After Harper, no sure bats on deck for Draft
Increase in high school signings leaves college ranks bare
There's no question the demand far outstrips the supply.
Of course, that's true of every First-Year Player Draft. Everyone hopes to find an impact bat or two every year, and finding advanced college ones are a priority. And every year, there aren't that many to go around.
This year, though, it seems like the lack of hitting depth is even more pronounced at the college level. Presumed No. 1 pick, 17-year-old junior college phenom Bryce Harper, is an entity unto himself. After that, the "sure-thing" college bat doesn't seem to exist.
As a result, hitters from schools not typically on the radar when it comes to top first-round talent are getting much more attention. Last year, University of North Carolina's Dustin Ackley was the top college hitter in the class. This year, there's general consensus that there isn't an Ackley in this class.
And he's definitely not at North Carolina or the ACC, SEC or PAC-10. This year's top college hitters come from places like Middle Tennessee State, University of Texas-Arlington and Ball State. It's not that these schools are completely off the beaten track. Most feel that Bryce Brentz, Michael Choice and Kolbrin Vitek would be first-rounders anyway, but that they're the top three advanced bats is a little surprising.
"I wouldn't consider them smaller schools," one scouting executive said. "Middle Tennessee is in a regional every year, and it's been on the scouting trail for years. Texas-Arlington is, too. They're not LSU or [Cal State] Fullerton, but those are guys from strong programs. Those guys would be there, period."
That might be true, but where is everyone else? Where have all the bats gone? The 2008 class had Pedro Alvarez, Yonder Alonso, Gordon Beckham, Jason Castro and Justin Smoak in the top 11 picks alone. A look back at the Class of 2007 provides some big hints as to why there aren't those kinds of college guys this time around.
In the opening round of the 2007 Draft, there were nine high school hitters taken. The top two were Mike Moustakas and Josh Vitters, taken with the second and third picks overall. Had they not signed, they would've proudly been representing USC and Arizona State. No. 12 pick Matt Dominguez would be coming out of Cal State Fullerton. Everyone knows all about No. 14 pick Jason Heyward now, but imagine if he had spent three years at UCLA instead. Devin Mesoraco (15), Kevin Ahrens (16), Pete Kozma (18), Ben Revere (28) and Wendell Fairley (29) all could've made the 2010 college hitter class really special.
Instead, they all signed, and while they have had mixed results, it points to a growing trend, with teams looking for, and finding, those bats before they get to college.
"I think the industry has done a better job at identifying, and signing, the top hitters earlier," a scouting director said.
"If you take a look at where the dollars have gone for high school players, and that teams are willing to overpay for the round a player is selected, the best high school bats typically sign," another scouting executive added. "That leaves the college ranks with a depletion of premium bats. There are a few each year who were prospects when they arrived on campus and there are a few that develop over the three years in college. However, the majority of the premium high school bats sign out of high school."
There have always been high school hitters taken in every Draft, but it will be interesting to see if what's happened this year will be a trend that continues. To date, it's been up-and-down in terms of college talent. The 2005 Draft saw five high-end high school bats taken in the first round: Justin Upton, Cameron Maybin, Andrew McCutchen, Jay Bruce and Colby Rasmus. Even so, that 2008 class had plenty of advanced college hitters to choose from, with Jemile Weeks, Brett Wallace, David Cooper, Ike Davis, Reese Havens, Allan Dykstra and Lonnie Chisenhall joining the aforementioned list as college hitters selected in the first round.
There does seem to be a sentiment that teams would rather have players in their systems younger. That way they can begin working with them sooner rather than later. And while there are definitely some raw talents who would benefit from a big college program, more than one scout expressed the thought that colleges do not do a good job of developing hitters.
That might not be simply a condemnation of college programs and their teaching skills. Much might have to do with what they get to hit with. Major League teams might prefer to have a young hitter start facing professional competition with wood in their hands, regardless of how long it might take, rather than let them go to college and hit with metal for three years.
All of this has contributed to what's going on with this year's Draft class. Brentz was drafted back in 2007, but as a pitcher in the 30th round by the Indians. During his time at Middle Tennessee State, his offensive skills have passed his abilities on the mound. Choice wasn't drafted out of high school and really jumped on the map when he excelled last summer with Team USA. Vitek, also, was undrafted three years ago and has split time on the mound. He also doesn't have a set defensive spot as a position player, which may have made it a little more difficult to place him.
While these aren't the "household names" from the big-time schools most are looking for, it's not as if there isn't the expectations that they'll be big leaguers. That comes with anyone taken in the first round, regardless of the circumstances. If Draft history has taught anything, it's that impact can come from unlikely sources. Years from now, people will look back at the 2010 Draft and there will undoubtedly be quality big leaguers who came from this class, both from that trio and from other sources.
"There are position players that are going to be Major league players in this draft and have an impact on a big league team," the scouting executive said.
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.