On the third day of the Area Code Games, two veteran scouts sat in the stands at Long Beach State sweating over their notes and sipping bottled water under the brims of their hats. Another lean pitcher trotted out to the mound.
"Who's this kid?" one scout inquired.
"Number 43," the other responded.
They reached for their radar guns as the righthander wrapped up the final of eight warm-up pitches.
86 . . . 85 . . . 85 . . . 84 . . .
And with that, they slid their guns back underneath their seats behind home plate and stared back out at the field, without another word exchanged.
As the summer wound down on the national showcase circuit, it became increasingly clear that the high school class of 2006 hasn't yet revealed much premium talent. Scouts and college coaches found plenty of interesting players in the rising senior class, yet few players separated themselves.
The class has hitters with a couple of above-average tools but deficiencies that are equally glaring. The pitchers' radar gun readings haven't blown anyone away. Florida and Texas have their usual complement of projectable pitchers, but most have followed a promising outing with a mediocre one.
"I thought it was a very weak Area Code Games," a scouting director with an American League organization said. "The position players definitely were down and I thought the arms were down, too. I thought it was one of the weaker ones in 20 years. And I've been to all of them but one.
"Even the Aflac game, I thought was down as well . . . I don't know if kids were burned out, but to me there weren't nearly as many good arms. In the past there were pitchers that pitched in the 90s. At this thing there were a few guys who might have bumped 90."
Running On Redline
An important factor in evaluating the class this summer was the workload many of the players took on. While the Area Code Games have long featured the top players from the West, many of the players this year entered the event on the heels of rigorous summer league schedules. Still others flew from Wilmington, N.C.--straight from the four-day East Coast showcase--or other points east, to Long Beach.
"We have to keep perspective," a national crosschecker with an AL organization said. "We're looking at it as a new year, but basically these kids are on the tail end of their long year. So maybe some of them are worn down, tired and some even lose interest."
Two of the top pitchers in the class, righthanders Matt Latos and Jordan Walden, lost velocity and command over the course of the summer. Latos, a 6-foot-5, 192-pounder from Coconut Creek (Fla.) High with a fluid arm action and feel for pitching, touched 96 mph and pitched at 93 the first week of July at an event in Atlanta, but sat near 90 mph at the Area Code Games.
Walden, a 6-foot-4, 185-pounder from Mansfield High in Arlington, Texas, reportedly touched 97 mph during his tryout for the Area Code Games in June, but struggled to break 90 mph in Long Beach.
Of the pitchers who boosted their stock at the Area Code Games, righthanders Chris Tillman of Fountain Valley (Calif.) High, Josh Ravin of Chatsworth (Calif.) High and Jason Stoffel of Agoura (Calif.) High; and Texas lefties Brandon Belt of Lufkin's Hudson High and Clayton Kershaw of Dallas' Highland Park High made their way into the conversation with Latos and Walden as potentially elite arms.
Belt and Kershaw headline one of the deepest positions among the rising high school senior class: lefthanded pitching. Stillwater (Okla.) High's Brett Anderson, Justin Edwards of Olympia High in Orlando, Carmine Giardina of Durant High in Plant City, Fla., and Matt Petiton of Garden City (New York) High each has intriguing attributes.
Anderson was the winning pitcher at the Aflac All-American game, and along with the 6-foot-5 Belt has an attractive frame. Edwards and Petiton have shown an advanced feel for pitching while Giardina has three potentially plus pitches because of good command.
"The crop of lefthanded pitchers, it seems like, are starting to make a little noise," the AL crosschecker said. "All those kids have big, strong bodies and some pop to the fastball."
It was the lefthanded bat of Travis Snider that stood out among the position players at the Area Code Games. Snider, a stocky, 6-foot, 220-pound outfielder from Jackson High in Mill Creek, Wash., showed good balance at the plate, quick, strong hands with some pop and enough athletic ability to handle the outfield.
"Snider swung the bat as well as anybody out there," a scouting director with an NL organization said.
"He can do a few things, he really swings the bat, probably opened my eyes more than anybody else," the AL scouting director said. "He looks like he can hit, both for average and power. He's got a short, compact swing, knows the strike zone and doesn't try and do too much with the ball. He can put a charge in it."
Devin Shepherd of Oxnard (Calif.) High continued his solid showing this summer with impressive batting practice sessions, and he flashed a strong arm from right field. Drew Rundle of Bend (Ore.) High also swung the bat well, leaving some scouts and coaches anxious to see this group again when high school seasons begin next spring.
"I think you go back and look at the better guys, and I just don't think it's set up to be a banner crop," another AL scouting director said. "Obviously out of all those guys, there are going to be a couple that throw the ball very hard (next spring) and somebody will step up. But for every one that steps up, someone steps back, so we'll just wait and see."