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Scouting a pair of SEC first basemen

5/26/2012
Christian Walker has an uphill battle as a right-handed hitting first base prospect. AP Photo/Tom Priddy

South Carolina first baseman Christian Walker is a low-risk, high-probability college hitter, yet still gets a pretty wide range of projections from scouts. The junior -- who Keith Law has ranked as the No. 76 prospect in the class -- is a power-hitting performer but is coming off a hamate injury, has the body of a catcher and is a right-handed hitter who isn't incredibly athletic.

The comparisons for Walker would range, best to worst, from Kevin Millar to Aaron Bates, as stout right-handed hitting bat-only type 1B/DH prospects. (Bates was a third-rounder in 2006 out of NC State who has spent parts of four seasons in Triple-A, with a stint with the Red Sox in 2009.)

Walker's hands, feet and arm are all below-average and will likely only get worse, so he's creeping toward a DH-only fit. His plate discipline is solid, so the factors that will decide where Walker lands on this spectrum are all tied to the bat and power. He's hitting .330 with 10 homers for the two-time defending College World Series champs -- nearly the same numbers he posted a year ago (.358 and 10).

Since he's a thick 6-foot-1, 225 pounds, Walker runs the chance that his flexibility will get in the way of being able to get to tough pitches. He doesn't have elite hand or bat speed, so while he has a direct path and some raw strength, what I and scouts have seen suggests he might have trouble with good fastballs on his hands. This would mean Walker would have to either start guessing, or, like Millar, become a fastball-oriented, pull-heavy hitter that has the eye-hand coordination to recognize and foul off pitches that he'll have trouble driving. That's a tall order, so the other way to create some value is for Walker's hamate surgery recovery to complete and then hope his power tools improve from average to plus down the road.

Walker is the type of hitter teams will start looking at as early as the late second round, and the hamate injury gives him some hidden upside. Teams with some history on him may have reason to believe the bat will play, the power will return and Walker will become an everyday player.

Another SEC first baseman with similarities to Walker is Florida senior Preston Tucker; however, the latter is left-handed and a year older. Tucker plays right field for the Gators but is a first base-only fit as a pro. He isn't quick-footed but should be fine defensively with an average arm and decent hands. Tucker keeps his hands low and in the zone for a long time, giving him a good chance to hit for average, and has the bat speed, strength and high finish to create average raw power.

Tucker has performed for four years in the SEC but the concerns on him are similar to Walker. The body may hinder his ability to hit at higher levels and he lacks the big bat speed to get to elite velocity without cheating. Given his senior-sign status, Tucker could go ahead of Walker to a cost-conscious team and is in play in the third round.

Draft nuggets

• I took in a day at the Florida state high school tournament in Port St. Lucie because, in the four games one day, Lance McCullers and Nick Travieso were pitching and Addison Russell was hitting. Russell continues to confuse me as he didn't show much feel for hitting, but he has a long history of performing on the showcase circuit, and Law has him at No. 19 in the class.

McCullers (No. 25 on Law's list) continued his progression from relief prospect to starting prospect with an outstanding performance. He consistently flashed a plus fastball-curve combination and, facing American Heritage (the powerhouse alma mater of Eric Hosmer), he used his changeup more, usually against the advanced hitters. It was above-average when he threw it for a strike and may be a plus pitch in time. His command continues to improve, mostly hitting his spots all night, a far cry from his Rick Vaughn impression early in the season. I continue to think McCullers has a good chance to start and would take him in the top half of the first round if I were a scouting director.

Travieso, who Law has at No. 33, wasn't quite as smooth. While his team won the semifinal game (and eventually the state championship), Travieso has been fading of late. I wrote about his early playoff start a few weeks ago and said that his slider ranged from bad to decent, and a lack of athleticism and ability to repeat his delivery looked to be the culprit. Travieso's velocity was down a little bit (93-94 mph early, 88-92 late), his slider still wasn't consistent and his command wavered as his delivery broke down. He hasn't shown a great feel for a changeup when I've seen him, and while he showed an ability to go deep in games with plus stuff early in the year, these recent performances are concerning. Travieso is still a first-to-sandwich round prospect, but there's now a better chance he'll end up as a reliever in the end.