College : : Story
Thursday, April 15, 2010

Mid-Season Freshman Standouts

David Rawnsley        
Those who read here frequently know that I often mention that freshmen, no matter how talented, often don’t play much during their initial year in college. And some of the most talented players who do get a chance to play won’t achieve anything close to the level of success that they will find later in their collegiate careers.

It’s also worth noting, after compiling the list below of the top freshman performers after 30-35 games this spring, that many freshmen do not play their ideal position initially. Many of the position players listed below have more at-bats than they do innings in the field, for instance, as their teams have experienced players in the field but need the advanced freshman bats in the lineup at DH. Others are playing out of position due to accomplished older players at their ideal position.

The same scenario applies to pitchers as well, as relievers will evolve into starters as they gain experience, and as older pitchers move on to pro ball or graduate.

Those considerations don’t mean that there aren’t plenty of freshmen who have stood out thus far. Our “First Team” player is listed first in bold, with other notable standouts following.

One thing definitely stands out for me in looking over this list. Everyone had better count on the University of Florida sitting right near the top of the NCAA rankings for the next few years. They have five freshman players mentioned below, all of whom are contributing to what is already a borderline top 10 program.

Dane Phillips (Oklahoma State), Blake Crohan (Tulane), Mike Reeves (Florida Gulf Coast), Mike Zunino (Florida), Chris O’Dowd (Dartmouth), Matt Watson (Boston College), Garrett Custons (Air Force), Adam Walker (Jacksonville), Duncan McAlpine (Dallas Baptist).

Like Crohan and Watson, Phillips (.397-2-28) has not been getting many innings behind the plate yet, but he certainly has been producing with the bat and has all the defensive tools. Zunino has been in the opposite situation, as his defense has been key to the young Florida pitching staff but he is still working to find his swing on offense. One prospect not listed above but listed as an outfielder is TCU’s Josh Elander (.341-1-26, 10 SB’s), who has an extensive catching background. A sleeper at the catcher position is Custons, a Sarasota (FL) native who is an outstanding athlete and who really swings the bat (.353-5-33, 13 SB’s) with authority.

First Base
Austin Maddox (Florida), Max Muncy (Baylor), Barrett Barnes (Texas Tech), Jace Boyd (Florida State), Steven Piscotty (Stanford).
Maddox (.353-9-37) has been huge hitting in the third hole for Florida and has played some third base recently as well. His catching career, with Zunino and sophomore top prospect Ben McMahan on the Gator roster, appears to be in deep hibernation. Overall, there is no lack of promising first base prospects in the freshman class. Barnes (.313-7-33, 11 SB) is a player to remember. He’s very athletic, has plus bat speed, has caught in the past and is plenty athletic enough to play corner outfield as well. Boyd (.358-3-21) is a highly regarded prospect who could end up at the top of the first base prospect list in two years if his power develops as projected.

Second Base
Cory Spandenburg (VMI), Stephen Bruno (VA), Anthony Gomez (Vandy), Michael Ratteree (Rice), Will Muzika (Furman), Steve Nyisztor (Rutgers).
There is a wealth of riches at second base this year. The NCAA statistics look like the previoiusly unheralded Spandenburg’s personal press release, as the left-handed hitting Pennsylvania native is hitting .411-9-39 with 20 stolen bases. That being said, Bruno and Gomez are too of the biggest surprises of the spring among the freshmen. Not because of their talent, which was well regarded beforehand, but because their performance (Bruno: .437-3-24, Gomez: .476-0-17) has simply made them indispensable in a top 20 team’s lineup. Ratteree (.297-4-30, 28 BB’s) may end up at third base once top 2011 prospect Anthony Rendon moves on from Rice, but he has shown his potential at second base, too. A player to remember as a second baseman is Baylor’s Logan Vick (.350-6-16, 39 BB’s), a natural second baseman who is playing the outfield this year because of returning veterans in the Bears’ middle infield.

Third Base
Kenny Diekroeger (Stanford), Hunter Ridge (UNC-Wilmington), Jacob Lamb (Washington), Tony Renda (California), J.J. Altobelli (Oregon).
The third basemen in the 2012 class haven’t really defined themselves yet and there are sure to be players who move over to the hot corner from another position (Maddox, Ratteree, Nebraska SS Chad Christensen, etc.) over the next few years. Diekroeger (.313-3-20) could actually be on the move himself, as he has the athleticism to handle the middle of the infield.

Stephen Perez (Miami), Garrett Canizarro (Tulane), Deven Marrero (Arizona State), Nolan Fontana (Florida), Chad Christensen (Nebraska), Ryan Lashley (Stetson), Eric Stamets (Evansville), Darnell Sweeney (Central Florida).
There is no lack of quality freshman shortstops around the country and this list could easily be doubled, adding the names of talented players seeing regular time. Perez’s (.283-3-21, 13 SB, 26 BB) strong commitment to Miami kept him from getting too much draft buzz last year, but he shows all the signs of being a first-round type talent in 2012. Marrero (.378-2-13) has started only 12 games thus far for the very talented ASU squad, but has all the makings of a future star as well. Fontana hasn’t hit much for Florida (.274-1-10), but has drawn 24 walks and incredibly has committed only one error. Both Bruno and Gomez from the second-base list above could end up at shortstop in the future as well.

Brian Goodwin (North Carolina), Joey Rickard (Arizona), Logan Vick (Baylor), Jeremy Baltz (St. John’s), Pat Biondi (Michigan), Mitch Haniger (Cal Poly), Josh Elander (TCU), Brandon Bayardi (UNLV), Jabari Henry (FIU), Ronnie Richardson (Central Florida), Cohl Walla (Texas), Zeke DeVoss (Miami).
2008 Aflac All-American Goodwin (.303-4-36, 29 BB’s) gives this group instant credibility and a surefire 2012 first-round draft pick, but Arizona’s Rickard (.338-5-35, 13 SB’s) isn’t far behind in the tools department. Vick, mentioned above in the second- base section, is already one of the best top-of-the-order hitters in college baseball, but will have more value eventually in the infield. Walla (.320-3-16) and Richardson (.312-1-18, 24 BB’s) are both going to be draft-eligible sophomores next year and have the tools to excite scouts in the top couple of rounds. Scouts may have missed on Baltz (.383-8-35), a 45th round pick of the Yankees in 2009. He’s 6-3, 190 lbs, athletic and can mash.

Designated Hitter
Max Muncy (Baylor)

The DH spot is for the best hitter not already “starting” on this imaginary team. With apologies to Stephen Bruno (who is going to play in the big leagues for a long time), that is Muncy (.344-10-37). The left-handed hitting Muncy was well known to scouts last year, but lacks a position (he has previously played third and even caught) and the ideal size (6-0, 195). But he can flat hit and should become a dominant college performer over the next three years.

Starting Pitchers
LHP Matt Purke (TCU), LHP Justin Jones (California), RHP Kurt Heyer (Arizona), RHP Jeff Gibbs (Maine), LHP Jonathan Dziedzic (Lamar), RHP Eddie Butler (Radford), RHP Michael Hamann (Toledo), RHP Bryan Crabb (SD State), LHP Brian Johnson (Florida), RHP Hudson Randell (Florida), LHP Taylor Rodgers (Kentucky).
A starting pitching position is the most difficult and unusual role for any freshman to step into. If you have trouble accepting that concept, just go back and look at the freshman records/roles of top 2010 college pitchers such as Anthony Ranaudo, Alex Wimmers, Drew Pomeranz and Chris Sale. All three of the first-team pitchers were highly acclaimed out of high school, none moreso than Rangers first round pick Purke (4-0, 3.32, 43 IP/53 K). But Jones has been the most exceptional freshman pitcher in the country thus far. His NCAA leading 7 wins (7-2, 2.83) are impressive, but maybe not so much as his 63 innings in 9 starts, an incredibly consistent performance for a freshman. The pitcher to watch on this list might be Lamar southpaw Dziedzic (2-2, 4.15), who has struck out 59 hitters in 47 innings. In reality, though, the place to look for some of the top starters in 2012 might be the top relief pitchers in 2010

Relief Pitchers
RHP Michael Wacha (Texas A&M), RHP Matt Price (South Carolina), LHP Lex Rutledge (Samford), RHP C.J. Encinosa (Miami), RHP Brett Huber (Mississippi), LHP Jordan Rittner (LSU), RHP D.J. Baxendale (Ark), RHP Jake Barrett (ASU), RHP Brady Rodgers (ASU), RHP Braden Kline (VA), RHP Tyler Gebler (Rutgers), LHP Joe Rogers (UCF).
It would hard to determine who has been more dominant so far this spring among Wacha (3-1, 1.53, 1 SV, 47 IP/49 K), Price (3-0, 1.23, 4 SV, 22 IP/35 K) and Rutledge (4-0, 1.33, 7 SV, 27 IP/32 K). But one can be reasonably assured that all three will have a very good chance at joining their team’s starting rotation next year, along with other standouts such as Encinosa (1-0, 2.05, 30 IP/39 K) and Baxendale (0-0, 4.45, 7 SV), who just made his first collegiate start this week. The best long-term true reliever/closer of the group might be Arizona State’s Barrett (2-0, 4.41, 2 SV, 16 IP/28 K), who has the big build and serious fastball velocity to profile in that role.

Two-Way Player
LHP/1B Matt Boyd (Oregon State), 2B/RHP Marcus Stroman (Duke).
Few college coaches are anxious to rush their freshmen into two-way duty right off the bat, so this category is shallow for now. Boyd (4-1, 2.20/.283-2-16) has found a role in OSU’s very deep pitching staff and contributed more than expected with the bat. Stroman could become a dominant college player given more experience with his tools on both sides of the ball.

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