By Eric Longenhagen
The College World Series has moved on from regional play to the main stage of Omaha, Neb., where a champion will be decided over the next week. The dual double-elimination style tournament features some terrific MLB prospects, but also some young men who have one last shot at glory before they begin non-baseball careers. Here is a hitter and pitcher from each team still in participation (as of Tuesday) that I feel deserve your attention.
The Bat: Few players in the tournament can hold a candle to the explosive skillset of UC Irvine third baseman Taylor Sparks. Sparks, who was selected in the second round of the MLB amateur draft by the Cincinnati Reds, has above-average arm strength, running speed and power. His explosive pop is at a premium in the Anteater lineup as Sparks hit five of the team's twelve total home runs this season and is one of only two Eaters with a slugging percentage over .356 (he slugged .518). Sparks' plus power is the sort of thunder needed if you're going to hit a ball out at Omaha, which is a notoriously difficult hitting environment.
The Arm: Little righty Andrew Morales is a two-time All American who struck out more hitters this year than Aaron Nola, Jake Stinnett, Brandon Finnegan and Kyle Freeland. There's some spinal tilt in his delivery which facilitates a more vertical arm angle, allowing Morales to get on top of his pitches better and mitigate some of the deficiencies that come with being just six feet tall. His resume is much more impressive than his stuff.
The Bat: The most dangerous offensive weapon in the Commodore lineup is infielder Dansby Swanson, who went 3-for-5 Monday to keep Vandy in the winner's bracket. Swanson's line is universally impressive but looks even better when you consider that he's only a sophomore. He hit .336/.414/.484 this season, walked nearly as much as he struck out, led the team in doubles and steals (he was an efficient 19 of 24). He also plays a damn fine second base and, assuming junior shortstop Vince Conde signs with the Yankees, Swanson will move to short next year when he'll be a potential first round pick.
The Arm: It has to be Tyler Beede. The enigmatic right-hander (who the San Francisco Giants picked in the first round of the draft) pitches in the low to mid-90s with a changeup that will flash plus and a curveball that will show above average. It's serious stuff, the kind of arsenal that can mow through a college lineup with ease, but Beede has extreme difficulty harnessing it and is a disastrous mess just as often as he is dominant, as was on display Monday against UC Irvine when he hit three batters and walked three more in four innings of work.
The Bat: Sophomore center fielder Ben Johnson had pretty ambitious two-sport aspirations coming out of Westwood High School in Texas where he earned All State honorable mention his senior year at quarterback. He's taken full time to baseball, hitting .270/.344/.421 while finishing second on the squad in total bases and stealing 21 bases in 21 attempts.
The Arm: Lefty Dillon Peters* doesn't strike out too many hitters but induces all kinds of weak contact thanks primarily to a fastball in the 88-91 mph range that he can sink and cut at will. His upper-70s curveball and changeup are also useful pitches. With Nate Thornhill and Parker French the 1-2 punch in Texas, it will be interesting to see where coach Auggie Garrido deploys Peters.
*Edit note: After this piece was published, Peters was diagnosed with an injury that will keep him out of the postseason. The following scouting report has since been added...
Red shirt sophomore John Curtiss has a big frame and good stuff but injury issues have relegated him to the bullpen. The Twins selected him in the sixth round of the draft and he has yet to sign. Curtiss could opt to stay in school and improve his stock by pitching in Texas' rotation next year and showing clubs that he has a shot to make it as a starter in pro ball. He'll have to work in a changeup to go along with the mid-90s fastball/slider combination he's using now.
The Bat: Massive slugging first baseman Kevin Cron is an imposing human being at 6-foot-5, 245 lbs. With that physicality comes the kind of raw power that will play in Omaha, even if it isn't the kind of power Cron showed coming out of high school. The Horned Frogs need some punch to their lineup after slugging just .357 as a team this year. Cron, the Diamondbacks' 14th round selection, will be relied upon to provide a good portion of it. I expect him to see a heavy dose of breaking balls.
The Arm: Brandon Finnegan (the Kansas City Royals' first round draft pick) is perhaps the best all-around arm in the entire tournament (Beede's pro ceiling is higher but I like where Finnegan is right now in comparison) sitting 93-95mph with his fastball, and spinning in a low-80s slurve that's going to get some swings and misses. Finnegan's changeup is a work in progress from a developmental standpoint but he pretty much maintains his fastball arm speed when he throws it so he'll likely get plenty of weak, front-footed swings from hitters cheating on heat.
The Bat: This is the best lineup in the country and features a bunch of big-time prospect sluggers that I've seen all the way back since their high school days in Pennsylvania -- so naturally I'm going to tell you about the light-hitting, Canadian shortstop. Freshman Daniel Pinero is a stunningly bizarre player to scout. Most scouts will tell you that a player his size (6-foot-5, 200 lbs) is going to rapidly fill out and get too big to play shortstop any longer. Pinero, however, is so smooth and graceful that he might be able to stick if he can grow into some arm strength. He's hitting a paltry .263/.382/.290 this season but there is plenty of stick in the Wahoo lineup to score runs. Pinero's defense at short, which was good enough to force Brandon Cogswell to move to second, will be a big deal in an offensive environment that is just begging for defensive misplays to provide opportunities for precious runs.
The Arm: There's top of the draft buzz surrounding lefty Nathan Kirby who posted a 1.70 ERA this year and struck out 108 hitters in 111 innings as a sophomore. I watched him duel Jeff Hoffman in February and came away impressed, albeit not to the point where I thought he'd be in the conversation for a top five pick next year. He sat at 87-90 mph and touched 92 with run and a loopy, upper 70s curveball and low 80s straight change. He looked like a future backend starter. The fastball has added some velocity since then.
The Bat: Another underclassman, sophomore first baseman Eric Gutierrez does not look the part of a 12 home run hitting, pull-side mashing, middle of the order bat. He's just 5-foot-10, 190lbs. But he's one of two Red Raider hitters to post double digit homers this year. There's a lot of leverage in the swing and, like the other big time power bats we'll see over the next week, it will be fascinating to see how the power translates to TD Ameritrade Park.
The Arm: Chris Sadberry (drafted in the sixth round by the Marlins this year) is the horse of the staff, but the more fascinating name (at least skill-wise, not surname-wise) is big sophomore righty Matt Withrow. Withrow struck out 42 hitters in 36.2 innings this spring but still posted a 5.65 ERA thanks to poor command and control. He may not have an impact on the Red Raiders' fortunes because he's far too volatile to trust in this venue, but if he comes in to mop up at some point, don't change the channel. You're going to want to see if the stuff is as good as the raw strikeout totals indicate. If it is, someone will try to fix him.
The Bat: Senior catcher Will Allen is the team's best hitter and provides all of those mouth-watering intangibles the talking heads like to mention on TV. After dropping their first round game to Virginia, Mississippi will have to see them again at some point if they hope to advance. UVA slugger Mike Papi (who was selected 38th overall in the draft by the Cleveland Indians) went 2-4 with a double in Game 1, so it will be interesting to see what adjustments Allen and pitching staff make should the rematch happen.
The Arm: Chris Ellis (selected in the third round by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim) was one of the more projectable college arms in the draft at 6-foot-5 and just 205 lbs, which means he might have more future juice to his already plus fastball. The heater sits in the low 90s and will naturally cut when he throws it to his glove side. His changeup is good enough to keep the big lefty bats in his bracket at bay.
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Eric Longenhagen hails from Catasauqua, PA and has been working in various baseball capacities since his freshman year of college in 2007, including work in the minor leagues, at Baseball Info Solutions and most recently scouting and writing for CrashburnAlley.com and ProspectInsider.com.