High-SchoolBaseball: Jackson Stephens

Max FriedCourtesy of Matt LaCour/Harvard-WestlakeSenior lefty Max Fried will lead Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.) into this week's USA Baseball National High School Invitational
Four days, 16 teams, 32 games -- however you slice it there is going to be a lot of baseball played between Wednesday and Saturday during the USA Baseball National High School Invitational.

But the event isn’t just about quantity. There’s plenty of quality on hand. Six teams in the POWERADE FAB 50 made the trip to Cary, N.C., along with 10 players in the ESPN 100. The tournament kicks off with American Heritage (Plantation, Fla.) facing Oxford (Ala.) Wednesday at 11 a.m. ET, and it culminates with the championship on Saturday at noon ET in a game that will be streamed live on MLB.com.

Here’s a look at the top storylines to follow as the event unfolds.

Life without No. 1

Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.) had a dream rotation lined up for the spring with top right-hander (and No. 1 overall prospect) Lucas Giolito and top southpaw Max Fried both on the roster. But in his third start of the season on March 6, Giolito left the game with what was later diagnosed as a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. UCL injuries lead to Tommy John surgery, so Giolito did the wise thing and shut it down. He remains extremely unlikely to pitch again this season.

Fortunately for the Wolverines, fate dealt them a second ace for the 2012 season. Fried transferred to Harvard-Westlake after his old school, Montclair Prep (Van Nuys, Calif.), announced it was cutting all extracurricular activities just a couple months before the school year began. Rated the nation’s No. 4 overall prospect, Fried struggled a bit early in the season but has been nails since Giolito went down. In his most recent start last Friday, Fried fanned 14 over five innings in a 9-3 win against Lancaster (Calif.).

Stepping into the No. 2 spot in the rotation is sophomore RHP Jack Flaherty. In the second game of the doubleheader against Lancaster last Friday, Flaherty earned the win on the mound and also smacked a home run. So yeah, don’t count Harvard-Westlake out quite yet.

Titletown

The players on this year’s Columbus (Ga.) baseball team know a little something about winning. In addition to claiming the past two Class AAA state crowns, the Blue Devils boast four players who were on Columbus’ Little League World Series championship team in 2006. Kyle Carter, J.T. Phillips, Josh Lester and Ryan Lang keyed the Little League run, and they haven’t slowed down since.

Carter and Phillips have both pledged to Georgia, but they’d undoubtedly love to add a new piece of hardware to their already loaded trophy cases before they take the next step in their careers. It’s no long shot, either, as Columbus currently sits at No. 3 in the POWERADE FAB 50.

Thawing Out

Of the 16 teams in the tournament, 14 hail from traditional baseball hotbeds. Florida, California and Georgia are each represented by three squads, Alabama will send two, and Texas, Nevada and North Carolina send a team apiece. The remaining two teams don’t quite fit the warm-weather bill, however.

George Washington hails from a few blocks north of Yankee Stadium in New York City, while Highlands Ranch is located in the Denver suburbs. But just because the players on these two teams are handy with a snow shovel doesn’t mean they aren’t adept with a bat and glove as well.

George Washington features a pair of elite talents in outfielder Fernelys Sanchez and catcher Nelson Rodriguez. Sanchez fractured his fibula in a game Saturday and will miss the event, but the power bat of Rodriguez and a deep pitching staff should allow the Trojans to contend for the tournament title.

Highlands Ranch is led by right-hander Ryan Burr. The No. 72 recruit in the ESPN 100, Burr fanned a staggering 95 batters in 53 innings last spring. The Arizona State pledge will get plenty of help in North Carolina from returning All-State picks RHP/SS Tony Audino and C Adam Gauthier.

Young Money

With elite senior prospects on display like No. 4 Fried, No. 5 Joey Gallo of Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas), No. 12 Lucas Sims of Brookwood (Snellville, Ga.) and No. 26 Courtney Hawkins of Carroll (Corpus Christi, Texas), the Class of 2012 is very well represented. But don’t sleep on the talent from the Class of 2013.

Leading the way for the juniors is a pair of catchers: Zach Collins from American Heritage (Plantation, Fla.) and Jeremy Martinez from Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.). Collins is hitting a team-best .500 so far this season through 16 games, while Martinez is coming off a sophomore campaign in which he batted .388 and drove in 32 runs.

Parkview (Lilburn, Ga.) outfielder Josh Hart and Columbus (Ga.) righty Hunter Swilling are another couple juniors to watch. Meanwhile, Sarasota (Fla.) junior outfielder Jason Sierra has already pledged to Vanderbilt.

Sleeper?

Not a single player from Oxford (Ala.) has been mentioned thus far, but the Yellow Jackets have the kind of pitching depth needed to make some noise at an event like this in which teams have to play four games in four days.

A pair of SEC-bound senior right-handers lead the staff in Tucker Simpson (Florida) and Jackson Stephens (Alabama). Each is also dangerous at the plate, but it’s senior outfielder Matthew Goodson who’s the most lethal with the lumber. The Alabama pledge blasted 22 long balls last spring.

Senior hurlers Zach Lovvorn and Frazier Taylor each won seven games last season and provide serious depth at the back end of the rotation. And then there’s Trent Simpson, a budding superstar for Oxford in the junior class.

Add it up, and that just might be the winning formula.

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