NCAA Monday: Checking in with the Champs

(A note: This week begins what I hope to become a weekly feature: college baseball on Mondays. During the season, we’ll recap how the top draft prospects fared during the weekend. But with Opening Day still three weeks away, we begin today with the top prospect in Division I.)

“He’s not just tall and has a good arm, you know,” Louisiana State head coach Paul Mainieri told me on the phone last week. Sometimes, the rest of what makes up 21-year-old Anthony Ranaudo tends to get lost in the fray. His success, as a pitcher-not-thrower, pitching on Friday nights for a national champion, can somehow be overshadowed by his “good arm.” A beast at 6-foot-7, 230 pounds, with a fastball that has touched 97 mph in the past, Ranaudo is what scouts dream of when they imagine a right-handed pitcher.

He will be drafted in the top five this June, Boras’ demands permitting, as a result of that frame, that arm, and yes, some of those pitching skills harnessed in Baton Rouge. His decision to attend college, one he made before the 2007 draft, was a calculated risk when it appeared he would not be drafted in the first round out of a New Jersey high school. Blame Rick Porcello’s sizable shadow, or blame a senior season that just couldn’t match the dominance of the previous year. But the calculated risk looked to be an epic mistake in 2008, when Ranaudo lost most of his season to elbow tendinitis. Fast forward 12 months, and his prospect status is higher than ever.

And while it’s hard to poke holes in a 12-3, 3.04 ERA season (not to mention the 6.73 H/9 or 11.51 K/9), it does seem as things could get better for Ranaudo this year. Another year removed from his elbow problems, we should see more consistency in velocity this season, as last year his fastball would dip into the 89-91 range at times. In the fall and early spring workouts, the healthy right-hander is back to his old mid-90s self. And to face left-handed hitters, who had some success against him last year, Ranaudo will be implementing his third pitch.

“We’re going to use the change-up a little more this year,” Mainieri said. “It was pretty good last year, we just didn’t throw it much. This fall it looked real good.”

Scouts are anxious to see it, as they didn’t get to see him last summer. Mainieri ruled that after never pitching more than 60 innings in a season before, the 124.1 innings logged during the Tigers’ championship run was enough for 2009. They shut him down for the summer, and limited his fall ball workout to five outings with a maximum of three innings. Before the season, they plan on three more intrasquad starts. And on February 19, against Centenary, Ranaudo will begin his final season in purple and gold. It will mark the first time he’s thrown to a non-teammate since winning the national championship on June 24.

The 2010 draft looks thinner on the college side than it has in a few years, but it’s not without a horse. More on Ranaudo every Monday in this space.

In my talk with Mainieri, three other players came up worth noting, all of whom I’ll run through quickly:

— While Bryce Harper (who made his junior college debut over the weekend) is the draft’s top catcher, Micah Gibbs is the most polished. The junior has shown a bit of every skill at LSU, including gap power (32 doubles in 412 at-bats), patience (69 walks) and plus defense. Mainieri quoted Gibbs’ ability to put all of them together, day in and day out, as his final hurdle before June.

— In terms of SportsCenter appearances, no player in college baseball has been as visible in two seasons as Leon Landry. In both 2008 and 2009, Landry made a Top Ten Play, showcasing his “70” defensive range. He also came out of the gate last season as the nation’s hottest hitter, but went cold at the onset of conference season and was benched by the postseason. “He just got a little homer happy and was pulling off the ball,” Mainieri said. The coach also pointed out that LSU faced “an inordinate amount of left-handers,” who Landry is still struggling against. Still, with an insane power-speed toolset, Landry won’t slip past the third round.

— I first became aware of Blake Dean in August, 2007, when I ranked him as a top freshman prospect in the Cape Cod League, “A nice left-handed swing with good bat control, and a good outfielder,” I wrote. Well, I was wrong with the latter point, as Dean quickly became the Tigers’ Designated Hitter. But he did slug, and has been one of the nation’s top hitters for two seasons, hitting .340/.432/.628 in his sophomore and junior seasons. The coaches finally have a position for Dean, for his final season in Baton Rouge: first base. “This was always his natural position, he just never knew it,” Mainieri said. Expect him to go higher than the 10th round (where he was drafted last June) this time around.

We hoped you liked reading NCAA Monday: Checking in with the Champs by Bryan Smith!

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Jeff Reese

Excellent! The more college baseball coverage, the better. I assume you’re just going to be focusing on 2010 prospects as Mikie Mahtook didn’t get a mention?