SoCal Showdown Full Of Fireworks

While college baseball (for the final time) had cranked its season up in early February across most of the country, high schools get a later start. That’s particularly true outside of Sun Belt hot spots such as Florida and Southern California.

The country’s best high school hitter, Cypress (Calif.) High third baseman Josh Vitters, didn’t have to deal with poor weather, and he used his early start to shine. Scouts were out in force to watch him begin his senior season with one of the most notable high school showdowns of the early-season scouting calendar. The championship game of the annual Loara Tournament pitted the sweet-swinging Vitters against a pair of talented pitchers from Long Beach’s nationally ranked Wilson High, as well as Wilson infielder Ryan Dent. Approximately 40 scouts packed Glover Stadium in Anaheim, where Vitters fortified his status as the top draft-eligible position player in the prep ranks, proving he possesses not only the tools but also the instincts and intangibles that round out an impressive overall package.

“Vitters is clearly the best (prospect) in Southern California,” said a scout with a National League organization. “He was great. What he did that was so impressive was how he matched up against pitchers of a different variety. (Wilson) started with a lefthander . . . that could mix the ball up. And they finished with (junior outfielder/righthander) Aaron Hicks, who came in from the outfield and threw a hard curveball and hard fastball, and Vitters had no problem with it.”

Hicks’ fastball was up to 92 mph and he flashed an 83-84 mph breaking ball, a formidable two-pitch mix on any stage, but especially for hitters who were facing a lefthander throwing 10-12 mph slower just an inning earlier.

“Honestly, I was just going to see him for fun,” said the scout, who hypothesized Vitters would be drafted within the first 10 overall picks this June. “And seeing him when there is a matchup like that, you can get some valuable scouting done for our draft.

“The power is close to as good as it can be, almost off the charts. What he showed in terms of his hitting skill is what he really showed the best, though. He hit the ball far and hard. To find that combination in a high school player where you’re sure he’s going to both hit and hit for power, is pretty unique. Usually you have one and you’re hoping for the other.”

Vitters, whose defensive skills are fringe-average at the hot corner, was ranked No. 4 among high school players in the Class of 2007 entering the season, and while his stock soared, Dent’s was more static.

Ranked 12th among high school seniors, Dent’s best tool is his speed, but his at-bats during the showdown with Cypress High exemplified his unrefined approach at the plate.

“There’s a lot of competition for the second-best position player in Southern California,” the scout said. “Dent’s speed, athleticism and makeup are strong. The hit skills will come along with those, but he needs to have some work with his swing and approach.

“He’s a front-foot hitter, he’s trying to get out early and doesn’t have confidence he can swing quick enough to make the adjustments, but he (can). He needs more time to stay back and trust himself. Sometimes kids with great tools don’t know how to use them.”

Neither Dent nor Vitters had a conventional summer and fall entering their all-important senior seasons. Dent was slowed by a broken hand last summer, which made his performance at a World Wood Bat Association tournament in Jupiter, Fla., in October all the more impressive. Fully healthy, he showed bat speed and quick-twitch muscle movement, as well as infectious energy on the field, ranking among the event’s top prospects and opening the eyes of dozens of upper-level scouts in attendance.

As the younger brother of former Fresno State standout and Athletics minor leaguer Christian Vitters, Josh was a household name in scouting circles long before last fall. But his showing at USA Baseball’s junior national team trials in Atlanta was curious. He gave away at-bats, appeared to lack concentration at times, and wound up being left off the final roster in favor of fellow-SoCal third baseman Matt Dominguez of Chatsworth High.

Shortly after the showdown with Dent, Vitters was diagnosed with a mild case of pneumonia and was missed about two weeks.