Prep Draft Class Continues To Improve

JUPITER, Fla.–At the same time ESPN, Fox, USA Today and hundreds of
other media outlets across the world were interviewing the
million-dollar stars of the Rockies and Red Sox following Game Three of
the World Series in Denver, about a dozen scouts, a handful of college
coaches and a couple of bleary-eyed agents stood quietly behind a
chain-link fence in Jupiter, Fla.

It was shortly before 1 a.m., and
some of them had been there since 8 a.m., and as much as they would
have rather been lavishing in the limelight of Major League Baseball’s
Fall Classic, they were instead just hoping to find the next Mike
Lowell or Jeff Francis, a player who could someday make a contribution
to a future pennant contender.

The final major high school scouting event of the year doesn’t come
with six-man umpire crews, water fountains in the dugouts or bright,
new baseballs for batting practice.

Eighty high school travel teams from the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico and
a smattering of other Latin American countries met to play 173 games in
96 hours at the spring training complex of the Cardinals and Marlins for the World Wood Bat
Association fall championship. With that much talent in one place hundreds of scouts and college coaches–including 17 scouting
directors–gathered to size them up.

Four months ago, shortly after 20 of the first 33 picks of the 2007
draft were popped straight out of high school, it appeared that the prep Class
of ’08 had far less to offer, and that college players would have to carry next year’s draft class.
But as the summer progressed, more talent kept popping up, and it’s
apparent that many of next year’s top high school players are improving
as their senior seasons approach.

“I thought that the guys showed pretty well,” said a crosschecker with
a National League club. “For the most part scouts walked away feeling
that it was going to be better than we thought it was going to be in
the beginning of the summer. The crop moved in the right direction as a
group. Everyone left there a little more optimistic about what is
available in June.”

Hitting Home

Although some of the top-rated prospects in the senior class–mostly
pitchers–were not in attendance, the field at this year’s tournament
was representative of the high school draft class.

The player many scouts focused on during the tournament was one of
amateur baseball’s most talked about players over the past few years,
sweet-swinging South Florida first baseman Eric Hosmer.

Hosmer batted cleanup on last year’s WWBA championship team, and was
rated as the No. 1 underclassman at that event. As a junior this
spring, however, he batted just .372 with four home runs, and when he
hooked up with advisor Scott Boras, went 0-for-10 with four walks and
four strikeouts with the U.S. junior team in September in Mexico and
then skipped the Miami all-star game at Florida International a month
later, his detractors began to accumulate.

Hosmer was again penciled into the middle of the tournament’s
highest-profile lineup as he joined more than a dozen other hand-picked
prospects from across the country on the Braves Scout Team. He wasn’t
off to a stellar start, but caught fire and finished 10-for-21 with a
home run and nine RBIs as the Braves won the event and Hosmer was named

“As an industry, we nitpick this or nitpick that, and sometimes we
don’t realize what they’re going through and some of the pressure
they’re playing with,” said a crosschecker with an American League
team. “They slide in the draft, and then they go out and go on a tear
in pro ball and we sit back and say, ‘Damn, what happened?’

“Are there some things to be concerned about? Yes . . . But what
becomes the separator is this kid has special tools. I think he’s Casey
Kotchman with power. I think he can be that type of defender. Can he do
things few other hitters can? Sure.”

The Kotchman comparison has been thrown around for years with Hosmer,
and as a lefthanded hitter from Florida with an advanced approach and
plus bat speed–just like Kotchman when he was drafted by the Angels in
the first round in 2001–it’s easy to see why.

He’s got some company among the top hitters in the high school draft
class, though, an including one that batted in front of him in the same
lineup, California catcher Kyle Skipworth.  Skipworth played with
Hosmer on Team USA, against him at the Aflac All-American Classic in
San Diego in August and was ranked among the top prospects at the Area
Code Games in Long Beach, as well. His bat speed rivals Hosmer’s,
though he’s more aggressive and pull-oriented at the plate. His
catching experience is limited, but he has excellent flexibility, a
clean arm action and his throws have plenty of carry and accuracy.

“He kind of doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing back there but all of
those things are correctable,” the AL scout said. “You could put a 70
on his arm (on the 20-80 scouting scale), his release is good enough,
his hands are good enough. He’s every bit as good of a package as (2007
Reds first-round catcher) Devin Mesoraco. He stays inside the ball, his
hands work extremely well in his swing and he backspins the ball with

If it weren’t for a broken finger on his catching hand when he was hit
during a swing on the tournament’s third day, Skipworth might have been
hoisting the MVP hardware. He spent most of the playoffs on the Braves
bench with his left arm in a cast, but said he would be back in action
in about six weeks.

The top-ranked position player entering the event was Tim Beckham, an
athletic shortstop from suburban Atlanta. His showing was forgettable,
as he went 1-for-9 and his team missed the playoffs, but his tools were
apparent, and there were not many scouts who departed too concerned
about his lack of performance, given his raw ability.

“I guess he’s human after all,” said another AL crosschecker. “I don’t
see who’s going to go ahead of him. He’s a middle infielder with plus
tools and some juice in the bat. He was maybe trying to do a little too
much at the plate, but there aren’t many players out there that have
the upside and complete package of this guy.”

Long On Confidence, Arm Strength

Among the top pitchers who were in attendance, senior righthander
Gerrit Cole’s (Lutheran High, Orange, Calif.) fastball was the best. He
pitched as well as he has in any of his major showcase and tournament
showings, resting at 95 and touching 97 mph in the first of his two
outings. Cole pitched in relief during a driving rain that had the
soaked onlookers as fearful for an injury as they were impressed by his
power stuff. He’s shown similar velocity in the past, but he did it
with seemingly less effort, to go along with a dogged demeanor on the

The confident UCLA signee told teammates he was going to reach back for
99 as he waded through the rain to the mound, and while he fell just
shy of his prediction, his statement was made loud and clearly.

“I don’t think anyone was surprised he threw that hard’"he’s got amazing
arm strength,” said another NL crosschecker. “But the slider and
changeup were pretty good, too, so even though you look at his delivery
and (low-three-quarters) arm slot and think reliever, there’s going to
be some reason to believe he might have a chance to do more than that.”

Daniel Webb made his much-awaited return to the mound, and passed with
flying colors. The senior righthander from Heath High in West Paducah,
Ky., broke a bone in his left foot during the first inning of an outing
in the Kentucky quarterfinal playoffs this spring, and appears to have
spent his time off fine-tuning his physique.

His 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame looked chiseled, and when he was pumping
94 mph fastballs into the sixth inning of his outing against one of
Houston’s top travel teams, he had re-established himself as one of the
top righthanders on follow lists for the ’08 draft.

Singular Stage

The benefit in attending the event for scouts extends beyond the
convenience of having many of the country’s top players in one place at
one time. The showdowns of top hitters with wood bats against good
pitching in a game setting–as opposed to a showcase–is hard to
replicate in the spring.

One of the event’s most memorable matchups featured a talent-laden
California entry in an intense game against a travel team from the
Mid-Atlantic, as Aaron Hicks (Wilson High, Long Beach) squared off
against Kevin Brady (Gaithersburg, Md., High).

Brady was sensational, as his fastball had late life at the plate and
sat between 90-93 mph for four innings. He struck out seven, but so did
Hicks, who was up to 94 mph and showed better command of his secondary
stuff–an 89 mph cutter, 83-84 mph power breaking ball and 81-83 mph

“It’s the easiest working arm here,” said a third AL crosschecker after watching Hicks’ outing.

Hicks, who is a switch-hitting right fielder when he’s not on the
mound, had the only hit Brady allowed. He stroked a single that he pulled through
the right side of the infield to push across the game’s only run in San Gabriel Arsenal’s 1-0 win.

Brady was relieved by Evan Scott, a 6-foot-3 senior righty from
Battlefield High in Haymarket, Va., who was under the radar before his
outing. Scott, who planned to commit to James Madison during the early
signing period, worked off a low-90s fastball with glove-side run that
he kept down in the strike zone.

“I don’t know where this guy’s been, but that made the whole trip down
here worth it,” said a scout who covers the Mid-Atlantic for an AL

college recruiters were concentrating on underclassmen. As pitching
depth stretched thin during the weekend, many teams turned to
underclassmen, and some of the pitchers from the Class of 2009 and ’10
showed plenty of promise, as well.

The coaches who hung around for the final pitches of a late-night
playoff game between an all-star team sponsored by the Texas Rangers
and the East Cobb (Ga.) Astros got to see two of the top up-and-coming
righthanders face off.

Junior Matt Graham (Oakridge High, Conroe, Texas) touched 94 and
pitched at 91 to go along with a 72-74 mph curveball. He made quick
work of the Astros lineup, polishing off a two-plus-inning relief
outing with a strikeout of Chase Davidson (Milton High, Alpharetta,
Ga.) on a 94 mph fastball that painted the black of the outside corner.

“That was his coming out party, right there,” said Randy Taylor, a Rangers scout based in Texas who helped coach the team.

The Astros won the game, however, as they called on sophomore Kaleb
Cowart (Cook county High, Adel, Ga.) to slam the door in the seventh
inning. Cowart, 15, has a smooth delivery, touched 92, mixed in a
hammer curveball at 72-75 and struck out two of the three batters he

“I’ve never been in anything like this,” said Graham after the game, in
awe at the enormity of the event and the spectacle of the throng of
coaches and scouts. “I’ve been reading about all these guys and the
next thing I know I’m on the same field as them. You’ve got Gerrit Cole
throwing 97 on one field, all the golf carts and all the scouts lined
up behind the plate. I mean, I’ve never been on the mound with a sea of
radar guns behind the backstop.”


• The Orlando Scorpions finished runner-up to the Braves, and Scorpions senior righthander Anthony Figliola (Winter Springs, Fla., High), senior catcher Ben McMahan (Bishop Moore High, Orlando) and junior infielders Ryan Franklin (Lake Brantley High, Altamonte Springs, Fla.) and Nolan Fontana (Winter Garden, Fla., High) were just a few of the teams’ top players. Figliola and Niceville (Fla.) High senior lefty Brett DeVall
shared most valuable pitcher honors. Both pitchers could be top-five
round draft picks in June, with DeVall possibly going in the top 50

• Before he broke his finger, Skipworth had an opportunity to catch
nine different pitchers for the Braves, many of whom could possibly be
high picks next year. He said Cole was the best of them all. “I think
his fastball had more life to it than I remember him having,” said
Skipworth, who said it was the sixth time he had caught Cole. “And his
command. I just set up and he put it there. I didn’t have to move my

• Skipworth’s high school teammate was not on the Braves team in Jupiter, but Matt Lollis
made yet another strong showing, nonetheless, while pitching for the
Orioles Scout Team during pool play. The 6-foot-7, 210-pound senior
from Patriot High (Riverside, Calif.) allowed one hit in four shutout
innings, working off three pitches he spotted well including a plus
fastball. “He shattered six bats in four innings,” Dallas Panthers
coach Mike Adams said. “He had a heavy, heavy ball, that’s what our kids kept saying.”

• High school football prevents a lot of two-sport players from participating in this event each year, but Astros first baseman Chase Davidson
was determined not to miss the tournament–or his Friday night
appointment on the gridiron back home in Alpharetta, Ga. Davidson, who
is among the class’ upper echelon of pure hitters, went 2-for-3 with a
pair of doubles Thursday night, woke up at 3:15 Friday morning to catch
a flight home, played offensive line, linebacker and punted in Milton
High’s football game, then flew back to Florida in time to be in
uniform for the Astros noon game on Saturday.

Davidson delivered a pinch-hit walk-off home run in the sixth inning of an 8-0 run-rule win.

“Well, we lost the football game, and I think I must have had nine or
10 punts, but other than a swollen foot and being a little tired and
sore, hitting a home run definitely made it worth it,” said Davidson,
who has committed to play baseball at Georgia, though he’s averaging
more than 46 yards per punt and says he’s received interest from
Division-I school for his punting prowess.

“Baseball’s what I love, but
if I got to punt at Georgia, too, that’d be great.”

• The player that improved his stock the most? It may have been shortstop Derrick Gibson
(Seaford, Del., High), who went 9-for-19 with three doubles and two
triples after many mediocre showings on the showcase circuit this

“He’s completely changed his approach from the last time I saw him,”
said a second NL crosschecker. “He’s looser and freer at the plate, so
much less restricted and comfortable looking, and he’s really hit the
ball well. He might be one of the fastest guys here, too.”

• Recruiting rules and regulations are changing as often as the
recruits themselves. It’s been a year since Major League Baseball
eliminated the draft-and-follow process, and within this year the NCAA
has also made significant changes regarding transfers and roster sizes,
limited the number of players a D-I school can have on scholarship from
35 to 25.

Both changes affected the way junior colleges are going about their
recruiting, and most juco coaches have turned the changes into a
positive for their programs.

“Sure, you no longer have the benefit of scouts helping players they
have under control make their way to your school. But even when you
did, you had to do your own work to sell your program and make the
player see how playing there was going to help,” Walters State (Tenn.)
JC coach Dave Shelton said.
“You still work with scouts to find players that fit your program, you
just have to make sure you develop a relationship with the player so
they know the benefit of playing at the junior college level.

“If anything, the roster limits have made the biggest difference. Those
players who might have been going to the (Atlantic Coast Conference) or
the (Southeastern Conference) might be looking at their only
scholarship offers coming from the mid-majors now. We’ve taken the
approach of saying, ‘Hey, you’re dream has always been to play major
college baseball, don’t give up on that dream. The mid-major school
will still be there in two years (in junior college), but the ACC or
SEC offer might be there, too, if you develop the way we think you can.”

• One of the trickiest parts of evaluating hitters is differentiating
from the players who perform well presently from the ones who have the
tools to do it in the major leagues. This ’08 high school class is
loaded with players that might not profile, based on major league
qualifications, but have simply shined at almost every major wood bat
event they’ve attended.

Canyon (Texas) High outfielder J.P. Ramirez and Jaff Decker
(Sunrise Mountain HS, Peoria, Ariz.), an Arizona State signee, are
lefthanded-hitting left fielders who rank right up there with Hosmer in
terms of their advanced ability at the plate. Decker sets up a lot like
Adam LaRoche of the Pirates,
with a high back elbow and narrow, upright and open stance. He repeats
his swing extremely well, and fires rockets to the alleys and over the
fence. He was 6-for-12 with six RBIs during the tournament, which
included an 0-for-3 showing in his final game. Ramirez, who was easily
the best uncommitted senior at the event, went 9-for-16 with
two triples and two doubles.

Chris Amezquita, a senior from
Servite High in Anaheim and Zack Cox
(Pleasure Ridge Park HS, Lexington, Ky.) fit a smilar mold. They’re
very good hitters who might lack the
lateral quickness and first-step to reamain in the infield as
professionals. Both have done nothing but
lace line-drives to all parts of the park since they were old enough to
hold a bat, seemingly, with impressive track records dating back to
their youth days. Amezquita was 6-for-15 with six RBIs including a
game-winning grand slam in Jupiter, and Cox was 7-for-19 with a pair of
doubles, a triple and five RBIs.

All four of these players could be All-American candidates in college,
though their performance will be weighed as the draft approaches, too.

• Webb wasn’t the only senior righthander making a comeback in Jupiter, as Daniel Marrs
(James River High, Midlothian, Va.) tossed three innings in his first
competitive action since being shutdown with a shoulder injury this
spring. His velocity was good–he touched 94 mph–but his command and
secondary stuff was understandably shaky. He allowed three unearned
runs and three walks with one punch out.