College : : Story
Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Tennessee Loaded with Options, Talent

Patrick Ebert        
When I initially planned my recent trip to Tennessee, my original goal was to catch numerous, projected early-round draft picks, not only for this year but also for 2011 and possibly even 2012.

There were plenty of options to choose from, as Middle Tennessee was hosting South Alabama, Memphis had Rice coming to town, and both Tennessee and Vanderbilt returned home for the second weekend of SEC conference play against LSU and Kentucky, respectively.

LSU, the defending world champions, was my initial, primary target, largely to get a chance to see Anthony Ranaudo take the mound before his projected professional career begins later this year. Ranaudo, of course, had been sidelined since the first day of the college baseball season and was expected to throw only a few innings on the last day of the series. While both LSU and Tennessee had plenty of other talent to catch, I wanted to catch the best prospects I could.

Bryce Brentz of Middle Tennessee was second on the list, and I traveled to Murfressboro for Friday night’s contest against South Alabama. Brentz took batting practice and was even announced as the starting centerfielder before the game, but it wasn’t Brentz standing in center as the national anthem was played. He was a last-minute scratch due to a sprained ankle, which caused him to miss the entire weekend of play.

Despite missing an impressive five-hit performance by Middle Tennessee sophomore two-way performer Justin Guidry, I decided to jump back in my car that night and travel back north to see Sonny Gray of Vanderbilt face off against Logan Darnell of Kentucky.

Thanks to the wealth of talent in the area, the travel and my efforts were far from wasted.

Gray vs. Darnell

The Vanderbilt/Kentucky series offered a trio of intriguing pitching matchups, as both teams are loaded with arms. The series featured four former Aflac All-Americans, all sophomores: Sonny Gray and Jack Armstrong of Vanderbilt, as well as Alex Meyer and Andy Burns of Kentucky. All three pitchers are projected to be premium early picks in next year’s draft, and Burns could go in the top three to five rounds.

Gray has served as the Commodores’ Friday ace all season long, so he took the mound first. While I didn’t see the first three innings of this contest, the handful of scouts that were at the game did confirm that his velocity was the same the first three innings of the game as I saw it over the final four.

There is certainly plenty to like about Gray, who may have a smallish stature that may eventually draw some Tim Lincecum comparisons, and similar scrutiny about his eventual role (something I will touch on briefly below), but he also has a loose, electric arm and one of the better breaking balls in college baseball.

His fastball, although straight, sat 90-94 the entire game, and I would guess that half of his fastballs registered 93 on the gun, with a half-dozen hitting 94 and only a few dropping below 92.

He adds and subtracts really well off his killer curveball, which has hard 11-to-5 break. The pitch ranged from 76 to 82, and the slower he threw it the uglier the swings looked. I didn’t see him throw a changeup, and he didn’t show the ability in this game to take a little off of his fastball for added movement and quicker outs. That one-two repertoire reminded me of someone I got to see quite a bit of in recent years: Ben Sheets.

One of the biggest criticisms concerning Sheets during his time in Milwaukee with the Brewers was his inability to throw a changeup, and how that led to him being over-reliant on how well his fastball and/or curveball were working for him on any given day, since that was all he threw. What people seemed to miss was the fact that those two pitches were good enough that he didn’t need to throw anything else, and the more he tinkered with a sinker and a change the more he got away from doing what he did best, striking batters out.

Going back to Gray, his biggest opponent seems to be the aluminum bat, and the more I watch college baseball the more I notice the difference in how college pitchers work the strike zone. Gray was always around the zone, but really had to work hard to record outs, nibbling at the corners and going deep into counts batter after batter to retire them, reluctant to give up anything hittable in the zone. In the end he tossed seven scoreless frames (and was even named the SEC pitcher of the week), but he needed 116 pitches to do so. That isn’t terrible, but it also doesn’t point to a clean, dominating effort.

I’m anxious to see how he fares at the next level, and before then, pitching against batters using wood bats this coming summer, as long as he doesn’t toss too many innings this spring. I don’t think opposing hitters make some of the hard contact against him with a wood bat like they were on Friday night, and I also think Gray pitches a lot more aggressively knowing his stuff is so difficult to catch up to.

Some of the commentary I have recently read and heard about Gray eventually ending up in the bullpen reminded me a lot of the situation Lincecum faced coming out of Washington several years ago. The short pitcher stigma has certainly worked against both of them, and while Gray’s delivery isn’t anywhere near as unorthodox as Lincecum’s, his delivery and overall mechanics certainly aren’t squeaky clean.

But again, he’s a good athlete (in high school he led his football team to two consecutive state championships as an option quarterback) with great stuff, and I think there are enough examples in recent years of success stories before I stereotype Gray as a future closer due to his size.

Red-shirt freshman left-hander Corey Williams came on in relief of Gray in the eighth inning and closed out the game over the final two frames. He didn’t look as big as his listed 6-foot-1, 200 pound frame, but he showed a really nice curveball that he used almost too much. He doesn’t throw the pitch consistently well, but well enough for his first year in college, as he snapped off a couple of dandies in the upper-70s that froze the Wildcats in their shoes. His fastball sat in the 87-89 range and touched 90 once. I could see Williams, who will be draft-eligible as a sophomore next year, getting an opportunity to start next season, or possibly even serve as the team’s closer once Russell Brewer has moved on to the next level.

Kentucky left-hander Logan Darnell took the mound opposite Gray and offered a completely different type of pitcher. While Gray is all about power, Darnell fits the mold of a prototypical crafty lefty.

On this night, Darnell’s fastball maxed out at 91, and he consistently sat in the 86-90 range. I could definitely see him throwing harder when the weather warms up (it was in the mid-50s at game time and 10-15 degrees cooler by the middle of the game when the sun went down) as his low three-quarters delivery is loose and relatively effortless.

He complemented his upper-80s fastball with a low-70s curveball that he showed good feel for. The pitch has nice break, and while not close to the hammer that Gray possesses, it’s good enough to induce weak ground balls and some swinging punchouts.

Like Gray, Darnell was always around the zone but had to work harder than he should have to record outs. This is the second straight week he has struggled some after being inserted as the team’s Friday starter to provide some veteran leadership for sophomore Alex Meyer and freshman Taylor Rogers in the weekend rotation. He was removed from the game in the sixth inning after tossing roughly 110 pitches, and there were a few instances in the game, particularly in the fourth, where some of the hits he allowed were hit very hard.

While Kentucky got shut out, they too used only two pitchers on the night, with freshman Jordan Cooper going the final 2.2 innings for the Wildcats.

Cooper was one of Kentucky’s top recruits this past year, and I fully expect to see him starting next year with a good, strong athletic build and a modest-to-solid power repertoire. Like Vanderbilt’s reliever Corey Williams, Cooper showed good feel for his breaking pitch, an upper-70s slider that has some slurvy movement. Also like Williams, he seemed to throw the pitch a little too much as he had difficultly spotting his 88-91 fastball.

While the day, and the overall weekend, may not have gone as I planned, as least I was able to enjoy a brisk five-minute walk back to my hotel room after the game, instead of a 45-minute ride in my car.

Check back in the next day or two for a first-hand report on the matchup between Jack Armstrong and Alex Meyer in the third game of this series (a game that got bumped up to Saturday due to inclement weather expected to hit on Sunday), as well as some of the more promising hitters that took the field.

The thoughts and opinions listed here do not necessarily reflect those of Perfect Game USA. Patrick Ebert is affiliated with both Perfect Game USA and 5 Tool Talk, and can be contacted via email at
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