2004 Collegiate Pitching Prospect Preview

The 2004 Major League Baseball Player Draft is officially less than five months away and the San Diego Padres have the top pick overall. Inside is a look at the top college pitchers in the nation who look to make a significant impact on the Major League level in the not so distant future.

In the first 20 rounds of the 2003 Major League Player Draft, 70% of the players selected came from either four-year institutions or Junior Colleges. The 2003 Padres selections mirrored this trend with nary a high schooler selected throughout the entire draft. The percentage of college players vs. high school players drafted has steadily increased in favor of the collegians in recent years.

The reason for this upswing? Economics. College players are seen as more likely to sign, and in many cases, making it closer to the Majors. A high school player has the option of going to college and, in the process, gives himself a bargaining chip in negotiations. The same goes for Juco draftees and collegians drafted after their Junior year's.

As a general rule, players who have completed four years of college eligibility have very little bargaining power, other than holding out and signing with an independent minor league team. There are striking exceptions such as Mark Prior, who as a college senior, commanded top dollar.

Of course, this isn't to say that a club will pass on a talented high school player such as Kerry Wood; they just may have to pay more for doing so. But the trend towards collegians can't be ignored, especially in the later rounds when more conservative choices are made.

A high school player drafted in the 40th round has very little incentive to sign when a college scholarship is waiting for him, especially when any signing bonus would be relatively small. Not every Major League team is jumping on the collegiate bandwagon, however. The Atlanta Braves have a habit of drafting high school pitchers and have been successful in that approach. Things were no different in 2003, as Atlanta drafted eight pitchers with their first 10 picks, seven of which were from the high school ranks.

Top Pitching Prospects

RHP Jeff Niemann 6'9, 260, JR (Rice University): Leads the pack of a trio of Rice pitchers that may be the best rotation in NCAA history. Niemann posted a remarkable 17-0 record to lead the Owls to their first NCAA National Championship in school history in 2003 with a 1.70 ERA with 156 K's in 137 innings. Niemann is physically imposing with a low to mid-90's fastball, occasionally hitting 97 MPH. He also features a dominating slider, and has developed a knuckle curve. Niemann is very poised on the mound; a heavy favorite to be the #1 pick in the draft.

RHP Wade Townsend, 6'4, 225, JR (Rice University): A terrific athlete who came out of high school with a reputation as more of a hitter than a pitcher. Townsent batted .515 as a first baseman at Dripping Springs HS (Texas). He also played basketball, averaging 16 points and 8 rebounds per game. Townsend has three terrific pitches, including a fastball that touches 97 MPH, a knuckle-curve and changeup. He went 11-2 with a 2.20 ERA for the Owls in 2003 after starting the season as a reliever on the Rice team, and picked up five saves early in the season. 164 K's in 119 innings was the best in the nation.

RHP Jered Weaver - 6'7, 205, JR (Long Beach State): Brother of Dodger hurler Jeff Weaver. Jered went 14-4 with a 1.96 ERA for LBSU in 2003, and set a Team USA record in with an 0.38 ERA while pitching 45.2 consecutive scoreless innings for the National Team. Weaver has a career record of 22-8 at Long Beach with 218 K's and only 52 walks in 226 innings. Batters have hit a paltry .202 against him in his college career. Very aggressive on the mound with good command.

RHP Justin Verlander, 6'4, 200, JR (Old Dominion): Hard-throwing pitcher who went 7-6 with a 2.40 ERA in 2003. His win-loss record is deceiving as Old Dominion went 18-33 in their 2003 campaign. Verlander struck out a school record 139 batters in 116 innings pitched, and went 5-1 for Team USA with a 1.29 ERA. He throws consistently in the mid 90's. Repertoire also includes extremely effective curveball, slider and changeup.

LHP Jeremy Sowers, 6'1, 170, JR (Vanderbilt University): Drafted 20th overall in the 2001 draft by the Cincinnati Reds, Sowers 7-5 with a 2.50 ERA on a Commodore team that went 27-28. Sowers is not a terribly hard thrower (high-80's to low-90's), but he possesses incredible command with his fastball, changeup and curve. Excellent pickoff move. Very mature and composed on the mound.

Texas' Huston Street is the Longhorns all-time save leader. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
RHP Huston Street, 6'0, 179, JR (University of Texas) Texas' all-time career saves leader with 29. Street ranked second nationally in saves in 2003 with 15, and fourth in ERA at 1.33. He also picked up 8 wins for the Longhorns in 2003. As a member of Team USA in '03, he posted an incredible 0.00 ERA in 29 innings while picking up seven saves. Street was named 2002 Outstanding Player Award for the College World Series, leading Texas to the title with a CWS record four saves. Not overpowering on the mound but very savvy.

RHP Philip Humber, 6'4, 210, JR (Rice University): Perhaps overshadowed by teammates Niemann and Townsend, it was Humber who pitched a complete game five-hitter over the Stanford Cardinal to bring home the College World Series title for the Owls in 2003. Humber was 11-3 with a 3.30 ERA in his Sophomore season, posting 138 K's in 128 innings. Not as overpowering as Niemann or Townsend, Humber throws in the low-90's with an effective changeup and devastating split-finger fastball.

RHP Justin Orenduff, 6'4, 220, JR (Viginia Commonwealth): Started his collegiate career at George Washington University, where he was a reliever, before transferring to VCU to become the ace of the Rams' staff. Orenduff went 9-3 with a 2.27 ERA, and recorded 120 K's and 26 walks in 95 innings pitched. Also a member of 2003 Team USA, posting a perfect 6-0 record with an ERA of 1.31

RHP Thomas Diamond, 6'3, 220, JR (New Orleans): One of the hardest throwers eligible for the draft, consistently throwing in the mid-90's, Diamond went 3-5 with five saves for the Privateers to post a 3.39 ERA with 96 K's in 69 innings. Needs to work on his command (walking 42 batters), but the tools, led by a devastating fastball, are all there.

RHP Chris Lambert, 6'0, 195, JR (Boston College): Posted a 8-2 record in 2003 with an ERA of 2.71. Lambert has an excellent fastball, and recorded 88 strikeouts in 80 innings pitched. As a Freshman at Boston College, he became the only player to earn both Pitcher of the Year and Rookie of the Year honors in the same year.

Others to watch: RHP Matt Durkin (San Jose State); LHP Matt Campbell (South Carolina); RHP Eric Beattie (Tampa); LHP J.P. Howell (Texas); RHP Garrett Mock (Houston); RHP Marc Cornell (Ohio); RHP Steven Register (Auburn); LHP David Purcey (Oklahoma); LHP Scott Lewis (Ohio State); LHP Tyler Lumsden (Clemson); RHP Russ Ohlendorf (Princeton).

Lori Foote is an expert on college baseball and Major League draft analysis. E-mail Lori at cubswin@alltel.net.

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