Baseball Lands Top Recruiting Class

The baseball season is still over two months away, but there's been plenty of news the past few weeks concerning the future of the program. Recruiting is the hot topic in October and November, and once again the Cardinal coaches have landed a top-flight class. Read on for notes about all the future Cards and how the roster may shake out in 2006.

They say pitching wins championships.  Take the 2004 Stanford Cardinal.  One of the top hitting teams in school history and easily some of the best upperclassmen leadership in the country.  So why didn't 2004 mark the program's sixth consecutive trip to the College World Series?  It's unfair to put it all on the pitching staff, because after all, Jered Weaver had a little something to do with it as well.  But you could see it coming the entire last month of the regular season.  The pitchers weren't nearly as effective down the stretch, it carried over to that first weekend in June and the Cardinal were quickly sent packing. 

This was not totally unexpected, however.  When seven of your top eight pitchers are freshmen or sophomores (including the entire starting rotation), growing pains are not out of the norm.  Two or three years ago when sizing up what the 2004 pitching staff would look like, you turned to three juniors as your leaders.  Mark Jecmen, Moses Kopmar, and Steve Papazian were each bonafide Top 100 prospects their senior year in high school in 2001 and a big reason why that recruiting class was rated the second best in the country.  However, Jecmen never was able to tap into his full potential while at Stanford, Kopmar suffered various injuries and eventually transferred to a local JC while Papazian was also saddled with injury problems early in his career never to return to form before he eventually quit the team early in '04.  Three pitchers who contributed very little to that 2004 team and so the Cardinal relied on a group of underclassmen to try to take them to the promise land.

As evident by the end-of-the-season failures of that 2004 team, pitching is the focus of every baseball squad.  You certainly can't disregard offense (especially in college with aluminum bats) or defense, but pitching is what will ultimately decide whether you're Omaha-bound and if you have what it takes to win a national championship.  Expectations are high for the current 2005 edition because it's a pitching-rich team.  The sophomore starting pitchers from a year ago in Mark Romanczuk and Jeff Gilmore are now juniors - traditionally the year when Stanford pitchers "turn it up a notch."  The bevy of freshman pitchers who saw significant action last spring are now some of the most seasoned sophomore hurlers you'll ever see on the Farm.  And there are even a couple of high-profile freshman pitchers in Erik Davis and Nolan Gallagher who could crack the regular rotation and become important pieces of the puzzle for Stanford.

Concerning the future, the fall recruiting season just came to a close and Stanford fans should be pleased to know that the Cardinal coaching staff has inked one of the most impressive pitching classes in recent school history.  It's a dangerous thing to pump up a pitching-heavy recruiting class as projecting if a pitcher can translate high school success into college success is an incredibly difficult thing to do (see Jecmen).  And more than any of the other positions on the baseball field, pitchers are the most likely to suffer long-term injuries that can end or severely hamper a career (see Kopmar and Papazian).  But at this moment in time, Stanford would appear to be in good hands post-2005 when it comes to pitching and here's why:

At the top of the list in this recruiting class is Louisiana left-handed pitcher Jeremy Bleich.  A 6'2", 185 lb. native of Metatarie, Bleich is a consensus Top 100 national player this fall (#39 in TeamOne Baseball, #76 in Baseball America).  Bleich is your prototypical "crafty lefty" as he features a fastball that will sit only in the mid 80's.  And when you have such a highly regarded pitcher who doesn't get out of the mid 80's then you know the other things he brings to the table have to be top-flight. 

Bleich is a three-pitch pitcher with excellent command of everything he throws.  His big, slow curve ball doesn't even touch 70, but the break and control of the pitch make it a good one.  But his best pitch is the change-up that has been described by scouts as a "big-league pitch."  When a left-handed pitcher has such an advanced change-up at such a young age it's a good reason to be giddy.  It's because a left-handed pitcher generally has more success throwing a change-up to a right-handed hitter (as opposed to the curve ball which will be tougher for lefties to hit).  The simple fact in baseball is that there are more right-handed hitters than left-handed hitters so to have such a developed change-up while just a senior in high school is exciting to hear.

Bleich was an All-State selection last spring as a junior.  TeamOne rated him the fourth best left-handed pitcher in the country among high school seniors.  And the Cardinal were able to snatch him away from in-state baseball powerhouses LSU and Tulane.  Bleich also considered baseball and academic power Rice along with Vanderbilt.

Another highly regarded left-handed pitcher who will be attending Stanford starting next fall is Tom Stilson,  A 6'5", 210 lb. native of Ozark, Missouri, Stilson also garnered top 100 mention when TeamOne tabbed him as the 89th best overall prospect in the country.  Stilson throws harder than Bleich with a fastball in the high 80's-to-low 90's.  His best pitch is a big curve ball while he also throws an advanced change-up.

Stilson led his high school to the state championship last spring going 11-0 with a 0.90 ERA and 93 strike outs in just 69 innings.  This appeared to be Stanford's recruit to lose as Stilson lived in Petaluma up in the North Bay until he was 14 before moving out to the Midwest.  He chose the Cardinal over SEC schools South Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama along with ACC power Georgia Tech.  Stilson was a Missouri First Team All-State selection last spring before enjoying a breakout summer that put him right at the top of the list of top left-handed pitchers in the country.

Still not satisfied?  Well, how about yet another left-handed pitcher.  Colorado lefty Sean Ratliff is an exciting two-way prospect that will begin his Stanford career in the fall of 2005.  Ratliff has excelled as both a pitcher and a corner outfielder during his high school and American Legion career and by all reports, will be allowed to pursue both positions while at Stanford.

With a fastball regularly in the high 80's, Ratliff had a spectacular year on the mound as a junior last spring going 10-0 with a 0.97 ERA.  He may have been even better with a bat in his hands though as Ratliff hit a staggering .622 with 14 home runs and 53 RBI (would imagine the high school season is roughly 30 or 35 games).  The huge season earned Ratliff Colorado State Player of the Year honors.  He then went on to star for his American Legion team again as a two-way player.  On the mound, it was a 13-1, 1.54 season while at the plate in 80 games, Ratliff hit a sizzling .451 with 25 homers and 92 RBI. 

Ratliff also earned a Top 100 overall ranking according to TeamOne Baseball as he checked in at #74.  TeamOne also rated him as the 13th best high school senior outfield prospect in the country.  Ratliff chose Stanford over USC and Vanderbilt.

Rounding out the pitching portion of this recruiting class is Arizona right-hander Austin Yount.  A native of Paradise Valley, Yount has baseball in his blood with a father who played professionally and an uncle who finds himself in the MLB Hall of Fame (Milwaukee legend Robin Yount).  Yount is arguably the least highly-touted pitcher in this recruiting class (TeamOne still has him though at #186 on their Top 200 overall prospect list), but this right-handed hurler was only named Arizona State Player of the Year last spring as a junior.  Concerns about his size (6'0", 165 lbs.) is what could hold him back when it comes to pro potential this spring, but make no mistake, the coaching staff is thrilled to have this pitcher on board.  Yount throws a fastball in the high 80's with a curve ball, slider, and change-up.

Yount went 8-1 with a paltry 0.50 ERA last spring in earning Player of the Year honors and leading his team to the state championship.  He was also named an EA Sports High School All-American.  This was an All-American list composed of 25 of the very best high school players last spring (many of which were drafted in the first three rounds last June).  Yount was one of only three juniors on the team.

And if that wasn't enough, Yount then went on to play for the US Junior National Team at the end of the summer where he was teammates with current Stanford players Erik Davis and Randy Molina.  Yount excelled for the Red, White, and Blue at the World Championships Tournament in Taiwan as a relief pitcher.  Over two appearances, Yount allowed just one earned run on four hits with two walks and seven strike outs.  He even did a little hitting for Team USA as Yount has experience as both a shortstop and a third baseman.

Moving to the hitters in this recruiting class, there's plenty of talent to go around especially in the outfield and catching positions.  Ratliff has already been mentioned for his efforts as a corner outfielder.  Michigan native Jeff Whitlow is another top-flight outfield prospect who looks to have what it takes to contribute immediately.  TeamOne has Whitlow as Stanford's highest rated position player giving him a Top 50 overall ranking (#47).  Whitlow is your prototypical center field prospect.  He's a player who can absolutely fly on the base paths and out in the field (was timed with a 6.47 mark in the 60 this summer).  He's an above-average center fielder who has a nice line drive stroke.  Whitlow's not a big guy at just 5'11", 177 lbs. but by all accounts could be a future leadoff hitter and center fielder at Stanford.  The only strange thing is that Whitlow bats and throws right-handed.  You would have to go back to Jeffrey Hammonds in the early 90's to find the last regular center field at Stanford who wasn't left-handed (Cale Carter, Jody Gerut, Edmund Muth, Sam Fuld, Jim Rapoport).

TeamOne also rated Whitlow as the 11th best outfield prospect in the country (just two slots ahead of Ratliff).  Georgia and Georgia Tech were a couple of the major competitors for Whitlow's services.

Yet another outfielder who will be making his way to Stanford next fall is Joey August.  August, who hails from Salem, Oregon (same hometown as current Stanford All-American Jed Lowrie), fits the mold of a typical Cardinal center fielder in that he does bat and throw left-handed.  Standing 6'0" tall and weighing 185 lbs, August can play all three outfield positions and was an All-State Player last spring.  An athletic player, August is the quarterback for his high school and is widely considered one of the top QB's in the entire state of Oregon.

August just missed out making it on TeamOne's Top 100 but still checked in at a very impressive #113.  He was also rated as the 24th best outfield prospect in the US by TeamOne.  Last spring, August hit .418 with six home runs and 26 RBI.

Stanford has also stocked up on catchers this recruiting season as Top 100 player Brent Milleville headlines the list.  Think Ryan Garko when you think of Milleville.  A big bodied catcher, Milleville checks in at 6'3", 230 lbs., is a power hitter with a good arm and has been praised for an extremely strong work ethic and excellent leadership skills behind the plate.  Milleville was rated #52 on Baseball America's Top 100 prospect list along with the fourth best catching prospect in the country (#10 catcher according to TeamOne).

Milleville has been well known in the high school ranks for quite some time now.  On the heels of a huge sophomore season in 2003, Milleville was named a Collegiate Baseball Second Team Preseason All-American last winter.  And Milleville came through with another big year as a junior in earning Kansas State Player of the Year honors.  Milleville is considered a bit raw by many, but the skills are all there.  In fact last summer, Milleville was clocked at 88 MPH on a throw down to second base from behind the plate.

Bay Area native (Castro Valley) Jason Castro is the second catcher in this recruiting season.  Castro also has a nice catchers body at 6'2", 185 lbs. and bats from the left-side.  TeamOne rated Castro as the 26th best catching prospect in the country this fall.  He hit .450 last spring as a junior and also considered Cal, Long Beach State, and San Diego.

The only middle infielder in this year's class is Fresno native Jonathan (JJ) Jelmini.  Jelmini stands 6'0" tall and weighs 190 lbs. while he bats and throws right-handed.  Like August, Jelmini is the starting quarterback for his football team this fall.  Last spring as a junior, Jelmini hit leadoff and played shortstop in putting together a fine season (.423, 4 HR, 22 RBI).  A line drive hitter with a good arm and solid defensive tools, Jelmini should be able to handle playing middle infield in the Pac-10.  He chose Stanford over Cal, UCLA, Fresno State, and Georgia Tech.


The Class of 2005:

Joey August, OF  (6'0", 185, Salem, OR)
Jeremy Bleich, LHP  (6'2", 185, Metatarie, LA)
Jason Castro, C  (6'2", 185, Castro Valley, CA)
J.J. Jelmini, SS  (6'0", 190, Fresno, CA)
Brent Milleville, C  (6'3", 230, Maize, KS)
Sean Ratliff, LHP/OF  (6'2", 195, Niwot, CO)
Tom Stilson, LHP  (6'5", 210, Ozark, MO)
Jeff Whitlow, OF  (5'11", 177, Southfield, MI)
Austin Yount, RHP  (6'0", 165, Paradise Valley, AZ)


The Rankings

Five recruits earned Top 100 rankings from either Baseball America or TeamOne Baseball (highest rating is noted below):

Jeremy Bleich, LHP: #39 (T1)
Jeff Whitlow, OF: #47 (T1)
Brent Milleville, C: #52 (BA)
Sean Ratliff, LHP/OF: #74 (T1)
Tom Stilson, LHP: #89 (T1)

The current freshman class had three Top 100 players at this time last year (Michael Taylor, Erik Davis, and Randy Molina).  The current sophomore class featured a pair of Top 100 players (Jim Rapoport and Logan Ardis).  Meanwhile, the junior class placed three players in the Top 100 (Mark Romanczuk, Chris Lewis, and Matt Manship).  Both John Mayberry, Jr. (Junior) and Greg Reynolds (Sophomore) both moved into the Top 100 by the end of their senior year. 


Commentary

The coaching staff clearly loaded up on three positions in this recruiting class: pitchers (primarily left-handed pitching), catchers, and outfielders.  The pitching of course makes sense as you can never have enough pitching.  And while there are no senior pitchers on this year's team, the coaching staff has to prepare for the possible departures to the professional game from Mark Romanczuk, Jeff Gilmore and maybe even Matt Manship.  The 2006 team now looks to be in excellent shape when it comes to pitching when you considered the emerging stars in the current sophomore class, the highly touted freshman, and this group of recruits (barring injuries or defections to pro baseball this summer).

The catching situation is an interesting one, to say the least.  The last few seasons have seen Stanford carry just three catchers on the squad - including just two backstops on the 25-man Pac-10 roster last year (Donny Lucy and John Hester).  The coaching staff is clearly preparing for the loss of John Hester to the professional game this upcoming summer.  That may be tough to see for Stanford fans considering Hester has basically been regulated to the bench in his first two seasons on the Farm.  But this is a guy who easily could have started full-time last season had their been an open position and is a player who really impressed with the bat in the just-concluded fall season.  The coaching staff is expecting big things from Hester in 2005 and if a 6'4", 220 lb. catcher has a big season in the Pac-10 then pro scouts will pay attention.

Stanford looks to be in good shape for the future with the emergence of freshman Brian Juhl this fall.  Juhl isn't nearly as big as a Hester or Lucy, but the switch-hitter catcher has a nice swing and is an above-average defensive player.  Current sophomore Josh Corn (who didn't play in a game last season) and freshman Jeff Boes (a recruited walk-on) are also scheduled to be on the roster next season.  And then there's Milleville and Castro.  Barring transfers, the catching position will be a full one next season - even moreso if Hester doesn't go pro.

Remember it was just two years ago that Stanford was hurting for outfield depth?  Things have certainly changed.  The projected starting outfield this season of Michael Taylor, Jim Rapoport, and Ryan Seawell are all freshmen or sophomores which means they'll all be back in 2006.  Factor in Brendan Domaracki, an impressive looking freshman, as well.  Now three more outfielders are in the fold for '06 with Whitlow, August, and Ratliff.  There should be plenty of excellent competition for starting positions next season in the Stanford outfield.

The lack of a first baseman, also raises the point of a possible position switch down the road for one of these outfielders.  When you think about it, Stanford has very rarely had a natural first baseman playing that position in recent years.  Brian Hall played a lot of first base and he was a natural shortstop who primarily played outfield at Stanford.  Arik VanZandt was the starting first baseman in 2001 and 2002 and he was also a natural shortstop.  Before him it was Craig Thompson in 2000 who was a second baseman and outfielder.  John Gall played over there in 1999 and he was more of a third baseman or outfielder.  Even John Mayberry, Jr. is considered by many pro scouts to be better suited for outfield down the road and Junior even played a lot of third base in his high school days.

Bottom line, there is plenty of data from the last handful of years that would indicate at least one player will switch over to first base.  The coaching staff has to prepare for the potential losses of John Mayberry, Jr. and Ben Summerhays this summer to the pro game which would leave just Darren Gemoll (a freshman this season) as the only first baseman on the roster.  The first base position, assuming the staff doesn't get one in the spring period, will be a very interesting one to watch next fall and preseason.

Note: This is not an official list of players that have signed letters-of-intent to attend Stanford starting in the fall of 2005.  For various reasons, the baseball coaching staff is not allowed to publicly state who is on their way to Stanford when it comes to recruiting.  This list has been pieced together through months of research and conversations with various baseball contacts.  If The Bootleg has not included a player, please let us know.

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