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Team USA players to watch

Vanderbilt's Alvarez, Price top list of future stars

Posted: Friday August 4, 2006 1:36PM; Updated: Friday August 4, 2006 1:36PM
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Pedro Alvarez, a 14th-round draft pick by the Red Sox last year, has boosted his stock by playing at Vanderbilt.
Pedro Alvarez, a 14th-round draft pick by the Red Sox last year, has boosted his stock by playing at Vanderbilt.
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By Bryan Smith, Special to SI.com

Before Anna Benson stole the family's headlines, Kris was a hero for Team USA. Before Nomar Garciaparra and Jason Varitek were All-Star teammates in Beantown, they represented their country together. Some of the best images of a healthy Mark Prior came when the right-hander donned the red-white-and-blue.

Each summer, college baseball's best rising freshmen and sophomores gather to compete in a series of exhibition games against the world's top baseball talent. And while the U.S. didn't represent as hoped in the World Baseball Classic this spring, Team USA has been fantastic this summer, recently beating Japan in their long-standing series rivalry.

As Team USA heads to Cuba for the FISU World Championships this weekend, it's time to look at the players expected to represent the country in games with Taiwan, Puerto Rico and other countries at the tournament.

I've seen Team USA a handful of times this summer, and after making my own assumptions and hearing those of scouts, here is a list of the team's top 10 (plus one) prospects for the future. The players who just finished their sophomore seasons will be eligible to be drafted next June, while those coming off their first year with aluminum won't be joining the professional ranks until 2008.

1. Pedro Alvarez, 3B, Vanderbilt, freshman
Looking the part is important for any prospect, and Alvarez would have no problem fitting in in a big league clubhouse. His body is almost ready for pro baseball -- his lower half is as thick as some superstars', generating physical comparisons to Albert Pujols. Once his upper half catches up, many of the long fly balls Alvarez hit this summer should clear the fences. As a pro, Alvarez could be a serious home run threat.

Despite his big lower half, Alvarez moves well. His stolen base total puts him among the team leaders, and he plays good enough defense at third to project him there in the future. While Alvarez is swing-and-miss-prone, his strikeout numbers aren't too worrisome.

Alvarez reportedly was offered more than $1 million to sign with the Red Sox and skip out on Vanderbilt but declined. It was a good decision, because by all accounts he's the early favorite to be drafted first in 2008.

2. David Price, LHP, Vanderbilt, sophomore
At first glance, Price is not worthy of the hype he has generated so far (there has been talk of him being a top five pick). His delivery is very strange, with his long limbs seemingly everywhere. However, the unique arm action helps Price generate a fastball in the mid-90s with movement. The southpaw also can snap a plus slider, a pitch with little depth but fantastic 2-to-8 movement.

The organization that drafts Price will have to be patient, as he will need to make changes going forward. First, the lefty lives on the outside portion of the plate, rarely coming inside on a hitter. Second, many feel his delivery needs tweaking, though teams are always wary of tinkering with a pitcher's feel.

Naturally, as a fellow 6-foot-6 southpaw, Price will be compared to Andrew Miller (the 2006 draft's top prospect) next spring. In terms of fastball and projection, Price wins. In terms of breaking ball, third pitch and polish, he loses. Despite his shortcomings, Price is considered the best 2007 draft-eligible pitching prospect in the nation.

3. Jemile Weeks, 2B, Miami, freshman
Weeks' older brother, Rickie, plays for the Brewers. Can the Weeks family challenge the Uptons (B.J. and Justin) for supremacy in the coming decades? That wouldn't have been projected 12 months ago, when many scouts thought Jemile was riding his brother's coattails undeservingly. But Weeks may have pushed himself forward more than any other player on Team USA this summer. Despite his tiny 5-foot-9, 155-pound frame, Weeks displays power from both sides of the plate thanks to good hands and quick bat speed. He can fly on the bases but still must refine his basestealing instincts. In the field Weeks shows great potential, better than his brother, but must prove less mistake-prone going forward.

4. J.P. Arencibia, C, Tennessee, sophomore
After leading Team USA in hitting a year ago, Arencibia now leads the club with five home runs. A gifted hitter, he has power to all fields and a mature approach at the plate. While he could use more walks, his bat is expected to be a plus at the next level and will be able to handle the increased expectations. But Arencibia will likely face a position change, as his play behind the plate is quite poor. His weak arm may not be enough for the outfield, so he is likely looking at first base in the future.

5. Jake Arrieta, RHP, TCU, sophomore
Statistically, no other member of Team USA is enjoying better success. In four starts Arrieta has not allowed an earned run in 24 innings, giving up nine hits. However, what impresses scouts is Arrieta's body, a huge, 6-4, 225-pound frame that should support future innings-eating. But Arrieta will first have to gain better control of his fastball, currently 91-93 mph. The right-hander flashes a good slider out-pitch and signs of a change, which should help his draft stock. Expect a repeat effort of his huge sophomore season next year, despite pitching in one of the most difficult conferences for pitchers (Mountain West) in the country.

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