Editor's note: This is one in a series of stories on players who scouts say could be selected in the first round of the first-year player draft on Tuesday.
Maybe college pitching was so good this year that the hitters lost confidence. Or maybe they got bored standing in the field while opponents swung and missed. Whatever the reason, the top echelon of college position players is thin. Only North Carolina slugger Dustin Ackley and USC shortstop Grant Green are early first-round talents, and Green could slide because he underachieved most of the season.
The most pitchers taken in the first round was 20 in 2001, a record that could be shattered this year. Most teams not in the market for a college pitcher plan to test the high school waters before dipping into the shallow pool of college position players.
A handful of college outfielders with an uneven mix of outstanding tools and noticeable flaws should be sorted through by the end of the first round, with a couple of them falling into the compensation picks that precede Round 2. Otherwise, maybe a catcher here and a power bat there might be taken, but the number of first-round college position players could be as low as three.
Dustin Ackley, 1B/OF, North Carolina: With a quiet demeanor and flawless left-handed swing, Ackley has drawn comparisons to Chase Utley(notes) and Joe Mauer(notes). The Seattle Mariners pick second, so after the Washington Nationals take Stephen Strasburg, new GM Jack Zduriencik will face a tough decision: Take nearly big league-ready pitcher Aaron Crow of Missouri or Ackley. At least that should be the Mariners' choice – if not, they are in danger of blowing the pick. The only caution with Ackley is that he is recovering from elbow surgery, which relegated him to first base duty this season. If his arm comes back strong, he could move to center field, or even second base. Ackley has exceptional patience at the plate, rarely swings and misses, and his power is developing nicely. He batted over .400 during his Tar Heel career and hit .415 in the wood-bat Cape Cod League last summer. Like Strasburg, Ackley is represented by Scott Boras and his contract could lift in Strasburg's updraft.
Grant Green, SS, USC: Green entered the season vying to be the No. 2 pick behind Strasburg. But he struggled mightily with the bat and the glove the first half of the season, and he slid down draft boards as teams decided they'd rather take a college or high school pitcher than gamble on Green. As he struggled, Green also exhibited some mental weakness, becoming angry with himself and letting mistakes carry over into the next at-bat or inning. Yet when all was said and done, he batted .365 with 23 extra-base hits and 14 stolen bases, so it appears that he will hit just fine in pro ball. Green throws and runs well, making him a five-tool player at a premium position. That alone should get him drafted by the middle of the first round.
A.J. Pollock, OF, Notre Dame: Smart, mature and polished, Pollock could make his way onto a big league roster sooner than most prospects. Yet he doesn't do anything extremely well. He can run decently, has occasional power and an average arm. Perhaps his best attribute is that he doesn't do anything poorly. Supposedly the Cubs are infatuated with Notre Dame products and could snap up Pollock with the 31st pick, but not if any of the most attractive pitchers remain available.
Tony Sanchez, C, Boston College: An offseason spent working in the weight room paid off for Sanchez, who turned fat into muscle and has enjoyed an outstanding junior year. Translation: He's gone from a second-to-third round pick to a late first-rounder, and he could be the first catcher taken. One suitor might be the nearby Boston Red Sox. Sanchez is a defense-first catcher who throws accurately and calls a good game. He has shown some power at Boston College, but scouts are split on whether it will translate to the wood bat.
Rich Poythress, 1B, Georgia: A big, powerful first baseman has to put up prodigious numbers to gain first-round attention. Although the 6-foot-4, 245-pound Poythress was the most feared hitter in the SEC with 25 home runs in 2009 and 15 in 2008, he struggled on Friday nights, meaning against the better pitchers. He bats and fields right-handed, isn't especially mobile around the bag and can't run a lick, so that power bat will carry him wherever he might go. It's true that un-enhanced power hitters are tough to come by these days, so Poythress's pop might get him picked late in the first round.
Jared Mitchell, OF, LSU: All promise, no polish. Mitchell is a wide receiver on the LSU football team and the center fielder on the baseball team, split duties that have taken a toll on his ability to consistently make contact with the bat. Speed and athleticism are his greatest attributes, and he has those in first-round abundance. Whether he is picked that early will depend on whether a team believes his hitting will improve when he starts playing baseball year-around.
Tim Wheeler, OF, Sacramento State: Tall, rangy and fast, the left-handed hitting Wheeler projects well as a major league center fielder. He has 18 home runs this season but some scouts don't feel his power will translate well to pro ball. That's not to say he's a poor hitter; Wheeler uses all fields and covers his large strike zone well. The Athletics, White Sox and Rockies have shown interest in him, making him a likely first-round pick.
Brett Jackson, OF, California: A Nate McLouth(notes) type who has reasonable speed and reasonable power but not an abundance of either, Jackson could slip into the first round because of the paucity of strong college hitters. Jackson batted leadoff for Cal but doesn't necessarily project as a leadoff hitter. It's also unclear whether he'll have the range to play center field in the major leaguers. If he fills out and slows down, he might become a right fielder batting in the middle of the lineup. If he remains lean and swift, he could remain a top-of-the-order hitter.
- Dustin Ackley
- Grant Green