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CARY, N.C.—While the 100-plus scouts at the USA Baseball National High School Invitational are primarily in town to see prospects eligible for the 2013 draft, it doesn't hurt that they catch glimpses of outstanding underclassmen too. Events like the NHSI are perfect for the younger stars to put their names on the prospect map. Scouts noticed Mater Dei High (Santa Ana, Calif.) third baseman Ryan McMahon when he had a breakout performance at the 2012 NHSI and he is now a potential early-round pick. The second installment of the NHSI kicked off Wednesday and it wasn't long before a couple juniors displayed their future potential.
Righthander Dylan Cease of Milton (Ga.) High was the Eagles' starter in the first round with their ace, righty Matt Phillips, unavailable. He was reportedly up to 97 mph recently and came out firing gas immediately in his start. He stands at lanky and projectable 6-foot-2, 175 pounds. His delivery is extremely loose and has little effort. In the first two innings his fastball ranged from 91-95 mph, sitting mostly 92-93. His curveball sat in the mid 70s and was slurvy early, but he showed an ability to spin it as it got sharper as his outing progressed. He also flashed a straight changeup in the high 70s that had good deception. There is some rawness to his game and he got a little wild at times, but the upside is obvious.
"The sky is the limit for him talent wise," Milton head coach Joey Ray said. "Everything he does is so loose and effortless. He definitely still makes mistakes. He's young and learning every day. The one thing that has always made me excited since he was a freshman is the willingness and eagerness to want to get better. Even when our pitching coach is hollering at him, Dylan is looking at him and soaking it in. He wants to get better. He's not satisfied where he is with his talent. He wants the coaching to go along with it."
Cease worked 4 2/3 innings, allowing two runs (one earned) on four hits and four walks. He struck out five, hit a batter and threw roughly 50 percent of his pitches for strikes.
"Today he definitely didn't have his best stuff," Ray said. "He was a little under the weather when he woke up, but that's part of life. I was really proud of him for competing the way he did and not having his best stuff. That's what makes a good pitcher, being able to compete when your stuff isn't at its best. Definitely did a good job, fighting through a little adversity with not feeling well. Hamilton did a great job of making him throw pitches. His pitch count was at 60 through three innings. That's way higher than he's used to. He's to working 10-12 pitch innings."
Cease also plays the field for Milton and went 3-for-3, scoring what proved to be the winning run against Hamilton High (Chandler, Ariz.) on a base hit by his twin brother Alec.
Last year's storyline for Harvard-Westlake High (Studio City, Calif.) was its pair of aces—righthander Lucas Giolito and lefthander Max Fried—despite Giolito's season ending in March with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament that eventually led to Tommy John surgery. Scouts are plenty familiar with Harvard-Westlake from their trips to see those two, so many of them got a chance to see Jack Flaherty hit and play the field as a sophomore, but he deserves some looks on the mound too.
An excellent athlete, Flaherty jumps out physically with a 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame with broad shoulders, lean limbs and a tapered waist. He has exhibited outstanding body control this week. At a practice on Monday at North Carolina, he spun and bare-handed an errant toss at third base. Late in his outing today—as a righthander he falls off to the first-base side of the mound—an opposing batter hit a ball hard back up the middle, behind Flaherty. He spun back, snared the shot to and made the easy toss to first for the out.
"Fielding his position isn't a problem obviously," Harvard-Westlake head coach Matt LaCour said. "His poise on the mound is exceptional. Defensively, he can do it at multiple positions so he's a freak athlete. You just sit back and watch and let him do his thing."
Flaherty had a first-round start in last year's NHSI against Russell County High (Seale, Ala.) and returned to the hill in the first round on Wednesday, this time facing Eustis (Fla.) High. He simply dominated, pitching a complete game shutout and allowing two hits while striking out 13 and walking none. His fastball sat mostly in the mid 80s and ran up to 87-88. He used a mid-70s changeup sparingly and has a developing curveball that ranges from 69-71. His slider, an added pitch since a year ago, is his best secondary weapon right now and sits in the mid 70s.
"His slider is his biggest pitch now that he's added to his arsenal," LaCour said. "Last year he was a three-pitch guy and didn't really have a slider. He was curveball, changeup, fastball. This year adding the slider, which was really a swing-and-miss pitch today, that's four pitches for a strike.
"You couple all that with a guy that can command his fastball to both sides of the plate, he's made huge progress."
There's obviously time to figure it out, but Flaherty has the potential to be an exceptional player on both sides of the ball because of his athleticism. He is still learning his body as he has grown since last year so he is working to be more consistent with his swing. But LaCour says everything else is in place. He has a good approach and is mentally sound. Now it's a matter of tapping into a more aggressive nature and finding consistency.
Harvard-Westlake and North Carolina, where Flaherty is verbally committed, can benefit from him being a two-way threat, but the older he gets, the more the question will come up: Is he a hitter or a pitcher?
"He's got to be a position player first," LaCour said. "There's too much athleticism for me. He reminds me of Trevor Plouffe back in the day, a little bit. I think he's a little better on the mound than Plouffe was. The velocity is the thing. How much of a jump in velocity would we see if we just concentrated on pitching? I believe it's a significant number. But when he's playing shortstop and third base and doing everything he's doing, it's hard to get on a structured arm strengthening program that we like to do with our pitchers. Maybe that's something somebody finds out some day. Maybe they don't have to because he's so athletic and ends up playing a position."