TAMPA, FL- I drove to Tampa primarily to watch Lake Sumter’s John Michael Blake, the righthanded pitcher whom we ranked 45th in the preseason among the Top-250 JUCO prospects. But what impressed me most in the end was a pair of big bats.
Lake Sumter’s designated hitter was the lefthanded hitting Bryan Hill, who will normally play first base. Hillsborough JC’s first baseman was Jamie Mallard. Both freshman have slugger potential and though there are certainly question marks about the rest of their game, I can’t help but think they could be the two best JUCO hitting prospects in the country. They are definitely the best I’ve seen thus far in the spring and I’m hard-pressed to remember better pure hitters out of JUCO in the past.
Hillsborough first baseman Jamie Mallard (#130 in our preseason JUCO rankings) is well-known to local scouts. The 5-10, 270 Tampa product is not easy to hide and he wowed them as one of the best raw power hitters out of the entire high school class. The righthanded hitting Mallard was a tough out the entire doubleheader, hitting the ball hard to all fields. In his first at-bat, he was fooled on a fastball away; Mallard literally bailed out and got only the end of the bat on it. Miraculously, the ball kept carrying, landing 380 feet away over the right field fence. I was in disbelief.
He had a couple of other solid contacts off the end of the bat, but as another scout mentioned to me, those won’t happen with wood. Mallard will have to stop bailing out when he gets to pro ball and center the ball in order to hit solidly to the opposite field. Nevertheless he has big league bat-speed and plus-plus raw power right now.
The catch, of course, is his body. Mallard is grossly overweight. While his shoulders and torso are exceptionally broad, reminiscent of a young Prince Fielder, Mallard carries considerable excess weight around his middle. He could lose fifty pounds and still be big.
Though he plays hard at first base, Mallard has almost no range and little ability to get low and scoop up bad throws. His speed down the line is off-the-charts slow; a 5.0 going home-to-first from the right side.
Mallard is almost surely a designated hitter in pro ball, but the bat can make you dream. No team was willing to match his first-two round bonus demands last year and the Angels couldn’t sign him out of the 17th round. As good a bat as he is, I still don’t see a team going so high on him because he’s severely limited in anything that happens outside of the batter’s box.
Lake Sumter’s first baseman is almost as big (6-0, 240), but lefthanded, with a more lively body and much better proportions. Bryan Hill was undrafted out of Orlando Edgewater High School last June because of similarly high bonus demands. He’s a barrel-chested, broad-slope shouldered kid who’s also thick in the waist and legs. Hill had considered a football scholarship from the University of Miami, but his greater desire was to play baseball, which led him to Lake Sumter to focus on one sport.
Hill was pitched around in both games. Over seven plate appearances, Hill took two walks and a hit-by-pitch. In his official at-bats, he was pitched to carefully but still went 3-4 with both a double and a towering homerun to right field in the second game.
I was intrigued by Hill’s swing back when I saw him play at the Florida Diamond Club (scouting event for state high school prospects) in November of 2007. Hill generates plus major league bat-speed right now, which is rare for a high school player. He has a good bat-angle with a short stroke to the ball and strong extension after contact. The hitting tools were there a year ago and it was just a matter of approach.
In this game, Hill showed me a mature approach. He was patient, perhaps to a fault, working the count for a ball down in the zone. But he took a lot of good hacks and I was particularly impressed when he faced a pitcher who kept throwing him away. Hill finally won the long battle by dumping a bloop double to left field. I didn’t see him against a good curveball, but he waited just fine on JUCO-type breakers.
Hill did the pregame at first base but was the DH for both games. I thought his actions, hands, and throwing arm were fine for the position and he has the tools to become at least average. And despite his size and 35 speed (on the 20-80 scale), Hill has life and flexibility to his body. I don’t rule out left field, either, though I’d like to see him lose the weight around his hips. As he gets older, leaning out will become more difficult which is why his body-type (and obviously Mallard’s) is concerning.
Hillsborough catcher Ryan Collins had a phenomenal afternoon, hitting a long homerun to center field and several balls to the wall. He also showed me an average arm (2.02, 2.03 in game action, 1.9 in warm-ups) and good hands as a receiver. The 6-1, 215 Collins looked like a man among boys.
The problem is just that, from a scout’s perspective. Listed as a sophomore, Collins graduated from nearby Bloomingdale High School in 2004. He is the equivalent of a fifth-year senior.
Still, an average defensive catcher with plus raw power doesn’t fall off trees. Collins showed me a real chance to hit; his approach was sound, his bat-speed was near-average, and he had no problems hitting the low ball. Even looking at him through the lens of his fifth-year senior age, I would think someone will give him a chance.
Despite Collins’s physical strength, he’s actually a little soft in his lower half. He doesn’t have the big hips and legs that most catcher’s have, which isn’t all bad but you have to hope he holds up to the grind. Despite his age, his upper body looks like it can still respond to weightlifting and get even stronger.
I’ll follow up tomorrow with reports on the two other prospects from this day whom we ranked among our Top-250 JUCO prospects in the preseason: Lake Sumter sophomore righty John Michael Blake (#45) and Hillsborough outfielder Evan Chambers (#95). Blake is signed with Central Florida while Chambers just transferred in from the University of Florida.