COMPTON, Calif.—Sammy Ayala impressed scouts last June at a showcase event at San Diego State, but many scouts had to wait until this weekend to get another look at him. Ayala is not a darling of showcases or scout ball because he played defensive end for La Jolla Country Day's football team.
Ayala, a UC Santa Barbara recruit, burst back onto the baseball prospect landscape in a big way at Saturday's Southern California Invitational at the Major League Baseball Urban Youth Academy. In his first at-bat, the lefthanded-hitting Ayala ripped a hard line drive to center field against lefthander Max Fried—a potential first-round pick. The ball got by the center fielder and reached the wall, allowing Ayala to motor around the bases for an inside-the-park home run.
Ayala followed with an opposite-field RBI single later in the game against righthander Andrew Potter (shown in the video below). And the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Ayala did a solid job receiving and blocking behind the plate. Scouts came away buzzing that Ayala's performance was one of the big stories of the event.
"He's a big, strong-bodied lefthanded guy with some power and some arm strength," said an American League area scout who was in Compton. "He held his own catching; he did enough back there to be in the conversation with the other catchers there. He showed no fear against those guys—he looked like he belonged. And he made hard contact."
Of course, Fried and his Harvard-Westlake High teammate Lucas Giolito looked strong as usual, though Giolito was not as electric as he often was this fall. He topped out at 95 and did not show the plus-plus curveball that some evaluators saw in the fall. "Giolito wasn't very special; 93-95 is almost pedestrian for him," a second AL area scout said.
Fried did have his best stuff, working at 91-94 and mixing in a wipeout 77 mph curveball. In fact, most of Southern California's top prep prospects—with the exception of third baseman Trey Williams, who struck out twice and grounded out twice—showed well Saturday, leaving scouts feeling optimistic about the 2012 draft class after many of them were disappointed with the 2011 high school haul.
"That's kind of how it goes in Southern California: There's a down year, and the next year is big," the first scout said.
More notable than the performances of the established top-tier prospects, several players improved their standing in the eyes of the scouts we surveyed, in addition to Ayala. Some of those who took steps forward:
• Lakewood righthander Shane Watson ranked 47th on our most recent high school Top 100 prospects list, but he has positive momentum, and one scout said he is beginning to force his way into the discussion of top arms in the region, along with Giolito and Fried. A couple of scouts said Watson has been up to 95-96 in recent outings leading up to Saturday, when he worked easily at 91-93 with a plus 79-80 mph curveball. The Southern California commit struck out three using that filthy curveball in his inning of work Saturday. Scouts love Watson's 6-foot-4, 200-pound frame and ability to throw quality strikes down in the zone.
"I really like him—I think he's exceptional," the second area scout said. "He's got a true 60 curveball, and it shows up every day. I think he was one of the most impressive guys, easily."
• Edison High middle infielder Timmy Lopes had a big day, delivering RBI singles up the middle and into left field. He also showed good range and actions as well as a solid-average arm at shortstop, and he recorded one of the day's better 60-yard dash times (ranging from 6.65 to 6.90 seconds, depending on which scout you ask). At 5-foot-10, 170 pounds, Lopes has a rather thick lower half but is more athletic than he looks. He lacks the power potential of older brother Christian—who signed for $800,000 as a seventh-round pick by the Blue Jays last year—and scouts are divided on whether or not he has a chance to stick at shortstop, but his performance Saturday was encouraging.
"I think the guy that probably made the biggest jump, even though it's early, was probably Lopes," a National League scouting director said. "I think he's a better player than his brother. He ran pretty good, did pretty good at short, had some good at-bats and a good BP. He did a little bit of everything. I think he showed he's a real legit guy, and I do think he stays at shortstop. I don't think he's flashy, but I think he's solid.
"I don't think Lopes was a famous name, if you will, coming in. But now Lopes has said, 'Hey, come watch me.' I don't remember seeing him after Area Codes—maybe I did, maybe I didn't. But I will remember him after Saturday."
The area scouts also liked the way Lopes performed but were more reserved in their praise for him, citing his lack of standout tools and his body. If he winds up honoring his commitment to UC Irvine, Lopes will be an impact college player with a chance to boost his stock in three years.
• Mission Viejo righthander Kieran Lovegrove showed the kind of quality three-pitch mix he flashed early last summer, before he tired out in the fall. The Arizona State signee sat at 92-94 mph and showed a swing-and-miss 83-85 slider and a nice 82-84 changeup. Lovegrove has a crossfire delivery that creates a bit of deception, as he is a short strider and finishes toward the first base side. He struck out three and recorded a groundout in his inning of work Saturday. Scouts question the durability of Lovegrove's lean 6-4, 185-pound frame, so the key for him will be maintaining his stuff throughout the spring.
"He did look pretty sharp—it's just a matter of putting together more than one-inning looks," the first area scout said. "He doesn't have a history of strike-throwing, but he did it at the right time, for sure—he threw strikes and showed stuff."
• At 5-foot-10, 160 pounds, Bonita High righty Justin Garza attracted minimal interest from colleges until Cal State Fullerton snatched him up toward the end of the recruiting cycle. The Titans figure to be glad they did, because Garza's size suggests he'll probably find his way to campus, and his electric arm suggests he could be a big star. Garza was dominant on Saturday, pounding the bottom of the zone with 92-94 mph heat and a tight 78-80 mph breaking ball with solid two-plane movement.
"He might be the guy that jumped out the most," the second area scout said. "People may have poo-pooed him at 5-10, 160 pounds, but when you watch him, he actually had less effort than some of the bigger guys. He was up to 94 with a curveball and threw strikes, and it's not high effort for a small-framed guy. He's the best college recruit out there for me—period. I could say Giolito is the best recruit in the country, but he's not. The best recruit in the country is a guy who has a chance to get to school, which he does because he's small."
• There was no shortage of quality arms in Compton, and many of them showed good present stuff. A couple of pitchers stood out more for their frames and projectability than their stuff, including El Dorado High lefthander Kyle Twomey and San Juan Hills righty Jake Pintar.
The 6-foot-4, 165-pound Twomey, another USC commit, sat at 88-89 and mixed in a sweepy 69-70 curveball and a promising change.
"I thought he separated himself a little bit," the NL scouting director said. "He needs to get a little more physical, but he showed feel for three pitches and threw strikes."
The 6-foot-7, 205-pound Pintar worked in the 85-89 mph range and added a loopy 71-74 mph curveball. However, he has minimal effort in his delivery and lots of room to fill out in the lower body. Three years of development and maturity could do wonders for him.
• There were a few intriguing quick-twitch outfielders on display as well, like switch-hitting center fielder Andrew Calica and righthanded-hitting Tyrone Taylor.
"Calica's a performer, like Lopes," the second area scout said. "He's a fun kid who plays hard, making the diving catches out there. He keeps those hands in, but he swings out of his ass a little bit, but he gets the bat on the ball.
"Taylor is an athlete—I think he's a good player. A guy that runs a 6.75 (in the 60) with his tools and actions, he fits."
Offensively, Taylor displays a compact line-drive swing, and he barreled balls to all fields during batting practice. The Fullerton commit could have a bright future as an on-base-oriented slasher with the ability to be a premium defender.
• Upland shortstop/third baseman Daniel Robertson, a UCLA signee, already has established himself as a prospect for the 2012 draft, ranking No. 36 on BA's most recent high school Top 100. He didn't make as much noise Saturday as some of the players listed above, but he impressed with his solid all-around tools package.
"I think he can be a legit major league player," the NL scouting director said. "He doesn't do anything great, but he does a lot of things well. I think he's got rhythm to his actions, defensively and in the batter's box. He's got good body control. It's not electric—not 'Wow!'—but all his tools are good, and he's a baseball player on top of it. He helped himself out as well."
Contributing: Tim Ednoff
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