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Juco : : Blog
Junior College Players On Center Stage
Allan Simpson        
Published: Thursday, April 01, 2010

With the growing expectation that a junior college player will be the No. 1 pick in the baseball draft for the first time, and the reality that an unsigned first-round pick from the 2009 draft ended up at a junior college for only the second time ever, this has been an historic season, of sorts, for junior college baseball.
 
It matters little that one of the players, College of Southern Nevada catcher Bryce Harper, has had a big, breakout season, while the other, Chipola (Fla.) Junior College outfielder Levon Washington, has struggled through injury-plagued fall and spring campaigns. The mere presence of the two high-profile players has shone rare national attention on the juco ranks.
 
Harper, who made headlines last summer by electing to skip his final two years at a Las Vegas high school and enroll at a junior college, all with the express purpose of making himself eligible for the 2010 draft, has enjoyed considerable success this spring as a 17-year-old freshman. It has all but validated his chance of becoming the top pick in June.
 
The teen prodigy has hit a robust .431-12-35, all team-leading figures, and excelled defensively, handling an ultra-talented Southern Nevada pitching staff that features as many as five or six arms that could be selected in the top 10 rounds – a draft first for a junior-college team, should that occur. Moreover, Harper has handled, with remarkable maturity, all the pressure and intense scrutiny that have accompanied his bold and unprecedented decision to circumvent the normal draft process.
 
Washington, meanwhile, has struggled as a freshman for Chipola, even though he has flashed the vast range of tools that prompted the Tampa Bay Rays to draft him in the first round last year. He was slowed in the fall while still on the mend from shoulder surgery that impacted his senior year of high school, and has been slowed this spring by a hand injury incurred in an early-season base-running mishap that caused him to miss a number of games. He’s been slow to come around, both in the field and at the plate, and has not consistently displayed his superior speed.
 
Though Harper and Washington continue to be the marquee names at the junior-college level, especially with the June 7-8 draft looming, several other juco players have made an impact this spring, too. Collectively, they have helped to raise the profile of baseball in the junior colleges.
 
A year ago, the first-junior college player drafted was Chipola lefty Patrick Corbin, who lasted until the 80th pick -- the final selection in the second round. By contrast, there’s a chance this year that as many as five or six JC players could be drafted in the first two rounds, led obviously by Harper. Washington should also be in that mix, despite his somewhat disappointing 2010 season.
 
In PG Crosschecker’s recent ranking of the nation’s top 500 prospects for this year’s draft, Harper was ranked No. 1, Washington No. 52.
 
Others in the first 100 selections are St. Petersburg (Fla.) sophomore righthander Austin Wood, at No. 49; Connors State (Okla.) sophomore outfielder Marcus Knecht, at No. 62; Western Oklahoma State freshman righthander/shortstop Andrelton Simmons, at No. 77; and Harper’s CSN teammate, sophomore righthander Tyler Hanks, at No. 78. All have legitimate chances of being drafted higher than where Corbin was taken a year ago.
 
While Harper and Washington came directly from the high-school ranks and were heavily-exposed commodities entering the 2010 season, the other four players had much less fanfare.
 
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Wood is a transfer from Florida State, while the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Knecht spent the 2009 season at Oklahoma State. As four-year college players, both were ineligible for last year’s draft. Simmons wasn’t eligible, either, but only because he is from Curacao and most foreign players aren’t subject to the draft, unless attending school in the U.S.
 
Hanks was draft-eligible in 2009 as a Southern Nevada freshman, but wasn’t tapped. He has since made enormous strides in his development, as have Wood, Knecht and Simmons in their first seasons in junior college.
 
A 36th-round draft pick in 2008 out of a Florida high school, Wood went 0-0, 6.35 as a freshman at Florida State, walking 25 and striking out just 13 in 23 innings. When his fastball spiked to 97 mph during the fall, after transferring to St. Pete, Wood’s stock for the 2010 draft predictably skyrocketed. He has gone just 1-4, 5.52 this season for the Titans, but could continue nudging his way closer toward the first round if he can maintain his superior velocity.
 
“His fastball has been anywhere from 91 to 97,” said St. Pete coach Dave Pano. “He has also tightened up his slider and his change now is an average major-league pitch. He’s been receiving heavy, heavy interest.”
 
Knecht, meanwhile, was an unsigned 23rd-round pick in 2008 out of Canada, but chose not to sign then in favor of attending Oklahoma State. But after getting just 12 at-bats for the Cowboys as a freshman, he elected soon after the 2009 season to transfer down the road to Connors State. That decision could pay off handsomely for Knecht as his combination of speed and power is nearly unmatched in this year’s draft.
 
He established his superior speed last fall with a 6.54-second clocking in the 60 on scout day, and his power has emerged this spring as an elite, viable tool.
 
Knecht has hit a resounding .471-15-49 for a Connors State team that won 29 of its first 31 games, and took over the No. 1 spot in the national junior-college rankings from Southern Nevada. It was apparent that a change of scenery and a chance to play were all that Knecht needed for his immense raw talent to surface.
 
“I thought he might be a second- or third-rounder from what I saw last fall,” said Connors State coach Perry Keith, “but now I think he might go as high as a sandwich pick. He’s got all five tools. He was in over his head a bit when he was at Oklahoma State, and might have tried to do too much. His bat is his best tool, and once he realized that in the fall, he started to take off. He just had to learn to use the other side of the field more consistently.
 
“He’s shown great improvement, and just might be one of those Canadians who is often a little bit behind in his development in his first year down here, but takes off in his sophomore year.”
 
Western Oklahoma State, a rising Division II power, has reached far and wide to secure talent in recent years, and its recruiting net in the Caribbean landed Simmons.
 
He began to generate immediate and significant interest from scouts last fall with his bat, powerful arm and athletic actions at shortstop. But when scouts returned for a second look this spring, Simmons proved even more dazzling as a pitching prospect with his loose, easy delivery and a fastball that was a steady 93-95 mph. There are some scouts who have offered an opinion that Simmons might even be a candidate for the first round in June if he can continue his rapid development on the mound.
 
Hanks has gotten more than his share of exposure this spring being on the same Southern Nevada team as Harper, but has earned it with a fastball that has routinely reached 97 mph. He’s been consistently the hardest thrower on a staff that may have more hard throwers than any college team in the country – four-year college or junior college.
 
In addition to Hanks (2-0, 0.68, 1 SV), righthanders Aaron Kurcz (1-1, 2.20, 7 SV), Donn Roach (6-1, 3.24) and Joe Robinson (5-1, 2.60) have all been clocked well in excess of 90 this spring. Even lefthander Bryan Harper (7-1, 1.78), Bryce’s older brother, has emerged as a potential fourth- to eighth-rounder after transferring from Cal State Northridge.

Still, most of the attention at CSN has been directed at the younger Harper.
 
“Bryce has been great,” assistant coach Cooper Fouts said. “He has handled all the attention and pressure very well. But our arms have been great, as well. Robinson has been sitting at 92-94, and been up to 96. He pounds the zone better than anyone we have seen this spring. Every start, he has been seen by at least 10 scouts. Roach has been awesome, too.
 
“Hanks has been even better than we thought he would be. He has been 92-94, and will get up to 97. Kurcz has been great out of the pen, and is anywhere from 93-96 in most of his outings. Bryan Harper has been up and down, but threw great last week.”
 
The intriguing scenario that has surrounded Bryce Harper’s bold gamble to enroll in junior college and become eligible for the draft a year ahead of schedule has undoubtedly been the biggest story in junior-college baseball this spring.
 
A year ago, the No. 1 storyline was authored by TexasHoward College and the near-perfect season it engineered. The Hawks began 2009 with a record 57-game winning streak and went on to capture the Junior College World Series with an improbable 63-1 record. Yet only four players were drafted off that team, none higher than the 12th round.
 
Howard has posted a more-pedestrian 27-5 record at this season’s mid-point, with injuries playing a factor. But sophomore righthander Burch Smith, a 49th-rounder in 2009, has posted a 6-1, 2.24 record and emerged as a significant prospect for this year’s draft, a possible third- to fifth-rounder.
 
“Smith is the only pitcher on our staff who has been healthy all season,” Howard coach Britt Smith said. “His fastball has topped at 95, and his command is much improved. He has learned to pitch without trying to blow hitters away with his velocity.”
 
LSU-Eunice, a former two-time national champion, has maintained a season-long grip as the No. 1 team in the Division II ranks. It has two significant prospects for the 2010 draft in sophomore righthander Tony Dischler and sophomore lefthander Mitch Hopkins. Dischler, a transfer from Louisiana-Monroe, has been clocked as high as 97, though has been mostly 91-94. He could climb into the top two or three rounds. Hopkins has topped out at 93, and should follow right after Dischler in the draft.
 
By all accounts, the junior-college ranks have considerably more high-end talent this year than in 2009, when eight players were taken in the first five rounds and 23 in the top 10.
 
Southern Nevada and Chipola alone have more than their share of talent. Those schools were ranked 1-2 nationally at the start of the 2010 season, in large part because of an abundance of projected early-round selections, notably Harper and Washington.
 
CSN has jumped out to a fast 27-5 start, thanks mostly to Harper and its dominating pitching staff, but Chipola has unexpectedly stumbled and was just 17-17 entering April. Not only has Washington made a minimal contribution, but so has freshman lefthander Jake Eliopoulos, an unsigned second-rounder of the Toronto Blue Jays in last year’s draft.
 
Like Washington, who was drafted by his home-state team, Eliopoulos’ decision to enroll in a junior college was somewhat surprising, considering he is a Canadian and was drafted by his hometown Blue Jays.
 
There is also a sense of irony in Eliopoulos’ decision to attend Chipola, since it draws an obvious parallel to Washington, but more so to Adam Loewen, another premium lefthander from Canada who ended up at the Marianna, Fla., school after going unsigned in 2002.
 
Loewen was the fourth overall pick that year out of a British Columbia high school, and until Washington this year was the only unsigned first-rounder in the draft’s 45-year history to subsequently play at a junior college. Loewen was a two-way star as a freshman for Chipola in 2003, before signing with the Baltimore Orioles on the eve of that year’s draft for $4.2 million, a record for a junior-college player under the since-abandoned draft-and follow-process. Harper could obliterate that bonus mark this summer.
 
In actuality, Loewen and Washington aren’t the only players previously drafted in the first round out of high school who went unsigned, only to end up in junior college.
 
Twice in the 1970s, the then-woebegone Oakland A’s drafted players in the first round who elected not to sign. In 1974, the A’s selected Texas prep catcher Jerry Johnson, who ended up attending Temple (Texas) JC. Five years later, they took Florida prep shortstop Juan Bustabad, who chose Miami-Dade JC rather than sign with Oakland.
 
Though both those players initially enrolled at a junior college, neither played an official game for their respective schools as they were quickly scooped up in the draft the following January at a time when there were two drafts each year. Johnson signed with St. Louis as a first-round pick in the January 1975 draft (secondary phase), Bustabad with Boston in the January 1980 draft (secondary phase).
 
Additionally, former major league righthander Alex Fernandez qualifies as a player who was drafted in the first round out of high school, only to end up in junior college. He was an unsigned first-round pick of the Milwaukee Brewers in 1988, and a first-rounder of the Chicago White Sox two years later out of Miami-Dade.
 
But his situation differs from Loewen or Washington as he spent his freshman year in 1989 at the University of Miami. He later transferred to Miami-Dade in order to become eligible for the draft as a sophomore. Junior college players have always been eligible for the draft each season, but players at four-year colleges typically only after their junior seasons.
 
The January draft was ultimately phased out in 1986, only to be replaced by the draft-and-follow process. That provision enabled teams to draft high school or junior college players and retain their rights until a week before the next year’s draft, if they enrolled in junior college.
 
Loewen was subject to that rule, and capitalized on it by signing his record deal with Baltimore a matter of minutes before he would have gone back into the 2003 draft pool. Several other junior-college players took maximum advantage of the draft-and-follow rule through the years, often earning signing bonuses that were grossly out of line from the round they were drafted in less than a year earlier.
 
The draft-and-follow rule was phased out after the 2007 draft. Under the old rule, Tampa Bay would have controlled Washington’s rights through the 2010 season and until a week before the draft. Because they were not able to sign him, they will be compensated with an equivalent pick this year.
 
Though the January draft and draft-and-follow rule have both been abolished, those provisions had their most profound impact on junior-college talent and point out how differently junior-college players have been treated in the draft through the years than more mainstream college and high school players.
 
One of the more fascinating sidebars in this year’s elite crop of junior-college prospects is a pronounced foreign element.
 
Five of the top 13 JC prospects, as ranked by PG Crosschecker, attended high schools outside the U.S. In addition to Knecht, Simmons and Eliopolous (No. 207), Miami-Dade outfielder Jabari Blash (No. 127) is from the Virgin Islands and Wabash Valley (Ill.) outfielder Mel Rojas Jr. (No. 152) is from the Dominican Republic.
 
Knecht is the player most responsible for the fastest start in Connors State’s rich baseball history, but he is actually just one of six Canadians (all from Toronto) on the Cowboys roster.
 
In addition to Knecht, sophomore catchers Peter Bako (.390-3-29), a 15th-round pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates a year ago, and James Kottaras (.368-1-24), the younger brother of big leaguer George Kottaras who once earned a $350,000 bonus after two years at Connors State, have swung big sticks this spring for the Cowboys.
 
The Toronto-to-Connors State pipeline is no coincidence, and directly attributable to the relationship that Keith has established through the years with former Oklahoma scout Dan Bleiwas, who now runs the powerful Ontario Blue Jays travel team that corrals a bulk of the best high-school talent from in and around the Toronto area.
 
Knecht previously played for the Blue Jays while attending an Ontario high school, as did Bako, a previously-obscure player who emerged as a legitimate prospect after just a single season at Connors State.

Both Knecht and Bako have committed to North Carolina State for the 2011 season, a connection that traces back to Keith’s long-time relationship with former Oklahoma State coach Tom Holliday, now an assistant at N.C. State. Holliday’s nephew, Heath, is currently a freshman at Connors State, further perpetuating the pipeline.
 
As enterprising a story as No. 1-ranked Connors State has been this spring, especially with the emergence of a talent like Knecht, the biggest story in this, and probably any junior-college season, is the immensely-gifted Harper, especially if he continues his red-hot pace in the face of enormous pressure and becomes the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft.