The eyes of the junior-college baseball world were expected to shine on Texas in 2011, but so far this season the state has been upstaged on all counts by Florida.
Texas JC powers Howard and San Jacinto were ranked 1-2 in the Perfect Game/National Junior College Athletic Association pre-season Top 50 team rankings, but at one point Howard stood at just 8-7 and San Jacinto at 2-5. Both schools have since righted the ship to a degree (Howard is now 14-7, San Jac 15-8), but each lost an uncharacteristic six games in the first month of the season.
Moreover, almost every arm in Texas’ star-quality class of junior-college pitching prospects for the 2011 draft has not lived up to expectations in the early going.
As Texas has stumbled, the spotlight has shifted to Florida. That state has a number of teams that got off to hot starts, including Santa Fe College, which ascended to No. 1 in the nation off a 17-3 start. Miami-Dade (14-5) and the State College of Florida/Manatee (15-5) also moved into the top 10, at Nos. 5 and 8, respectively.
Of greater significance for purposes of this year’s draft, a number of Florida JC prospects have caught and even surpassed the crop of Texas arms that were all the talk as late as last fall.
Angelina righthander Ian Gardeck, Howard righthander/outfielder Derrick Bleeker, Howard righthander Damien Magnifico, Navarro righthander Drew VerHagen and San Jac lefthander Miguel Pena were all ranked from 1-5 nationally among junior-college prospects at the conclusion of fall practice, and understandably had scouts in the Lone Star State buzzing as the 2011 season opened.
But of that Texas quintet, only Pena has pitched up to expectations this spring. A sophomore lefthander, he went 14-2 in leading the Gators to a runner-up finish at the Junior College World Series in 2010, and is on pace to duplicate that performance. Through 35 innings, he is 5-0, 1.02 with five walks and 33 strikeouts.
None of the other four more-heralded Texas arms, though, has overly distinguished himself to date.
In the meantime, the focus of national-level scouts has swung to Florida, and Miami-Dade center fielder Brian Goodwin and Indian River State infielder Cory Spangenberg have assumed the mantle of the nation’s top JC prospects as the 2011 draft looms. Both players are transfers from four-year colleges.
Goodwin, an unsigned 17th-round pick in the 2009 draft, transferred from North Carolina to Miami-Dade at the Christmas break after he was declared ineligible this season in the wake of academic irregularities at UNC. He was a projected first-round talent for purposes of the 2012 draft when at Carolina, and is now given a solid chance of going in that round this year, now that he is eligible for the draft after transferring to a junior college.
Goodwin was hobbled this spring by a hamstring issue initially, impacting his speed on the bases and in the outfield, but was hitting .419-5-19 through his first 13 games for his new team. He was successful on all six stolen-base attempts.
His combination of hitting skills, along with emerging power, superior speed and stellar defense makes him one of the best all-around outfield prospects in the 2011 draft. If teams are convinced he can play center field at the next level, he is the early favorite to be the first junior-college player drafted in June.
If scouts are unconvinced and Goodwin falls out of the first round, then Spangenberg is the most-likely candidate to emerge as the top JC talent in this year’s class. An unheralded player from a small Pennsylvania high school, Spangenberg burst on the scene as a freshman at Virginia Military Institute in 2010, hitting .370-11-49 with 24 stolen bases. He subsequently elected to transfer Indian River State for his sophomore year, and has continued to hit at a fast clip. Through 22 games for the Pioneers, he was batting .488-2-14 with 22 stolen bases.
“You could see he was someone special from the first time we saw him hit in the fall,” said Indian River coach Mitch Markham. “He has excellent bat speed, and hits balls as hard as anyone I ever coached when I was at Stetson. The ball just comes off his bat differently. He has a very flat swing and is very strong at contact.”
A major-league scouting director, who had already seen most of the top position prospects for this year’s draft by early March, said the lefthanded-batting Spangenberg’s overall approach to hitting is so advanced that he ranked among the top 3-5 players in the country.
Spangenberg is playing third base this spring, more on the basis of need, but profiles more as an offensive second baseman. He lacks the raw arm strength desired on the left side of the infield, but his speed, athleticism and fluid middle-infield actions are ideally suited for second.
Goodwin and Spangenberg have made the strongest impression on scouts among the wealth of juco talent in Florida, but several pitchers have jumped into early-round consideration, as well, including the likes of Seminole State righthanders Dejai Oliver and Drew Clevinger, State College of Florida/Manatee righthander Nick Goody and Miami-Dade righthander Derek Law.
Though relatively new to pitching, Goody has been possibly the nation’s most dominant junior-college arm this spring. In his first six appearances (5 starts) for the Manatees, covering 35 innings, he was 4-0, 1.53 and had walked just seven while striking out 60.
In one start against Florida State College-Jacksonville in late February, Goody fanned 19 in eight innings before being lifted with a pitch count of 115. He dominated by throwing mainly sinking fastballs in the 88-91 mph range, and mixing in late-breaking sliders at 78-81 mph and a workable change. A fierce competitor, he has the shown the ability to grab a little extra when he needs it and often tops out at 93.
Goody, who committed to Louisiana State as a pitcher last fall, has made a quick transition to pitching. He was signed out of a Florida high school primarily as a shortstop, and just started being used in a starting role last summer in the Florida Collegiate Summer League.
“He was our starting shortstop as a freshman for the first 16 games or so,” Manatees coach Tim Hill said, “but with his sporadic defense and hitting we made a change. After a couple of weeks, we decided to pitch him out of the pen as a set-up guy for our closer, and he started getting serious about pitching late in the season. He had some success in that role without much preparation, and started to get a feel for being a pitcher in the summer league and continued his development this fall.
Goody is a typical smallish righthander at 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, and his size may ultimately work against him the draft, but his overnight success as a pitcher has not gone unnoticed in the scouting community, particularly his feel for pitching and ability to compete.
“He got a good deal of pro attention late in the fall and early this spring,” Hill said. “He has a fresh arm and a good upside as pitching is still relatively new to him.”
The 6-foot-4, 195-pound Clevinger remains the wild card among pitchers in the junior-college class, and could emerge as the first pitcher drafted in June. He joined the Seminole State staff in late January after abruptly transferring from The Citadel, where he went 5-3, 5.15 in 93 innings as a freshman.
Clevinger, a Florida high-school product, had put himself on the map in the fall when his fastball jumped into the mid-90s. He was being counted on to play a significant role this spring as a starter for The Citadel, but has played an entirely different role for Seminole State, where he has played regularly at shortstop and been used as the team’s closer.
Though he has had limited looks in his end-of-game role, working just seven innings, Clevinger has been utterly dominant, striking out 17 while recording four saves. Most scouts have reserved judgment on him as a pitching prospect for this year’s draft until they get a more extended look, but they are clearly intrigued by his raw arm strength.
Law and Oliver, meanwhile, have become the top winners for their respective teams. Law (5-1, 1.10, 41 IP/7 BB/65 SO) has been dominant for Miami-Dade with a low-90s fastball, while Seminole State’s Oliver (5-1, 3.19) continues to enhance his prospect status with a fastball that touches and tops 90 with increasing regularity. He is the son of former big-league catcher Joe Oliver.
While the prospect pace has picked up considerably in Florida this spring, it has regressed in Texas. Pena, a fifth-round pick of the Washington Nationals in 2009, is the only high-end pitcher who has lived up to expectations, even though he has just modest stuff. His success stems mainly from pinpoint command and an excellent feel for pitching.
Pena has clearly upstaged all of the hard throwers in the vaunted Texas junior-college class, notably Gardeck and Verhagen, and the Howard College duo of Bleeker and Magnifico.
Gardeck, who transferred to Angelina after his freshman year at the University of Dayton, was clocked as high as 98 mph in the fall. But his standing as the nation’s top JC draft prospect is in serious jeopardy. While he continues to light up radar guns, he has had trouble this spring commanding his stuff, let alone throwing strikes. Through his first 13 innings, Gardeck was 0-1, 4.85 with 13 walks and 15 strikeouts.
VerHagen exploded on the scene this summer when the 6-foot-6, 230-pound righthander began to unleash a fastball in the mid-90s last summer in the Cape Cod league, and again in the fall after transferring to Navarro, and there were heightened expectations for him to fulfill his potential this spring. So far it has yet to materialize as VerHagen has been very ordinary in going 2-2, 1.50 with just 15 strikeouts in 24 innings.
Howard College won the 2009 Junior College World Series with a gaudy 64-1 record, including a national record 57-game winning streak, and was installed as the nation’s No. 1 team to start 2011. That lofty ranking stemmed largely because of the presence of Magnifico at the top of the rotation and Bleeker as the closer. Both pitchers were clocked up to 97 mph in the fall and considered candidates for the top two or three rounds of this year’s draft.
But between them, Magnifico and Bleeker had thrown just 11 innings through Howard’s first 20 games, and had not showcased the same stuff that was evident in the fall.
Magnifico had high expectations entering his freshman year at Howard because he was a fifth-round pick of the New York Mets in 2009, but was shut down all of last season with a stress fracture in his elbow. His fastball topped out at 96 on opening day, but he has been brought along much slower than expected this spring, and was even held out for a couple of weeks as a precautionary measure while he worked on some mechanical issues.
The 6-foot-5 Bleeker is a transfer from Arkansas. He is healthy, by all accounts, but an outstanding two-way talent and has been used more extensively to date in the Howard outfield. His upside is considered greater on the mound, and Hawks coach Britt Smith has indicated that Bleeker will pitch more frequently as the season moves along.
Smith hardly blames his team’s unexpected slow start on the lack of production from Magnifico or Bleeker, or anyone else on a deep and talented pitching staff.
“We have struggled early,” Smith acknowledged, “but it is mostly defensively. We feel we have fixed some of those problems, but it cost us four games early. We have played multiple lineups just to get a true feel for what we have, and have treated the pitching staff in much the same way. (Landon) Steinhagen and (Nathan) Burns are the two real returnees that we have, and they have played really well. It is a case where the new guys are getting used to playing at this level.
“As the No. 1-ranked team, we started with a target on our backs and it was not something that some of our players were prepared to handle. We can tell them over and over that they will get everybody's best shot in every game, but until they actually experience it for themselves, they don't quite grasp it. They now realize that if they do not play well each time they step on the field, they will get beat. It’s a lesson I would rather them learn now than 50 games into the season. When we get completely healthy and get settled on the four starters we are going to use for conference, I think we will begin to play more consistently and play like the team we are capable of being. In the mean time, we need to play with more of a sense of urgency.”