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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Florida Lefty Highlights Juco Action

Anup Sinha        

Florida junior colleges are in the scouting spotlight at the moment. The 2009 juco season kicked off last week, but high schools in Florida won’t begin play for another eight days and we have until the weekend of Feb. 20-22 for NCAA Division I action to begin.

That, and the presence of significant talent, brought 40-50 scouts from all over the country to both Palm Beach JC on Friday and St. Petersburg JC on Saturday. The Sunday crowd for a game matching Chipola JC, the 2007 national champion and Florida’s top-ranked juco team, against St. Pete was down (20-plus) from the other two days, but still had more scouts than you’ll see at a typical juco game later in the year.

Early signs are that the junior-college talent is down around the nation, due in part to the absence of the draft-and-follow that had existed until the 2007 draft. But it should be noted that the talent in the juco ranks is always perceived to be down in January and some of the best draft picks (and future big leaguers) emerge late.

Quite often, the best junior-college players are bounce-back players—those who went to four-year schools as freshmen, only to transfer to a junior college as a sophomore. And then there are simply a lot of players who appear crude in the fall but develop into prospects by the end of the spring season.

In this first weekend alone, I was able to see seven of the top 35 juco prospects as ranked by PG Crosschecker, and a whopping 19 that are ranked in our pre-season Top 250.

I’ll start with Day One, the fine matchup I attended on Friday evening at Palm Beach JC’s home field in Lake Worth, Fla.


January 30

Lefthander Mike Rayl (PG Crosschecker No. 4-ranked player) made his first start of the year for No. 41 Palm Beach and threw four innings against No. 23 Manatee, giving up just one earned run.

The 6-foot-1, 180-pound Rayl is what you’d call a late-bloomer. When I scouted him last spring as a freshman, he pitched mostly in the low-80s and the Washington Nationals didn’t call his name in June until the 41st round. This fall, he was throwing 88-90 mph on Palm Beach’s scout day and again at a tournament I attended in nearby Santaluces.

He’s still not a power pitcher per se, but Rayl has a chance for consistently-average velocity in the future (ie. 88-92 mph) and average-to-plus pitches in his slider, curveball and changeup. In addition, Rayl has shown a good amount of pitchability and was able to locate his fastball to the corners.

My belief is that his one-year improvement has all to do with him having both a strong delivery and a loose arm. Rayl has very good a arm-action; it’s easy and quick. His delivery is on-line to home plate and he makes efficient use of his mid-section and lower-half. The projectable actions have long been there and he’s likely to grow into them still.

It’s rare for a young pitcher to show potential with both a slider and curveball, but I did grade Rayl’s two breaking pitches as 45 present/55 future; both slightly below-average major league right now and solid-average in the future. His changeup graded right about the same for me and has fastball will have average movement. Altogether, with a good amount of pitchability, he’d project as a solid No. 4 starter for a championship-caliber major league club.

Rayl’s ceiling isn’t extraordinary, but it still makes him a potential big-league asset. His polish makes him a safer pick than a high school lefty with similar stuff, and right now I’m thinking in terms of the third or fourth round for him next June. What probably keeps him from going higher is that though his stuff projects to be solid all-around, he lacks a plus-plus knockout pitch for the future.

Other Players to Note

The hitter who stood out the most, as a pro prospect, in this game was from Manatee, DH Jonathan Rodriguez. Rodriguez, an Old Dominion recruit, is somewhat of a sleeper for the 2009 draft as he did not make our list of the Top 250 juco prospects. He is normally a third baseman but was unable to play in the field on this day as he was nursing a sore shoulder.

But he showed big league bat-speed and line-drive power from the right side. I first watched the solidly-built, 6-foot-1, 210-pound Rodriguez at Manatee’s scout day in the fall, and his bat upside was apparent. Rodriguez worked out at third base that day, and I thought the glove had a chance to become average with much work. Keep an eye on him.

In the Death Valley-life home field of Palm Beach JC on a day where pitching dominated, Rodriguez hit the ball hard three times, including a line-shot double off the left-field wall. It looked to me that he could wait on a curveball and his bat-speed makes him a pure fastball hitter as well.

Though Rodriguez did not crack the list, Manatee still had three position players who are ranked in our preseason Top 250, including sophomore outfielder Kelvin Clark (No. 29), sophomore first baseman Jonathan Griffin (No. 77) and freshman shortstop Taylor Wrenn (No. 158). Clark, a transfer to Manatee after Lake City (Fla.) CC abandoned its athletic program after the 2007 season, didn’t play on Friday because of some muscle soreness, but I saw both Griffin and Wrenn.

A lot can be told about Griffin from the moniker he’s been given by various scouts; they call him ‘Kingman’ in reference to Dave, who was one of the game’s most notorious all-or-nothing sluggers in the 1970s and 1980s.

Like Kingman, Griffin was drafted out of high school as a pitcher—only to make the almost overnight conversion to a lethal power hitter. As a freshman, he topped the Florida junior-college ranks with 22 homers.

At a long-limbed 6-foot-6 and 210 pounds, Griffin looks the part of a power hitter and he showed plus major-league loft power from the right side in batting practice. Still, there are big holes in his swing and approach. Griffin struggles to wait on breaking balls and he often steps in the bucket before beginning his swing, which makes him vulnerable to pitches on the outer half. Defensively, he’s limited to first and will likely be below-average defensively in the future. The raw power makes him a follow into the spring, but most scouts aren’t ready to open up the wallet yet in the early rounds.

The 5-foot-9, 160-pound Wrenn is a slick-fielding shortstop and a pesky lefthanded hitter. The son of Diamondbacks area scout Luke Wrenn, Taylor is obviously well-schooled and showed excellent instincts for the game. His hands work well and his glove-to-hand transfer is as good as you’ll see at this level.

Though his arm-strength is below-average for a major league shortstop, it has a chance to play because it will get stronger and his release is very quick. His lateral agility and ability to charge balls is notable. At the least, he’s a strong defensive second baseman all the way up the ladder.

Wrenn has to keep his approach simple at the plate; make contact, use the whole field, hit line drives over infielders’ heads. His swing is just short enough to give him a chance as that type of hitter. Drafted in the 33rd round last year by the Reds, he could be a much higher pick in June if he shows he can catch up to harder throwers this spring. If Wrenn doesn’t move on to pro ball in the next two summers, he’s a premium Division-I prospect who can play shortstop defensively right now for a strong program.

Palm Beach’s ranked position players included sophomore outfielder D.J. Leonard (No. 71) and sophomore first baseman Dan Scheffler (No. 232).

The 5-foot-9, 180-pound Leonard is a hard-nosed left fielder who has recovered from a horrific neck fracture when he was involved in a home-plate collision as a high school player. His calling card is his defensive ability; he’s shown me a good radar and the agility to give him a fighting chance to play center field at the highest level. His well below-average arm will keep him out of right field, but he did hit cutoffs and threw accurately.

At the plate, Leonard was a dead low-ball hitter who will have average line-drive power in time. But he has holes upstairs (in the zone) and that’s an adjustment he’ll need to make to become a big-league player in the long run. The package is intriguing because of his hustle and I’d consider him another sleeper out of the juco ranks. Leonard hit 12 homers for St. Petersburg in his freshman season in junior college, but chose to play closer to his West Palm Beach home as a sophomore.

Scheffler is like Manatee’s Griffin in that he’s a one-dimensional, raw power guy. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound righthanded hitter has solid-average raw power right now and projects plus power, though he doesn’t produce quite the loft that Griffin does with his swing. Scheffler also struggled against the curveball and is a slow runner who’ll have to work hard to become an even adequate major league first baseman.

The hardest-hit ball all night was by sophomore Palm Beach outfielder Larry Walicki, who teased scouts with his lefthanded-hitting tools last year, but didn’t produce in competition. Walicki has big holes in his approach and can’t cover the outer half of the plate. Nevertheless, he generates solid-average major-league bat speed right now and has a short path to the ball with late extension. He’s a batting practice hero—even moreso than Griffin or Scheffler because he hits hard line-drives with backspin.

Walicki’s laser shot in Friday’s game was a line-drive off the center-field wall against a mid-80s fastball left over the plate. Defensively, his tools point to left field. He’s strong at a solid 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds. While I’m intrigued by his upside as a hitter, there is a lot of risk and for most scouts he’d have to make big strides this spring to become a Top 10 round draft.

Check back for my scouting report on the Chipola-St. Petersburg series that featured three games on Saturday and Sunday, and highlighted the nation’s No. 2, No. 7 and No. 16 juco prospects.

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