California Dreaming

FULLERTON, Calif.–The first day of a busy week in Southern California is winding down. I’m at the nightcap of the first round of the Phil Nevin National Classic, where Riverside High (Greer, S.C.) and Esperanza (Calif.) High are tied at 2 after one inning at Goodwin Field on the campus of Cal State Fullerton.

The National Classic is a 16-team tournament held today through Thursday, and the Anaheim Lions Easter tournament is also being played here in Orange County this week. We’ve got 47 high school teams from California and five other states playing from sunup to well after sundown, all in a 20 mile radius. Is this heaven?

Both of these two teams were ranked nationally in the Baseball America/National High School Baseball Coaches Association Top 50 poll this spring, two of 10 ranked teams in the fields for these two events.

I wrote at length last summer, fall and in our Early Draft Preview about the abundance of hitters in Southern California this season, and many of them are playing this week.

The fireworks began early this afternoon when Lakewood (Calif.) High took on Fullerton High at Glover Stadium. It’s been a productive senior campaign thus far for Lakewood catcher Travis d’Arnaud, as his stock has improved exponentially since opening the season ranked No. 66 among high school seniors.

His best assets are agility, savvy and arm strength behind the plate but this spring d’Arnaud’s bat has also begun to blossom. He stroked the second pitch he saw for a two-run home run 20-rows deep into the bleachers in left-center field, and collected two more hits in Lakewood’s win over Fullerton.

The younger brother of Pepperdine sophomore third baseman Chase d’Arnaud, Travis has a feel for hitting, adequate bat speed and leverage to his swing. He wasn’t his sharpest behind the plate, but it’s evident that the game comes easily to him, and he has shown above-average catch and throw skills in the past.

He’s surpassed Florida slugger Danny Rams among catching prospects, and could be drafted in the top three rounds, depending on his signability. He has committed to Pepperdine.

I hustled across town to Cypress High for another glimpse at a prep catching prospect, Austin Romine of El Toro High (Lake Forest, Calif.) in a matchup with the best high school hitter in the country, Cypress senior third baseman Josh Vitters.

Romine has been a prominent name in scouting circles for many years. He’s big and strong, with outstanding arm strength. Cypress tested him, and he threw our three runners with pop times as low as 2.02 seconds from home to second base. He lacks d’Arnaud’s nimbleness and soft hands, but he showed a lot of energy behind the plate and the arm strength is undeniable. His exchanges and foot work are playable. Romine has an unorthodox setup at the plate. He didn’t make consistent hard contact, but showed solid-average bat speed on a couple of swings.

Vitters, meanwhile, is still recovering from a bout with pneumonia that has sapped him of some strength. He looks like he’s lost at least 10 pounds since I last saw him in Jupiter, Fla., in late October.

That just makes him that much more intriguing, as he collected three hits, including a home run in El Toro’s come-from-behind, extra-inning victory, which was aided by some shaky relief pitching.

Back over at Glover, arguably the most exciting high school team in the country teed it up, and like Cypress, Wilson High of Long Beach saw a late lead slip away in a loss 7-4 defeat to Thousand Oaks.

Wilson’s Ryan Dent had a pair of hits and created his customary havoc on the basepaths, but there are going to be some teams that might not warm up to his offensive package as quickly as that of other top hitters in this class. If Dent improves his plate discipline and learns to stay back on the ball, he has a chance to be an impact player. I think it will be as a second baseman or center fielder, as his actions and arm don’t play in the big leagues at shortstop.

Esperanza has taken a 4-3 to the sixth. Senior catcher Parker Berberet has smoked the ball all three times up. I’m told he has not made a college commitment. That should change. This Esperanza team is fun to watch . . . and it’s tough not to be giddy in anticipation of the week ahead. We’ve got a handful of high-profile pitchers slated to toe the rubber Tuesday, including Poly High (Riverside, Calif.) senior righthander Kyle O’Campo, Cottonwood High (Salt Lake City) senior lefty Tanner Robles and junior righthander Ryan O’Sullivan (Valhalla High, El Cajon, Calif.).

Junior lefthander Scott Silverstein struck out 15 tonight in St. John’s High’s (Washington, D.C.) 5-0 win over Newbury Park (Calif.) High. He’s got impressive arm strength and overpowering stuff.

For more, you can follow the National Classic at its website: http://www.national-classic.com/schedule.html.

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