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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Catcher Jesse Wierzbicki and JUCO Powerhouse Walters State

Anup Sinha        

MARIANNA, FL- If there’s one position player from last weekend’s JUCO tournament at Chipola who confused scouts, it would be Walters State catcher Jesse Wierzbicki. 

Ranked 82nd in the nation in PGCrosschecker’s preseason Top-250 JUCO prospects, the small-framed, lanky bodied Wierzbicki didn’t look like a catching prospect for me when I watched him in the pregame.  Had I not known his ranking, his draft history (40th round by the Braves last year), or his NLI (to the University of North Carolina), I would not have paid much notice.

Wierzbicki appeared by sight to be about 6-1, 170, with an immature frame.  His lower-half was particularly slender.  Most big league catchers are thick in their lower-half and have big hands.  Their body type is more suited to the grind of squatting down, day-after-day for 150 pitches a game.

His arm was well below-average in the warm-ups and he showed me a long righthanded swing in his first two at-bats, with below-average bat-speed and power.

But as the tournament got rolling, Wierzbicki became a one-man wrecking crew.  I watched him hit two opposite field homeruns and several other hard hit balls.  There was no question who the best (present day) hitter was this weekend, even though his team lost all four games they played.

After the first homerun, I thought to myself he had only aluminum bat power; he was a good hitter at this level, but simply couldn’t project because he wasn’t strong enough to convert it to wood.  All his hits went the other way, I didn’t see him pull the ball with authority.  Wierzbicki got hits off the end of his bat, which wouldn’t work with wood.

Then my mind took me back to another lanky righthanded hitter who (at that time) had a long swing and got a lot of hits the other way.  This player almost won the triple crown award for his southern California JUCO league as a freshman.  Every day he’d just hit and I would tell myself he’s simply a good college player, not a premium pro prospect.  

Evan Longoria wasn’t drafted out of Rio Hondo JC in 2004.  I recall one area scout telling me (after the fact) that he’d tried to push him to his club for $200G, but most scouts didn’t mention him beyond the fact that his stats were off the charts.  Longoria transferred immediately to Long Beach State.  After a good sophomore season and an outstanding junior campaign, he’d become the third overall pick for Tampa Bay in 2006 and then the American League rookie of the year for their pennant winners of 2008.

I’m not predicting the same path for Wierzbicki, I only bring up Longoria as an extreme lesson of a player it took too long to identify as a prospect.  I’ve learned that if someone keeps playing hard, producing, and improving against good competition, there’s a chance he’ll keep on doing that even if he doesn’t look all that athletic or smooth or projectable.  I try to let players win me over, regardless of what I think in the pregame.

In retrospect, Longoria always stood out for his makeup as well as his productivity.  He played harder and smarter than everyone else and that usually stays with you.  He found a way to excel in whatever situation he was in.

Now, let me be clear on this.  The lesson isn’t to go for the stat guy regardless, because, for example, there were five hitters on Wierzbicki’s own team who had as high a slugging percentage as him in 2008.  There are plenty of hitters with scary Evan Longoria numbers in junior college who didn’t sniff the big leagues, the stats are not the separator.  But if you actually watch them play and notice they compete hard and make adjustments against good stuff, you might have an overachiever on your hands.


I had never before seen Walters State JC play, but the school name is heard every year leading to the draft.  Though they lost all four games this weekend, I could see why they’ been #1 in our JUCO team rankings and how they scored five draft picks in 2008.  Coach Ken Campbell’s program can and will compete against the very best in the nation.

The statistic I couldn’t believe from 2008 was that they hit 161 homeruns as a team in 64 games, led by current sophomore first baseman Kyle Koneman’s 29.  The club collectively hit a whopping .369.  By comparison, their opponents (playing in the same parks) hit only 43 homeruns and for a batting average of .264.

This team is loaded with high-D1 prospects.  I look across the field and the entire lineup (and some backups) can play D1 somewhere.    Lefty Zac Fuesser and righty Will Scott made my Top-10 pitchers list and there are several others (lefty Chad Bell, righty Trent Rothlin) who also have a chance to be drafted in 2009.


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