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Insider

Dearth of college catchers after Zunino

5/7/2012

As clubs continue to move names around their draft boards, those names are jockeying for position, including those expected to be selected in the first round. Whether or not the Houston Astros, owners of the No. 1 overall pick, ultimately call the name of a college starting pitchers or a prep player with superstar upside will remain unclear until the moment it is announced, but there appear to be some battles under way amongst the college bats.

Florida catcher Mike Zunino, despite some recent struggles, remains the No. 1 college position player in the class and is by far the No. 1 catcher available. Prep backstops Stryker Trahan (Acadania High School, La.) and Calallen High School (Texas) star Wyatt Mathieson are next in line, but at the college level, the drop-off is quite large.

Senior Peter O'Brien, a third-round pick last June, has had a big year at the plate -- .354/.465/.677 with 18 homers and a plus-two walk-to-strikeout ratio -- but questions remain whether the Miami Hurricane can stick behind the dish.

Buffalo's Tom Murphy has plus power but scouts wonder if he could hit for enough average to warrant playing every day. He's sitting at .316/.404/.586 with 27 extra-base hits. "His swing has length to it that I'm just not convinced would hold up against pro arms," opined an American League area scout.

TCU's Josh Elander began the year as a catcher among the top 100 talents, but not many believe he'll catch at the next level, despite some improvements this spring. Kennesaw State's Ronnie Freeman, Purdue's Kevin Plawecki and NAIA star Dane Phillips from Oklahoma City College join Elander, Murphy and O'Brien as second-day picks.

One lingering question with Zunino is his struggles in conference play, suggesting he's put most of his numbers up versus non-conference foes. He went 1-for-11 at Kentucky this past weekend, dropping to .320/.376/.629 for the year. In conference play Zunino enters next weekend's series versus Mississippi State batting .244/.314/.456 against the SEC, which on the surface might be telling. A deeper look, however, suggests Zunino has fared just fine against the best of competition.

• One fun race is the two top college bats after Zunino; Clemson's Richie Shaffer and Stanford's Stephen Piscotty. Shaffer has the advantage in performance and he has a shot to stick at third base. Most scouts see Piscotty moving to left field -- which is where he has played lately for the Cardinal -- but they love his strength and ability to let pitches get deep before he unleashes.

"For me," one national crosschecker explained, "Stephen has the [slightly better] bat going forward. He's strong, goes the other way and projects a bit more than Shaffer. Shaffer I can see as the better overall player, though. He's looked better at third base. Let's put it this way -- I've seen worse on big league clubs."

Both players are expected to be first round selections.

Versus "Friday" starters or those generally expected to be selected in the first two rounds or so come June 4-5, Zunino is batting .327/.389/.551, and that includes games facing LSU's Kevin Gausman, Georgia's Alex Wood and Arkansas' Ryne Stanek and D.J. Baxendale.

Conversations centered on Zunino almost always include the words "strength," "leadership" and "makeup," which probably keeps him in the top 5 regardless of his performance.

• It doesn't appear Florida's Nolan Fontana has any shot to catch Arizona State's Deven Marrero as the top college shortstop in the class. Neither player had a good weekend at the plate, but while Fontana has an advantage in 2012 performance, two crosscheckers hinted recently that the two players aren't all that close in talent.

On the mound

• The college arms race continues with the "big three" -- Stanford's Mark Appel, LSU's Kevin Gausman and San Francisco's Kyle Zimmer all failing to wow scouts in attendance Friday night, but pitching well enough to hold serve. The second tier, potentially led by Texas A&M right-hander Michael Wacha, is where more movement could take place.

Mississippi State's Chris Stratton tossed seven shutout innings at Alabama, striking out six and allowing seven hits without a base on balls. Oklahoma State Andrew Heaney went the distance versus Oklahoma, yielding three hits and a walk while fanning seven, The southpaw was efficient, too, needing just 106 pitches -- 74 strikes -- to put away the Sooners.

Heaney lacks the projectable body of Wacha and even Stratton as he measures at 6-foot-2 and 175 pounds. His present stuff, however, suggests a No. 2 or 3 starter, and he's likely a first-round pick. At this stage, Wacha looks like the fourth best college starter, followed by Heaney and then a combination of Stratton, Duke's Marcus Stroman, Florida's Brian Johnson and Georgia's Alex Wood. Missouri State's Pierce Johnson returned to the mound late in April and started Sunday, lasting six innings. He was out for three-plus weeks with a sore forearm but is back on the map and could threaten the first round.

Prep Notes

The buzz on the prep scene is that Harvard-Westlake right-hander Lucas Giolito, who started a throwing program last week, may be able to pitch from a mound for clubs prior to the draft and that the results of those sessions could catapult the flamethrower back into the conversation for the top five or six picks... There is one club in the National League that appears to prefer Giolito's teammate Max Fried over the top three college pitchers, and was among those impressed by the showing of infielder Carlos Correa in Puerto Rico last week. "Honestly, we don't know what we're doing," said the club's assistant GM. "We're going to let out [scouts] continue to compile information for us and then we'll come up with something by draft day. It's a long process and we're all looking forward to the final meetings."