SoCal Bureau Event A Hit With Hundreds Of Scouts

2007 MLB Draft Major League Baseball has taken steps to improve its annual draft, establishing a uniform signing date, recommending bonus amounts and even reaching a partnership with ESPN to televise the first round for the first time in 2007.

MLB also has floated plans for having an NFL-style combine before the draft, with the MLB Scouting Bureau getting involved. While MLB has yet to establish such a pre-draft combine, it may have laid the foundation for such an event in early February.

The day after the Super Bowl, a pair of California-based MLSB scouts organized a sort of unofficial kickoff showcase in Southern California that offered a rare and valuable opportunity for scouts. Approximately 150 of them, including at least a dozen scouting directors, took advantage of their chance to evaluate 36 of the region's top high school players at MLB's Urban Youth Academy on the campus of Compton College in California.

"First class. They did a really, really good job," said a crosschecker with an American League organization who attended. "The facility was awesome, and for the time frame they were under, to pull it together like they did was really good."

Players took extended batting and infield practice, were timed in the 60-yard-dash and then played a game under the lights as the throng of scouts looked on, many of whom had trekked to the West Coast for college games that began in earnest that weekend. Showcases are commonplace during the summer and fall, but the chance to see so many of the area's best players all in one place just four months before the draft was a coup for those who crammed the park.

"The timing was definitely an advantage," the crosschecker said. "I think it was a good icebreaker."

SoCal is well stocked with position players, and the cream of the crop, third basemen Matt Dominguez (Chatsworth, Calif., High) and Josh Vitters (Cypress, Calif., High) and middle infielder Ryan Dent (Wilson High, Long Beach) were on hand and showed why they remain among the players in contention for a spot in the first round.

But whether it was the cool temperatures or the pressure of performing on such a unique, high-profile stage, the pitching prevailed as the evening went on.

Senior righthanders Cole Cook (Palisades High, Pacific Palisades, Calif.) and Kyle O'Campo (Poly High, Riverside, Calif.) were surprisingly sharp for a February outing, and flashed above-average velocity. O'Campo, who spent most of November and December concentrating on an intense core-muscle strengthening program and was making just his fifth pitching appearance since, was up to 93 mph with his fastball. He has a hard curveball, which was up to 78 mph, and showed consistent shape and nasty break during his brief outing in Compton.

Puerto Rico Depth Impresses

While serving as the host nation for the Caribbean Series, Puerto Rico also played host to a scouting combine of its own, as the island's top players assembled for scouts as January turned to February.

Once a prime source of talent--in the '80s the island produced the likes of Roberto Alomar, Juan Gonzalez and Ivan Rodriguez--Puerto Rico has declined as a producer of major leaguers, especially when compared to the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. While the introduction of the draft in Puerto Rico (players from there became subject to the draft in 1989) is often cited as the cause of the drop, the rise in popularity of basketball and volleyball has also siphoned off prime athletes from baseball.

In 1994, Puerto Rico produced two first-round picks and a second-rounder, and six Puerto Ricans were drafted in the first five rounds in 2003, the two best performances by the island in the draft in the last 15 years. However, scouts who traveled there in January were encouraged by what they saw.

"There's better depth this year" than in '94, said one National League scout who attended the event. "There are some guys who should at least go in the third round, if not higher."

There's no consensus of who's at the head of the class, though outfielder Angel Morales of the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy has attracted his share of attention based on his grade from the Major League Scouting Bureau. He was given a 66 grade by the Bureau, higher than any other high school-age player eligible for this year's draft. However, scouts who have seen him aren't quite as sold on him as a frequent all-star, which a 66 Overall Future Potential would suggest.

One scout called Morales a "pretty good player" whose best tools were his defense in center field and his speed, and called him a natural center fielder. Morales has the best chance of the island's players to be a first-round pick. But another scout said shortstop Neftali Soto, out of Colegio Marista High in Manati, P.R., rivals Morales as the island's top prospect. Soto, who projects to play third base or the outfield as he fills out his 6-foot-2, 180-pound frame, impressed scouts at the showcase with his potential with the bat.

Shortstop Reynaldo Navarro and outfielder Alexis Oliveras, who are teammates of Morales at the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy, and catcher Emmanuel Quiles, who has athleticism in a 5-foot-11, 170-pound frame round out the island's top five prospects.

"There's always some interesting guys down there, and it was nice to be able to get in there early and get a gauge on this year's crop," a scout with an American League organization said. "It was a nice way to kick-start the season."