Prep Class Begins To Display Depth

Scouts take closer look at week-long wood bat event




MARIETTA, Ga.--Garrison Lassiter stood on second base, hands on his knees. The rising senior shortstop from West Forsyth High (Clemmons, N.C.) had just collected another hit, this time off Tim Melville, and he was putting the finishing touches on an outstanding week at the World Wood Bat Association 17-and-under summer championship in suburban Atlanta.

As Lassiter took his lead, he didn't pause to reflect on what he had just accomplished, but the college coaches and scouts who flock to Georgia each summer to cover the event took notice, scribbling a sentence about Lassiter's swing in their program, or perhaps just making a mental note.

It's at events such as these where pro scouts and college recruiters can begin to put into context a player's ability. Many of them have been to high school games, showcases and tournaments to identify the players. At this stage of the summer, gauging just how much present ability and future potential exists is the order at hand for the men who will appraise the player's value with a scholarship offer or signing bonus.

"A lot of time is spent finding and identifying, but now I'm watching specific individuals and trying to further the look," said a scout with an American League team. "Not just watch the tools, but the application of the tools--the playability and the pitchability."

While Melville, a rising senior from Holt High (Wentzville, Mo.), and his Richmond Braves got the best of Lassiter's Dirtbags during this quarterfinal playoff game, the setting was the perfect example of the value in attending the six-day tournament that included 148 teams and more than 2,200 players from across the U.S. and Canada.

Melville was a member of the 2005 youth national team that won a silver medal at the World Youth Championships in Mexico, and he pitched his way onto the '07 U.S. junior trials roster earlier this summer, thanks to a low-90s fastball and good control. He is already a name atop 30 major league follow lists, but in Marietta, Melville left his reputation on paper and went out to prove he was more than a two-inning flame thrower, but a prospect with instincts and the necessary intangibles to complete the package.

Lassiter's double was one of four hits Melville allowed in four shutout innings against one of the tournament's grittiest lineups. His velocity ranged from 86-94 mph, he showed feel for two secondary pitches and when the 6-foot-5, 205-pounder made an acrobatic assist on a well-placed drag bunt, his point was proven.

"I came out of there pretty impressed with some of the things this guy can do," a scout said. "You have to realize he played a full game at shortstop a few hours earlier and pitched an inning the day before. I didn't expect him to have his top velocity.

"I saw makeup, athletic ability, competitiveness, advanced ability to work hitters . . . I came out of there with a lot of positives."

Arms Race

While the rising senior class is heavy in arms and thin in position player prospects, Lassiter was one of a handful of everyday players from the Class of 2008 to improve their standing in the minds of the evaluators in attendance in Marietta. Melville, who allowed one earned run in nine innings on the mound and went 16-for-27 at the plate, left with the designation as one of the best overall prospects in attendance, as well as co-MVP honors. Lassiter left with rare bragging rights, as he had laced an RBI double off of Bubba Meyer, another premium righthanded pitching prospect, less than 24 hours after solving Melville.

When asked who the best pitcher he'd faced so far this summer, between stops at major showcases and tournaments, Lassiter rattled off a handful of names but ultimately, like his no-frills approach on the field, the talented lefthanded hitter spewed off the obligatory, "I just try to put the fat part of the bat on the ball, no matter who I'm facing."

But even if Lassiter wasn't taking sides, scouts will spend plenty of time debating which of the deep crop of prep pitching prospects is the best. Melville, along with Tennessee's Sonny Gray, are the two most athletic players of the group, while Meyer's two performances in Marietta may have moved him to the top of the heap based on his projection.

A gangly 6-foot-7, 200 pounds, Meyer made quite an impression early the morning of the event's second day when he pitched at 91 mph for two innings during a heavy downpour on one of the back fields. His hard, downer curveball was up to 82 mph, and he maintained his balance and repeated his delivery despite pitching on a mound that resembled a mudslide by his second inning.

On a clear afternoon two days later in his matchup with Lassiter and the Dirtbags, Meyer bumped 95, solidifying his place atop follow lists.

"It's not picture-perfect--he's got a lot of elbows and kneecaps coming at you--but he's obviously got a lot of coordination to be able to throw strikes the way he did," said a scout with a National League club. "I think the breaking ball is a curve, even though it's hard in the low-80s. It's a real bastard (pitch)."

"Sure, right now you have to like Melville more," said a second NL scout. "But what about down the road? Do you think Meyer might have more upside?"

Four additional rising senior pitchers that might force their way into the argument who threw well in Marietta were Lassiter's teammates, Mac Williamson and Steven Upchurch, and Nick Maronde and Bobby Bundy.

Williamson was known primarily as a catcher prior to his junior year at Wake Forest-Rolesville High (Wake Forest, N.C.), and even made the 2006 youth national team as a position player last summer. But he's turned his focus to the mound, and his development has occurred practically overnight. He pitched near 89 mph at Perfect Game's National Showcase in Cincinnati in June, bumped the same mark a week later at USA Baseball's Tournament of Stars, but was blowing 92-94 mph gas in Marietta.

"He might have been the guy who wasn't on my list in the first two rounds (of the draft) coming in, but after that he might be in there," a scout with an AL team said. "It's just a natural progression. The fact that he held up with that velocity in a game setting, when most guys are down from their one- or two-inning blowout showcase velocities, was impressive. He moved up my list."

Another righty, Upchurch (Faith Academy, Mobile, Ala.) doesn't do it as effortlessly as Williamson, but he, too, has three potential plus offerings in his 75-77 mph changeup, 74 mph curve and 89-91 mph fastball that showed plus sink at times.

Maronde is a lefthander from Lexington (Ky.) Catholic High who has been among the most consistent performers on the circuit this summer. He has a deceptive delivery and a somewhat unorthodox arm action, but he repeats it, pounds the zone with three pitches and dialed his fastball up to 92, drawing comparisons to, "Kenny Rogers, but with velocity," according to one scout.

Several players among the Texas/Oklahoma contingent in attendance made strong showings, and after a draft year that was considered somewhat lackluster by Lone Star State standards, the high school talent from the state is enticing for '08. Bundy (Sperry, Okla., High) made a push into the region's upper echelon with a scintillating outing for Dallas-Bat's top travel team. Like Upchurch's fastball, Bundy's sat near 91 mph, and it showed hard bore, running in on the fists of righthanders, shattering a handful of wood bats in what had to have been one of the more expensive outings of the tournament--for the opposition.

Bundy and teammates, lefty Teddy Nowell (Poteet High, Mesquite, Texas), righty Matt Thompson (Grace Prep, Arlington, Texas), infielders Brandon Loy (Rowlett, Texas, High) and Kale Kiser (West High, Plano), catcher Jarrod McKinney (Hughes Springs, Texas, High) and third baseman/catcher Boomer Collins (Waxahachie, Texas, High) keyed a deep D-Bat run in the playoffs that ended with a quarterfinal loss to two-time defending tourney champion All-American Prospects.

Home Of The Braves

The last team standing was one of the hosting East Cobb clubs, and it came to no one's surprise. A perennial power on the youth baseball scene, the East Cobb Braves 17-and-under entry featured a 22-man roster of players from Georgia, Florida, Alabama and New England. They out-executed and out-pitched the field, and were paced by lefthanders Grayson Garvin (Wesleyan High, Norcross, Ga.) and Brett DeVall (Niceville, Fla., High) and righthanders Zeke Spruill and Michael Palazonne (Lassiter High, Marietta, Ga.), a foursome of rising seniors who could all be potential top-five-rounds picks next June.

Jake Davies (Eagle's Landing High, McDonough, Ga.), the younger brother of East Cobb alumnus and current big leaguer Kyle Davies, combined with Palazonne, DeVall and Spruill to pitch 25 of the team's 26 playoff innings, allowing just three runs.

Spruill (Etowah High, Woodstock, Ga.) was named the tournament's most valuable pitcher, going 2-0, 0.00 in 11 innings including a complete game win to bounce the All American Prospects in the semifinals.

Given their pitching depth, the Braves lineup didn't need much punch, but it received plenty from a trio of the fastest players in the class. Jonathan Taylor (North Cobb High, Kennesaw, Ga.), Xavier Avery (Cedar Grove High, Ellenwood, Ga.) and Ray Anderson (Lassiter High, Marietta) manned the outfield and hit 9-1-2 in the Braves lineup, wreaking havoc on the basepaths and setting the table for the heart of the Braves lineup that featured the top rising junior in the tournament--and arguably the country--in Cartersville (Ga.) High's Donovan Tate.

Because Taylor is the most polished outfielder of the trio, Avery, a legitimate 80 runner on the 20-80 scouting scale and a Division I football recruit, played left field most of the event, rounding out the self-proclaimed "Soul Patrol", and leaving little room for line drives to find the alleys.

Tate, the son of former NFL running back Lars Tate, is a 6-foot-2 physical specimen with a sweet swing and an innate ability to make hard contact and put himself in position to make all the plays. He and fellow Peach State shortstop, rising senior Tim Beckham (Griffin, Ga., High), combine the athleticism of Avery with feel for the game, making them two of the most exciting players in the tournament field.

One Step At A Time

There’s been a nice maturation of Beckham’s game this summer, and he was the best all-around prospect in attendance. He was more flash than substance at the summer’s first wide-scale showcase, but he toned down his game in Marietta and showed defensive skills that are unrivaled. His body control, agility, instincts, lightning-quick reflexes, soft hands, plus arm and range are all intriguing attributes. He made consistent hard contact and showed some feel for the strike zone at the plate, and while he’s not a burner, he’ll show plus times from home-to-first.

A couple of months into the new scouting season, it's apparent the high school Class of 2008 isn't as stout as the banner crop that just graduated, but after a grueling week of long, hot days interrupted regularly by rain delays, the scouts that dug deep enough discovered there's some promise in the next wave of players.

PEACH FUZZ

• While the depth of pitching stands out as the strength of the 2008 prep class, a crop of talented catchers also stood out in Marietta. Leading the way is Kyle Skipworth. The Riverside, Calif., native draws comparisons to Joe Mauer, as he stands 6-foot-4, swings lefthanded and possesses natural feel for the game. Skipworth stands out from the rest of the talented field of catchers due to his powerful, smooth swing and above-average arm and defensive tools. Five high school catchers have been first-round picks in the last four drafts--Max Sapp (Astros, 2006), Hank Conger (Angels, 2006), Devin Mesoraco (Reds, 2007), Neil Walker (Pirates, 2004) and Brandon Snyder (Orioles, 2005)--and Skipworth compares favorably with all of them at the same stage of their development.

Other catchers that stood out in Marietta included Ben McMahan (Bishop Moore High, Orlando), Taylor Hightower (Cartersville, Ga., High) and Matt Ramsey (Farragut High, Knoxville).

McMahan’s above-average bat and arm make him a legitimate '08 catching prospect. The strong, solid-framed catcher showed a powerful bat throughout the week and also the ability to work the counts at the plate. Scouts and college coaches like his overall feel for the game, and one scout said that only Skipworth, who had three homers on the week, swung the bat better among '08 catchers in attendance.

Hightower, an Aflac all-American selection this year, lacks polish but has a strong, accurate arm that lent pop times as low as 2.02 seconds in games. At the plate, Hightower creates good leverage from his lower half that generates home run power. In Marietta, Hightower showed scouts that he has the ability to drive the ball out of the park with wood.

Ramsey is a stocky-framed catcher who possesses clean catching actions with an above-average arm. With one of the quickest and cleanest exchanges behind the plate in the class (1.90 pop) Ramsey is tough to steal on. Ramsey’s primary position is catcher but he showed off his pitching mechanics on the bump in Marietta, as well. He showed a fastball with life that touched 92 mph.

• Woodward Academy’s (Atlanta) Brennan May claimed Co-MVP honors, and may have had the best individual performance of any player in attendance. During the week, May led East Cobb's younger Astros entry into the semifinals by hitting .406 (13-for-32) with five home runs and 12 RBIs. Ten of May’s 13 hits went for extra bases. Overall, May has the characteristics to be a five-tool player. The center fielder put his speed and above-average glove on display as he ran down several balls in the gaps. May’s athletic 6-foot, 185-pound frame allows him to generate quick bat speed, and balls jump off his barrel. Scouts compared the rising senior to a shorter version of Reggie Sanders and Rondell White. “Brennan has a very explosive swing and at times it can be too long, but nothing a little correction can’t fix," an NL scout said. “He is ahead of most hitters in that class due to his strength and athleticism.”

Contributing: Travis Young