ATHENS, GA- It was a tremendous environment for college baseball as the #4-ranked Georgia hosted #1 Louisiana State last weekend. All three games were complete sellouts and the crowds were boisterous. I was treated to a great game on Saturday as the home team Bulldogs beat the Tigers 10-8.
We presently have two LSU position players projected for the first-sandwich round in junior centerfielder Jared Mitchell (#45) and sophomore eligible shortstop D.J. Lemahieu (#47). Three other Tiger hitters are also ranked in our overall Top-500: OF/DH Blake Dean (#210), 2B Ryan Schimpf (#355), and C/1B/DH Sean Ochinko (#481).
Georgia is underclass-heavy but they do have one ranked position player in first baseman Rich Poythress (#105). Their best prospect for 2009, lefty Alex McRee (#72), started on Saturday. I also got a look at closer Dean Weaver, who is ranked #279.
LEMAHIEU AND MITCHELL
LSU is the rare school who’ll get just as many scouts to their weekday games as they do to their weekends. That’s because their shortstop and centerfielder comprise the best position prospect duo in the country and unlike pitchers, you can see hitters in the lineup every day.
Lemahieu is a tall, lanky shortstop at 6-4, 183, who is eligible as a sophomore because he turns 21 within 45 days of the draft. A product of the Detroit area, Lemahieu was a 41st-round pick by the Tigers in 2007 who would have gone much higher had he been considered signable. He played at numerous PG events including the 2006 National and AFLAC games where he impressed our scouts both with his polished skillset and his projectable body.
Lemahieu had a big freshman year, starting at shortstop for the Tigers, and then took his game up another notch in the Cape Cod League last summer.
Lemahieu went 2-5 with a single and a double on Saturday. He didn’t strike out and he fielded all his chances cleanly. While he showed polish in all aspects of the game, his tools didn’t show as well as I saw in the summer.
He just didn’t seem real loose or quick at shortstop and his bat didn’t have the same juice in it.
Lemahieu’s actions at shortstop are long as is his throwing motion. His feet work okay, but they are far shy of an average major league shortstop. There was one play in particular that I thought most every major league shortstop would make. The ball was hit into the hole that Lemahieu got to, but was unable to turn around and finish. He reads the hops well, his hands are fine, and he doesn’t boot routine grounders, but Lemahieu lacks the pure quickness and arm-strength to stay there in the big leagues. His body can carry another 20-30 lbs easily and I would suspect his agility to further decrease when that happens.
He may profile best at second base. I’m hesitant for third because his actions are long. Long strides and long releases are not ideal for third base, but perhaps with repetition and hard work he can make it happen.
I watched Lemahieu in batting practice. It was odd to me, because he had a different stance in BP than he did in the game. In BP, Lemahieu was wider and took no stride. In the game, his stance was more narrow and he took a quiet stride.
Lemahieu’s righthanded bat-speed and raw power both grade out for me as 40s in the present, 50s in the future. There is some length to his swing, with good extension on the end. It’s smooth such that as he gets stronger, his bat will get quicker. Lemahieu’s approach at the plate is sound and he has the ability to hit the ball the other way. His double was actually an opposite field shot off of an inside fastball.
I can project him as a big league hitter, the question is how good of a big league hitter will he be? I think for a team to snag him in the sandwich round, they have to think he’ll be at least a #6 in the order guy. I believe he has a chance to do that as he gets stronger, but it’s going to take time to find out.
As an average runner (4.29 in the 60 yd) and probably an average defender at second or third base, Lemahieu would need a plus bat to be a good major league starter.
Jared Mitchell hit a long homerun in his first at-bat but it would be his only hit of the day. Mitchell struggled the rest of the afternoon, going 1-4 with two strikeouts and a walk.
The strongly built 6-0, 192 Mitchell has one of those lefthanded swings that can club a low fastball a long way. He generates 45/55 bat-speed and has 40/55 raw power. But Mitchell was carved up by curveballs and change-ups and I’m not sure he’ll hit a good high fastball with wood. That’s a lot of holes he needs to cover to get to the big leagues from this point.
Mitchell’s swing is a little stiff and I wonder if it’ll loosen up as the season goes on. He’s a two-sport guy spent the fall playing football for the Tigers, so he hasn’t had the repetitions of his baseball teammates. For that reason, I’d want to see him in May before I made up my mind on his future bat.
Mitchell is clearly a plus runner; I’ll give him a 65 even though my only running time was a 4.27 where he pulled up on a groundout. He shows all kinds of agility for center field and he’s impressed me in the past with how he goes back on fly balls and changes directions. In this game, however, Mitchell really struggled with his routes, particularly going lateral. He’s not a big league centerfielder now, but if you sign him, you keep putting him out there and hope he picks it up. Mitchell’s arm is nearly average (45) with a strong crow-hop. It’s very possible it improves to a 50-55 when he’s a full-time baseball player.
You don’t see many baseball body-types like Mitchell’s. He has a small waist, thick hips, and a broad upper body. He’s a little like Los Angeles Angels centerfielder Torii Hunter, but Mitchell is a couple of inches shorter.
Because of his speed and his power potential, Mitchell will be given time to develop with the bat.
THE BIG GEORGIA LEFTY
Alex McRee has jumped into early-round consideration this spring after getting only three starts as a sophomore for the 2008 College World Series runner-up Bulldogs. McRee is a 6-6, 230 lefty with a solid assortment of stuff. He pitched a fine game against LSU in a playoff-pressure atmosphere going six innings (7H, 2ER, 3K, 3BB).
McRee’s fastball sat 89-92 MPH for most of the start and I graded its movement at 60. Out of a three-quarter slot, McRee gets good running action and at times showed big league command of his heater. His slider was his favorite second pitch; a sweeping 81-83 MPH breaker that I grade as 45/55. McRee showed a feel for his change-up and curveball as well, both of which should become average pitches in the future.
I also liked how he pitched his way out of jams, showing good body language and keeping his composure.
There is a lot of effort with McRee’s arm-action and delivery. At his size, he withstands the punishment better than most pitchers, but it’s definitely something scouts will take note of. McRee has a low-elbow arm-action that slings in back; he’s similar to, but not as violent as, Toronto Blue Jays lefty closer B.J. Ryan. His delivery is rough, too. Though he’s fairly coordinated with his long limbs. McRee has a slight drift and his head definitely moves during the delivery. There are big league pitchers who do that, but it’s considered detrimental to developing consistent command.
I look at a lot of “high-effort” starters and want to make them relievers, but I don’t believe that for McRee. First of all, he has four pitches and the mindset of a starter in how he works hitters. And I think his mechanics are good enough for his size to hold up. I suspect he’s still growing into his frame and he’ll become smoother in his actions as he gets older.
I can easily see McRee going in the second round where our ranking puts him and believe the sandwich area is also a strong possibility. McRee has the potential to move to the big leagues in three years and become a solid #4 starter for a championship contender.
THE BEST HITTER IN ATHENS THIS WEEKEND
It’s my belief that UGA first baseman Rich Poythress was the best hitter I saw. He may not go as high as Lemahieu or Mitchell in the draft, but he’s a better hitter now and a safer bet to hit in the big leagues than they are. He used the field and hit the ball hard on Saturday, going 3-5 with a double and one strikeout.
Poythress is the kind of hitter I might overlook in batting practice because his swing and his body actions are rather forceful. He hits the ball hard and he hits it all over the field, but he doesn’t look fluid doing it. Poythress has a slightly closed stance and generates 45/50 bat-speed. Though he appears stiff aesthetically, Poythress actually makes adjustments in mid-swing and uses his hands well. I was particularly impressed with his second at-bat against lefty knuckleballer Ryan Byrd. Poythress had struck out the first time, but waited on the pitch and smacked an opposite field double off of Bird when he came up again in the 6th inning.
Poythress is a large-framed 6-4, 245, who has lost considerable weight from last year. He has unusually square shoulders; you don’t see many major league hitters with square shoulders, most have some level of slope (and I’d need an entire column to discuss that phenomenon). Defensively, Poythress, can become average at first base with hard work. His hands and first step are okay, though he is a well below-average runner and lacks lateral agility. Poythress is not yet major league caliber at taking throws; there were a couple errant tosses that I thought he could have caught or at least blocked.
I was impressed with his hustle on one of those occasions. Alex McRee attempted a pickoff which sailed past Poythress. The runner tried to come all the way around and he would have scored had Poythress not hustled after it. There are a lot of big league first baseman who would give up immediately and let the rightfielder get it. But Poythress went after the wild throw like a bat out of hell, wheeled, and fired to home to get the runner by an eyelash.
The junior is off to a tremendous start, hitting .443-13-52 in 115 AB. He is slugging a whopping .861 and has an on-base-percentage of .540.
So where does he go in the draft? Poythress doesn’t offer much aside from his bat, you’re hoping he becomes adequate at first base and there’s no other spot he projects defensively for at the big league level. Teams who are already loaded with first basemen will be less likely to draft him high. He’s played third for Georgia, but is not a prospect there for MLB. Maybe he can be stuck in left field a la Matt LaPorta or Chris Duncan, but even after learning the routes he’d have well below-average range.
I think his bat is sure to get him inside the first ten rounds and very possibly the first five.
OTHER LSU-UGA NOTES: LSU has a powerful lineup and both Sean Ochinko (played 1B) and Blake Dean (DH) are juniors who are getting some attention from scouts. The 5-11, 206 Ochinko has a long righthanded swing that may not translate to wood against MLB-type stuff, but he has a good approach and is having a great season (.384-7-35 in 112 AB), leading the team in hitting. Ochinko has caught and played first base and doesn’t have a surefire position at the highest level. The 6-0, 190 Dean is a lefthanded hitter with a more prototype swing path, but has struggled as a junior (.267-2-19 in 105 AB). Dean may settle in as a leftfielder down the road, but scouts want to see him hit more before taking him in the first ten rounds…. Second baseman Ryan Schimpf is an undersized (5-9, 181) lefthanded hitter who has good hands and feet on defense. I can see him as a solid-average to plus defender at second, but the upside with the bat is not nearly as high. He’s getting draft interest and we have him #355 in the Top-500…. LSU sophomore catcher Micah Gibbs showed power from both sides of the plate and he should be a prospect for 2010. He’s offensive-minded, but has a chance to become an adequate, if below-average, receiver and thrower. I’m sure the large-framed and powerfully built 5-11, 214 backstop will be on follow lists going into the summer…. UGA junior closer Dean Weaver is a 6-4, 211 righty with a violent delivery who gets outs with deception more than anything. He threw 88-92 MPH on Saturday without much movement, mixing in one curve and one change-up. Weaver gave up two hits and two unearned runs in the ninth. Weaver takes a short stride and falls off the mound, hiding the ball along the way. I didn’t see the front-line stuff that would make him an early pick on this occasion, but he’s getting first-ten round interest by teams…. UGA has some impressive freshman in righthanded pitcher Mike Palazzone and 1B/OF Chase Davidson. Palazzone will be a weekend starter before he’s through and shows the makings of three solid-to-plus big league pitches in his fastball, curve, and change-up. Palazzone is also a very projectable 6-2, 183, with an athletic delivery and loose arm. The 6-5, 230 Davidson is a lefthanded power prospect, but he struggled with his outfield routes and is a well below-average runner…. Another freshman, outfielder Zach Cone, was a 3rd-round pick of the Los Angeles Angels last June. He showed me an average arm and solid-average speed at 6-2, 200, but his bat is very crude. Cone was getting carved up by balls out of the strike zone. There is clearly some upside, but he’s going to need a lot of patience and at-bats to get there…. Here’s a junior sleeper for UGA, centerfielder Matt Cerione. He has impressed me since his freshman year with a quick lefthanded bat, an average arm, and what I believe will be legitimate center field range due to good instincts. At 6-1, 190, Cerione has strong proportions and looks the part. The problem has been the stick. Despite a good swing, Cerione has never recognized pitches well. His hitting instincts are not as good as his fielding. He did go 2-4 on Saturday and is hitting .305-3-17 in 82 AB for the year. Scouts will pay more attention to him in May if he comes on as I believe he can.