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Late Injury to Texas Lefty Stafford Throws Curve At College Senior Crop
College seniors are often viewed in a disparaging way in the baseball scouting community, sort of like that ugly step sister.
Over the last decade, just six seniors have been selected in the first round of the draft, the last coming in 2008 when the Seattle Mariners took University of Georgia righthander Josh Fields with the 20th overall pick. Big-leagues teams will often draft a senior in the early rounds as a cost-saving measure, knowing that demographic has little or no bargaining leverage.
No college senior is projected to be drafted in the first round this year, but Texas lefthander Sam Stafford and Miami (Fla.) catcher Peter O’Brien are the logical candidates to draw close enough scrutiny to warrant being in the first-round mix for some clubs, based on their 2011 draft standing.
Stafford (Yankees/2nd round, 88th overall) and O’Brien (Rockies/3rd round, 107th overall) are the highest unsigned college picks from last year, and rank 1-2 on Perfect Game’s list of the nation’s Top 100 college seniorsfor the 2012 draft.
The 6-foot-4, 190-pound Stafford has impressive raw stuff with a fastball up to 94 mph, while flashing a solid 12-to-6 curve. As a junior at Texas, he went 6-2, 1.77 with 42 walks and 91 strikeouts in 81 innings.
Stafford was expected to be the Longhorns ace this season, until it was determined through an MRI late last week that he will need shoulder surgery to correct a nagging shoulder injury. He is expected to be out for the year. That scenario will in all likelihood profoundly impact his draft status in June, with the most-likely scenario that he will return to Texas next year as a red-shirt senior.
O’Brien hit .304-14-69 as a junior at Bethune-Cookman, and was recently granted a waiver by the NCAA that allowed him to transfer to Miami for his senior year without being forced to sit out a year. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound O’Brien has two first-round quality tools in his raw power and arm strength, and could edge his way towards the first round this spring if he can approach the numbers he posted in his breakout sophomore year, when he hit .384 with 20 homers.
While Stafford and O’Brien warranted being early-round picks as seniors on the basis of their superior talent—at least until the severity of Stafford’s injury was determined—several other seniors like Florida first baseman/outfielder Preston Tucker, Florida State outfielder James Ramsey and Texas A&M righthander Ross Stripling should draw close scrutiny, as well.
It’s also entirely possible that big-league teams will look at seniors in increasing numbers in the first 10 rounds this year as the recent Collective Bargaining Agreement may indirectly benefit the draft positions of college seniors. The agreement has mandated a limit on the amount teams can now spend on all their draft picks without being penalized.
Seniors could be treated as sacrificial lambs to an even greater degree than in the past, as they may be the pawns that theoretically enable teams to spend less that the designated bonus amount in select draft slots in the first 10 rounds. The team could then utilize that saving towards paying an above-slot bonus on another selection in the first 10 rounds without being penalized for exceeding their overall cap limit.
Just one college senior was drafted in the top five rounds a year ago, and 24 in total were claimed in the first 10 rounds. In every case, those players were paid a discounted bonus, with one senior, selected in the eighth round, given a signing bonus of just $5,000.
It remains to be seen how teams will strategically treat seniors this year to manipulate bonuses overall, but it’s safe to say that college seniors will impact the 2012 draft more than they did a year ago—if only because there appears to be superior front-line talent in the current senior class. Among the 100 players on the accompany list of seniors, 56 were drafted in 2011, including five in the first 10 rounds.
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