other pitchers in his class. With three polished pitches -- including one of the nation's best changeups -- Matusz will soon be earning more money than the Angels offered him.

If Alvarez has competition for the "Best College Hitter" title, it's from Smoak, who will likely one day top 40 home runs in the majors. He's also one of the nation's most athletic first basemen and has potential to one day win a Gold Glove. The key for Smoak is maintaining good bat control and keeping his strikeout numbers down.

A year ago, Crow was a command-first pitcher throwing in the high 80s. After tweaking his delivery, he has been reborn as a pitcher, touching 99 mph over the summer in the Cape Cod League. His coach and scouts attribute Crow's success to the reduction of velocity and development of off-speed stuff. he has become Missouri's ace with ten miles an hour less on his fastball. Such velocity and pitchability don't coming along often.

Ross' 2008 season did not start off well. The first batter he faced was Kansas State right fielder Jordan Cruz, who blasted a home run to right field. After that, Ross faced 16 batters -- walking the first and retiring the next 15 -- before being removed for the day. Ross is a thick right-handed pitcher that will show three plus pitches and has many believing he'll throw 95 mph consistently after further instruction. He was Team USA's best starter in 2007.

It's not everyday that a Colonel gets mentioned in a column like this, but Friedrich is the type of small-school, diamond in the rough that scouts love. Armed with the best curveball in the nation, Friedrich is compared to other tall southpaws with big hooks: Barry Zito, Ted Lilly, Rich Hill and Sean Marshall. To meet that destiny, Friedrich needs to command his fastball and tighten his changeup. He is the odds-on favorite to lead the nation in strikeouts.

Hunter was the top reliever on a good Team USA last summer, allowing just two earned runs (and only 1 extra base hit) in 27.1 innings of work. Relief is probably where his future lies, but the Waves plan to use him as a starter, where his fastball averages 91-94 mph with movement In relief, he's a nastier 94-97). His curveball is among the best in the nation and you can bet a team sees him this spring and will imagine that two-pitch combination working in the Majors soon.

It's that kind of draft, where big corner infield sluggers seem to be most plentiful at the top of the draft. In many respects, Alonso holds up well in comparison to Alvarez and Smoak. On one hand, he has the best patience of the bunch and his selectivity suggests future batting averages above .300. However, Alonso is the least powerful and the least athletic of the group, something many teams will be likely overlook if he posts a .300 average and .400 OBP.

If it's not powerful corner infielders, it's big, power right-handers that dominate this draft. The Rebels have two of them but the better is Lynn, a 260-pounder with a powerful arsenal. At his best, Lynn will combine a 92-95 mph fastball with a hard, downer curveball. He also has tinkered with a changeup and scouts project him as a starter. While athleticism an issue, Lynn has made enough strides in repeating his delivery consistently to assuage those concerns.

Last year, the Owls had a southpaw taken in the first round (Joe Savery) who coach Wayne Graham had spent the season nursing back to health. Savery was being drafted partially on the strength of his merits from two years earlier, but he excelled in Graham's improved usage patterns. St. Clair is much the same -- a fantastic pitcher in 2006 that struggled with injuries last year. St. Clair has been moved from closer to starting pitcher, as he has three good pitches and the ability to pitch deep into games.

Hunt is a good example of how crucial it is for a pitcher to have command over his fastball. This wasn't an issue last spring, his first at Tulane, when he walked a mere 30 batters in 99.2 innings. Over the summer, Hunt played in the heralded Cape Cod League and walked 20 batters in 36.1 innings. If Hunt can spot the fastball, his slider and change are good enough to make him one special pitcher.

Two years ago, Satterwhite was one of the most heralded freshman in this 2008 class thanks to an illustrious high school career. The big right-hander became the Rebels closer early on, and for two years, has been strong in that role. With Ole Miss possessing the best team of Satterwhite's career, however, he has been moved back to the rotation. Coaches report his nasty curveball won't lose much bite nor his fastball much velocity in the transition.

Between Alonso, Raben and honorable mention Jemile Weeks, the Hurricanes have the best three-four-five hitters in the nation. Raben is an interesting player, who didn't really blossom until grabbing a wood bat in the Cape Cod League last summer. A two-way player, Raben has an electric arm, but his ability to hit left-handed pitching remains a question mark.

Many scouts believe there is a large discrepancy between the player Crawford is now and the player scouts believe he may one day be. On paper, he strikes out far too often and has never shown enough production to warrant a first-round pick. However, scouts see a fabulous arm, good speed, enough range to play shortstop and some pop in his bat. Five-tool shortstops don't grow on trees, so if Crawford shows any development, he'll get a large pay day.

It was evident on Friday -- as Fields came into close the Bulldogs season-opening upset of top-ranked Arizona -- that the old Josh Fields is back. This is the Fields of 2006, the Fields of a 1.80 ERA and 0.94 WHIP; not the Fields of 2007 with many blown saves, a 4.46 ERA and 1.51 WHIP. The good Fields is nasty, with a fastball above the mid 90s and a slider that right-handed hitters don't have a prayer to hit. He's back, baby.

A year ago, Wallace had a season that Ted Williams would be envious of, crushing the Pac-10 to the tune of .404/.484/.687. Wallace is probably the draft's purest hitter, a slugger that has very few weaknesses and rarely expands his zone. The problem is that he'll be relegated to DH very soon, as his 250-pound frame and lack of athleticism don't foretell Gold Gloves.

In each of his first two seasons at Arizona, Perry pitched 34 innings in the Wildcats bullpen. The results were ugly -- 28 earned runs his freshman season, 24 his sophomore year. So why does he rank so high? Because when one of his teammates pulled out of the Cape Cod League, Perry went and turned the head of every scout with a 97 mph fastball and hints of a good slider. He's a reliever, ultimately, but he has the potential to be an elite closer with that kind of velocity.

Danks -- whose brother, John, is a starter for the White Sox -- made Longhorns fans forget about Drew Stubbs in a hurry. Interestingly enough, Danks has much in common with the former top 10 pick. Both have leadoff profiles with patient approaches, fabulous baserunning and good defense. Both showed great batting practice power, though Danks has struggled to show it in games. The nation's best baserunner, however, doesn't need to hit home runs to have value.

An elite high school pitcher and shortstop, Posey converted to catcher a year ago. Scouts believe the transition was Posey's destiny, as the fantastic athlete has been a natural behind the plate. While he's a bit rough around the edges, Posey's arm and actions both are pluses for a catcher. Plus, he's always been a good contact hitter with enough gap power to hit 30-40 doubles. In a draft light on catchers, Posey will go high.

If Crow and Perry were the biggest risers from summer baseball, Scheppers was the star of fall ball. A good recruit that has been compared to former Bulldog Matt Garza, Scheppers began to prove the comparison is accurate when the team returned for fall practice in August. Suddenly, Scheppers was throwing in the low-to-mid 90s with a sharp slider. However, we didn't know if the results were fictionalized until Saturday, when Scheppers allowed four hits, walked zero and struck out 10 in his opening 7-inning win over UC Davis. Helium alert.

Scott Green, RHP, Kentucky: At 6-foot-8, the Wildcat has great size, slider, and is finally healthy.

Roger Kieschnick, OF, Texas Tech: Similar to Raben, big left-handed slugger with prototypical RF profile.

Zach Putnam, RHP, Michigan: Very athletic two-way player with one of the nation's nastiest sinkers.

Aaron Weatherford, RHP, Mississippi State: Closer that has touched the high 90s in the past with good breaking ball.

Jemile Weeks, 2B, Miami: Rickie's brother is faster and players better defense than the Brewer.

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