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Arms Emerge In 2013 Southern California Invitational

COMPTON, Calif.–Each February for the better part of the last decade, hordes of scouts have descended upon the MLB Urban Youth Academy in Compton for the MLB Scouting Bureau’s Southern California Invitational showcase. The brainchild of longtime Bureau scout Dan Dixon, the showcase brings together the top draft-eligible high school talent in Southern California, drawing many scouting directors, crosscheckers and area scouts.

Nearly all of the region’s top players were on hand Saturday, with the notable exception of first baseman/outfielder Dominic Smith, whom one scout called “by far the best guy out here.” But most scouts came away with the impression that this SoCal crop features fewer marquee talents than usual.

“There is a lot of depth this year, it’s just not depth at the high end,” an American League area scout said. “It’s depth at the middle to lower end. And a lot of those guys are going to college–they’re not going to take 150,000 bucks. So a lot of these kids are good, but are they good enough to go in the top three rounds? Bottom line for me was there was no star power, other than (Carlos) Salazar–that was it.”

We surveyed an area scout, a crosschecker and a scouting director to get impressions of the talent assembled in Compton, and the consensus was that Salazar–a righthander from the small town of Kerman, just west of Fresno–and San Diego lefthander Ian Clarkin (Madison High) stood out above the rest of the pack Saturday.

It is common for pitchers–who do not need to hold back during their short stints–to dominate at events like this, and that was the case in Compton.

“The pitchers are always going to win at this time of year because they’re fresh, and hitters are just starting to see guys again,” a crosschecker for a National League club said. “When Salazar’s throwing 94-97, that’s just a different speed.”

Salazar, a Fresno State commit with a physical 6-foot, 200-pound frame, was the only pitcher to top 93 mph, and he easily sat 93-96. He’s always had arm strength, but he opened eyes this weekend by showing a quality breaking ball, which he used to freeze Gosuke Katoh and Terrian Arbet for called third strikes in his inning of work (the first). On the fall showcase circuit, his secondary stuff was underdeveloped, which is a major reason Salazar ranked just 65th on BA’s High School Top 100 in November.

“I can tell you this: He made a huge jump in his breaking ball from November to now,” the crosschecker said. “He didn’t have a breaking ball in the fall, but (Saturday) it was 74-78, and it had depth. It wasn’t just a speed pitch, it broke planes. That just shows you how pitchers can change. He’ll fly off the board with that kind of arm. And he’s a tough kid, a real tough kid. He hasn’t played with a lot of those kids, he got invited to that event and he stepped in like he owned it. Him and Clarkin, it was like two men and the rest a bunch of boys trying to be men.”

Clarkin, who is committed to the University of San Diego, separated himself in the eyes of some scouts from the region’s other top southpaw, fellow USD recruit Stephen Gonsalves (Cathedral Catholic HS, San Diego). In November, Gonsalves ranked 13th and Clarkin 14th on our High School Top 100; Gonsalves was 17th in our overall Top 50 list on Feb. 1, while Clarkin was 28th. But Clarkin showed much better in Compton, though it is still just February and much can change between now and the draft.

Like Salazar, Clarkin earned the start for his team (the South), and like Salazar he struck out two in his hitless frame, though he did plunk two batters. He complemented his 90-92 mph fastball with a vicious downer curveball at 74-78, using it as the putaway pitch on both of his strikeouts–including one against marquee prospect J.P. Crawford. He also showed a solid 83 mph changeup, using it to get Jeremy Martinez to ground out weakly.

“When Clarkin comes in throwing 90-93 solid, then snaps off a breaking ball–high school kids aren’t going to hit that. What big leaguer is going to hit that?” the crosschecker said. “I would say the only guy that really separated himself (Saturday) was Clarkin. The combination of fastball, curveball, changeup–he looked and pitched like a big leaguer. The rest of them are just projection guys that have good arms or do one thing good, just guys you’ll go see in the spring and follow and watch.”

Gonsalves has been a big name in Southern California for years because of his projectable 6-foot-5, 190-pound frame, his ability to reach the low 90s from the left side and his feel for a changeup. But his velocity was down a bit in Compton, ranging from 87-89, and his command was off. Scouts have long questioned his ability to spin a breaking ball, and it showed even less power and sharpness Saturday than it did last summer, coming in mostly at 66-68 and occasionally in the low 70s.

Gonsalves and fellow lefthander Chris Kohler (Los Osos HS, Rancho Cucamonga) were two of Saturday’s bigger disappointments, as both struggled mightily with their control. The projectable Kohler also worked in the 87-89 range and showed a better breaking ball than Gonsalves, but scouts said he’ll need to smooth out his mechanics to improve his command.

“The guys we expected to show well didn’t really show well, with the exception of Salazar,” a National League scouting director said. “He was the one guy who kind of met expectations and exceeded them–it was kind of his coming-out party. There were a lot of good players on the field (Saturday), but a lot of the guys didn’t really play up to the tools or their ability.”

Helium Watch

• Salazar might vaulted into first-round discussion this weekend, but he wasn’t the only player who boosted his stock in Compton. A year ago, infielder Timmy Lopes (who went on to sign for $550,000 as a sixth-rounder) and catcher Sammy Ayala (who signed for $258,000–fifth-round money–as a 17th-round pick) made names for themselves at the Southern California Invitational. This year, lefthander Gabe Speier and righty Ryan Olson put themselves on the national radar in Compton.

Speier has a smallish build at 6 feet, 175 pounds, but he showed solid velocity (88-90) and good feel for a three-pitch mix from a three-quarters slot. Speier struck out three of the four hitters he faced (the top four hitters in the South batting order), twice freezing hitters with fastballs over the outside corner and once getting a swing-and-miss for strike three with a fastball. A year ago, Speier worked in the 85-88 range, and scouts were encouraged that his velocity has climbed while his fastball command has not suffered.

“I think Speier stood out–he’s got some projection, he was throwing strikes and actually had good command of all his pitches,” the scouting director said. “He wasn’t using like a trick pitch to get guys out. He was getting his curveball over, getting his changeup over, but also spotting that fastball. He was manipulating the ball; to see that out of a young lefty was kind of interesting.”

Speier, who attends Santa Barbara’s Dos Pueblos High, is committed to UC Santa Barbara.

“No question, Speier’s the guy who made a name for himself,” the crosschecker said. “He’s kind of remote over there in Santa Barbara, so guys don’t know him as well, but he opened some eyes.”

• Olson has a bigger name in scouting circles, but he also helped himself considerably on the big stage in Compton. Another USD commit, Olson set down all four batters he faced, striking out two of them. The 6-foot-2, 175-pounder from Western Christian High in Upland sat comfortably at 90-91 and flashed a promising 79-82 slider.

“From my perspective, if anyone moved himself up a couple notches, it was that guy,” the scouting director said. “He was up to 92, and he’s got plus-plus projection. He’s got a little herky-jerk in his delivery, but it comes out of his hand pretty well, and he could be throwing a lot harder a year from now. I thought the slider was fringy, and it has a chance when he grows into his body to be average or better in the future. That was one guy I hadn’t really heard of that also moved into that next group.”

• None of the position players set themselves apart with monster showings in the game, but several players made favorable impressions with their performance in batting practice, infield/outfield, the 60-yard dash and their at-bats in the game. Players who were already in the High School Top 100 like Mater Dei (Santa Ana) third baseman Ryan McMahon (No. 66) and Great Oak (Temecula) infielder Terrian Arbet (No. 74) showed quality overall packages of tools and baseball skills.

“McMahon uses his hands at the plate better than a lot of these kids,” the area scout said. Though the Southern California signee had just one hit in four at-bats Saturday–a sharp opposite-field single on an 88 mph fastball from Adrian DeHorta–McMahon showed a nice quiet, lefthanded swing and sure infield actions.

All three scouts highlighted Arbet, another San Diego recruit, as a player who impressed them with his energy and baseball instincts as well as his tools. He showed average speed, good hands and a quick release at short, and a nice line-drive stroke from the right side.

“He looks pretty damn good to me,” the crosschecker said. “He can play, and he’s got tools, too.”

• First baseman Jake Bauers, a Hawaii commit from Huntington Beach’s Marina High, just missed BA’s High School Top 100 in November, but his stock is on the rise. The lefthanded-hitting Bauers tripled into the right-center-field gap and scored in his second at-bat Saturday, and scouts liked what they saw from him in batting practice as well. His speed and arm are lacking, tying him to first base, but his bat could carry him.

“I think Bauers has the best bat I saw,” the area scout said. “He squares up everything, he has such good control of his bat. He’s kind of a hitter like Daric Barton, who also played at Marina–just really good, doesn’t swing and miss, a really tough out, doesn’t get fooled. And he’s got juice. I’m real impressed by that kid.”

• Just two players recorded multiple hits in the game: Carlsbad High first baseman Nick Anderson and Arbet’s Great Oak High teammate, outfielder Luke Persico. A 6-foot-2, 170-pound UCLA commit, Persico made more of an impression on scouts. The righthanded hitter collected two hits, doubling in his second at-bat, and showed a mature plate approach, working deep counts and waiting for his pitch.

“He’s got a good body, a real good ceiling for growth–he’s wiry-strong,” the area scout said. “I could see him going to UCLA and being a (Jeff) Gelalich–a really good player with some tools.”

• Scouts agreed that the day’s hardest-hit ball came off the bat of hulking South Hills High first baseman David Denson, a Hawaii signee like Bauers. Denson struck out three times and drew three walks (one of them in a count that began 1-and-1), but in his final at-bat he launched a towering drive to dead center field for a double off a Trenton Brooks curveball. He complements his huge raw power with surprising athleticism in his 6-foot-4, 240-pound frame, and he ran a 7.2-second 60-yard dash–respectable for his size.

• The player who stood out the most for his defense was El Dorado High shortstop Chris Rivera, whose hands, actions, quick release and strong, accurate arm all earned plaudits.

“He is outstanding defenseively,” the area scout said. “That transfer, arm and glove–he is unbelievable. It’s so natural.”

The question with Rivera is whether he will hit. He showed some strength Saturday, turning on a breaking ball for a long foul ball that would have been a home run if it had stayed fair, but he finished 0-for-3, continuing a trend of underperformance at the plate in game action.

“I’ve seen a lot of Rivera, and he’s a tough guy to figure out whether his bat’s going to work,” the scouting director said. “I think defensively he looks really smooth. He put a couple good swings on some balls (Saturday), albeit breaking balls, but he can connect and make some solid contact and put a little backspin on it. But I don’t think I learned any more about him yesterday. Rivera’s got those hands that work really well, but his bat’s got to come around a little bit.”

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