SoCal Talent Shines At RBI Showcase

COMPTON, Calif.—It can be safely said that amateur scouting has three components: Observation, Evaluation and Imagination.

Those components were no doubt thoroughly exercised by the approximately 200 scouts who descended upon Major League Baseball’s Urban Youth Academy for the second annual preseason Southern California High School Showcase on Sunday.

With a scant four months remaining until the June draft, organizations have not yet prepared their draft rooms, and it is a good bet that no team has printed up any moveable name tiles to slide across draft boards.

However, in the fall and winter scouts have been conducting home visits as well as administering psych tests and eye exams. They have thoroughly covered showcases and offseason games and practices, filling small spiral notebooks with pertinent information. Despite the fact that no regular-season games have been played at most high schools and all Division I schools, scouts have begun to develop a clear picture of which players are potential premium draftees.

Sunday’s event continued the clarification process. In the 2008 Southern California high school draft class, the top players have emerged, distinguishing themselves from the rest of the class, and scouts, crosscheckers and scouting directors have begun the inexact process of ranking the upper echelon players.

Position players at Sunday’s showcase who are candidates for the first two rounds include Cutter Dykstra; Issac Galloway; Anthony Gose; Aaron Hicks; Ricky Oropesa; Kyle Skipworth; and Brandon Van Dam.

By far the most fascinating competition in the Southern California area is that between the three top outfielders, Gose, Hicks and Galloway. All three are lavishly talented athletes, all meriting first round consideration on raw tools alone. All three possess powerful throwing arms, which easily grade out to 70 on the 20 to 80 scouting scale. All three have blazing speed, comfortably clocking in the 6.6 range for the 60 yard dash.

Of course, the bat is the ultimate separating factor for outfielders. All three have struggled at the plate in the past, but Galloway may now be emerging as the leader. Galloway’s tension-free swing is the easiest and most natural. His balance and smooth weight shift, combined with his above-average bat speed, give him more power potential than Gose or Hicks. No scout has a crystal ball to peer into, but at this point Galloway appears to be the leading choice among the three to succeed as a big league hitter.

Gose, a lefthander, did not hit well Sunday. Many observers believe his swing appears a fraction of a second late, and he rarely exhibits the ability to fire the bat head out front in order to pull and drive the ball. Virtually all of his base hits travel to left center or left. He pounded the ball in the latter stages of the Area Code games, and he hit and ran like a maniac in the December Jesse Flores All-Star event. However, his bat is inconsistent and does not project to contain the same power as Hicks or Galloway.

Hicks, a switch-hitter who also is a prospect as a pitcher, has finally abandoned his once severe over the head pre-swing hand position in favor of a lower slot between his ear and back shoulder. That has led to a marked improvement in his swing, but he still has kinks in his approach that need to be resolved. Hicks too often pulls his head off the ball and flies his front side open too quickly. From the right side, he has a habit of lunging forward on his front leg. It is obvious that hitting is still a learning process for Hicks. Once he figures it all out, he should have 20-homer potential to go with plus speed and his big arm.

Skipworth Shines

Skipworth comfortably ranks as the top catching prospect in the region, and he is the most advanced hitter as well. Unlike many young hitters, his permits his power to flow from his natural lefthanded swing. Skipworth hits crackling drives to all fields, and has thankfully resisted the temptation to uppercut and lift everything. An Arizona State signee, Skipworth drilled a three-run homer in the game Sunday, buzzing a drive opposite field over the left-field fence.

Skipworth’s arm strength is well above-average, and while his 1.92-second pop times to second base are impressive, he should be able to shave fractions off those times with a quicker transfer and improved footwork. His receiving could stand improvement, as he doesn’t shift his weight fluidly or block balls properly with consistency, and at times has issues with pitches in the dirt between the legs. Despite these correctable flaws, Skipworth is the early favorite to be the highest draft pick among position players in this year’s 2008 national prep class, not to mention in California.

Other hitters who performed well Sunday include Dykstra, son of Len Dykstra and the best middle infielder in SoCal. Along with Skipworth, Dykstra’s bat is the most advanced and mechanically sound of any player in attendance Sunday, and he’s among the closest to the majors in the SoCal class, trailing perhaps only Skipworth. He surprisingly struggled to catch up with several pitches during the game. That may have been due to a slight bit of head movement in his swing. Dykstra also exhibits outstanding speed, consistently clocking in the 6.5 to 6.6 range. While at times erratic, his glove, range, hands and fielding actions grade out as average to above average.

Scouts commonly compare Dykstra to big leaguers Dustin Pedroia and David Eckstein. Tools-wise, however, Dykstra outstrips both, with better speed and power. It is not difficult to imagine Dykstra as a 20-25 homer, 30 stolen base, .300 hitter in the major leagues. Unlike Eckstein and Pedroia, Dykstra has work to do defensively, thanks to an unusual, somewhat awkward throwing motion. He’ll have to acclimate himself to turning the double play with his back to the runner, and he’ll need to alter his current throwing motion and develop the quick flip need to make that play.

Brandon Van Dam, at 6-foot-6, 215 pounds, is a Brobdingnagian-sized first baseman who put on a jaw dropping power display in batting practice. Van Dam, a Cal State Bakersfield signee, blasted a series of tape-measure drives, including one Kingman-esque smash that sailed over the fence in left center and clanked on top of a cinder block storage building over 450 feet away. This exhibition drew gasps from the crowd and puzzled reactions from scouts, several of whom asked, to no one in particular, “I didn’t know he could hit; I thought he was a pitcher!”

Of course, the challenge facing Van Dam will be to transfer his BP results into game situations, and to do that he’ll have to prove he can catch up to quality pitching. The scouts were right; he is a pitcher, and on the mound his fastball sits at 87 to 89. Van Dam’s future is might be at first, though, because his large, mature frame indicates that he probably won’t throw much harder as he gets older.

Less-Defined Status

Righthander/infielder Ricky Oropesa is harder to understand than the plotline to “Lost”. His throwing arm and raw power merit early round draft consideration, but Oropesa has regressed since June 2007, when he starred as the top prospect in the Major League Scouting Bureau’s summer showcase.

The first question is where to play him. His 70 arm fits anywhere on the diamond. Placing him at third base or behind the plate may not be the solution, though, because his hands and fielding actions may be subpar for those spots. Oropesa’s arm would be wasted at first. Left or right field may be a solution, but his slightly below average speed will restrict his range. Adding to the conundrum is the probability that with his large frame Oropesa projects to get slower and not faster as he ages.

Oropesa has struggled at bat in recent events, leading one scout to comment, “He looks like too many people have been whispering in his ear.” Last summer, he began his swing with his weight on his bat leg and then drove forward, attacking the pitch. Oropesa has retained the crouch, but he is standing up on his toes as he swings, an action that imparts topspin to his drives and cuts his driving distance significantly. If he can settle on a position and then reclaim his past hitting form, he will jump right back into early-round consideration.

A few quick notes regarding other position players:

• Watch out for outfielder Zach Collier from Chino Hills High. Collier has an ideal athletic and projectable frame, above-average speed and an acceptable arm. If his lefthanded bat improves, he will be a draft sleeper.

• Palmdale High infielder Malcolm Culver ran hot and cold at the plate, alternating struggles with three long batting-practice homers.

• Fallbrook High first baseman Clark Murphy has intriguing power, but he struggled offensively Sunday. His pre-swing hand movement has caused him to drag the bat head in his swing and leave him tardy. If Murphy can find the swing he displayed at the Aflac game in August, he may play his way back into the first three rounds. Murphy, along with Tyler Chatwood, Dykstra, Gerrit Cole and Chris Amezquita, are part of UCLA’s strong recruiting class.

• Outfielder Brian Humphries from Granite Hills High in El Cajon also had a rough day. Humphries has a fine frame and above-average speed, but his bat appeared slow and his throws from the outfield were not as strong as at other events.

• Third baseman Dimitri De La Fuente, a Pepperdine recruit from South Hills High in West Covina, has added muscle and strength. That has slowed his 60-yard dash times, but has resoundingly increased his power. Dimitri ripped several BP homers, feasting on inside deliveries.

• While he wasn’t high on the prospect radar prior to Sunday, outfielder Cameron Hart from LA’s Crenshaw High opened eyes by launching several BP homers, despite an awkward swing in which his weight stays planted on his back leg. The 5-foot-10, 175-pound Hart’s arm action on his throws is less than ideal, but the ball gets to its destination fairly well. An all-city choice as a quarterback at Crenshaw High as well, Hart would be overmatched if he attempts to play pro ball this year, but if someone can teach him how to play the game, he could become a compelling prospect.

• Servite High third baseman Chris Amezquita missed this event due to a bout with the flu.

Pitching Group Incomplete

Before discussing the pitchers who participated in Sunday’s event, it should be noted that top prospects Gerrit Cole (Orange Lutheran High, Santa Ana) and Jarrett Martin (Centennial High, Bakersfield) were not present, and two-way standouts Gose and Hicks did not pitch.

Tyler Chatwood, from Redlands East Valley High School in Redlands, Calif., was the busiest man on the field Sunday. He took BP, ran a 6.7 60, took infield/outfield, pitched and took some hacks during the contest. Scouts—and apparently Chatwood himself—haven’t figured out what position suits his considerable skills best. To be diplomatic, let’s just say that Sunday’s pregame probably eliminated the infield as Tyler’s future home.

Chatwood did sparkle on the mound and was the day’s best hurler. His fastball ranged from 90 to 93 mph, peaking at 94. Tyler tosses an 82 mph change, but his best pitch is a knee buckling, multi-plane 72-73 curveball. Big league comparisons are always difficult to make, but the 6-foot, 175-pound Chatwood’s performance reminded scouts of a smaller version of Roy Oswalt.

Tall, projectable lefthander Mike Montgomery from Hart High in Newhall showed a clean arm action that delivers a 91-92 mph fastball and 72-74 curve. Montgomery will need to locate his fastball better and work it to the lower sections of the strike zone. He’ll also need to develop additional movement on his pitches, many of which stay up in the zone and will be easy to hit for advanced batters.

Projectable lefty John Lamb from Laguna Hills High has an ideal pitcher’s frame. Lamb had the best mechanics and cleanest arm action of any pitcher on hand Sunday. He gets a hint of arm side movement on his 87-91 mph fastball, which he mixes in with an 83 change. Most encouragingly, his curveball, which previously showed barely a wrinkle, has vastly improved break, tilt and two-plane drop at 77 mph. Lamb shows a decent feel for all of his pitches, and does an advanced job of changing speeds and locations. One crosschecker was overheard remarking, “Wow! Man, I like that guy,” after Lamb’s stint ws over.

Righty Miles Reagan from El Capitan High in Lakeside doesn’t do things conventionally. He has almost exactly copied Trevor Hoffman’s high leg kick and delivery, but Reagan’s arm action resembles a tennis ball boy flipping a new ball to Roger Federer—he flips his wrist. Reagan’s revamped mechanics have not hampered his quality stuff. Miles fastball peaks at 92 and he has a decent 79-81 change. He will need to sharpen and tighten his low-70s curve.

Lanky, projectable lefty Edgar Olmos from Van Nuys’ Birmingham High has a loose and easy delivery, showing an 87 mph fastball and 68-74 mph curve. The 6-foot-4 Olmos doesn’t throw hard enough yet to merit early round draft consideration, but after three years in college (he’s an Arizona recruit) he could conceivably become a premium prospect. His elaborate arm backstroke also could be a concern for scouts, some of whom would see it as an injury concern.

Palmdale High righty Michael Tonkin has had an inconsistent performance in the last year, peaking at 91 mph with his fastball that sits at 87-89. Sunday, it lacked the hard, arm-side run or darting sink he showed in the fall. His curve, meanwhile, has improved, showing sharp bite at 76 mph. Tonkin’s inconsistency stems from his pitching motion, as he has a high leg kick that leads to a sidearm delivery, in which his front side pulls open far too early.

Sunday’s showcase began just after daybreak and ended just prior to sunset. As a tired hoard of scouts filed into the parking lot, one national scout was overheard to say, “Now I’ve got to get on a plane and fly nine hours to the Dominican Republic.”

In his travels, it is doubtful that our friend—or any other scout—will be fortunate to find as much premium talent as was on display Sunday in Compton.