Draft : : State Preview
Thursday, May 26, 2011

State Preview: Utah

Allan Simpson        
Photo: Utah

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.

Utah State-by-State List

Utah Overview:
Curious Blend of Talent in Utah; Cron’s Bat Separates Him From Pack

Utah doesn’t command a lot of scouting traffic at the best of times, mainly because of its somewhat remote location and modest-sized player pool. It’s also one of the nation’s most-enigmatic states to scout because of its devout Mormon faith and the expectation that many of the top baseball players will interrupt their careers for up to two years, often at inopportune times, to partake in missionary obligations.

Most of those factors are in play again this year, with one notable exception.

Utah does have a legitimate prospect for the draft this year in University of Utah power-hitting first baseman C.J. Cron. He ranks among the very best offensive players in the country, and is expected to be selected in the back half of the first round, which would represent one of the few times in draft history that a player with a connection to Utah has been selected that early.

The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Cron began his college career at Utah as a catcher, but it was readily evident that his bat would always take him as far as he would go in the game, and he has gradually transitioned to first base over his career. A partial tear in a knee ligament last summer, which sent him to the sidelines for several weeks, pretty much sealed his fate and he has spent all of this season at his new position.

No matter where Cron plays, his bat will be the great equalizer. He led Utah in batting (.444), homers (15) and RBIs (58) through the regular season, something he has done with regularity since he was a freshman at Utah. He has a quick, powerful swing with serious raw power to all fields, along with an acute sense of strike-zone discipline.

There may be no more apt big-league comparison to Cron than all-star first baseman Paul Konerko, who was drafted in the first round as a catcher out of an Arizona high school, and inevitably found his way to first base. In addition to a similar background, Cron has eerily-similar tools.

Cron comes by his baseball talent and acumen naturally as his father Chris played in the big leagues, and is currently the manager at Double-A Erie of the Detroit Tigers organization. His younger brother Kevin, also eligible for this year’s draft, is one of the top sluggers in the high-school ranks, and actually broke many of C.J.’s hitting records over the last two years at Mountain High in Phoenix, most while in the process of slamming 51 homers.

The ties between Arizona and Utah in this draft are uncanny. Just as the Arizona-developed Cron is Utah’s best draft prospect this year, the reverse may also be true as there is a strong chance that the first player taken from an Arizona school this year will be Central Arizona JC outfielder Keenyn Walker, who attended high school in Salt Lake City.

Led by Cron, four of the top five-ranked college prospects in Utah are also from Arizona.

The Utah-Arizona dynamic also played out recently at the junior-college level, when Central Arizona, led by Walker, foiled the bid of a strong Salt Lake CC team in reaching the Junior College World Series. Salt Lake was in the driver’s seat as the last unbeaten team at the Western District tournament, played in Arizona, and just needed to beat No. 1-ranked Central Arizona once in two games on the final day to secure a berth. But it lost two tightly-contested games. Salt Lake (49-16) itself was ranked No. 1 nationally earlier this spring after running off 24 wins in a row.

Salt Lake’s success on the field could extend to the draft. Six-foot-4, 220-pound sophomore righthander Josh Mooney has the frame, athletic ability and raw stuff to be a significant draft pick. He has been on the radar of scouts since he was clocked at 94 mph in high school, but has been slow making strides in his development as a pitcher over the last two years. He did learn to throw his slider and changeup more consistently for strikes this season, but still struggled with a 4-4, 5.96 record overall, poorest on the Salt Lake staff.

Outfielder Dominique Taylor arrived in school last fall with much less fanfare, but made huge strides by leading Salt Lake in most offensive categories as a freshman, including batting (.381), homers (5), RBIs (55) and stolen bases (24). Scouts have taken note of his 6.4-second speed, superior arm strength and developing power, but believe he is still crude in his approach and may need another year in college to polish some of his rough edges.

For all of Taylor’s improvement this spring, the junior-college player in Utah that may have made the biggest strides, and did so in relative anonymity at Eastern Utah JC, is outfielder Craig Brinkerhoff, who was a one-man wrecking crew on a sub-.500 team. Though he was lightly recruited out of a small Utah high school, the 6-foot-2,190-pound Brinkerhoff hit .376, drilled 17 homers and stole 17 bases. He didn’t assemble those numbers with smoke and mirrors, either, as Brinkerhoff has the combination of speed and power, and arm strength, to warrant being drafted in the top 8-12 rounds.

Brinkerhoff’s brother, Jace led NCAA Division I hitters with a .456 average a year ago as a senior at Utah Valley State. He was also just four RBIs shy of the national lead in that category, and was subsequently drafted in the 38th round by the Los Angeles Angels.

Utah high schools have been so challenged to produce high-end talent through the years that just two first-rounders have come from the state in 46 years, both lefthanders—Bruce Hurst in 1976, Mark Pawelek in 2005. No position player had ever been taken in the first two rounds until last year, when Pine View High shortstop Marcus Littlewood was taken in the second round by the Seattle Mariners.

That feat may have been duplicated this year had Alta High shortstop Kavin Keyes not elected to enroll at Oregon State in January, a semester early. His early departure left a deep void in the Utah prep ranks, and it is unlikely that the draft will see a Utah high school player taken before the middle rounds, at the earliest.

Westlake High outfielder Jordy Hart and two players from state prep powerhouse Spanish Fork, outfielder Travis Still and first baseman James Lengal, are considered the top three prospects in Utah.

Hart has impressive speed, arm strength and bat speed, but his 5-foot-8 frame will limit his draft appeal. The 6-foot-2 Still also can fly, but he is also a top wide receiver and heavily committed to playing football at Utah. Lengal’s upside is considerably higher on the mound than at first base as he was clocked at 92 mph as a junior. But he has not pitched all spring because of a lingering labrum (shoulder) injury.

While this year’s draft will likely produce a dry run at the high-school level, that should all change next year when Spanish Fork two-way star Kayden Porter becomes eligible. The 6-foot-4 pitcher/first baseman played an instrumental role in leading Spanish Fork to back to-back state 4-A titles as a freshman and sophomore, hitting 10 home runs both seasons. With a 9-0, 1.47 record on the mound, along with his intimidating presence in the batter’s box (.545-10-38), Clayton led Spanish Fork to another No. 1 state ranking this spring, although his team lost early in the double-elimination state tournament and will be forced to come back through the loser’s bracket to win a third straight title.

Led by Cron and senior lefthander Rick Anton (9-1, 2.52), the University of Utah had one of its most successful seasons in recent program history, going 29-19. It comes at an opportune time as the Utes will be stepping up in class a year from now as an expansion team in the powerful Pacific-10 Conference.

Anton, a former junior-college transfer from Arizona, stabilized the Utes rotation and his own improvement from 2010, when he went undrafted, has been even more dramatic than his team’s turnaround. He added a cutter to his four-pitch repertoire, along with 4-5 mph in velocity to his fastball, and yet still commanded all his pitches. He has significantly raised his draft profile and could easily now factor into the top 10 rounds.

Even as a senior, Anton should be the first Utah college pitcher drafted this year. And to prove that age really never matters in Utah when it comes to college pitching prospects, Brigham Young righthanders Taylor Cole and Matt Neil could factor into that mix, too, even as Cole, a sophomore, is the same age as Anton, and Neil, a senior, is actually two years older.

Cole just resumed pitching again this spring as a returning two-year missionary, while Neil, a 2005 Arizona high-school graduate, continues to make strides as a pitcher after spending nearly four years away from the game before resurrecting his career two years ago.

The 6-foot-6, 225-pound Neil literally blossomed from out of nowhere for BYU, going 6-4, 2.42 with 10 walks and 73 strikeouts in 86 innings, while Cole (5-5, 2.99, 93 IP/37 BB/67 SO) showed flashes of his pre-missionary form.

Cole was a hot commodity as both a high-school senior in 2007 at Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas, and junior-college freshman in 2008 at the College of Southern Nevada. Had he not made a decision to leave on his mission right before the 2008 draft, he might have been selected as early as the sandwich round of that year’s draft.

It has taken Cole most of the spring to regain his physical strength, if not his pitching touch, and his velocity was a steady 89-91 mph, occasionally touching 93-94. Back in the day, he would routinely touch 97.

Not only has Cole’s one-time velocity been slow to return, but he has lacked consistency with his command. His arm works well and he pretty much has mastered his slider, but Cole ideally may need another year in college to be in optimum position to take his game to the professional level. Age may no longer be in Cole’s favor, though, and he may elect to leave this year as a sophomore.

Such are the complexities of baseball in Utah.

Utah in a Nutshell:

C.J. Cron.
WEAKNESS: High-school talent.
OVERALL RATING (1-to-5 scale): 3.


PROSPECT ON THE RISE: Matt Neil, rhp, Brigham Young University.
Neil took up pitching again at BYU in 2009, four years after he last pitched at an Arizona high school. It has taken the 6-foot-6, 225-pound righthander two years just to get his feel back, and he blossomed this year for BYU by going 6-4, 2.42 with 10 walks and 73 strikeouts in 86 innings. Even at his advanced age, teams have taken note of his big frame, 92-mph fastball and impressive credentials.

PROSPECT ON THE DECLINE: Josh Mooney, rhp, Salt Lake CC.
Mooney was the top-rated high-school prospect in Utah two years ago. While he still has impressive raw stuff with a fastball up to 94, Mooney posted the poorest record (4-4, 5.76) of any pitcher this season on his junior-college team.

WILD CARD: Taylor Cole, rhp, Brigham Young University.
Cole was a no-brainer early-round pick when he was a freshman in 2008 at the College of Southern Nevada. But he elected to leave on a two-year Mormon mission just prior to that year’s draft, and has shown only flashes of his old form this season for the Cougars. If a team is convinced he will regain the stuff and command he had in junior college, he could vault up draft boards.

Keenyn Walker, of, Central Arizona JC (attended high school in Salt Lake City).
TOP 2012 PROSPECT: Kayden Porter, rhp/of, Spanish Fork HS.
TOP 2013 PROSPECT: Jaycob Brugman, of, Brigham Young University.

Draft History: Cory Snyder, 3b, Brigham Young U. (1984, Indians/1st round, 4th pick).
2006 Draft: John Holdzkom, rhp, Salt Lake CC (Mets/4th round).
2007 Draft: Garrett Nash, ss, Jordan HS, Draper (Rangers/4th round).
2008 Draft: Stephen Fife, rhp, U. of Utah (Red Sox/3rd round).
2009 Draft: Steve Parker, 3b, Brigham Young U. (Athletics/5th round).
2010 Draft: Marcus Littlewood, ss, Pine View HS, St. George (Mariners/2nd round).

Best Hitter: C.J. Cron, 1b, University of Utah.
Best Power: C.J. Cron, 1b, University of Utah.
Best Speed: Dominique Taylor, of, Salt Lake CC.
Best Defender: Dominique Taylor, of, Salt Lake CC.
Best Velocity: Taylor Cole, rhp, Brigham Young University.
Best Breaking Stuff: Rick Anton, lhp, University of Utah.


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

1. C.J. CRON, 1b, University of Utah
Has the whole package, except speed/agility behind plate; explosive bat, power to all fields, ++ team player.

(Projected HIGH-Round Draft / Rounds 4-10)

2. RICK ANTON, lhp, University of Utah (Sr.)
++ SR sign (9-1, 2.52, 100 IP/25 BB/85 SO), solid 4-pitch mix, CU/CH, added cutter, velo jumped to 89-91.
3. TAYLOR COLE, rhp, Brigham Young University (So.)
Trying to regain strength/97-mph velo/command had before went on mission trip; FB 89-92/flashes 94, + SL.
4. DOMINIQUE TAYLOR, of, Salt Lake CC (Fr.)
Still scratching surface of potential, may not be ready; ++ speed (6.4)/arm, long swing, but developing power.
5. MATT NEIL, rhp, Brigham Young University (Sr.)
Age, long layoff from 2005-08 may work against him, but scouts impressed with size, + FB, ++ 2011 results.
6. JOSH MOONEY, rhp, Salt Lake CC (So.)
Big-league frame (6-4, 220), quick/powerful arm (FB 90-94); better SL/CH, but still learning how to pitch.
7. CRAIG BRINKERHOFF, of/rhp, Eastern Utah JC (Fr.)
Breakout year for previous unknown talent (.376-17-53, 17 SB); 6-2/190 frame, + power, 6.6 speed, 92 arm.

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