State Preview: New Mexico

Draft : : State Preview
Allan Simpson        
Published: Thursday, May 26, 2011

In the weeks leading up to the draft, Perfect Game will be providing a detailed overview of each state in the U.S., including the District of Columbia, as well as Canada and Puerto Rico. These overviews will list the state's strengths, weaknesses and the players with the best tools, as well as providing mini-scouting reports on all Group 1 and 2 players.

New Mexico State-by-State List

New Mexico Overview:
Obvious Presence of Swihart Masks Down Year For Talent in New Mexico

New Mexico will likely produce a rare first-rounder in this year’s draft in power-hitting Cleveland High catcher Blake Swihart, but overall the state is unusually thin in draftable talent. In all probability, no other New Mexico prospect will be selected for another 12-15 rounds once Swihart’s name is called.

The switch-hitting Swihart is such a hot commodity that he should be the first catcher taken, high school or college. Bryce Harper held that distinction in 2010, and Swihart has even been compared in some quarters to Harper, one of the most-hyped prospects in draft history. Swihart may actually be the better overall athlete of the two, with better speed and arm strength, but his bat, possibly his best tool, is not in the same league as Harper’s explosive weapon.

Harper was immediately moved to right field upon signing last summer with the Washington Nationals, and Swihart’s stay behind the plate may be short-lived as well. He is relatively new to catching anyway, and could soon return to a corner-infield position at the pro level. No matter where he ends up on the field, there is little question that Swihart’s bat will be a significant asset.

Swihart has above-average bat speed from both sides and an uncanny ability to square up balls consistently, but may have more natural raw power from the right side. As a junior at Cleveland High, he hit .529-12-40. Swihart then proceeded to lead Team USA’s 19-2 junior-national team in hitting (.448) and home runs (5) during the summer, though the team lost to Cuba (its only loss in eight games) in the opening playoff round at the World Junior Championship, and finished fifth overall. Through the early stages of the 2011 season, Swihart was hitting over .600 and had yet to strike out.

Although Swihart has been catching for just two years, his agility, athleticism and cannon-like arm more than make up for his understandably raw, yet rapidly-improving receiving mechanics. He produces regular pop times around 1.85 seconds, despite a long release. Scouts have never so much as suggested a potential position switch to the mound, but Swihart’s fastball has been clocked as high as 96 mph in brief pitching stints.

As a freshman and sophomore at Albuquerque’s Rio Rancho High, Swihart played mostly first base and led that school to a state title as a sophomore. A year later, he moved on to Cleveland High, a brand-new school, and was immediately moved behind the plate.

Depending on how high he is drafted in the first round, Swihart could hold the distinction of becoming the highest-draft pick ever from New Mexico, though in fairness he moved to the state from Texas as a 12-year-old. Former big-league righthander Duane Ward, the ninth overall pick in the 1982 draft, currently holds the distinction of being New Mexico’s highest selection ever.

The connection to Texas remains ever-present in Swihart’s life. A 4.0 student, he has committed to play at the University of Texas, and it may take a substantial bonus for him to pass up the opportunity.

Beyond Swihart’s obvious ability, there has been little reason for cross-checkers to venture to New Mexico this spring. In fact, the season has been a downer on a lot of counts at each of the college, junior-college and high-school levels.

The NCAA-imposed change in bat standards has had a profound impact on the University of New Mexico, which hit .340 as a team in 2010, only .274 this season. The team’s home-run total has also been cut in half. Predictably, the Lobos finished the regular season at 16-39 vs. a 38-22 record a year ago.

Even as New Mexico’s staff ERA has coincidentally ballooned to 6.04 this season, compared to 5.40 in 2010, the Lobos pitching staff may actually provide three of the better college prospects in the state for the draft in lefthander Rudy Jaramillo (4-8, 4.42), and righthanders Richard Olson (3-7, 6.54) and Gera Sanchez (2-2, 5.05, 6 SV). All are juniors.

Jaramillo should be the highest selection of that trio, even though he works with a fastball that is mostly in the high-80s, and utilizes mainly just his fastball and a changeup in a starting role. His pinpoint command (96 IP/19 BB) sets him apart from Olson and Sanchez, whose fastballs peak in the low 90s.

While New Mexico started the 2011 season winless in its first eight games and struggled thereafter to regroup, New Mexico State, the state’s other Division I program, burst out of the gates at 9-0, only to limp into the six-team Western Athletic Conference post-season tournament as a No. 6 seed.

Typical of most New Mexico State clubs, the Aggies fielded a team composed mostly of one-dimensional players with limited draft appeal. They continued to take full advantage of the light, rarified air in New Mexico to lead the nation in batting (.340) and on-base percentage (.445) this spring. Something had to give with the new bats in play, though, and the team’s home-run production has fallen from 104 in 2010 to just 39 this season.

Neither New Mexico nor New Mexico State boasts an everyday player of any consequence for this draft. The best hitting prospects on both clubs are actually underclassmen—New Mexico freshman first baseman D.J. Peterson (.327-6-48, 30 2B) and New Mexico State sophomore first baseman Zac Fisher (.296-8-55).

New Mexico Junior College (37-22) may have enjoyed its best season since winning the Junior College World Series in 2005, but the Thunderbirds endured some rough moments as 10 players were suspended over the course of the season for various indisctions, including a couple of players with commitments to significant Division I college programs.

Outfielder Devon Conley (.359-2-31, 19 SB, 67 R), who played sparingly as a freshman at the University of New Mexico in 2010, rose above all the distractions to produce a fine season. He could end up becoming the second player drafted in the state after Swihart, though is a longshot to go in the top 10 rounds. Conley is one of the fastest players in the entire draft, and excels on the bases and defensively in center field. His bat skills continue to evolve.

The high-school ranks, meanwhile, have a pronounced drop in talent after Swihart, though 6-foot-4, 205-pound La Cueva High outfielder/lefthander Ryan Padilla is a significant two-way talent, and Silver High outfielder Ishea Conklin is one of the better athletes playing baseball.

Padilla led La Cueva High to its seventh 5-A state title in nine years this spring. He had to carry much of the load when three key La Cueva players were suspended for the balance of the season. Indicative of his power-oriented, lefthanded swing, Padilla won the state title game by smashing a game-winning double to the deepest part of Albuquerque’s Isotopes Park (home of the Triple-A Albuquerque Isotopes) as La Cueva squeezed out an 11-10 win. He had trouble replicating that swing most of the spring, which may have suppressed his draft value. Padilla’s fastball also reaches the high 80s, with more velocity in the tank, and he is expected to be a top two-way player in college at New Mexico.

Conklin, an Oklahoma State recruit, is better known for his exploits as a quarterback, but scouts have been won over this spring by his superior athleticism. Though his stools are extremely raw, Conklin has excellent speed and significant high-end potential overall.

While this is considered a down year in New Mexico high schools (with one obvious exception), things are expected to pick up in 2012 as the state has a strong junior class, led by El Dorado High outfielder Cullen O’Dwyer, an Arizona State recruit, and Albuquerque Academy shortstop Alex Bregman, an LSU recruit who slammed 18 homers this spring.

Of all the states in the contiguous 48 whose southern border either touches water or a foreign country, none has made less of an impact on grassroots baseball nationally (outside of the Farmington-based Connie Mack World Series each August) or developing talent for professional baseball than New Mexico.

Part of the reason stems from population (the state ranks 36th overall), but New Mexico also ranks only 37th among states in terms of players drafted in the seven-year period from 2004-10, according to the high schools they attended. An average of 6.6 players with New Mexico roots were selected in the last seven drafts.

With the notable exceptive of Swihart, the state’s perception doesn’t figure to change much with this draft.

New Mexico in a Nutshell:

 Blake Swihart.
WEAKNESS: High-end college talent.
OVERALL RATING (1-to-5 scale): 2.

 New Mexico State.
BEST HIGH SCHOOL TEAM: La Cueva HS, Albuquerque.

BEST OUT-OF-STATE PROSPECT, New Mexico Connection:
 Kenny Giles, rhp, New Mexico JC (attended high school in Albuquerque).
TOP 2012 PROSPECT: Alex Bregman, ss, Albuquerque Academy.
TOP 2013 PROSPECT: D.J. Peterson, 1b/3b, University of New Mexico.

Draft History: Duane Ward, rhp, Farmington HS (1982, Braves/1st round, 9th pick).
2006 Draft: Luke Hopkins, 1b, New Mexico State U. (Blue Jays/5th round).
2007 Draft: Matt Moore, lhp, Moriarty HS, Edgewood (Rays/8th round).
2008 Draft: Bobby LaFromboise, lhp, U. of New Mexico (Mariners/8th round).
2009 Draft: Max Walla, of, Albuquerque Academy (Brewers/2nd round).
2010 Draft: Rafael Neda, c, U. of New Mexico (Brewers/10th round).


(Projected ELITE-Round Draft / Rounds 1-3)

1. BLAKE SWIHART, c, Cleveland HS, Rio Rancho
Best value as athletic/switch-hitting C; arm/speed/bat all grade out as high-end tools, may still end up at 1B.

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