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April 6, 2011 at 8:56 AM

2011 Draft Preview: College Bats

The focus of this installment of the Draft Preview is college position players. In my previous draft article I noted that in recent drafts college position players have not been a priority for the Red Sox. Since 2006, only 15 percent of Sox picks in the first five rounds have been used on this cross-section of players. The entirety of college position players taken during Theo Epstein’s tenure in the first five rounds is as follows:

C: Jon Still
1B: Aaron Bates
2B: Dustin Pedroia
SS: Jed Lowrie
3B: Kolbrin Vitek
OF: David Murphy, Matt Murton, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jeremy Hazelbaker, Bryce Brentz

You could do a lot of worse. Examining that list, the takeaway isn’t, “Let’s stay away from college position players.” Six of the 10 players have made the Major Leagues and three of the four who have not are recent draftees still climbing their way to The Show. With this success rate, why the Sox shy away from this demographic is an interesting question, but not one this article intends to answer.

While the talent of the top-end college position players in this draft is above average, its mediocre depth makes it the draft’s weakest link. That is more a comment on the strength of the other areas of the draft. Another reason college position players have not entrenched themselves in the top of the draft is the epidemic of poor production around the country. One of the story lines resonating throughout college baseball this season is the introduction of new bat standards that have drastically decreased offense through the first six weeks of the season. The new bat standards aim to mimic the behavior of wood bats by reducing the exit speed of balls off the barrel of the bat. Scoring overall has decreased by near 20 percent and power numbers have tumbled even more. Through the first 197 SEC games last year, 220 homeruns were hit. Through March 18th of this season 204 games were played and only 120 homeruns had been hit.

In my last preview, I broke the college pitchers into two tiers based on where they projected to get picked. With college position players, it is likely that the Sox 19th pick will fall somewhere in between where the last player of the first tier gets picked and where the best player of the next tier will get picked. Therefore, I’m just going to highlight the six best players that will be taken between the 1st and 20th picks. As the draft draws closer, we will examine the next tier of eligible players:

Anthony Rendon (3B, Rice): Rendon is the prize of the draft. He will not fall to the Sox. If he falls past the Mariners at #2 overall someone is doing something wrong. The Rice third basemen has been the favorite for the 2011 #1 pick since his freshman season. He displays exceptional plate discipline, above-average power, and above-average defense. While Rendon is not as physical as Evan Longoria, he is projected to provide the same output of offense from the hot corner. Even in 2010, in the midst of the Bryce Harper hype, many scouts declared that if Rendon were draft-eligible, they would take him 1st overall. One of the frustrations for Rendon this season has been pitchers unwillingness to throw him anything hittable. Opposing pitchers have walked him in 27.9 percent of his PAs. That’s a couple percentages points higher than Barry Bonds’ walk rate this decade.

George Springer (CF, Connecticut): At his best, Springer is the toolsiest player to come out of the college ranks in a decade. At his worst, he is an enigmatic hitter who strikes out too much and hasn’t made necessary adjustments. He stands 6’3”, 200 lbs of lean muscle. It’s often quoted that he has the potential to be a 30-30 offensive threat in the majors. That alone gives you a hint of his raw talent; such a compliment puts him into the Grady Sizemore or Hanley Ramirez class of athlete. But scouts remain divided on if his approach and uppercut swing will translate against better pitching. His aggression at the plate caused him to strike out in almost a third of his ABs in 2010. Springer has cut down on his Ks in 2011. Whether he makes the necessary adjustments from now until the end of the season will determine if he’s a top five pick or a top 15 pick.

Jackie Bradley Jr. (CF, South Carolina): The star of the 2010 College World Series Champion South Carolina Gamecocks, Bradley is an excellent defensive outfielder with an above-average bat and arm. The biggest knock on him is his size: his 5’10” frame does not allow scouts to project much future power potential, although his excellent hip rotation allows him to punch above his weight in that category. He’s a gap-to-gap hitter who could hit 15 HRs every year in the Majors and stick at CF. Right now Bradley is a Top 15 pick.

Andrew Susac (C, Oregon State): Susac is the best catching option available in the draft. The Oregon State backstop is a draft-eligible sophomore. While this could provide Susac with more leverage in negotiations, it likely won’t factor in if he is selected in the top of the draft. Susac has contact issues, striking out 23 times in 88 ABs this season. But he also provides a valuable package of raw power that can stick behind the plate. His defense is not a finished product, but he has a plus arm and good receiving skills. His chances of falling to #19 overall are not great. For four years running the best college catcher in the draft has gone in the top 15 picks. But should he be available at #19, he would provide an intriguing option to shore up a weakness in the system.

Mikie Mahtook (CF, LSU): The LSU CF is a legitimate option to fall to the Sox. Mahtook is an athletic, strong right-hander who will hit for at least average power in the pros, but will probably have to move to a corner spot. He’s an appealing package, with no below-average tool. What’s the catch (and this is dually applicable for Springer)? Of the 40 top MLB OFs in 2010 measured by WAR, only 2 were right-handed hitting college outfielders (Drew Stubbs and Hunter Pence). It’s a notoriously hard position to break through for college R/Rs. Whether intentional or not, that pattern has been reflected in the Sox drafts. Last year, when Theo took Bryce Brentz #36 overall, it was the first time the Sox selected a RHH college outfielder in the first five rounds since Matt Murton was picked in 2003.

Kolten Wong (2B, Hawaii): The athletic second basemen is looking to become Hawaii’s first 1st round pick since 1996 (Mark Johnson). Though not physically overwhelming, standing no taller than 5’9”, his power for his size while maintaining high contact rates is similar to current Sox 2B Dustin Pedroia. The left-handed hitting Wong won over a lot of scouts in the summer of 2010 when he won the Cape Cod League MVP. There are still questions surrounding his defense, which will be at least adequate at second bas in the pros. Although he has good speed, he has never accumulated an overwhelming stolen base totals or rates on the college level. What will determine Wong’s draft status and carry him to the pros will be how far scouts think his bat can take him.

A gap exists between this tier of player and the 2nd tier. The Sox 19th pick falls somewhere in that gulf. The second tier is filled with players such as former Sox draftee Ricky Oropesa (1B, USC) whose long swing and high strikeout rate tempers enthusiasm about his prodigious power potential; Alex Dickerson (1B, Indiana) who has seen his power plummet this season and has struggled against good pitching; and Jason Esposito (3B, Vanderbilt) who, despite Gold Glove defense at 3B, has also seen a drop in power, the one dimension of his game which scouts questioned.