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Half Dozen JuCos to Watch

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Despite the fact that there are numerous places that cover the draft these days, one of the still-enduring mysteries of draft prospects are those in the junior college ranks. They aren’t easy to follow, their statistics aren’t always easy to track, and scouting reports can sometimes be vague. Luckily for 2010, three of the top JuCo prospects were renowned prep prospects, two of which did not sign at last year’s signing deadline as players picked in the first two rounds of the 2009 draft. This fact has renewed interest in JuCo players, and hopefully it will make JuCo coverage more extensive for 2010.

Here are some summaries of players you should be watching this spring, starting with the obvious trio of Bryce Harper, LeVon Washington, and Jake Eliopoulos. Eliopoulos likely won’t improve on his draft position from last year unless he has an excellent season, but Washington could easily move into the top ten for the 2010 draft. Harper’s still the favorite for the top overall pick, so that should really draw attention to the JuCo ranks as the season goes along.

Put the following players on your follow list this spring:

Bryce Harper, C, CC of Southern Nevada, Freshman

I put the class year down, because it’s important. When it comes to contract negotiations, JuCo freshmen are about as hard to sign as draft-eligible sophomores in the four-year college ranks. Harper not only has the best ceiling in this draft, but he also has considerable negotiating power as a player that will be 17 with another year of junior college left when draft day comes along. Add Scott Boras to the fire, and you probably have one of the top signing bonuses in draft history. Harper is indeed the top talent when it comes to tools in this draft. As I’m sure you’ve read multiple times, Harper has a pair of 80 tools, the highest rating a tool can receive. Those power and arm tools are outstanding and only a catastrophic arm injury could bring him down to anyone else’s level this spring. That’s a distinct possibility, as Harper has indeed asked his coach to pitch him in relief. He has all the pieces to be a plus hitter, though he has to adjust his timing mechanism in his swing to be able to hit pro caliber offspeed stuff. As I tweeted earlier in the week, Harper’s vulnerable to "hard in and soft away," but he should be able to compensate at the JuCo level. His speed and fielding also might come in as plus, though the speed is more above-average (55) than plus. He’s playing all over the diamond this spring, including third base and the outfield, and he might have to go to one of those spots as a pro, so that bears watching. Overall, though, Harper is an elite talent that I’d have trouble passing over for the top pick if I were the Nationals.

LeVon Washington, OF, Chipola JC (FL), Freshman

As much as we’re familiar with Harper, Washington comes a fairly close second. That’s what happens when you go unsigned as a first-round pick. Tampa Bay took Washington with their first pick of 2009 at #30 overall, and though Washington’s demands were reportedly not extremely high, the Rays declined to sign him. Boras also represents Washington, so that might have had something to do with it, but I’m not ready to pass blame on to an adviser before looking more closely at the team. Washington features a pair of plus tools in his bat and legs, as he should hit for average and steal a high number of bases over the course of a pro career. The big question mark with him is whether his arm can come back this year. A year ago he struggled through shoulder surgery recovery, and he was limited to second base and designated hitter. I’m happy to announce that he’s back in center field with Chipola this spring, and his arm is getting closer to where it was before his injury. Back in the day it was a plus tool, so in the four months between now and the draft we could see a drastic improvement. That would easily raise Washington’s stock, as he’s hitting fairly well and is moving well on the bases so far in limited action in Florida. I expect him to move into the top ten with a good season, and while Boras is his agent, I don’t expect earth-shattering bonus demands similar to Harper’s. Washington has every reason to sign if he goes in the first round in back-to-back years, as there’s really no direction but down from there.

Jake Eliopoulos, LHP, Chipola JC (FL), Freshman

Eliopoulos became Washington’s teammate at Chipola when he decided to not sign as Toronto’s second round pick in 2009. While Eliopoulos doesn’t bring the best pure stuff to the table at the moment, he has a projectable body and good command of fairly advanced stuff for his age. His fastball is more of an 87-90 pitch, though he projects to sit around 90-92 when all is said and done. He commands his secondary offerings well, and his changeup is ahead of where most players just of high school have theirs. Those pieces all combined to make him a second round pick a year ago, though I don’t see much possibility of him improving upon his draft position for 2010. While Eliopoulos has the projection to add velocity to his frame, that bump usually doesn’t come at age 19. Therefore, scouts will essentially be seeing the same Eliopoulos they did a year ago, just against better competition in the Florida JuCo ranks. Don’t get me wrong, he’s still a strong first-day candidate. His advanced arsenal has a good chance of succeeding this year, and the pressure is off of him at Chipola, too, as he’s not even their number one starter. His first outing showed a little early season jitters, and he was held to a 50 pitches, though he also flashed the ability to put away hitters with some quality offerings. I see him as a late second-round candidate again this year, and unless he sees himself gaining velocity for his sophomore campaign, he won’t have much incentive to return to Chipola for his sophomore year.

Damien Magnifico, RHP, Howard JC (TX), Freshman

Magnifico, like Washington and Eliopoulos, enters junior college with more notoriety than your average JuCo recruit. An unsigned fifth-rounder of the Mets from 2009, Magnifico relies on a plus fastball to dominate hitters. However, due to having such a plus fastball, his secondary stuff lags behind. That was one of the reasons why the Mets were reluctant to pony up his asking price a year ago, as he was asking somewhere in the neighborhood of $900,000 to $1 million. As a freshman, he’s not expected to fill the number one role on a team that had one of baseball’s most historic seasons last year in a run to a championship at the Junior College World Series. That role goes to Burch Smith, written about below. However, Magnifico is expected to carry his weight as Howard’s number two starter, and the workload will be a large step up from his prep days. His build isn’t the best for durability, as he "only" stands at 6’1’’ and carries 190 pounds, so one of the questions that needs to be answered this year is whether he can stand up to a more grueling pitching schedule for one of the top JuCo teams in the nation. I expect him to have a large amount of success due to the great history of Howard’s coaching system, so I see him improving his draft slot to perhaps the second or third round. He’ll also have the leverage of being a college freshman, so I could see another scenario where he asks for seven figures again. All told, though, Magnifico’s a solid talent that could be a number two starter in the big leagues if everything pans out.

Burch Smith, RHP, Howard JC (TX), Sophomore

Smith is a holdover from the historic 63-1 team from the 2009 season, and he’s their best returning arm and number one starter. Blessed with a pro body, Smith’s arm has really started to develop over the past year. He was drafted as a 49th-rounder a year ago by the Indians, but it was more of a follow approach than any real attempt at signing him. Undrafted out of high school, he had the talent to go in the mid-teens a year ago, but was simply only interested in returning to Howard after a wildly successful freshman campaign. The result has been a big step forward in terms of his velocity and command, and he could easily go in the first two rounds in June, higher than either Eliopoulos or teammate Magnifico. He’s committed to Oklahoma for next year, and while that might be an obstacle in some ways, I think he’ll be signable for slot in the first three rounds. He’ll only be two months past turning 20 on draft day, so there’s still significant upside here. His mature, yet projectable, 6’5’’, 195 pound frame should be able to handle another 25 pounds of muscle, and there might be number two upside in his low 90’s arm. His fastball isn’t as elite as his teammate’s, but it’s still plus due to good life and command, and it peaks around 95. He could easily be the top JuCo arm come June.

Tony Dischler, RHP, LSU-Eunice JC (LA), Sophomore

Dischler struggled mightily as a freshman at UL Monroe, and that prompted a transfer to LSU-Eunice, Louisiana’s premier JuCo feeder for its four year college counterparts. However, to UL Monroe’s chagrin, Dischler put on positive weight and strength after his transfer and he was popping mid-90s fastballs in the fall. The bad news is that Dischler’s fastball is pretty straight and can be hittable from time-to-time. His command isn’t great, and it also doesn’t really project to be anything above average in the future. That was his downfall while at UL Monroe, and he needs to shore up his mechanics if he’s to be successful this season while at Eunice. He has all the components to be a number two starter, though he hasn’t begun to quite put it together. His debut with Eunice against Pensacola JC showed his ability to dominate, but also his penchant for losing command, as he went four innings, only allowing a run on two hits, but also walking three and striking out only one. Without the downhill plane his fastball gets due to his 6’4’’, 200 pound frame, it would be tough for Dischler to be successful. However, with a body that’s attractive to pro scouts and a fastball that could already be rated as plus, he should draw first-day draft interest. If the birth date on his baseball cube page is correct, and I haven’t had a chance to confirm it, then Dischler is the same age as college juniors from this class, making his signability less of an issue and his scholarship for next year is only to minor program UL Lafayette. His lack of refinement and proven product is a worry, but the components are hard to resist.

These are just a half dozen players to keep an eye on, and I’ll give you more names to watch as you go along. Just as a reference, this is about what you should expect in the form of writeups for the 2010 MLB Draft Notebook. They’ll include short snippets about a player’s history, tools or stuff, and where I expect them to go and their signability. All these things are important to consider when evaluating a draft prospect.

If you like the writeups you see here, pre-order the 2010 MLB Draft Notebook now, and you’ll get over 750 writeups just like these for your perusal in a convenient PDF format. It will be good for draft day and beyond, as you look for reports on the players your favorite team drafts.

A weekend column on the scouting scale will be up tomorrow as a weekend column, which are broader editorial pieces that I’ll write discussing areas of scouting or drafting during the weekend of the season. Follow me on Twitter, and I’ll provide you updates on players during weekends, as I probably won’t do full writeups during weekends.

Hope you guys have a great weekend, and be sure to continue to check in here on MLB Bonus Baby, and tell your friends about the great content you can only get for free here.