High-SchoolBaseball: Lance McCullers Jr

Byron BuxtonMike Janes/Four Seam Images via AP ImagesAppling County (Baxley, Ga.) senior outfielder Byron Buxton showcased all his skills this season en route to being named The Diamond Gem, given to the nation's top player based only on on-field performance.
All season, ESPNHS searched for the nation’s top high school baseball player, regardless of school year and based solely on on-field performance. And every two weeks, we ranked the best nine players in order in The Starting Nine.

Well, The Starting Nine got off to a tough start when the preseason No. 1, Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.) right-hander Lucas Giolito, went down with a season-ending injury.

After Giolito went down, a number of other top players made compelling cases to grab the top spot. But ultimately, the No. 1 position came down to Appling County (Baxley, Ga.) outfielder/right-handed pitcher Byron Buxton and Jesuit (Tampa, Fla.) right-handed pitcher/shortstop Lance McCullers Jr.

In the end, it was Buxton who edged out McCullers Jr. for The Diamond Gem, our award given to the nation’s most outstanding player, based on his dominating season both at the plate and on the mound.

The Starting Nine — Final Edition

1. Byron Buxton, Appling County (Baxley, Ga.)
OF/RHP, Senior
Preseason spot:
No. 3
What he did: The No. 1 player in the ESPN 100 capped off his high school career by striking out 18 in a decisive third-game victory over Pierce County (Blackshear, Ga.) in the Class AA state championship. Buxton finished the year hitting .513 with a .628 on-base percentage, three homers, 35 RBIs, 17 doubles, 68 runs scored and 38 stolen bases. He was 10-1 on the mound with a 1.90 ERA, five saves and 154 strikeouts in 81 innings.

2. Lance McCullers Jr., Jesuit (Tampa, Fla.)
RHP/SS, Senior
Preseason spot:
No. 4
What he did: The Gatorade National Player of the Year allowed just two earned runs all season while going 13-0 with a 0.18 ERA and 140 strikeouts in 77.1 innings. Opponents hit just .106 off McCullers, who also hit two homers and had 21 RBIs and led Jesuit to the Class 5A state semifinals. The No. 7 player in the ESPN 100 was drafted No. 41 overall by Houston.

3. Kyle Carter, Columbus (Ga.)
OF/LHP, Senior
Preseason spot:
No. 8
What he did: Carter played a huge role in Columbus, No. 2 in the POWERADE FAB 50, earning its third straight state title and 12th overall this season. Rated No. 58 in the ESPN 100, Carter went 12-2 with a 0.98 ERA and 116 strikeouts in 86 innings. He also hit .302 with 14 homers and 31 RBIs.

4. Gavin Cecchini, Barbe (Lake Charles, La.)
SS, Senior
Preseason Spot:
No. 6
What he did: A first-round pick of the New York Mets, Cecchini hit at a .467 clip this year while using a wood bat for the majority of the season. Named Gatorade State Player of the Year for the second straight season, Cecchini also had a .527 OBP, seven homers, 32 RBIs and 31 stolen bases while leading Barbe to the Class 5A state championship.

5. Courtney Hawkins, Carroll (Corpus Christi, Texas)
RHP/OF, Senior
Preseason spot:
No. 9
What he did: Hawkins, who was drafted No. 13 overall by the Chicago White Sox, led Carroll to the Class 5A state semifinals. He hit .421 on the year with a .563 OBP, 11 homers, 39 RBIs and 17 stolen bases. He also went 5-2 on the mound with a 0.95 ERA and 58 strikeouts in 36.2 innings.

6. Kyle Marsh, Spruce Creek (Port Orange, Fla.)
RHP, Sophomore
Preseason spot:
Not ranked
What he did: Marsh was spectacular in leading Spruce Creek to a Class 8A state title. He was particularly impressive in postseason play, throwing a perfect game in the district semifinals, a no-hitter in the regional quarterfinals, a two-hitter against then-FAB 50 No. 1 Olympia (Orlando, Fla.) in the regional finals and another two-hitter in the state semifinals. The Central Florida commit finished 11-0 with a 0.43 ERA and 106 strikeouts in 72.2 innings while pitching in Florida’s highest classification.

7. Ty Hensley, Santa Fe (Edmond, Okla.)
RHP, Senior
Preseason spot:
On Deck
What he did: The first-round pick of the New York Yankees went 10-0 this season in leading Santa Fe to the Class 6A state semifinals. Hensley, who was named Gatorade State Player of the Year, fanned 111 in just 55.1 innings and was also a force at the plate, hitting .447 with 10 homers and 42 RBIs.

8. Joey Gallo, Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas)
3B/RHP, Senior
Preseason spot:
No. 2
What he did: The power-hitting Gallo slugged 21 homers this season while hitting .509 and driving in 80. The No. 11 player in the ESPN 100 had four multi-homer games and led Gorman to its seventh consecutive state title. The Gatorade State Player of the Year was drafted No. 39 overall by the Texas Rangers.

9. Stephen Gonsalves, Cathedral Catholic (San Diego)
LHP, Junior
Preseason spot:
Not ranked
What he did: Rated No. 5 in the ESPN 60, the 6-foot-5 southpaw pitched a three-hitter with 8 K’s to lead the Dons to their second straight CIF San Diego Section Division III title with a 3-1 win over El Capitan (Lakeside, Calif.). Gonsalves finished the year 10-0 and struck out 79 in 66 innings.

On Deck

Matt Olson, Parkview (Lilburn, Ga.)
1B/RHP, Senior
Preseason spot:
On Deck
What he did: Olson led the Panthers to their second straight Class AAAAA state title with a two-game sweep of Brookwood (Snellville, Ga.). Olson outdueled first-round pick Lucas Sims on the mound and added a two-run homer in the first game and then hit the game-winning homer in the second. He finished the season with a .407 average, 11 homers and 52 RBIs and went 12-1 with a 1.64 ERA and 85 strikeouts in 85.1 innings. Rated No. 97 in the ESPN 100, Olson was drafted No. 47 overall by the Oakland A’s.

Taylor Hawkins
C, Carl Albert (Midwest City, Okla.)
Preseason spot:
Not ranked
What he did: Hawkins was dominant this season, hitting .391 with 28 homers and 81 RBIs in leading Carl Albert to its third state title in six years. Hawkins was drafted in the 12th round by Tampa Bay.

The Starting Nine: June 7th edition

June, 7, 2012
6/07/12
10:22
AM ET
Stephen GonsalvesBrian Westerholt/Four Seam Images via AP ImagesJunior left-hander Stephen Gonsalves, the No. 5 player in the ESPN 60, went 10-0 this year and helped lead Cathedral Catholic (San Diego) to its second straight section title.
ESPNHS continues its search for the nation’s top high school baseball player, regardless of school year and based solely on on-field performance. Every two weeks, we’ll rank the nine players in order in The Starting Nine. And at the end of the season, whoever is in the top spot will be crowned The Diamond Gem, our award given to the nation’s most outstanding player.

There’s one more week to go in the high school baseball season, which means this year’s campaign for the top spot in The Starting Nine is nearing an end. Courtney Hawkins is still making a push for the top of The Starting Nine and will lead Carroll (Corpus Christi, Texas) into the Class 5A state semifinals on Thursday night.

Meanwhile, pair of talented underclassmen — junior left-hander Stephen Gonsalves of Cathedral Catholic (San Diego) and sophomore right-hander Kyle Marsh — joined The Starting Nine thanks to outstanding seasons.

Check back on June 21 to see how the final Starting Nine plays out.

The Starting Nine — June 7th Edition

Through games of June 4

1. Byron Buxton, Appling County (Baxley, Ga.)
OF/RHP, Senior
Previous spot:
No. 1
What he’s done: The No. 1 player in the ESPN 100 capped off his high school career by striking out 18 in a decisive third-game victory over Pierce County (Blackshear, Ga.) in the Class AA state championship. Buxton finished the year hitting .513 with a .628 on-base percentage, three homers, 35 RBIs, 17 doubles, 68 runs scored and 38 stolen bases. He was 10-1 on the mound with a 1.90 ERA, five saves and 154 strikeouts in 81 innings. Buxton was drafted No. 2 overall by Minnesota. Season complete.

2. Lance McCullers Jr., Jesuit (Tampa, Fla.)
RHP/SS
Previous spot:
No. 2
What he’s done: The Gatorade National Player of the Year allowed just two earned runs all season while going 13-0 with a 0.18 ERA and 140 strikeouts in 77.1 innings. Opponents hit just .106 off McCullers, who also hit two homers and had 21 RBIs and led Jesuit to the Class 5A state semifinals. The No. 7 player in the ESPN 100 was drafted No. 41 overall by Houston. Season complete.

3. Kyle Carter, Columbus (Ga.)
OF/LHP, Senior
Previous spot:
No. 4
What he’s done: Carter played a huge role in Columbus, No. 2 in the POWERADE FAB 50, earning its third straight state title and 12th overall this season. Rated No. 58 in the ESPN 100, Carter went 12-2 with a 0.98 ERA and 116 strikeouts in 86 innings. He also hit .302 with 14 homers and 31 RBIs. Season complete.

4. Gavin Cecchini, Barbe (Lake Charles, La.)
SS, Senior
Previous Spot:
No. 5
What he’s done: A first-round pick of the New York Mets, Cecchini hit at a .467 clip this year while using a wood bat for the majority of the season. Named Gatorade State Player of the Year for the second straight season, Cecchini also had a .527 OBP, seven homers, 32 RBIs and 31 stolen bases while leading Barbe to the Class 5A state championship. Season complete.

5. Courtney Hawkins, Carroll (Corpus Christi, Texas)
RHP/OF
Previous spot:
No. 6
What he’s done: Hawkins and Carroll face A&M Consolidated in the Class 5A state semifinals on Thursday. Rated No. 5 in the ESPN 100, Hawkins carried into the game a .437 average, 11 homers and 39 RBIs. He is 5-2 on the mound with a 0.96 ERA and 57 strikeouts in 36.1 innings. Hawkins, who was named Gatorade State Player of the Year, Hawkins was drafted No. 13 overall by the Chicago White Sox.

6. Kyle Marsh, Spruce Creek (Port Orange, Fla.)
RHP, Sophomore
Previous spot:
Not ranked
What he’s done: Marsh was spectacular in leading Spruce Creek, No. 8 in this week’s FAB 50, to a Class 8A state title. He was particularly impressive in postseason play, throwing a perfect game in the district semifinals, a no-hitter in the regional quarterfinals, a two-hitter against then-FAB 50 No. 1 Olympia (Orlando, Fla.) in the regional finals and another two-hitter in the state semifinals. The Central Florida commit finished 11-0 with a 0.43 ERA and 106 strikeouts in 72.2 innings while pitching in Florida’s highest classification. Season complete.

7. Ty Hensley, Santa Fe (Edmond, Okla.)
RHP, Senior

Previous spot: No. 7
What he’s done: The first-round pick of the New York Yankees went 10-0 this season in leading Santa Fe to the Class 6A state semifinals. Hensley, who was named Gatorade State Player of the Year, fanned 111 in just 55.1 innings and was also a force at the plate, hitting .447 with 10 homers and 42 RBIs. Season complete.

8. Joey Gallo, Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas)
3B/RHP, Senior
Previous spot:
No. 8
What he’s done: The power-hitting Gallo slugged 21 homers this season while hitting .509 and driving in 80. The No. 11 player in the ESPN 100 had four multi-homer games and led Gorman to its seventh consecutive state title. The Gatorade State Player of the Year was drafted No. 39 overall by the Texas Rangers. Season complete.

9. Stephen Gonsalves, Cathedral Catholic (San Diego)
LHP, Junior
Previous spot:
Not ranked
What he’s done: Rated No. 5 in the ESPN 60, the 6-foot-5 southpaw pitched a three-hitter with 8 K’s to lead the Dons to their second straight CIF San Diego Section Division III title with a 3-1 win over El Capitan (Lakeside, Calif.). Gonsalves finished the year 10-0 and struck out 79 in 66 innings. Season complete.

Dropped Out

No. 3 Wyatt Mathisen, Calallen (Corpus Christi, Texas)
C/SS/RHP, Senior

Mathisen had a tremendous year, hitting .433 with three homers and 40 RBIs while going 11-1 on the mound with seven saves and 98 strikeouts in 79 innings. But he struggled in a season-ending loss to Boerne-Champion (Boerne, Texas) in the Class 4A regional semifinals. Mathisen allowed two earned runs (four total) and six hits over seven innings and went 0-for-3 at the dish. Season complete.

No. 9 Ty Moore, Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.)
RHP, Senior

Hard to knock the Gatorade State Player of the Year for what he did the entire season — hitting .406 with three homers and 23 RBIs and going 12-1 with a 0.83 ERA. But like Mathisen, he struggled in his last game, going 1-for-4 in an upset loss to Newbury Park (Calif.) in the CIF Southern Section Division I semifinals. Season complete.

On Deck

Matt Olson, Parkview (Lilburn, Ga.)
1B/RHP, Senior

What he’s done: Olson led the Panthers to their second straight Class AAAAA state title with a two-game sweep of Brookwood (Snellville, Ga.). Olson outdueled first-round pick Lucas Sims on the mound and added a two-run homer in the first game and then hit the game-winning homer in the second. He finished the season with a .407 averaged, 11 homers and 52 RBIs and went 12-1 with a 1.64 ERA and 85 strikeouts in 85.1 innings. Rated No. 97 in the ESPN 100, Olson was drafted No. 47 overall by the Oakland A’s. Season complete.

Taylor Hawkins
C, Carl Albert (Midwest City, Okla.)
What he's done:
Hawkins was dominant this season, hitting .391 with 28 homers and 81 RBIs in leading Carl Albert to its third state title in six years. Hawkins was drafted in the 12th round by Tampa Bay. Season complete.
Lance McCullersMike Janes/Four Seam Images via AP ImagesGatorade National Player of the Year Lance McCullers of Jesuit (Tampa, Fla.) slipped to the Astros in the sandwich round likely due to signability concerns.
High school prospects figured heavily into Monday night's MLB draft, with Puerto Rican prep shortstop Carlo Correa going No. 1 overall in a surprise pick by the Houston Astros and Georgia outfielder Byron Buxton going No. 2 to the Minnesota Twins. In all, 35 high schoolers were drafted out of the 60 picks on Day 1.

Correa became the first Puerto Rican player to be picked No. 1 in the MLB draft. The 6-foot-4, 190-pound native of Santa Isabel has a powerful bat and good speed. Given his size and position, some scouts couldn't help but compare him to a young Alex Rodriguez. Buxton also earned some pretty impressive comparisons throughout the draft process, with names like Justin Upton and Andrew McCutchen being thrown around. The 6-1, 175-pound outfielder burst onto the scene with a number of impressive showings last summer and held strong with his performance at Appling County (Baxley, Ga.) this spring.

Correa wasn't the only high schooler from Puerto Rico who heard his name called Monday, as the Twins used the first pick of the sandwich round on lanky right-hander Jose Orlando Berrios and the Los Angeles Dodgers used the 51st pick on Jesmuel Valentin-Diaz, a teammate of Correa's at the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy.

Many had Lance McCullers Jr. from Jesuit (Tampa, Fla.) pegged as a possible top-10 pick, but his slide into the second round was one of the biggest stories of the evening. McCullers, a 6-2, 205-pound right-handed pitcher, ended up being selected 41st overall by the same team that picked Correa -- the Astros. McCullers, the Gatorade National Player of the Year, may have slipped due to high signing bonus demands, and the $1.25 million assigned to the No. 41 pick surely won't be enough to sway him from his commitment to Florida. The Astros, who have $11.2 million to spend total among their first 11 draft picks, will have to do some creative budgeting if they want to sign both Correa and McCullers Jr.

High school teammates factored prominently into Day 1 of the draft. Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.) pitching aces Max Fried and Lucas Giolito were both selected in the first round. Fried, a 6-3, 170-pound left-hander, heard his name called seventh overall by the San Diego Padres. Fried transferred to Harvard-Westlake for his senior year after his old school cut its athletics department, and after a dominant spring it's no surprise he went in the top 10 picks.

Giolito is a different story. Considered the No. 1 prep prospect entering the spring, the 6-6, 230-pound power righty was sidelined a few weeks into the season with a sprained ulnar-collateral ligament in his right elbow. He only recently began throwing again, and draft experts were split as to whether a team would take the risk and select him in Round 1. The answer to that question turned out to be yes, as the Washington Nationals picked him 16th overall. His pick is slotted at $2.1 million, but it may take more than that to sign him away from his commitment to UCLA, especially considering he was at one time projected to earn a signing bonus of at least twice that much.

Olympia (Orlando, Fla.) teammates Jesse Winker and Walker Weickel were both picked in the sandwich round, with Winker going 49th to the Cincinnati Reds and Weickel going 55th to the Padres. Winker, a sweet-swinging outfielder, had seen his stock surge of late. He hit close to .500 in his senior season with an OBP of .649. There was a time earlier this spring when it looked like Weickel was a sure bet to be picked higher than Winker, possibly even in the first half of the first round. But concerns about diminishing velocity pushed Weickel down draft boards.

In addition to Fried and Weickel, the Padres also grabbed prep right-hander Zach Eflin of Hagerty (Oviedo, Fla.) at No. 33. At 6-5 and 205 pounds, Eflin has a frame scouts love to go with a fastball that has been clocked in the mid-90s. A battle with triceps tendinitis earlier this spring may have hurt Eflin's stock slightly, but he could prove to be one of the steals of the draft. It may be a tough task for San Diego to sign all three of these high-upside selections, but inking even two of them would have to be considered a success.

A few other teams also went high school heavy Monday night. The Toronto Blue Jays used four of their five picks on preps, including first-rounder D.J. Davis from Stone County (Wiggins, Miss.) at No. 17. The Rangers grabbed a trio of prep prospects, with Lewis Brinson of Coral Springs (Fla.) leading the way at No. 29. The Chicago White Sox were doing flips over their draft, as they snagged Carroll (Corpus Christi, Texas) outfielder/pitcher Courtney Hawkins 13th overall (he celebrated by doing a back flip live on TV). With their only other pick of the evening, they grabbed Keon Barnum of King (Tampa, Fla.) -- arguably the high schooler with the best raw power in the draft.

Stray observations

--Solon (Ohio) lefty Matt Smoral had injury issues his senior year — he missed most of the season with a stress fracture in his foot. When healthy, he was considered a potential top 10 talent. Toronto selected him with the No. 50 pick.

--Joey Gallo seems like a perfect fit for the Texas Rangers at No. 39 with his power. Gallo hit .509 with 21 homers and 80 RBIs in his final season at Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas).

--Parkview (Lilburn, Ga.) star Matt Olson played his best ball toward the end of the season in leading the Panthers to their second straight state title. Perhaps that played a role in him landing with Oakland at No. 47.

--Hamilton (Chandler, Ariz.) third baseman Mitch Nay saw his numbers drop this season as he saw fewer good pitches to hit. But there’s no doubt the Blue Jays got a tremendous talent at No. 58 — Nay still impressed enough to earn Gatorade State Player of the Year honors this season.

McCullers Jr. has converted many skeptics

May, 25, 2012
5/25/12
11:43
AM ET

Until recently, the experts who project where baseball prospects will be drafted and how they’ll be used saw Jesuit (Tampa, Fla.) senior right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. as a future relief pitcher.

The idea made his father and his coach incredulous.

“I don’t understand how you classify someone as a reliever” before they get to the majors, said his dad, Lance Sr., himself a former MLB relief pitcher.

“I always thought he had starter potential,” added Jesuit coach Richie Warren, “and this year he’s proven he’s a starter and should be drafted as a starter.”

For his part, McCullers didn’t worry about the skeptics. He knew what people said or predicted was largely out of his control.

“I can look up all these mock drafts, but nothing I do is going to change what’s going to happen,” McCullers said.

Although, that’s not entirely true. What McCullers could control — what he did on the mound this spring — might very well change what happens during the first day of the MLB draft. McCullers went 13-0 with a 0.18 ERA, striking out 140 batters in 77.1 innings. He didn’t allow a single earned run during the regular season and led Jesuit (28-2) to the state semifinals.

In his last high school game, McCullers blanked eventual 6A champs American Heritage (Plantation, Fla.) over six innings in the semis before being pulled — and watching his team fall, 3-0, in extra innings. Jesuit, which was ranked No. 1 in the country prior to the loss, will still likely finish in the top 10 nationally in the POWERADE FAB 50.

Dominant as it was, his performance this season didn’t come as a huge surprise. He is rated the No. 15 prospect in the ESPN 100 and was an All-American last summer. He also earned the prestigious Jackie Robinson Award, which is presented to the nation’s top rising senior prospect.

That being the case, how was it possible he was deemed a future short-innings guy? His dad has a theory: “Because I was a reliever, they didn’t give him any chance to be a starter,” said McCullers Sr.

But perhaps there’s another explanation: The scouts and talent evaluators — at ESPN and elsewhere — had every reason to project McCullers as a reliever, because until this year that’s what he was.

Prior to this spring, McCullers had never been a full-time starter for the Tigers. In his first two years on varsity, he worked mostly as a closer, posting a 0.39 ERA and helping Jesuit advance to the state title game as a sophomore. He did a little bit of everything last year but started just nine of the team’s 34 games, fanning 79 in 52 innings of work.

That he had never pitched long innings was by design. Jesuit has had strong pitching since McCullers made the team as a freshman (one of just two players to do so in the past 15 years, according to Warren), including Daniel Gibson, Jesuit’s ace in 2009 and 2010 and now a sophomore at the University of Florida. McCullers was also one of the team’s top position players — he hit .422 with seven home runs as a junior — and the thought was that he might be drafted as such.

It was evident early on that he had a first-round arm, however, and the scouts didn’t bring their radar guns to test his bat speed. McCullers was throwing in the 90s as a sophomore and was frequently in the upper-90s as a junior. The question became whether he could sustain that velocity over the course of a game or a season.

Some scouts decided the answer was no, that his mechanics lent themselves more to the bullpen. So heading into this season, it was up to McCullers to change their minds.

To prepare for his first season as a full-time starter, McCullers worked out six times a week during the offseason. Monday, Wednesday and Friday were pitching-related: mechanics and building arm strength. There was a lot of medicine ball work. Tuesday and Thursday were dedicated to the gym, in particular focusing on adding muscle to his legs.

With his long-time trainer, Orlando Chinea, and friend Jose Fernandez, the former Alonso (Tampa, Fla.) ace and a first-round pick by the Marlins last June, McCullers would also march into the woods and chop down trees, utilizing muscles unlikely to be touched in normal workout. He didn’t touch a baseball the entire offseason, though he did use a softball to strengthen his shoulder.

Warren never doubted McCullers would be effective. But with the added workload, there were questions of “how he was going to deal with in-game adversity and how he was going to be able to get through innings if he had guys on base,” the coach said.

And while flirting with 100 mph on the gun is great, McCullers needed to show he could maintain both speed and command in the later innings. A knock on McCullers was that he relied too much on his fastball — which as a closer may have been true — so his other pitches would be more important that ever.

McCullers left no doubts. He pitched well with men on base. He walked fewer batters than last year despite pitching 25 more innings. He threw six complete games. In one game, Warren said, McCullers was clocked throwing 98 in the first inning and 97 in the seventh. Because of that heat, his changeup and curve were devastating.

The kicker is that what may have hurt McCullers among prognosticators before the season began — his lack of starting experience — could now be viewed by prospective MLB teams as a plus: He simply doesn’t have a ton of wear and tear on that right arm.

“I know he’s a lot fresher than probably any kid in the country,” said McCullers Sr.

McCullers wouldn’t label the season a total success, since the Tigers came up short of their goal of winning a state championship. The face of the program and a three-year captain, McCullers wanted that title to cement his legacy. Falling short is going to sting for awhile.

But individually, McCullers was nothing short of phenomenal, and he likely put to rest the notion that he’s destined for the bullpen. Keith Law has McCullers going No. 11 overall in his latest mock draft.

He could go higher or drop some. He might wind up eschewing the pro route at this stage, instead heading to Gainesville to play for the Gators. The road to the majors is a long and uncertain one, but McCullers knows the direction he wants to be headed.

“I just want to be the best,” he said. “I want to be the best player to ever play this game. Is that reachable? Who knows. But as long as I’m able to go out there and strap on my cleats … that’s what keeps me motivated that’s what keeps me going.”

The Starting Nine: May 24th Edition

May, 24, 2012
5/24/12
10:11
AM ET
Baseball NHSIAndrew Craft/ESPNHSMater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) senior right-hander Ty Moore has worked himself into The Starting Nine discussion.
ESPNHS continues its search for the nation’s top high school baseball player, regardless of school year and based solely on on-field performance. Every two weeks, we’ll rank the nine players in order in The Starting Nine. And at the end of the season, whoever is in the top spot will be crowned The Diamond Gem, our award given to the nation’s most outstanding player.

We’re coming down to the wire in The Starting Nine and several players are making their case for the top of the order. Byron Buxton continues to shine on both the mound and at the plate, while Lance McCullers Jr. completed one of the more dominant pitching campaigns in recent memory.

Meanwhile, Wyatt Mathisen has powered Calallen (Corpus Christi, Texas) to the No. 1 ranking in the POWERADE FAB 50.

Making the case to join the fray is Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) senior right-hander Ty Moore, who earlier this year helped lead the Monarchs to the USA Baseball H.S. Invitational crown.

The Starting Nine — May 24th Edition

Through games of May 21

1. Byron Buxton, Appling County (Baxley, Ga.)
OF/RHP, Senior
Previous spot:
No. 1
What he’s done: Buxton has strengthened his hold on the top spot and has led Appling County to the Class AA state finals in the process. He’s hitting .523 with a .639 on-base percentage, three homers and 31 RBIs and is 9-0 on the mound with a 1.78 ERA and 125 strikeouts in 67 innings. Appling County begins its state finals series against Pierce County (Blackshear, Ga.) on Saturday.

2. Lance McCullers Jr., Jesuit (Tampa, Fla.)
RHP/SS
Previous spot:
No. 2
What he’s done: McCullers’ squad fell to American Heritage (Plantation, Fla.), in the Class 5A state semifinals. However, McCullers pitched strong in defeat, striking out nine in six innings without allowing a run. Overall, the potential first-round pick delivered a monster campaign, going 13-0 with a 0.18 ERA and 140 strikeouts in 77.1 innings. He allowed two earned runs on the year and opponents managed just a .106 average against him. McCullers also contributed two homers and 21 RBIs at the dish.

3. Wyatt Mathisen, Calallen (Corpus Christi, Texas)
C/SS/RHP, Senior
Previous Spot:
No. 3
What he’s done: Calallen sits at No. 1 in this week’s POWERADE FAB 50 thanks in large part to the work of Mathisen on the mound and at the plate. In a sweep of Ray (Corpus Christi, Texas) in the Class 4A regional quarterfinals, Mathisen went 2-for-3 with an RBI in the first game and then pitched a shutout with eight strikeouts to clinch the series. Overall, he’s hitting .447 with 16 doubles, three homers and 40 RBIs and is 11-0 on the bump with a 1.08 ERA, seven saves and 86 strikeouts in 65 innings.

4. Kyle Carter, Columbus (Ga.)
OF/LHP, Senior
Previous spot:
No. 4
What he’s done: Carter and his Columbus teammates will go for another state crown starting on Saturday against Ringgold (Ga.) in the Class AAA state finals series. Carter is hitting .326 with 14 homers and 31 RBIs and has been walked 25 times. He’s 11-2 on the mound with a 0.80 ERA and 110 strikeouts in 79 innings.

5. Gavin Cecchini, Barbe (Lake Charles, La.)
SS, Senior
Previous Spot:
No. 5
What he’s done: Cecchini sparked Barbe to its sixth state title with a 3-2 win over Archbishop Rummel (Metairie, La.) in the Class 5A state championship. Cecchini batted with .467 with a .566 on-base percentage during the postseason and finished the season hitting .413 with a .527 OBP, seven homers, 32 RBIs and 31 stolen bases. Those numbers are even more impressive when you consider Cecchini used a wood bat for most of the year.

6. Courtney Hawkins, Carroll (Corpus Christi, Texas)
RHP/OF
Previous spot: No. 7

What he’s done: Hawkins is hitting .424 with a .569 on-base percentage, 10 homers, 37 RBIs and 17 stolen bases. He’s 3-2 on the mound with a 0.99 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 28.1 innings. Hawkins and FAB 50 No. 13 Carroll will take on FAB 50 No. 15 Sharyland (Mission, Texas) in the Class 5A regional semifinals on Saturday.

7. Ty Hensley, Santa Fe (Edmond, Okla.)
RHP, Senior
Previous spot: No. 9
What he’s done: Hensley tossed a one-hitter and struck out 13 as Santa Fe defeated Stillwater (Okla.) 4-1 in the Class 6A state quarterfinals. Santa Fe fell to Broken Arrow (Okla.) in the state semis the next day. Hensley finished the year undefeated on the mound at 10-0 and struck out a school-record 111 batters in only 55.1 innings to go with a 1.51 ERA. He also hit .447 with 10 homers and 42 RBIs

8. Joey Gallo, Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas)
3B/RHP, Senior
Previous spot:
On Deck
What he’s done: Gallo led Gorman to its seven consecutive state title while putting up astounding power numbers along the way. In 40 games, the potential first-round pick hit .509 with 21 homers and 80 RBIs. Gallo had four multi-homer outings, including a four-homer game against Clark (Las Vegas).

9. Ty Moore, Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.)
RHP, Senior
Previous Spot:
Not ranked
What he’s done: Moore has been outstanding for the FAB 50 No. 7 Monarchs. He’s 11-1 on the mound with a 0.81 ERA ad 65 strikeouts in 60.1 innings, fanning 14 in a 3-1 win over Rio Mesa (Oxnard, Calif.) in the first round of the CIF Southern Section Division I playoffs. He’s also hitting .415 with three homers and 23 RBIs.

Dropped Out

No. 6 Walker Weickel, Olympia (Orlando, Fla.)
RHP, Senior

Weickel had a strong year, going 12-1. But that one loss came in the Class 8A regional finals when then-FAB 50 No. 1 Olympia was upset by Spruce Creek (Port Orange, Fla.) 8-1.

No. 8 Max Fried, Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.)
LHP, Senior

The nation’s top left-hander was 8-3 with a 2.41 ERA and 111 strikeouts in 69.2 innings, but he struggled in his last regular-season start, allowing six runs in 3.2 innings in a loss to Loyola (Los Angeles).

On Deck

Taylor Hawkins
C, Carl Albert (Midwest City, Okla.)
What he's done: Hawkins helped Carl Albert win its third state title in six years by hitting a solo shot in a 6-2 win over Claremore (Okla.) in the Class 5A state final. It was Hawkins' 28th homer of the season and 74th of his career. The Oklahoma recruit also hit .391 this season with 81 RBIs. Carl Albert is No. 19 in this week's FAB 50.

MLB Draft Stock Watch: Brown earns praise

May, 18, 2012
5/18/12
10:37
AM ET
Ty HensleyScott Kurtz/ESPNHSSanta Fe (Edmond, Okla.) senior right-hander Ty Hensley has turned himself into a potential top 20 pick in this year's MLB draft.
Each Friday from now until the end of May, Jason A. Churchill, who covers the MLB draft for ESPN Insider, will look at the high school prospects whose stock is up and whose stock is down heading into the draft, which begins on June 4.

A number of top prep prospects are finishing up their seasons. So at this point, their stock is only changing due either to growing signability concerns or the improved stock of those still playing. It’s fluid, but it can only take one team’s assessment of a player to change his draft stock.

Here’s an overall look at which prospects have helped and hurt their draft prospects since last week.

STOCK UP

Mitch Brown, RHP, Century (Rochester, Minn.)
Brown's stock is up significantly from a year ago thanks to improved velocity, command and a more consistent delivery that promotes better arm action and deception. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound San Diego commit has been up to 95 mph, and his high-80s cutter is an added weapon. He began the season as a likely Day 2 pick -- perhaps somewhere between rounds four and six -- but has pitched his way into the sandwich-round conversation and may not get past the hometown Twins at No. 42.

Alec Rash, RHP, ADM (Adel, Iowa)
Rash flashed low-to-mid 90s heat in bullpen sessions for scouts as he prepared to start his season (Iowa high school baseball starts in May) and is rising up the charts as a result. Scouts saw 90-92 last summer, but he has added velocity between seasons. He's committed to the University of Missouri, but he could land as high as the compensation round. He gets good plane on his heater and his breaking ball has flashed as an above-average pitch. It would be a surprise if he lasted beyond the second round.

Ty Hensley, RHP, Santa Fe (Edmond, Okla.)
Hensley has the physical tools of a first-round power arm, and that's exactly where ESPN Insider's Keith Law has him going in his latest mock draft. Hensley could potentially go as high as No. 9 to the Miami Marlins, a club that loves to take high school power arms and ride out the upside. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Hensley is committed to Ole Miss, but there's a good chance he doesn’t step foot on campus.

D.J. Davis, Stone County (Wiggins, Miss.)
Davis' signability helps his case -- he's not signed to a Division I school and will attend Meridian Community College and re-enter the draft next June should he not sign this summer. But his 80-grade speed, plus defense in center and improved showing at the plate not only has sent his stock soaring but it may get Davis into the first round. He's a left-handed stick who has displayed selectivity and added pop in 2012 and appears destined to be off the board in the top 30 picks.

Others Trending Up
Giovanni Brusa, OF, St. Mary’s (Stockton, Calf.)
Lance McCullers Jr., RHP, Jesuit (Tampa, Fla.)

STOCK DOWN

Zach Eflin, RHP, Hagerty (Oviedo, Fla.)
Eflin may see his stock drop slightly due to a late injury. Eflin missed about a month with a strained triceps and returned last week to mixed reviews. There's a chance the 6-foot-5, 200-pound right-hander, with his 91-95 mph fastball and polished feel for pitching, could again rise into the top 15 if the triceps issue proves to be a one-time problem.

Hunter Virant, LHP, Camarillo (Calif.)
Virant could be the victim of so many other prospects gaining steam, including a number of prep and college arms. He's not the most projectable of arms, but he could add strength to his 6-foot-2, 175-pound frame that could help him add velocity and improve his ceiling from No. 3 starter to potential No. 2 or better. Former first-round pick Tyler Skaggs, now a top prospect in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization, brought a similar profile to the 2009 draft.

Matt Olson, 1B, Parkview (Lilburn, Ga.)
Olson has big-time raw power and performed well this spring, but is limited to first base and there are other bat-first or bat-only prospects at the prep level that carry higher grades, including Mitch Nay of Hamilton (Chandler, Ariz.) and Joey Gallo of Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas). Olson has a simple swing, but he doesn't incorporate his lower half much and employs a near dead-hand start, which could limit his power against good pitching.

Jason A. Churchill covers scouting, player development and the MLB draft for ESPN Insider, as well as Prospect Insider, where he's the founder and executive editor. You can follow him on Twitter @ProspectInsider and email him at churchill@prospectinsider.com.

MLB Draft Stock Watch: Olympia duo shines

May, 11, 2012
5/11/12
10:30
AM ET
Walker Weickel & Jesse WinkerMike Janes/Four Seam Images via AP ImagesOlympia (Orlando, Fla.) seniors Walker Weickel (left) and Jesse Winker have helped raise their draft stock while dominating for the No. 1 team in the FAB 50.
Each Friday from now until the end of May, Jason A. Churchill, who covers the MLB draft for ESPN Insider, will look at the high school prospects whose stock is up and whose stock is down heading into the draft, which begins on June 4.

The 2012 MLB draft is less than a month away and several top prospects are separating themselves from the pack, while others have seen their stock drop recently.

Prospects see their stock trend up or down in regards to the draft based on several key factors, including performance, signability and injury.

Then there’s the case of Nathan Kirby. We had mentioned this possibility last week, but the James River (Midlothian, Va.) right-hander is dead set on attending the University of Virginia and has told Major League Baseball that he will not be participating in the pre-draft program. Considered a Day 1 talent, Kirby is now virtually ineligible to be drafted, but could be a first-round pick in 2015.

Here’s an overall look at which prospects have helped and hurt their draft prospects since last week.

STOCK UP

Jesmuel Valentin, SS, Puerto Rico Baseball Academy (Gurabo, Puerto Rico)
The son of former big-league infielder Jose Valentin has had a strong season and showed well recently, including at the Excellence Tournament in Puerto Rico late last week. He's a teammate of Carlos Correa, perhaps the No. 2 overall prep prospect in the entire class, so Valentin plays mainly second base. He's capable at short, however, and has enough arm to play there long term. He's a switch hitter, and though there are some questions about the lack of future power, there is bat speed to support a pro career.

Jesse Winker, Olympia (Orlando, Fla.)
Winker has performed well down the stretch and early in the postseason for FAB 50 No. 1 Olympia, including a 2-for-3 effort last week in the quarterfinals. He went yard in that game, a three-run shot, and has been consistently productive over the past few weeks. Winker is a Day 1 threat.

Lance McCullers Jr., RHP, Jesuit (Tampa, Fla.)
McCullers’ domination – he didn’t allow an earned run during the regular season -- has continued during the postseason as he went all seven, fanning 13 and allowing just four hits. Amazingly, those were the most hits he’s allowed in a start all season. As one scout in attendance opined, “We got to see him really focus, and bow his neck today, and the results speak for themselves.”

Walker Weickel, RHP, Olympia (Orlando, Fla.)
Weickel, who started the spring as a potential top 15 pick before sliding a bit due to a velocity plateau, tossed a two-hit shutout last week in the regional quarterfinals to support Winker's offensive efforts. Weickel's still sitting 89-92 mph, but is showing better command of his fastball and breaking ball and projects well thanks to ideal size. The Miami commit could still land in Round 1 and is unlikely to be on the board when the second round begins.

Others Trending Up
Paul Blackburn, RHP, Heritage (Brentwood, Calif.)
Chase DeJong, RHP, Wilson (Long Beach, Calif.)
Steven Duggar, OF, Byrnes (Duncan, S.C.)
Daniel Robertston, SS/3B, Upland (Calif.)
Shane Watson, RHP, Lakewood (Calif.)

STOCK DOWN

Wyatt Mathisen, C/SS, Calallen (Corpus Christi, Texas)
Mathisen has played well this year, but coming into the season much of his draft stock was based on profiling well as a catcher. He's been used primarily at shortstop this season, which has robbed scouts the chance to see him behind the plate, where he could project as a first-round pick.

Addison Russell, SS/3B, Pace (Fla.)
Russell's stock doesn't appear to have taken a major hit, but a few area scouts have expressed their doubts on his future position more so than earlier in the year. He's still a potential first-round pick, but clubs will have to really like the bat if they aren't confident he will stick at shortstop.

Matt Smoral, LHP, Solon (Ohio)
Smoral has missed most of the season with a foot injury. And while that isn't likely to cost him first-round status, it may ultimately keep him out of the top half of the round. Scouts were unable to check the progress of his breaking ball and especially the changeup, and the left-hander has lost development time.

Others Trending Down
Clint Coulter, C, Union (Camas, Wash.)
David Dahl, OF, Oak Mountain (Birmingham, Ala.)
Kieran Lovegrove, RHP, Mission Viejo (Calif.)

Jason A. Churchill covers scouting, player development and the MLB draft for ESPN Insider, as well as Prospect Insider, where he's the founder and executive editor. You can follow him on Twitter @ProspectInsider and email him at churchill@prospectinsider.com.

The Starting Nine: May 10th Edition

May, 10, 2012
5/10/12
11:17
AM ET
Ty HensleyScott Kurtz/ESPNHSSanta Fe (Edmond, Okla.) senior standout Ty Hensley has dominated on both the mound and at the plate to move into The Starting Nine.
ESPNHS continues its search for the nation’s top high school baseball player, regardless of school year and based solely on on-field performance. Every two weeks, we’ll rank the nine players in order in The Starting Nine. And at the end of the season, whoever is in the top spot will be crowned The Diamond Gem, our award given to the nation’s most outstanding player.

Another installment of The Starting Nine means more of Byron Buxton and Lance McCullers Jr. leading the way. But with postseason play underway in most states, it’s a chance for some of the other players to make their move up in the group.

One player has already done that. Stuck in the On Deck spot in recent weeks, Santa Fe (Okla.) star Ty Hensley makes the jump into The Starting Nine after starring on the mound and at the plate. Taking his spot in the On Deck circle is a familiar face — Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas) third baseman Joey Gallo, who started the year No. 2 in The Starting Nine before falling out after struggling early in the season.

The Starting Nine — May 10th Edition

Through games of May 6

1. Byron Buxton, Appling County (Baxley, Ga.)
OF/RHP, Senior

Previous spot: No. 1
What he’s done: Buxton, No. 2 in the ESPN 100 and is No. 1 in Keith Law's Top 100 for the 2012 draft, continues to rake at the dish, hitting .545 with a .649 on-base percentage, 51 runs scored, 15 doubles, three triples, two homers and 22 RBIs. He’s fanned only three times in 88 at-bats and is 31-of-32 in stolen base attempts (he was thrown out trying to steal third. His pitching has been just as vital to the success of Appling County (27-1). Buxton is 6-0 with a 1.66 ERA and 93 strikeouts in 46.1 innings.

2. Lance McCullers Jr., Jesuit (Tampa, Fla.)
RHP/SS
Previous spot:
No. 2
What he’s done: McCullers gave up his first earned run of the season in POWERADE FAB 50 No. 2 Jesuit’s 9-2 win over Robinson (Tampa, Fla.) in the Class 5A, District 11 championship. He followed by fanning 13 in a win over Bayshore (Bradenton, Fla.) in the regional quarterfinals. McCullers is 12-0 with a 0.11 ERA and 120 strikeouts in 65.1 innings. He’s hitting .277 with two homers and 20 RBIs.

3. Wyatt Mathisen, Calallen (Corpus Christi, Texas)
C/SS/RHP, Senior
Previous Spot:
No. 3
What he’s done: Mathisen continues to be a star at both the plate and on the mound for the FAB 50 No. 4 Wildcats. He’s hitting .453 with three homers and 38 RBIs and is 10-0 on the bump with 85 strikeouts in 65 innings. In a 5-0 win over Hidalgo (Texas) in the Class 4A bi-district round of the state playoffs, Mathisen went the distance and was 2-for-3 with a homer and two RBIs.

4. Kyle Carter, Columbus (Ga.)
OF/LHP, Senior
Previous spot:
No. 4
What he’s done: Carter has been equally strong at the plate and on the mound for the Blue Devils (25-3), who are No. 18 in the FAB 50. He’s hitting .370 with 14 homers and 28 RBIs and is 8-2 with a 0.72 ERA on the hill.

5. Gavin Cecchini, Barbe (Lake Charles, La.)
SS, Senior
Previous Spot:
No. 5
What he’s done: Cecchini is playing his best ball with Barbe now in the state tournament, hitting .406 with a .521 on-base percentage, seven homers, five doubles and 32 RBIs. He’s also been a terror on the basepaths — he’s a perfect 29-for-29.

6. Walker Weickel, Olympia (Orlando, Fla.)
RHP, Senior
Previous spot:
No. 6
What he’s done: Weickel was dominant in helping FAB 50 No. 1 win Olympia to a 10-0 win over Boone (Orlando, Fla.) in the Class 8A regional quarterfinals. The Miami recruit allowed only two hits and fanned six in six innings, while teammate Jesse Winker, who could find himself in The Starting Nine soon, went 2-for-3 with a homer and four RBIs. Weickel is 12-0 with a 1.06 ERA and 87 strikeouts and has also hit six homers.

7. Courtney Hawkins, Carroll (Corpus Christi, Texas)
RHP/OF
Previous spot: No. 7
What he’s done:
Hawkins has helped Carroll get back into the top 10 of the FAB 50. He’s hitting .457 with 10 home runs and 36 RBIs and 16 stolen bases and is 3-1 on the mound with a 0.83 ERA and 44 strikeouts in 25.1 innings.

8. Max Fried, Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.)
LHP, Senior
Previous spot:
No. 8
What he’s done: Fried, No. 5 on Law's Top 100, ran his record to 7-2 with a 2.25 ERA and 95 strikeouts in 59 innings. Opponents are hitting just .186 off the lefty, who's also excelled at the plate, batting .438 with a .510 on-base percentage.

9. Ty Hensley, Santa Fe (Edmond, Okla.)
RHP, Senior
Previous spot:
On Deck
What he’s done: Hensley has powered Santa Fe to the Class 6A state tournament and the squad is set to take on Stillwater (Okla.) in the quarterfinals on Thursday. Rated No. 35 in the ESPN 100, Hensley is 9-0 on the mound with a 1.59 ERA and 98 strikeouts in 48.1 innings. He’s also hitting .461 with 10 doubles, 10 home runs 42 RBIs.

Dropped Out

No. 9 Albert Almora, Mater Academy (Hialeah Gardens, Fla.)
OF, Senior

Almora had a phenomenal regular season, hitting .603 with six homers, 34 RBIs, 42 runs scored and 27 stolen bases. But a shocking loss to Hialeah-Miami Lakes (Hialeah, Fla.) in the Class 8A district playoffs ended the season of Mater Academy, which failed to qualify for the regional tournament. Meanwhile, the rest of The Starting Nine was still in postseason play through Sunday.

On Deck

Joey Gallo, Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas)
3B/RHP, Senior
What he’s done:
Gallo was hitting .382 with two homers and 19 RBIs following the National High School Invitational in March and fell out of the rankings. He’s been on a tear since and is now hitting .561 with a .660 on-base percentage, 14 homers and 62 RBIs. In a game against Clark (Las Vegas), Gallo went 5-for-5 with four homers and eight RBIs. He also tossed a no-hitter with nine strikeouts in a win over No. 50 Gloucester Catholic (Gloucester, N.J.) in the championship game of the Easter Classic.

The Starting Nine: April 26th Edition

April, 26, 2012
4/26/12
10:09
AM ET
Gavin CecchiniMike Janes/Four Seam Images via AP ImagesBarbe (Lake Charles, La.) senior shortstop Gavin Cecchini is rated the No. 8 prosect in the ESPN 100.
ESPNHS continues its search for the nation’s top high school baseball player, regardless of school year and based solely on on-field performance. Every two weeks, we’ll rank the nine players in order in The Starting Nine. And at the end of the season, whoever is in the top spot will be crowned The Diamond Gem, our award given to the nation’s most outstanding player.

The top three remain intact in this edition of The Starting Nine, but Kyle Carter of Columbus (Ga.) made the move to the No. 4 spot thanks to his continued two-way dominance. With double digits in home runs and an ERA under 1.00 for the No. 6 team in the POWERADE FAB 50, Carter is closing in on the top of the list.

Three Florida players reached impressive milestones by the end of their regular seasons. Lance McCullers Jr. of Jesuit (Tampa, Fla.) finished the regular season without allowing an earned run in 52.1 innings of work. Walker Weickel of Olympia (Orlando, Fla.) finished the regular season 10-0 on the mound (as did his teammate Michael Hennessey). Albert Almora of Mater Academy (Hialeah Gardens, Fla.) finished the regular season with a batting average over .600 at an impressive .603.

The Starting Nine — April 26th Edition

Through games of April 22

1. Byron Buxton, Appling County (Baxley, Ga.)
OF/RHP, Senior
Previous spot: 1
What he’s done: Buxton is hitting .566 and getting on base at a .663 clip for the 23-1 Pirates. He has added 14 doubles, 46 runs scored and 18 RBIs from the leadoff spot while also stealing 28 bags. On the mound, Buxton is 6-0 with a 1.97 ERA and 78 punchouts in 39 innings.

2. Lance McCullers Jr., Jesuit (Tampa, Fla.)
RHP/SS
Previous spot: 2
What he’s done: McCullers finished the regular season without giving up an earned run, allowing just 14 hits in 52.1 innings while striking out 97. At the dish, he's hitting .273 with 18 RBIs for the No. 2 team in the POWERADE FAB 50.

3. Wyatt Mathisen, Calallen (Corpus Christi, Texas)
C/SS/RHP, Senior
Previous Spot: 3
What he’s done: Mathisen is hitting a cool .449 with 32 RBIs for the No. 7 team in the FAB 50. He's also 8-0 as a pitcher with a 0.81 ERA and 80 strikeouts in 52 innings.

4. Kyle Carter, Columbus (Ga.)
OF/LHP, Senior
Previous spot: 6
What he’s done: The top player on the No. 6 team in the FAB 50, Carter has launched 11 long balls and totaled 26 RBIs. On the bump, the southpaw is 7-1 with a 0.89 ERA and 54 strikeouts in 45 innings.

5. Gavin Cecchini, Barbe (Lake Charles, La.)
SS, Senior
Previous Spot: 5
What he’s done: Cecchini is hitting .395 with a .514 OBP. He's also cracked six home runs and driven in 27 runs, all while using a wooden bat. On the basepaths, he's 25-for-25 in stolen base attempts.

6. Walker Weickel, Olympia (Orlando, Fla.)
RHP, Senior
Previous spot: 7
What he’s done: Weickel is 10-0 for the No. 1 team in the land, posting a 1.47 ERA and 72 K's in 55 innings. He's also chipping in at the dish with a .322 average, six bombs and 23 RBIs.

7. Courtney Hawkins, Carroll (Corpus Christi, Texas)
RHP/OF
Previous spot: 4
What he’s done: Hawkins and the Tigers lost a 7-1 decision to Mathisen's Wildcats last week. Hawkins pitched 4.1 innings with 3 strikeouts and two earned runs allowed in that contest. For the season he's 3-1 on the mound with a 0.83 ERA and 44 K's in 25.1 innings. He's also hitting .461 with eight homers and 33 RBIs.

8. Max Fried, Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.)
LHP/OF, Senior
Previous spot: 8
What he’s done: Fried keeps getting stronger on the mound, with a 6-1 record and 83 strikeouts in 50.1 innings. Opposing batters are hitting just .162 against him. On offense he's hitting .446 with five doubles, 18 RBIs and 12 steals.

9. Albert Almora, Mater Academy (Hialeah Gardens, Fla.)
OF, Senior
Previous spot: 9
What he’s done: Almora finished the regular season with a .603 batting average, six home runs, 34 RBIs and 42 runs scored. He also added 27 stolen bases.

On Deck

Ty Hensley, Santa Fe (Edmond, Okla.)
RHP, Senior
What he’s done: Hensley is firing on all cylinders at the plate and on the mound, but with no one dropping out in this edition he remains in the On Deck spot. Hensley is 7-0 with a 1.40 ERA and 79 K's in 40 innings and he's also hitting .408 with eight homers.

The Starting Nine: April 12th Edition

April, 12, 2012
4/12/12
11:34
AM ET
Max Fried NHSIAndrew Craft/ESPNHSHarvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.) left-hander Max Fried has helped the Wolverines keep pace among the nation's top teams despite the loss of star right-hander Lucas Giolito.
ESPNHS continues its search for the nation’s top high school baseball player, regardless of school year and based solely on on-field performance. Every two weeks, we’ll rank the nine players in order in The Starting Nine. And at the end of the season, whoever is in the top spot will be crowned The Diamond Gem, our award given to the nation’s most outstanding player.

It’s shaping up to be a two-horse race in The Starting Nine with Byron Buxton and Lance McCullers Jr. separating themselves from the rest of the pack as the regular season comes down to the wire. Buxton, who remained No. 1 in Keith Law’s updated Future 50 this week, holds a slight lead over McCullers thanks to his all-around play.

While Buxton and McCullers have held strong in the top two spots, the rest of The Starting Nine has been anything but stable. Three new players have joined the bunch, led by Calallen senior catcher/right-handed pitcher Wyatt Mathisen, who jumps all the way up to the No. 3 spot thanks to his play for the Wildcats, who are 22-0 and No. 2 in the POWERADE FAB 50.

The Starting Nine — April 12th Edition

Through games of April 8

1. Byron Buxton, Appling County (Baxley, Ga.)
OF/RHP, Senior
Previous spot:
No. 1
What he’s done: The sign of an elite player is adjusting to what’s thrown to him. In Buxton’s case, he still hasn’t seen a pitch he could go yard with. The No. 2 player in the ESPN 100 is still batting .519 with 10 doubles and three triples. He’s also walked 16 times, striking out only once, and is a perfect 18-for-18 on stolen-base attempts. On the mound, he’s been exceptional, going 6-0 with a 1.65 ERA and 67 strikeouts with just nine walks in 34 innings. His play has helped Appling County to an 18-0 mark.

2. Lance McCullers Jr., Jesuit (Tampa, Fla.)
RHP/SS
Previous spot:
No. 2
What he’s done: McCullers has been downright filthy on the mound this season, so much so that he nearly bumped Buxton out of the top spot. He’s still hasn’t given up a run, a span that’s now reached 42.1 innings. He’s 8-0, holding opponents to a ridiculously low .069 batting average and has struck out 79. Jesuit is also No. 3 in this week’s FAB 50. The only thing keeping McCullers from overtaking Buxton at this point is that Buxton has been the better all-around player — McCullers is hitting .279 with two homers and 13 RBIs.

3. Wyatt Mathisen, Calallen (Corpus Christi, Texas)
C/SS/RHP, Senior
Previous Spot:
On Deck
What he’s done: Mathisen makes the big jump from On Deck to the three-hole in The Starting Nine based on his play at the plate and on the mound for Calallen (22-0), which is No. 2 in the FAB 50. Mathisen is hitting .460 with a .584 OBP and 26 RBIs and is 6-0 on the mound with a 1.00 ERA, 64 strikeouts and only nine walks in 42 innings.

4. Courtney Hawkins, Carroll (Corpus Christi, Texas)
RHP/OF
Previous spot:
No. 4
What he’s done: Hawkins has been doing it all for Carroll, which is No. 13 in the FAB 50. He’s hitting .441 with a .582 OBP, seven homers and 26 RBIs. He’s 2-0 on the mound with a 0.44 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 16 innings.

5. Gavin Cecchini, Barbe (Lake Charles, La.)
SS, Senior
Previous Spot:
No. 6
What he’s done: Cecchini has improved at the plate the past two weeks, raising his average from .378 to .409. He boasts a .541 OBP, 28 runs scored, four homers and 19 RBIs and is 22-for-22 in stolen base attempts. He has also only committed one error for Barbe, which is 22-6.

6. Kyle Carter, Columbus (Ga.)
OF/LHP, Senior
Previous spot:
No. 7
What he’s done: Carter continues to produce on both the mound and at the plate for Columbus, which is No. 8 in the FAB 50. He’s hitting .354 with eight homers and 17 RBIs and is 5-1 with a 0.95 ERA, two saves and 46 strikeouts in 37 innings.

7. Walker Weickel, Olympia (Orlando, Fla.)
RHP, Senior
Previous spot:
NR
What he’s done: The No. 3 player in the ESPN 100, Weickel has powered Olympia’s surprising run to the No. 1 spot in the FAB 50. He’s 8-0 with a 1.24 ERA and 58 strikeouts in 45 innings. He’s also shown some pop at the plate by clubbing six homers.

8. Max Fried, Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.)
LHP, Senior
Previous spot:
No. 9
What he’s done: Harvard-Westlake has surprised many by staying among the top teams in the nation despite the loss of ESPN 100 No. 1 prospect Lucas Giolito. The Wolverines are No. 7 in the FAB 50 and were the runner-up at the USA Baseball National High School Invitational thanks in large part to Fried, who’s No. 4 in the ESPN 100. He’s 3-1 with a 2.65 ERA and has fanned 54 in 31.2 innings. He’s also been solid at the dish, hitting .434 with a homer and 15 RBIs.

9. Albert Almora, Mater Academy (Hialeah Gardens, Fla.)
OF, Senior
Previous spot:
NR
What he’s done:Almora recently moved up to the No. 3 high school prospect in Keith Law's Future 50, and he makes his debut in The Starting Nine as well. He's raking at the dish to the tune of a .603 average, a .671 OBP, five home runs and 28 RBI. He's also added 14 steals.

On Deck

Ty Hensley, Santa Fe (Edmond, Okla.)
RHP, Senior
What he’s done:
The No. 35 player in the ESPN 100 is 5-0 on the mound with a 1.87 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 30 innings. He’s also hitting .439 with eight homers and 26 RBIs.

Dropped Out

No. 3 Joey Gallo, Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas)
1B/3B/RHP, Senior
What’s he’s done:
This isn’t a knock on Gallo’s talent — he’s clearly one of the top hitters in the nation. But he’s struggled in the past couple of weeks and is hitting .382 with two homers and 19 RBIs. Bishop Gorman also dropped two games at the USA Baseball National High School Invitational, though the Gaels are still No. 12 in the FAB 50.

No. 5 David Dahl, Oak Mountain (Birmingham, Ala.)
OF, Senior
What he’s done:
Dahl is hitting .392 with a .529 OBP, two homers, 12 RBIs and 16 stolen bases. But his team is hovering around the .500 mark with a 15-14 record.

No. 8 Kayden Porter, Spanish Fork (Utah)
RHP/OF, Senior
What he’s done:
Porter has blasted four homers, hit seven doubles and is 2-0 on the mound for FAB 50 No. 25 Spanish Fork. But the Dons have since fallen to No. 2 in Utah behind FAB No. 22 Bingham (South Jordan, Utah) and Porter has been matched both at the plate and on the mound by senior teammate Hayden Nielsen.

The Starting Nine: March 29th Edition

March, 29, 2012
3/29/12
9:45
AM ET
David DahlCal Sport Media via AP ImagesOak Mountain (Birmingham, Ala.) center fielder David Dahl, who hit .449 as a junior, is a potential first-round pick in June's MLB draft.
ESPNHS has begun its search for the nation’s top high school baseball player, regardless of school year and based solely on on-field performance. Every two weeks, we’ll rank the nine players in order in The Starting Nine. And at the end of the season, whoever is in the top spot will be crowned The Diamond Gem, our award given to the nation’s most outstanding player.

There aren’t any major changes in our second update of The Starting Nine. But there is one player who’s threatening to move his way up to No. 1 if he continues his torrid start on the mound. That player is Jesuit (Tampa, Fla.) senior right-hander Lance McCullers Jr., who tossed a no-hitter with 12 strikeouts in his last start. He hasn’t allowed a run through six starts and opponents are hitting just .075 off him.

McCullers jumps up one spot to No. 2 in this week’s rankings, but he couldn’t unseat Appling County (Baxley, Ga.) senior outfielder/right-handed pitcher Byron Buxton. Though he’s not seeing much to hit and has no homers as a result, Buxton is still batting .500 and has also dominated on the bump.

The Starting Nine — March 29th Edition

Through games of March 25

1. Byron Buxton, Appling County (Baxley, Ga.)
OF/RHP, Senior
Previous spot: No. 1
What he’s done: Buxton doesn’t have a homer yet, but he still hasn’t seen anything to hit, either. Hitting from the leadoff spot, Buxton is batting .500 with seven doubles, three triples and eight RBIs and is a perfect 15-for-15 on stolen bases. He’s also got a 1.96 ERA on the bump with 47 strikeouts and only four walks in 25 innings.

2. Lance McCullers Jr., Jesuit (Tampa, Fla.)
RHP/Senior
Previous spot: No. 3
What he’s done: We’re now almost into April and McCullers still hasn’t given up a run this season, running his scoreless streak to 30.1 innings. He’s 6-0 and fanned 57 and walked only nine during that span, and he’s also brought his averaged up to .310.

3. Joey Gallo, Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas)
1B/3B/RHP, Senior
Previous spot: No. 2
What’s he’s done: The nation’s No. 1 team in the POWERADE FAB 50 has started out 8-0 thanks in large part to Gallo, who’s batting .588 with a .667 on-base percentage and 14 RBIs.

4. Courtney Hawkins, Carroll (Corpus Christi, Texas)
RHP/OF
Previous spot: No. 4
What he’s done: Hawkins and Carroll, which is 16-0, continue to roll. Hawkins is hitting .469 with six homers and 23 RBIs and is 1-0 on the mound with a 0.66 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 10.2 innings.

5. David Dahl, Oak Mountain (Birmingham, Ala.)
OF, Senior
Previous spot: No. 5
What he’s done: Dahl's numbers continue to be solid across the board. He's hitting .386 with a .533 OBP, one homer, 27 runs scored nine RBIs, 11 doubles, two triples and 15 stolen bases.

6. Gavin Cecchini, Barbe (Lake Charles, La.)
SS, Senior
Previous Spot: No. 6
What he’s done: Cecchini has propelled Barbe to an 18-4 start with both his hitting and his defense. He’s batting .378 with two homers and 15 RBIs and 15 stolen bases in 15 attempts. And he still hasn’t committed an error in the field.

7. Kyle Carter, Columbus (Ga.)
OF/LHP, Senior
Previous spot: No. 7
What he’s done: Carter has played a huge role in Columbus’ 10-0 start. He’s hitting .387 with six homers and 13 RBIs and is 4-0 on the mound with a 1.17 ERA, two saves and 34 strikeouts in 24 innings.

8. Kayden Porter, Spanish Fork (Utah)
RHP/OF, Senior
Previous Spot: No. 8
What he’s done: Porter is starting to pick it up on both the mound and at the plate and has helped Spanish Fork begin the year at 8-0. He’s hitting .500 with a .581 OBP with two homers and nine RBIs. He’s 1-0 on the hill with a 1.87 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 15 innings. We’re also keeping an eye on his teammate Hayden Nielsen, who’s got a 0.47 ERA.

9. Max Fried, Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.)
LHP, Senior
Previous spot: No. 9
What he’s done: Fried has been rock solid ever since his teammate Lucas Giolito — the nation’s No. 1 recruit — went down with an injury. In two starts over the past two weeks, he struck out 24 batters in 12 innings, including a 14 K performance in five innings against Lancaster (Calif.) on March 23. At the dish, Fried is hitting .459 with 17 RBIs.

Dropped Out

None

On Deck

Wyatt Mathisen, Calallen (Corpus Christi, Texas)
C/SS/RHP, Senior
What he’s done: With Mathisen playing like this, it’s no surprise Calallen is 20-0. He is hitting .426 with 23 RBIs at the dish, and he’s been even more impressive on the hill. He has thrown consecutive complete game victories in his last two starts, including an eight-inning outing in which he pitched into extra innings and fanned 15.

MLB Draft Stock Watch: High School Look

March, 16, 2012
3/16/12
9:46
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Mitch NayMike Janes/Four Seam Images via AP ImagesHamilton (Chandler, Ariz.) senior third baseman Mitch Nay has seen his MLB draft stock rise thanks to a strong start to the 2012 season.
Jason A. Churchill, who covers the MLB draft for ESPN Insider, looks at the high school senior baseball prospects who’ve either helped or hurt their draft stock early in the 2012 season.

The Class of 2012 high school baseball class is one of great promise. While it might lack polish at the top, it offers a lot of projectable, star-level athletes with high ceilings. This class, however, won’t sort itself out until late April and May. From our rough sketch of the top 20 high school prospects that was compiled during the preseason (see below), we’ll look at who’s improving his stock and who’s fading in the early going.

Preseason Top 20

1. Lucas Giolito, RHP, Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.)
2. Byron Buxton, OF, Appling County (Baxley, Ga.)
3. Carlos Correa, SS, Puerto Rico Academy (Gurabo, Puerto Rico)
4. Walker Weickel, RHP, Olympia (Orlando, Fla.)
5. Max Fried, LHP, Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.)
6. Matt Smoral, LHP, Solon (Ohio)
7. Stryker Trahan, C, Acadiana (Lafayette, La.)
8. Joey Gallo, 1B, Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas)
9. Gavin Cecchini, SS, Barbe (Lake Charles, La.)
10. David Dahl, OF, Oak Mountain (Birmingham, Ala.)
11. Lucas Sims, RHP, Brookwood (Snellville, Ga.)
12. Hunter Virant, LHP, Camarillo (Calif.)
13. Rio Ruiz, 3B, Bishop Amat (La Puente, Calif.)
14. Zach Eflin, RHP, Hagerty (Oviedo, Fla.)
15. Clint Coulter, C, Union (Camas, Wash.)
16. Courtney Hawkins, OF, Carroll (Corpus Christi, Texas)
17. Addison Russell, SS, Pace (Fla.)
18. Carson Kelly, 3B, Westview (Portland, Ore.)
19. Tanner Rahier, SS, Palm Desert (Calif.)
20. Corey Seager, 3B, Northwest Cabarrus (Concord, N.C.)

STOCK UP

Mitch Nay, 3B/OF, Hamilton (Chandler, Ariz.)
Nay, Arizona's top prep prospect, has a shot to shoot up the charts with more performances like this week's outing, when he went deep to right-center -- the opposite field for Nay, who’s a right-handed batter -- for a three-run homer.

Ty Buttrey, RHP, Providence (Charlotte, N.C.)
Buttrey touched 95 mph on the radar gun last week and sat firmly in the low-90s. He fanned 12 in 5.2 innings in one start and offers projection at 6-foot-6 and just over 200 pounds. He’s committed to Arkansas, but he could move up into first-day draft consideration.

Eflin
In his latest start, Eflin, a 6-foot-5, 200-pound Central Florida commit, tossed six hitless frames and struck out 12. He has 29 strikeouts in 15 innings on the season, using a 90-94 mph fastball and a potentially plus curveball. He has yet to allow an earned run.

Weickel
Weickel, already a potential top-10 pick and a Miami commit, whiffed 10 in his start last week and has scouts drooling over what might be in a few years. "Sometimes I get lost and imagine him four years down the line," an area scout said. "He could be an absolute horse. The sky's the limit."

STOCK DOWN

Keon Barnum, 1B, King (Tampa, Fla.)
Barnum is hitting for average and power early on but is not showing a consistent ability to recognize and adjust to the breaking ball. Since he's already 19, Barnum has less developmental time ahead of him than most prep draft prospects and is limited to first base defensively, so he has to show even better at the plate than if he offered defensive value. He does possess plus bat speed, and the ball jumps off his barrel, but he's slumped a bit early this season.

Lance McCullers Jr., RHP, Jesuit (Tampa, Fla.)
While McCullers started this year 4-0, he lands on the Stock Down list because scouts hoped to see improvements in some key areas that have not yet been displayed. He's still inconsistent with his command and there are issues with his delivery, including a lot of effort, and the buzz is that he's headed for the bullpen as a professional.

Fried
After faring very well in his first few outings and impressing over the summer, fall and early winter, Fried has looked very pedestrian of late. He's sat 89-92 mph with his fastball and has not commanded his arsenal well in his last two starts, getting touched up in both. It's far too early to suggest this will ultimately impact his draft stock, but the trend isn't rosy.

Giolito
Giolito lands here based solely on his elbow injury. It's been described as a UCL sprain -- I coined it a potential "UCLA sprain" for its impact on Giolito's decision to sign a pro deal or head to UCLA next fall -- but sprains too often turn up as tears, which generally require Tommy John surgery. The right-hander is my No. 1 overall prospect, prep or college, and will remain at the top of the prep list until more is known of his condition.

If Giolito returns and shows he's 100 percent, he's still likely to be selected in the top 5-10 picks, if not the top three.

INJURIES

On top of Giolito's injury, there have been two others that may weaken the prep class and drop the stock of the players in question. Albuquerque Academy (Albuquerque, N.M.) catcher/infielder Alex Bregman broke the tip of his middle finger and is expected to miss the rest of the season. Showing the toughness clubs want to see, Bregman hurt the finger in pregame yet played and had two hits.

Ringgold (Ga.) left-hander Matthew Crownover, the nation’s No. 8 lefty, recently had Tommy John surgery and will miss the rest of the season. He wasn't considered a first-round talent, but he has touched 95 mph and had a shot to sneak into the top 100 despite his lack of ideal height at 6-0. He's likely headed for Clemson and will be draft eligible in 2015.

Jason A. Churchill covers scouting, player development and the MLB draft for ESPN Insider, as well as Prospect Insider, where he's the founder and executive editor. You can follow him on Twitter @ProspectInsider and email him at churchill@prospectinsider.com.

The Starting Nine: March 15th Edition

March, 15, 2012
3/15/12
9:31
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Lance McCullers Jr.Courtesy of Nate CastroJesuit (Tampa, Fla.) senior right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. is 4-0 with a 0.00 ERA and has helped the Tigers to the No. 2 spot in the POWERADE FAB 50.
ESPNHS has begun its search for the nation’s top high school baseball player, regardless of school year and based solely on on-field performance. Every two weeks, we’ll rank the nine players in order in The Starting Nine. And at the end of the season, whoever is in the top spot will be crowned The Diamond Gem, our award given to the nation’s most outstanding player.

Only one player dropped out of The Starting Nine in our first update of the season, but it was a big one. Our preseason No. 1, Lucas Giolito of Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.), was taken out of the running after spraining the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow in last week. Taking his place at No. 1 is Peach State prodigy Byron Buxton of Appling County (Baxley, Ga.), who opened the season on a tear at the plate and on the mound.

David Dahl of Oak Mountain (Birmingham, Ala.) is the one new face on the list, entering The Starting Nine at the No. 5 position. Courtney Hawkins of Carroll (Corpus Christi, Texas) made the biggest jump of the week, catapulting to No. 4 from No. 9 thanks in large part to blasting five home runs in the first 10 games of the season. Hawkins' cross-town rival, Wyatt Mathisen of Calallen (Corpus Christi, Texas), is also off to a fast start and takes the On Deck position as the next player set to enter the rankings should one of the top nine stumble.

Through games of March 12

1. Byron Buxton, Appling County (Baxley, Ga.)
OF/RHP, Senior
Previous spot:
No. 3
What he’s done: Buxton hasn’t seen much to hit (hence his zero homers), but he’s still batting .593 with a .718 on-base percentage, six doubles, three triples and eight RBIs. On the mound, he’s 4-0 with a 1.67 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 21 innings.

2. Joey Gallo, Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas)
1B/3B/RHP, Senior
Previous spot:
No. 2
What’s he’s done: Gallo, who hit .471 with 25 homers and 78 RBIs as a junior, opens his senior season this week.

3. Lance McCullers Jr., Jesuit (Tampa, Fla.)
RHP/SS, Senior
Previous spot:
No. 4
What he’s done: McCullers has been a force on the mound for the POWERADE FAB 50 No. 2 Tigers, going 4-0 with a 0.00 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 19.1 innings. He’s struggled some at the dish, hitting .278, but he does have two homers and eight RBIs.

4. Courtney Hawkins, Carroll (Corpus Christi, Texas)
RHP/OF
Previous spot:
No. 9
What he’s done: Hawkins has been big time for FAB 50 No. 3 Carroll, hitting .514 with five homers and 17 RBIs. He’s also scored 21 times and recorded a .585 OBP. On the mound, he’s 1-0 with 15 strikeouts in only seven innings.

5. David Dahl, Oak Mountain (Birmingham, Ala.)
OF, Senior
Previous spot:
NR
What he’s done: One of the top all-around mashers in the country, Dahl jumps into The Starting Nine after starting the year hitting .447 with a .596 OBP, 19 runs scored, seven doubles, two triples, a homer, four RBIs and nine steals.

6. Gavin Cecchini, Barbe (Lake Charles, La.)
SS, Senior
Previous Spot:
No. 6
What he’s done: Barbe got off to a slow start after Cecchini missed the first six games of the season recovering from an offseason injury. Since his return, Cecchini and the Buccaneers are on a tear. The Bucs have won 10 straight and Cecchini is hitting .381 with a .552 OBP, a homer, nine RBIs and seven stolen bases in seven attempts while playing flawlessly in the field.

7. Kyle Carter, Columbus (Ga.)
OF/LHP, Senior
Previous spot:
No. 8
What he’s done: Carter is a big reason why Columbus currently sits at No. 4 in the FAB 50. He’s hitting .350 with three homers and five RBIs and is 3-0 on the mound with one save, a 1.65 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 17 innings.

8. Kayden Porter, Spanish Fork (Utah)
RHP/OF, Senior
Previous Spot:
No. 5
What he’s done: Spanish Fork has just started its season, and Porter has seen limited action on the hill. But in the four innings he’s worked, he’s fanned 10 and hasn’t allowed an earned run. He’s also got a pair of doubles and driven in two.

9. Max Fried, Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.)
LHP/OF, Senior

Previous spot: No. 7
What he’s done: Fried had one hiccup on the mound (allowing eight earned runs in 3.1 innings in his second start of the year), but other than that he’s been a beast. Fried has fanned 22 in 14.1 innings, while also contributing a .439 average, 10 RBIs and six stolen bases.

On Deck

Wyatt Mathisen, Calallen (Corpus Christi, Texas)
C/SS/RHP, Senior
What he’s done: What hasn’t he done? As the top player on the No. 6 team in the FAB 50, Mathisen is leading the way at the dish and on the bump. He’s hitting .465 with five doubles, 19 RBIs and six steals, and he’s 3-0 as a pitcher with a 1.83 ERA and 34 K’s in 23 innings of work.

Dropped Out

1. Lucas Giolito, Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.)
RHP, Senior
Previous Spot: No. 1
What happened: Giolito looked like the front-runner for The Diamond Gem in the early going, but last week came the tough news that he will likely miss the rest of the season with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.

The Starting Nine: Preseason look

February, 29, 2012
2/29/12
9:51
AM ET
The Starting NineMike Janes/Four Seam Images via AP Images, Scott Kurtz/ESPNHS(From left to right) Byron Buxton, Lucas Giolito and Joey Gallo are the three top preseason candidates for The Diamond Gem, the title bestowed upon the nation's most outstanding baseball player based on on-field performance.

With spring right around the corner, ESPNHS has begun its search for the nation’s top high school baseball player, regardless of school year and based solely on on-field performance.

Every two weeks, we’ll rank the nine players in order in The Starting Nine. And at the end of the season, whoever is in the top spot will be crowned The Diamond Gem, our award given to the nation’s most outstanding player.

So to kick it off, we give you our preseason Starting Nine. Leading the way is Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.) senior Lucas Giolito, the nation’s top right-handed pitcher who dominated opposing hitters last season and has looked very much like an early first-round pick in the early going this year.

The Starting Nine: Preseason

1. Lucas Giolito, Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.)
RHP, Senior
Why he’s here: The nation’s top right-hander, Giolito went 9-0 last year with a 1.00 ERA with 78 strikeouts in 70.1 innings. He also pitched four complete games, three of which were shutouts.

2. Joey Gallo, Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas)
1B/3B/RHP, Senior
Why he’s here: The top player on the top team in the POWERADE FAB 50, Gallo hit .471 last year with 25 homers and 78 RBIs while leading Gorman to its sixth straight state title. He also was 3-1 on the bump with a 1.12 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 18.2 innings.

3. Byron Buxton, Appling County (Baxley, Ga.)
OF, Senior
Why he’s here: The nation’s top outfielder and potential top 10 pick in June’s MLB draft flirted with the .600 mark last season (he finished hitting .594) and clubbed 10 homers while driving in 48 runs.

4. Lance McCullers Jr., Jesuit (Tampa, Fla.)
RHP/SS, Senior
Why he’s here: The hard-throwing right-hander (he’s hit 100 mph on the radar gun) went 5-2 with a 1.71 ERA and 70 strikeouts in 45 innings last season for the Class 4A state runner-up. He also hit .422 with seven homers and 24 RBIs.

5. Kayden Porter, Spanish Fork (Utah)
RHP/OF, Senior
Why he’s here: Porter picked up ESPNHS National Junior of the Year honors last year after leading Spanish Fork to its third straight state title. He went 9-1 with 85 strikeouts in 59 innings and hit .570 with 14 homers and 50 RBIs.

6. Gavin Cecchini, Barbe (Lake Charles, La.)
SS, Senior
Why he’s here: Leader of Louisiana powerhouse picked up Gatorade State Player of the Year honors last season after hitting .548 with 10 homers, 41 RBIs and 32 stolen bases.

7. Max Fried, Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.)
LHP, Senior
Why he’s here: The nation’s top lefty, Fried went 7-3 with a 1.31 ERA and 100 strikeouts in 69.2 innings at Montclair Prep (Van Nuys, Calif.). He transferred to Harvard-Westlake after Montclair Prep cut its athletics program.

8. Kyle Carter, Columbus (Ga.)
OF/LHP, Senior
Why he’s here: Carter, who starred on the Columbus team that won the 2006 Little League World Series, set a single-season school record with 22 homers last season to help Columbus earn its second straight state title and 11th overall. He also hit .467 with 47 RBIs and went 9-4 on the mound with a 2.33 ERA.

9. Courtney Hawkins, Carroll (Corpus Christi, Texas)
RHP/OF, Senior
Why he’s here: The leader of the No. 4 team in the POWERADE FAB 50, Hawkins led Carroll to a state title as a sophomore and the state semifinals last season. As a junior, he hit .410 with 15 homers, 49 RBIs and 22 stolen bases and was 10-2 with a 2.35 ERA and 81 strikeouts.

ON DECK
Another 25 players we’re tracking to begin the 2012 season

OF Albert Almora, Mater Academy (Hialeah Gardens, Fla.), Sr.
RHP Freddy Avis, Menlo School (Atherton, Calif.), Sr.
1B Keon Barnum, King (Tampa, Fla.), Sr.
RHP Ryan Burr, Highlands Ranch (Colo.), Sr.
C Zach Collins, American Heritage (Plantation, Fla.), Jr.
C Clint Coulter, Union (Camas, Wash.), Sr.
OF David Dahl, Oak Mountain (Birmingham, Ala.), Sr.
RHP Ty Hensley, Santa Fe (Edmond, Okla.), Sr.
3B/RHP Carson Kelly, Westview (Portland, Ore.), Sr.
LHP Nathan Kirby, James River (Midlothian, Va.), Sr.
C Jeremy Martinez, Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.), Jr.
C/SS/RHP Wyatt Mathisen, Calallen (Corpus Christi, Texas), Sr.
OF/RHP Ty Moore, Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.), Sr.
3B/OF Mitch Nay, Hamilton (Chandler, Ariz.), Sr.
1B/RHP Matt Olson, Parkview (Lilburn, Ga.), Sr.
3B Rio Ruiz, Bishop Amat (La Puente, Calif.), Sr.
SS Addison Russell, Pace (Fla.), Sr.
RHP Lucas Sims, Brookwood (Snellville, Ga.), Sr.
LHP Matt Smoral, Solon (Ohio), Sr.
1B/RHP Jake Thompson, Rockwall-Heath (Heath, Texas), Sr.
RHP/OF Keegan Thompson, Cullman (Ala.), Jr.
C Stryker Trahan, Acadiana (Lafayette, La.), Sr.
LHP Hunter Virant, Camarillo (Calif.), Sr.
RHP Walker Weickel, Olympia (Orlando, Fla.), Sr.
OF/LHP Jesse Winker, Olympia (Orlando, Fla.), Sr.

Patriots look to rejoin nation's elite

February, 27, 2012
2/27/12
9:29
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Zach CollinsGregg ForwerckAmerican Heritage (Plantation, Fla.) junior Zach Collins was named MVP of last year's IBAF World 'AA'/16U Youth Championships after leading the USA Baseball 16U National Team to a gold medal.
Bruce Aven knew it was time to retire as a major league outfielder when the teams that were calling him wanted him as a coach, not as a player.

A native of Orange, Texas, Aven played for four major league teams from 1997 to 2002. His career ended in 2003 when he suffered a serious knee injury and went for rehab at Memorial Hospital in Pembroke Pines, Fla.

It’s near that location where Aven began the transition to his second career. Aven created the Memorial Sports Center Baseball and Softball Strength Program, which ultimately led to him landing the job as the head baseball coach of American Heritage (Plantation, Fla.) this season. The position opened up after longtime coach Todd Fitz-Gerald left to coach Douglas (Parkland, Fla.)

“I had been offered opportunities to coach in the minors and in college, but I declined,” Aven said. “Coaching was something I thought I’d do when my son (Kolbe, 10) was older. But the chance to coach American Heritage was too good to pass up.”

It’s easy to see why. American Heritage, which finished No. 3 in the POWERADE FAB 50 and won a state title in 2008 when current MLB star Eric Hosmer was playing for the Patriots, seems to have top-tier talent again. The team began the season No. 40 in this year's POWERADE FAB 50 and nine players have already committed to D-I programs from the Patriots, who lost to North Broward Prep (Coconut Creek, Fla.) in last year’s Class 3A regional semifinals.

The team’s top prospect is senior shortstop Brandon Lopez, who has signed with the University of Miami. Lopez, who hit .462 with five home runs last year, has a strong arm and a steady glove.

“I can easily see him going in the top five rounds (in the June draft),” Aven said. “All the scouts are interested in him.”

Another player to watch is junior catcher Zach Collins, who hit .369 for Flanagan (Pembroke Pines, Fla.) last year before transferring to Heritage.

Collins, another Miami recruit, was named the MVP of the 2011 IBAF World 'AA'/16U Youth Championships after leading the USA Baseball 16U National Team to a gold medal.

Rounding out the offense are junior third baseman Danny Zardon, who has committed to LSU; junior second baseman/center fielder Brandon Diaz, who has committed to FIU; and senior right fielder Esteban Puerta, who signed with Florida Atlantic.

The Patriots’ other Brandon Diaz is a senior left-hander and a Stetson recruit who heads a pitching staff that has four elite prospects. The others are all right-handers: senior Domenick Mancini (Florida Atlantic); junior Shaun Anderson (Florida); and senior Alex Seibold (FIU).

Aven is worried about his pitching depth should one of his big four get hurt and has made plans to use Lopez and possibly Zardon on the mound in some circumstances.

“I have no problems pitching,” Lopez said. “I told Coach (Aven) I’ll do whatever he needs.”

Lazaro Llanes, the director of the Selective Recruiting tournament that will feature American Heritage next month, said most teams would love to have the Patriots’ so-called problems.

“Other than Columbus (Miami), there aren’t many teams in the state and probably the country that have four Division-I pitchers,” he said. “And Lopez and Zardon are studs on the mound.”

This year, the Patriots are among the favorites in Class 5A, along with Jesuit (Tampa, Fla.) and its ace pitcher, Lance McCullers Jr.

Aven, though, said his team still has a lot of work to do.

“Sometimes, when a high school team has a lot of talent, you can make four errors and still win,” Aven said. “But we’re teaching our kids to play the right way. Hopefully, a state championship will be a byproduct of playing the right way.”

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