Checking In On SoCal Talents

LOS ANGELES — The scouting profession can take an individual to places he never planned—or never particularly wanted—to visit. On Thursday, April 15, I traveled to the isolated hamlet of Ridgecrest, located in the high desert region of California. If you have never heard of Ridgecrest (which is a dandy little town), don’t be ashamed—neither has anyone else.

Located just outside the city limits is the U.S. Navy’s China Lake Weapons Station. Why the Navy chose to place a base in the middle of the desert is anyone’s guess. One scout asked aloud: “Why would someone put a town here? Did his burro die?”

Another scout informed me that, “there has been UFO activity in this area—seriously.” Of that I have no doubt. In all likelihood, the aliens landed, looked around—and decided they’d get more value for their vacation dollar by heading to Las Vegas, about 100 miles east.

For one day, Ridgecrest welcomed a marquee attraction—Barstow High School righthander Aaron Sanchez. An alumnus of both the Aflac and Area Code events in 2009, Sanchez is ranked No. 25 on Baseball America’s preseason Top 100 list of high school prospects for the upcoming June draft.

In attendance were approximately 20 scouts and a sizeable gathering of locals, no doubt curious to observe the rarity of a possible future big leaguer visiting their fine city. Facing the Burros of Burroughs High in Ridgecrest, Sanchez sailed through the first four innings, allowing no hits, walking two and striking out nine.

Bearing a distinct resemblance to Orel Hershiser, the lanky and projectable Sanchez easily delivers a 91-93 mph fastball and sharp 75 curve from a mid three-quarters arm slot. His mechanics are advanced for a high schooler. Sanchez uses his legs well, avoids flying his front shoulder open, and finishes strongly while creating a decent downward plane.

The young righty ran into trouble in the fifth inning, dropping his arm slot while fatigue caused his arm stroke to become restricted on both ends. Burroughs eventually squeezed out a 3-2 win.

Sanchez will need to develop and mix into his arsenal at least two additional pitches—a change and a sinker, perhaps. His four-seam fastball needs better placement and movement as well.

These are all minor concerns, and should be resolved as Sanchez proceeds up the baseball ladder. There is every reason to believe that Sanchez will develop into a top-notch big league pitcher, probably as a mid-rotation starter. Southern California is loaded with a remarkable number of outstanding high school righthanders in 2010, but despite the logjam Sanchez could get nabbed in the first two rounds.

SoCal high school lefthanded pitchers are trickier to locate. Tops in a miniscule group is Griffin Murphy of Redlands East Valley High in Redlands, and he is followed by Kyle Richter of Santa Margarita High in Rancho Santa Margarita.

A late entry into this group is, believe it or not, Cory Hahn of Mater Dei HS in Santa Ana. Prior to this season, Hahn had established himself among scouts and college recruiters as a multi tool outfield prospect, with well above-average speed (6.6), a strong arm and promising bat.

Prior to a 3-0 loss last Wednesday to Orange Lutheran, Hahn had reeled off a stunning 6-0 mark as a pitcher with a dead ball era type 1.04 earned run average. Even in defeat, Hahn pitched commendably.

At 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds, Hahn may remind older observers of Harvey Haddix. Hahn works extremely quickly, firing a fastball that ranges from 88 to 91. The lefty mixes in a 74-78 changeup and a crisp 68-74 curve.

As a pitcher, Hahn’s mechanics are raw and unrefined, but his ability is obvious. One scout I spoke to commented that Hahn’s stuff was superior to UCLA’s Rob Rasmussen at a similar stage. Another scout stated, “For me, he is a backup, fourth outfielder type as a position player. I think his future is on the mound. He fits very well as a starter or a situational lefthander.”

Adding to the bounty of prep righthanded pitching in Southern California is Gabriel Encinas of St. Paul HS in Whittier. Encinas matched up against top outfield prospect Angelo Gumbs of Torrance HS in a Saturday night tournament game at Redondo Union High in Redondo Beach.

Encinas was sensational, and did what no other pitcher has done to Gumbs this season—shut him down. The angular and projectable righty struck Gumbs out twice and induced one pop up in three at-bats.

Not that anyone else on the Torrance squad had any luck against Encinas. He easily delivers a 90-92 fastball and adds a 74-75 curve and 77-78 change. To his credit, Encinas has improved his fitness this season and was able to maintain his velocity deep into the contest.

Pitching before a packed house, which included 40 scouts, Encinas boosted his draft stock Saturday. Impressively, he displayed smooth mechanics and an advanced feel for pitching, doing a laudable job of mixing speeds, locations, altering eye levels and switching pitch sequence patterns from at bat to at bat.