VOICE OF THE FAN- VU Baseball Prospects

Sports brief: last week in Camaguey, Cuba, the U.S. Junior National Baseball Team gamely fought its way to the finals of the Pan American Games before losing 3-2 to No. 1-ranked Cuba. 8,500 fans watched as the U.S. took the Silver at Candido Gonzalez Stadium

Why, you are probably asking, should I even give a flip about this?  Well, because two young amateur players on that U.S. team could have a profound effect on the future of Vanderbilt baseball… and maybe even Vanderbilt football.

Those two players are pitcher Jeremy Sowers of Louisville, and outfielder Jeff Francoeur of Lilburn, Georgia.  Sowers just finished his senior year, Francoeur his junior year.  Both turned in stellar performances in the Pan Am games, just as they have consistently done in the preps.  Both have futures as bright as a day at the Havana beach.

So even though you may not have paid much attention, I have an idea that Roy Mewbourne and Woody Widenhofer did.  Just getting ONE of these players on campus would be a coup-- getting both of them would be a Daily Double of seismic proportions.

In case you don't follow Vandy baseball that closely-- much less baseball recruiting-- Sowers is a 6-1, 175-pound lefthanded pitcher, now graduated from Ballard High School in Louisville.  During the school year he signed a letter-of-intent to play for Coach Mewbourne's Commodores.

How dominant was Sowers in high school this season?  Try 140 strikeouts and only 10 walks in 75 innings pitched.  Try an ERA of 0.56.  In the Junior Nationals the southpaw pitched three straight shutouts for a 3-0 record and a perfect 0.00 ERA, including a 12-0 win in the semifinal game against Panama.  The guy was practically unhittable.

I always get nervous when any high school player is labeled a "savior", but in this rare case the title might just be appropriate.  Sowers looks to be the kind of player who could not only make the transition to college successfully, but dominate pretty quickly.  He's the kind of pitching ace you could build a competitive SEC team around.  How badly the Diamond Dores have needed a star of Sowers' magnitude to lead them out of the doldrums!

Only trouble is, in baseball (unlike football and up until recently basketball), it's kosher for the Major Leagues to draft players right out of high school and throw wads of money at them.  That's been a continuing problem for Mewbourne, as well as every other college coach.  A signature prevents a player from signing with another college team, but not from signing with the bigs.

Well, wouldn't you know, the Cincinnati Reds gambled and took Sowers in the first round, with the twentieth pick overall.  Now comes the lots-more-than-$64,000 question: will Sowers wind up in the Reds farm system, or wearing the black and gold?  Sowers has told the Louisville papers he's going to be a Commodore, but the Reds' organization hasn't given up.  We may not find out for sure until the fall semester begins in August.  He'll either show up for classes or he won't.

Francouer, who accounted for both US runs in the Pan Am finals (scoring one, knocking in the other), is a horse of a different color.  He still has another year to play sports for Parkview High School.  After that he could wind up in professional baseball, or college baseball… or even college football.

In the state of Georgia, the 6-4, 200-pound Francoeur has come just about as close to schoolboy legend status as you can possibly get.  Last year he was not only the state's baseball player of the year, but the defensive football player of the year.  And he led Parkview to state championships in both sports.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution did a feature story on him in May.  Already, it said, he is hounded by autograph seekers.  There just aren't enough accolades to describe what he's accomplished so far.

In football, he plays safety for Coach Cecil Flowe's Panthers.  All he did was haul in 15 interceptions on defense (a new state record), and catch 46 passes for 800 yards and 14 touchdowns on offense.  In baseball?  He hit .520 with 20 homers and 49 RBI… this despite frequently being intentionally walked.  His ability to come up with the needed clutch hit at the right time was nothing short of uncanny.  You'd have to go back a long time to come up with a player this dominant in two different sports.

So how'd he do in the Pan Am games?  Started all 11 games, went 21-for-39 for a .538 average, with 2 home runs and 17 RBI, and a slugging percentage of .897.

Football recruiting gurus have already begun pestering Francoeur about his college choices, and Vanderbilt has remained staunchly in his top 5 (along with Georgia Tech, Clemson, Ole Miss and Florida State).  If he goes the collegiate route, he will almost undoubtedly play both sports for some lucky university.  But two words of caution: (1) it's still VEEERRY early in the recruiting process, and (2) like Sowers, Francoeur will likely be picked high in next year's Major League Draft.

I would not expect a decision anytime soon from Francoeur-- he has a lot of options to weigh.  It should be noted, however, that the Commodores have landed a couple of fine football prospects from Parkview during the Woody regime: Ainsley Battles, a pretty doggone good safety himself, as well as current starting offensive guard Jim May.  The Parkview pipeline is alive and well… so who knows?

If just thinking about the possibility of having both Sowers and Francoeur on campus at Vandy makes you a little excited… just think how Coaches Mewbourne and Widenhofer must feel.  But as Head Basketball Coach Kevin Stallings can now tell you… it's never wise to count chickens before they hatch.

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