Juco : : Story
Thursday, March 15, 2012

Junior College Notebook 3/15

Allan Simpson        
Photo: Bellevue

Junior College Top 50 Teams (3/13)

Pitchers Moving to Forefront for 2012 Draft

In three of the last four drafts, a junior-college player has been selected in the first round. In every case, it has been a position player.

Nothing looked like it would change this year as Perfect Game identified Central Arizona College third baseman Fernando Perez and Chipola (Fla.) JC outfielder Andrew Toles on the eve of the 2012 season as the two most-likely candidates to be the first juco talent drafted this year.

Toles, a mid-semester transfer from the University of Tennessee, and Perez, who enrolled in junior college in January after graduating from a California high school, have essentially held up their end of the deal as they remain candidates to go in the first two or three rounds—though not the first.

If anything, the lack of a legitimate first-round candidate among this year’s top junior-college position prospects has left an opening for a pitcher to ascend to the top of the list, and the greatest movement up draft boards this spring has unquestionably come from a wave of talented junior-college arms who have jumped into the early-round mix by throwing up a steady diet of mid-90s fastballs.

Typical of the unpredictability of junior-college players, many in the group of blossoming pitchers weren’t even on the must-see follow lists of national-level scouts at the start of the season, and no one may have elevated himself into elite-level status faster than College of Western Nevada sophomore righthander Dylan Baker, a product of an Alaska high school.

The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Baker began the 2012 season as the No. 4 starter in the Wildcats rotation, but has made a case to become his team’s ace by running up a 5-0, 0.40 record with 31 strikeouts in 21 innings. Most of his outings have been abbreviated starts as CWN has run-ruled many of its opponents, but Baker has gotten consistently better every time out and was at his best last Saturday in an 11-0, five-inning win over Eastern Utah. Baker allowed two hits, walked none and struck out eight—but his numbers hardly speak to his level of dominance.

“It was the single-best, most-dominating performance I’ve ever seen by a junior-college pitcher,” said D.J. Whittemore, who has gone 273-111 in six-plus years as head coach at Western Nevada. “There were 4-5 scouts there who told me that they thought he might not get out of the first round the way he pitched that day. For sure, he pitched like he might be worth $1 million.

“Obviously, he’ll still need to do it for nine more weeks, and show it to a lot of different people who will come in to see him pitch between now and the draft, but it was the best I’ve ever seen him.”

Baker’s fastball topped out at 96 mph, and he complemented that pitch with two dominant breaking balls—an 86-mph slider with explosive lateral movement and a hard, downer curve at 83. Unlike in a couple of previous outings, when he struggled to throw strikes consistently, he had precise command of all three pitches throughout.

The improvement that Baker has shown in his brief time at Western Nevada has been dramatic as he enrolled at the school last fall with a fastball that ranged only from 87 to 90.

“He showed us a plus breaking ball at the time and had some tilt to his delivery, and that made him a prospect,” recalled Whittemore. “There was nothing special about his fastball, but he’s worked hard in the weight room, has dedicated himself to his craft and gotten in the best shape possible. Our pitching coach, Jeremy Beard, also cleaned up his mechanics, and the result has been dramatic.

“With his added arm strength, his breaking ball has even gone from being a plus pitch to a plus-plus pitch.”

Baker was a virtual unknown coming out of Juneau-Douglas High in Juneau, Alaska, despite leading his school to state titles as both a sophomore and senior. He threw a complete-game win in the championship game in 2010, but was generally better known for his hitting exploits at the time.

Following his senior year in 2010, Baker spent the summer playing for the Seattle-based En Fuego, an elite-level travel team. His performance for that club led to his signing on with nearby Tacoma Community College, where he worked primarily as a No. 3 starter as a freshman. He enjoyed modest success, walking too many batters but averaging a strikeout per inning while limiting hitters to a sub-.200 average.

Looking for another opportunity to prove himself against superior competition, Baker contacted Whittemore last August and subsequently elected to transfer to Western Nevada, even though he knew there were no remaining scholarships available. While he is paying his own way this year, his gamble should pay off handsomely in June when he could be one of the first—if not the first—junior-college players drafted.

Western Nevada Boasts Second Top Arm

Not only has Baker become a revelation as a pitching prospect for Western Nevada, but the Warriors boast a second top arm in sophomore righthander Tyler Spencer, who also projects to possibly go in the first 10 rounds in June.

Spencer, who saw limited duty for CWN as a freshman, is 5-1, 1.40 in his first six starts, and has allowed just 13 hits in 26 innings, while walking nine and striking out 21. His raw stuff does not quite match up to Baker’s as his fastball is generally in the 90-93 mph range, topping occasionally at 94, but he gets exceptional late darting and diving action on the pitch, making it difficult for hitters to square him up. He also has effective secondary stuff, though again not quite in Baker’s league.

As a team, Western Nevada is 19-5 and ranked No. 10 nationally by Perfect Game, even as it played its first 20 games on the road against some of the top teams from Arizona and California. The Warriors opened their season by beating Arizona JC powers South Mountain and Central Arizona three times each in a pair of four-game series, and is riding an 11-game winning streak.

Pitching-Rich Howard Sails Along At No. 1

While Western Nevada boasts a pair of arms with the credentials to go in the first 10 rounds of the draft in June, there are at least two other junior-college teams that might do the Warriors one better.

The obvious one is No. 1-ranked Howard (Texas) College, which has an embarrassment of riches with as many as four pitchers with the raw stuff to be considered in the early rounds. Holdover Nick Sawyer (1-0, 1.69, 2 SV), the team’s closer and an Oregon recruit, is an undersized righthander but has the best fastball of the bunch at 96-97 mph.

Righthanders Clayton Crum (Texas) and Kyle Hayes (San Diego State), and lefthander Logan Ehlers (Nebraska) are all transfers from major Division I programs, and have been dominant in the early going for a 16-2 Howard team. Crum (3-0, 0.69) and Hayes (1-0, 2.61) have both been clocked up to 94 mph, while Ehlers (3-0, 0.38) has topped out at 92.

Eastern Oklahoma State also has an abundance of 90-plus arms, notably righthanders Koda Glover (3-1, 4.15), Mason Justice (0-0, 1.50) and Logan Taylor (2-0, 0.90, 1 SV). Justice, a former 21
st-round pick, and Taylor, a mid-semester transfer from Arkansas, have both been clocked up to 94, while Glover, a freshman, reached that velocity in the fall but has only topped at 92 this spring.

The 6-foot-5, 225-pound Taylor has been the most impressive arm on the Eastern staff, combining his dominant fastball with a nasty 78-80 curve to strike out 44 in 28 innings. The 6-4, 200-pound Justice has done a much better job controlling his stuff this spring in his new role as a closer after struggling to throw strikes as a freshman.

Impressive Arms All Over the JC Landscape

Baker has made the most-pronounced leap among some of the nation’s top-rated junior-college pitchers, especially those who began the 2012 season in relative anonymity, but he’s not the only one who has made huge strides this spring.

In Florida, the two best arms have been Polk State’s Alec Asher and Palm Beach State’s Brandon Welch, both sophomore righthanders.

The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Asher went 5-0, 2.54 as a freshman at Santa Fe (Fla.) JC, but his stuff just was just so-so and he was passed over in last year’s draft after being selected in the 23rd round out of high school. He has been the dominant JC arm in the state as a sophomore after transferring to Polk State.

Through 41 innings, Asher is 5-0, 0.22 with 56 strikeouts and had allowed just eight hits and 14 hits. He ran off a streak of 33 consecutive scoreless innings at one point this spring, mainly on the strength of a fastball at 95-96 mph.

Welch, meanwhile, is a transfer himself from a rival junior college. Like Baker and Asher, he went undrafted a year ago as a freshman at Daytona State (Fla.), working mostly as a closer, only to experience a significant breakthrough after moving on to Palm Beach State. He has played a pivotal role in leading that team to a No. 11 national ranking.

Though Welch’s primary numbers (3-1, 1.26, 35 IP/39 SO) haven’t been quite as eye-opening as Asher’s, he has been every bit as dominant. He has been extremely stingy in allowing base runners with his impressive four-pitch mix, giving up just five walks and 10 hits in his 35 innings of work.

According to Eastern-based scouts, the 6-foot-1, 170-pound Welch has become the East Coast’s version of Western Nevada’s Baker—a previously unknown arm who has catapulted himself up draft boards this spring to a point where he is becoming a factor as early as the first round.

Brandon has been outstanding for us,” said Palm Beach State head coach Kyle Forbes. “His fastball has touched 96, and he pitches at 91 to 94. He has a plus slider, which is 84-87. He also throws a 12-to-6 curve and his change is 83-85. He is very athletic and fields his position well. He’s an excellent prospect.”

Last week, Welch had a no-hitter going against Brevard (Fla.) JC until there were two outs in the ninth, when a single broke up the no-hit bid.

In California, Cypress righthander Daniel Ponce de Leon, a transfer from Arizona; and Orange Coast righthander Brandon Brennan, a transfer from Oregon, were supposed to be the two marquee JC arms in the state. They haven’t disappointed with their performance to date, but have been joined in progress as elite-level prospects by College of the Canyons sophomore righthander Cory Jones and Merced JC freshman righthander Derick Velazquez.

The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Jones may have actually upstaged both Brennan and Ponce de Leon in the process of going 3-0, 1.64 with 38 strikeouts in 33 innings. In possibly the signature JC game of the spring in California, pitting Canyons against Brennan’s Orange Coast squad, Jones was overpowering in allowing a walk and two infield singles, striking out 10 in eight innings in a 4-1 win. His fastball was a steady 93-95. At the time, Orange Coast was ranked No. 2 nationally and hadn’t lost in 14 games.

The 6-foot-3, 180-pound Velazquez has been the most impressive JC arm in Northern California, despite coming to Merced as an unheralded high-school pitcher. He pounds the strike zone with a low- to mid-90s fastball with heavy, late run that produces an abundance of ground balls, and has a swing-and-miss curve. Through 37 innings this spring, Velazquez is 4-0, 2.41.

The top junior-college arms in Texas include the quartet from Howard, but McLennan righthander Eric Brooks has attracted the most significant interest and separated himself from the pack. He could easily be picked off as early as the second or third round in June.

The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Brooks, a transfer from Houston, is 6-0, 0.58 with 41 strikeouts in 31 innings for the nation’s No. 6-ranked team. Moreover, he has topped out at 96 mph while allowing just two walks.

In addition to Brooks and the Howard arms, both Grayson County and Weatherford have a pair of righthanders that have been generating significant interest from scouts. All four could also land in the top 10 rounds.

Luke Moran, like Brooks a transfer from Houston, and 6-foot-7, 260-pound Shane Henderson, who was on the rebound from Tommy John surgery a year ago, have both topped out at 94 mph for No. 8-ranked Grayson County. Moran is 1-1, 2.66 to date, with 21 strikeouts in 20 innings, while Henderson is 2-0, 1.80 with 16 strikeouts in 10 innings.

Cameron Cox and Jacob Stone, both freshmen, have been drawing their share of attention at Weatherford. The 6-foot-4 Cox has been a steady 91-93 mph with command of three pitches, and has gone 1-1, 2.92 with 28 strikeouts in 25 innings. The 6-foot Stone throws even harder at 95, but only flashes a plus breaking ball. He is 3-1, 1.19 in the early going with 38 strikeouts in 30 innings.

Sampson, Lang Have Company

At the start of the 2012 season, Bellevue (Wash.) righthander Adrian Sampson and GateWay (Ariz.) righthander Trey Lang were ranked 1-2 among the nation’s top junior-college pitchers by Perfect Game. Neither has done anything to hurt his stock, but they are also not generating the same buzz as they once did, in large measure because of the impressive crop of junior-college arms that have sprung up around the country, and even in their own backyards.

The 6-foot-3, 195-pound Sampson attracted 35 scouts to his season opener, when his fastball ranged between 89-93 mph, and another 20 were on hand for his second appearance, when his fastball spiked to 95. He has also improved the velocity of his curve over a year ago, while displaying good command of the pitch.

But Sampson has had to share some of the limelight in the Pacific Northwest this spring with Mt. Hood (Ore.) righthander Taylor Williams, a transfer from Washington State, and Edmonds (Wash.) righthander Aaron Brooks, a transfer from Gonzaga. Williams has peaked at 93, Brooks at 92.

Meanwhile, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Lang, a Northern Illinois transfer returning to his Arizona roots, was supposed to be the big catch among the prominent JC arms in Arizona on the basis of his superior work in the fall, even as he earned significant support from scouts as a power-hitting outfielder.

Lang has emerged as principally a pitcher this spring, though he has been difficult for scouts to see and bear down on in his revised role as his team’s closer. His fastball has been a steady 91-94 mph, but he has also stood out for the superior command he has demonstrated with his breaking stuff.

Meanwhile, previously-unheralded Pima College freshman righthander Julio Felix has shared nearly equal billing with Lang this spring among the top arms in Arizona, mainly on the strength of a fastball that has reached 96—a big jump from 87-89 mph as a prep senior, and even the 93 he flashed in the fall.

Elsewhere around the country, a number of other JC pitchers have surged into the spotlight with the 2012 draft less than three months away.

Middle Georgia freshman righthander J.B. Wendelken has been dominant in a starting role (4-0, 0.00) for the Warriors with a fastball that has ranged from 93-95 mph. In 23 innings, he has walked three while striking out 32.

Sophomore lefthander Matt Strahm has gone a modest 2-1, 2.00 for Neosho County (Kan.) JC, but has caught the attention of scouts with his lively 6-foot-4, 180-pound frame, easy delivery and command of his 92-93 mph fastball and hard slider. Six walks and 36 strikeouts in his first 21 innings speak more to his talent.

Jefferson (Mo.) lefthander Dalton Friend has been the dominant JC player in Missouri with a fastball in the 90-95 mph range, a significant uptick in velocity from the fall. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Friend is considered the better prospect of the two, though his Jefferson teammate, 6-5, 220-pound lefthander Dane Gronewald has posted the better season to date. Gronewald is 3-1, 1.44 with 25 strikeouts in 25 innings; Friend is 2-0, 4.09 with 13 strikeouts in 11 innings.

USC Sumter righthander Tyler Smith and Louisburg (N.C.) righthander Tim Brechbuehler have been the dominant arms in the Carolinas to date. Smith, a Tennessee recruit with a 90-93 mph fastball, has gone 5-0, 0.85 with four walks and 46 strikeouts in 32 innings for the nation’s No. 16-ranked team. The 6-foot-8 Brechbuehler (5-0, 2.23, 32 IP/37 SO), a North Carolina transfer, has been the ace for Louisburg’s stunning 27-0 club. His fastball has peaked at 93 mph this spring.

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