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2018 NHSI: Day One Prospect Notebook

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Matthew Liberatore

CARY, N.C.—Scouts from every major league club converged on USA Baseball’s National Training Complex Wednesday, getting looks at some of the top high school draft prospects in the 2018 class.

The 2018 edition of the annual high school tournament—which is considered one of the most prestigious in the nation and a must-cover event for scouting departments—is particularly heavy on draft talent, with 15 players in attendance who are ranked in the latest Baseball America Top 300 draft prospects list.

Of that group, 14 hit the field on the first day of the tournament, with only Mater Dei (Santa Anna, Calif.) High center fielder Vinny Tosti sidelined with a left hamstring strain. Additionally, Trinity Prep (Winter Park, Fla.) High righthander Slade Cecconi started, but played first base and hit. Cecconi is one of the most talented pitchers in the class but hasn’t pitched in games this spring, though he did make several seemingly full-effort throws from first base Wednesday afternoon.

Had he been fully healthy, Cecconi would have likely matched up with Mountain Ridge (Riverdale, Ariz.) lefthander Matthew Liberatore—currently the top-ranked high school prospect in the class—for the best pitching matchup of the day. Still, the arms were out in plenty on Wednesday, with Liberatore showing off a new pitch, southern California righthander Cole Winn dominating and top-300 prospects in lefthander Luke Bartnicki and righthander Cole Henry getting on the mound as well.

For more on each of those players, and other pitchers who impressed on day one, keep reading. We haven’t forgotten about the many talented hitters in the event, but with most teams bearing down on pitchers Wednesday, and with an extremely small sample currently for the hitters, we’ll save them for a later notebook.

Matthew Liberatore | LHP | Mountain Ridge (Riverdale, Ariz.) High

The uber-projectable southpaw didn’t have his best start Wednesday afternoon, struggling to locate both his fastball and his big, hammer curveball during the first two innings against Trinity Prep.

Liberatore came out of the gate throwing 92-95 in the first inning, but he allowed a hard hit single up the middle to the first batter he faced and then hit a batter and issued a walk to the first two batters he saw in the second inning.

The second frame in particular proved challenging for the Arizona commit, as he needed 28 pitches to get out of the frame, and missed regularly with his fastball—which dropped to the 90-91 mph range—and low-to-mid 70s 12-6 curveball. On top of the location issues to the plate, Liberatore also threw a ball into center field after fielding a comebacker to the mound and attempting to start a 1-6-3 double play.

After the first two frames, some scouts began to fill out and head to other fields to check on the many other talented prospects in the event, but the evaluators who remained were rewarded.

Liberatore found the strike zone in the third inning and induced one groundout and struck out three consecutive batters—one of whom reached first after a throwing error on a dropped third strike—with 75-mph curveballs. He generated four swings and misses in the third inning: two on the curve, one on a 90 mph fastball and the fourth on an 83 mph fading changeup out of the zone. He doubled up in the fourth inning, fanning another three batters and this time getting swings and misses on six of the 12 pitches he threw during the inning.

Three of Liberatore’s 10 strikeouts came via the slider, a pitch that he has added only in the last few weeks and was thrown in the low-80s. At it’s best, it was a solid offering but he was inconsistent with the pitch Wednesday. It lacks the impressive spin and depth of his curveball—which some scouts have called plus—but he did show impressive feel for the offering considering the amount of time he’s had it in his arsenal.

Liberatore retired the final 14 batters he faced, from the bottom of the third inning through his final pitch in the seventh. That number would be 18 straight if you count the one batter who only reached after a dropped third strike.

Final line: 7 IP, 1 H, 2 R (1 ER), 10 K, 1 BB on 101 pitches (63 strikes)

Cole Winn | RHP | Orange (Calif.) Lutheran High

Winn was the most dominant arm on day one, cruising through six innings against Florence (Ala.) High and striking out nine batters on just 76 pitches. He walked two and allowed one hit, but the ball didn’t leave the infield and the Alabama batters didn’t manage to scratch across a single run.

Winn opened the game with a 92 mph fastball and stayed in the 92-95 mph range throughout his first three innings of work. In that span he got eight swings and misses on the pitch (out of 29 fastballs), including two strikeouts.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Winn’s outing was his ability to make adjustments with the pitch when he needed. After recording a groundout and a strikeout on a plus, 77 mph downer curve in the second inning, Winn walked his next batter on four straight 94 mph fastballs. The following batter Winn dialed the heater down to the 90-91 mph range and found the strike zone with both pitches—getting whiffs on both offerings.

He did the same thing again in the third inning after walking a batter on six pitches (fastballs in the 92-95 mph range), dropping down to 90-92, getting in the strike zone and finishing a batter off with a swinging strikeout. It’s possible that Winn simply pitches with a bit less velocity from the stretch, but it’s encouraging to see the Mississippi State commit gather himself after losing the zone and battle back regardless.

In addition to Winn’s fastball—which was a plus offering during the first three innings—he threw a sharp, 74-77 mph 12-6 curveball that has late break and led to at least one awkward swing. He also threw an 82-84 mph slider that was closer to average than his plus curve.

In his first three innings, Winn didn’t get on top of his curveball just once and overthrew his fastball on one occasion, but was otherwise extremely consistent with his release point.

Final line: 6 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 9 K, 2 BB on 76 pitches (56 strikes)

Luke Bartnicki | LHP | Walton (Marrieta, Ga.) High

Wednesday was a day to forget for the Georgia lefthander, who never seemed to have his best stuff throughout a five-inning stint in which he allowed nine hits and seven runs—five of which were of the earned variety.

Bartnicki started his day with a 1-2-3 first inning against Green Hope (Cary, N.C.) High with a 90-91 mph fastball that clocked 94 on his final pitch of the frame: a strikeout looking on the corner of the zone to his glove side.

Things devolved from there, as the Georgia Tech signee needed 34 pitches to get out of the second inning, when he allowed four singles—three of which were hit with authority. Bartnicki settled into 89-91 mph range with his fastball during the second inning and ticked down to 87-88 from the third inning on. Additionally, Bartnicki’s slider was well-below-average (a 30-grade on the 20-80 scale) Wednesday, lacking the movement or tight spin that it has had in the past.

Bartnicki regularly mixed in an 83-84 mph changeup as well.

Final line: 5 IP, 9 H, 7 R (5 ER), 6 K, 3 BB on 92 pitches (58 strikes)

Cole Henry | RHP | Florence (Ala.) High

Henry was the second-best righthander named Cole to throw Wednesday, having the misfortunate to run into a matchup with Winn in the first round.

The Louisiana State commit threw 90-93 mph in the first inning, and then ticked down to 90-92 for the second and third innings and paired his fastball with a 75-77 mph curveball that had 11-5 breaking action and an 82-85 mph changeup that was regularly in the dirt.

Henry’s curveball looked tame in comparison to Winn’s on this particular day, but the pitch has some solid spin and enough bite to cause swings and misses. The pitch led to his first three strikeouts of the day—each in the first inning and each thanks to whiffs.

Henry has a more deliberate leg kick in his windup and some definite head whack through his finish, but stayed in-line to the plate well and seemed to do a good job getting over his lower half. There were some instances of recoil and he does have a bit of a long arm action, but the stuff during his first three innings certainly looked better than the final statline might indicate.

Final line: 5 IP, 8 H, 5 R, 3 ER, 8 K, 1 BB on 104 pitches (68 strikes)

Christian Scott | RHP | Calvary Christian (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) High

Scott threw a complete game for Calvary Christian during a first-round matchup with Hattiesburg, striking out nine batters and allowing just one unearned run. The Florida commit is a lanky, 6-foot-4, 190-pound righthander with a fast arm out of a low, three-quarter slot with plenty of room to add more weight.

During his second and third innings, Scott was pitching off of a fastball that ranged from 89-93 mph and touched 94 mph once in each frame. During his second inning, Scott struck out the side on a 76 mph, three-quarter breaking curveball, a 93 mph fastball down and to his glove side and a 94 mph fastball that was a bit higher than the former. Though the curveball broke a bit earlier than evaluators might prefer to see, it had very impressive depth in a brief look.

Scott showed the ability to dial up the fastball when he needed as well. In the third inning, with center fielder Joe Gray at the plate, Scott went from throwing 89-91 mph to the previous three batters to three fastballs that read, 94, 95 and 93 mph, respectively. He finished the at-bat by getting Gray to fly out to right field.

Final line: 7 IP, 3 H, 1 R (0 ER), 9 K, 1 BB on 102 pitches (71 strikes)

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 Liam Norris | LHP | Green Hope (Cary, N.C.) High | (Class of 2020)

Norris, a class of 2020 North Carolina commit, stole the show from Bartnicki as a physical lefthander during the day’s final game, tossing six innings and allowing just two hits while striking out nine batters. To top it off, Norris also went 3-for-3 at the plate with three hard-hit singles and two RBIs.

Norris throws from the third base side of the rubber with a high, three-quarter arm slot and some stiffness, but was effective cutting through Walton’s roster (which features nine collegiate commits and five Division I commits). Norris throws a heavy fastball mostly in the 88-90 range, regularly getting up to 91 mph, and a couple of breaking balls that were inconsistent but showed promise.

Norris struggled to get on top of a 73-74 mph curveball in the first inning but seemed to find the release point of the pitch in the second, generating two swings and misses with the pitch including one strikeout. He struck out the side in the second, with his other strikeouts coming thanks to an 80 mph slider—one looking to his glove side and one swinging up in the zone.

The pitches started to blend together as Norris’ outing progressed, and he also spiked the two changeups that he threw, but the stuff was extremely exciting for a sophomore and—depending on how he maintains his body the next few years—should continue to improve.

Final line: 6 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 9 K, 4 BB on 103 pitches (65 strikes)

Other Players to Note:

  • Curtis Christian (River Ridge, La.) High shortstop Brandon Davis went 2-for-2 with a double, a walk and two stolen bases Wednesday morning against Hanover (Mechanicsville, Va.) High. The athletic, twitchy infielder showed impressive speed during the game with a clean stride and good instincts on the bases. He also flashed the leather defensively, fielding a ball to his right on the move and making an accurate (albeit one-hop) throw to first base to get the runner in time.
  • Mississippi outfielder Joe Gray barrelled a 90 mph fastball during his first game of the day turning around the velocity but lining straight to the Calvary Christian (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) third baseman. Gray went 1-for-3 with a double at the plate on day one. In the outfield, Gray showed his impressive range on several plays. During one, Gray either misread the ball off the bat or simply lost the ball in the sky (it was cloudy for much of the day Wednesday) but picked it up and made a great adjustment with impressive acceleration and range to get under a fly without any real issues in right-center. On another, Gray got a great jump on a ball that was well-hit over his right shoulder deep into left-center and ran a strong route to position himself behind and under a ball that looked like potential extra bases off the bat.
  • Green Hope (Cary, N.C.) High center fielder Jordyn Adams could have a case as the fastest runner at the tournament and clocked a 4.12 home-to-first time on a 6-3 groundout during his first at-bat against Walton in the final game of the day. Adams could easily have been called safe on the play, and later used his running ability to go from first to second on a throw to home after he singled to left in his second at-bat of the game. Adams went 1-for-4 with one RBI and one stolen base.
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