High-SchoolBaseball: Max Fried

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.

MLB Draft Stock Watch: A final look

June, 1, 2012
6/01/12
10:15
AM ET
Carlos CorreaCal Sport Media via AP ImagesPuerto Rico Baseball Academy (Gurabo, Puerto Rico) shortstop Carlos Correa has seen his stock rise heading into Monday's MLB draft.
Each Friday since the beginning of May, Jason A. Churchill, who covers the MLB draft for ESPN Insider, has looked at the high school prospects whose stock is up and whose stock is down for the draft. Here's his final stock watch heading into the draft, which begins on June 4.

The 2012 MLB draft begins on Monday, so there’s little time, if any at all, for the top high school prospects to impress scouts.

But over the past week, a few elite players, including Carlos Correa and Byron Buxton, have managed to improve their already high draft stock with impressive workouts and performances.

Here’s a look at the players who’ve improved their stock and whose stock is down heading into Monday.

STOCK UP

Carlos Correa, SS, Puerto Rico Baseball Academy (Gurabo, Puerto Rico)
Correa's stock can't get much higher, but he's been mighty impressive in workouts for a handful of clubs selecting in the Top 10, including the Houston Astros, who own the No. 1 overall pick. Correa's chances to stick at shortstop aren't great -- one crosschecker opined those chances at "maybe 10 percent at best" -- but his bat is expected to play at third base, thanks to plus raw power and good all-around hitting skills. It's not out of the question that Correa is the top pick.

Tanner Rahier, SS, Palm Desert (Calif.)
Rahier showed up on the Stock Down list earlier this spring, but more clubs are showing optimism on his chances to remain at shortstop, which boosts his overall value. He has some pop, but his ability to square up the fastball and make consistent contact -- along with that shot to stay at shortstop -- could mean a first-round bonus for Rahier. Third base would likely be the next move should he outgrow short, but there has also been mention of the outfield, where his athleticism would play well and his arm strength would remain an asset.

Byron Buxton, OF, Appling County (Baxley, Ga.)
Like Correa, the two-sport star has been impressive in workouts and there is some buzz that the evaluations of Buxton by the top three clubs -- Houston, Minnesota and Seattle -- have soared since. There now appears to be zero chance Buxton gets past Seattle and a decent chance he goes No. 1 overall to the Astros.

STOCK DOWN

Lewis Brinson, OF, Coral Springs (Fla.)
Brinson is projectable, athletic and signable, but fellow prep outfielders David Dahl and Anthony Alford appear to have passed him up on several draft boards this spring. A few college outfielders are getting some additional attention, which also hurts Brinson's stock. Of course, a club looking to save a little bonus pool money could tab Brinson in the top 40 and spend the savings on other picks.

Cody Poteet, RHP, Christian High School (El Cajon, Calif.)
Poteet, listed at 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, may be falling victim to the projectable arms ranked in the sandwich round through round 3, including California prepsters Shane Watson and Kyle Twomey, as well as Paul Blackburn and Ryan Burr. Poteet is still a lock to go in the top three rounds, unless his commitment to UCLA grows as the selections in the top 50 continue without his name being called.

Lucas Giolito, RHP, Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.)
Giolito started throwing and word is he's working out for clubs, but he's not expected to throw from a mound until well after the draft, which robs clubs the chance to see him in full action. Some teams drafting high don't appear willing to take the risk, but Giolito remains a signable talent with as much upside as any player in the entire class, college or high school, pitcher or hitter. It simply seems that he will not be a top-three pick, and perhaps not even in the 8-10 range.

HOLDING

Albert Almora, OF, Mater Academy (Hialeah Gardens, Fla.)
Gavin Cecchini, SS, Barbe (Lake Charles, La.)
Max Fried, LHP, Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.)
Courtney Hawkins, OF, Carroll (Corpus Christi, Texas)
Addison Russell, SS, Pace (Fla.)
Lucas Sims, RHP, Brookwood (Snellville, Ga.)
Stryker Trahan, C, Acadiana (Lafayette, La.)

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 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.

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.

Gimme Moore: Mater Dei marches to title

April, 1, 2012
4/01/12
2:03
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Baseball NHSIAndrew Craft/ESPNHSMater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) senior Ty Moore was a stud all week for the Monarchs, tossing eight scoreless innings while driving in six to lead Mater Dei to the USA Baseball H.S. Invitational crown.
CARY, N.C. -- Ty Moore knew as soon as the ball came off of his best friend’s bat that the game was over. There was still the little matter of running home, touching the plate, leaping in the air, throwing off his helmet and sprinting toward the rapidly forming celebratory dogpile near the mound, but all that was epilogue to the moment of victory.

Moore scored the winning run Saturday as Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) rallied from a 2-0 deficit to beat Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.), 3-2, in extra innings in the inaugural USA Baseball National High School Invitational.

The Monarchs’ star RHP/OF, and the No. 98 prospect in the ESPN 100, Moore reached first on a misplayed ball in the bottom of the eighth. He then stole second, went to third on a botched pickoff attempt and came home when Ryan Barr cracked a single over his head and into left field.

“I’m speechless,” Moore said. “To go out there and play a crazy game like that and to be the winning run hit in by your best friend? I mean, that’s the best feeling you could ever have in your life.”

Moore also picked up the win, his second in four games, throwing four innings of scoreless relief. He looked tired toward the end and admitted he was running on adrenaline — but there was still no way he was giving up the ball.

“Coach asked me, ‘How you feeling?’ And I said, ‘Good. Don’t take me out,’" Moore said. "And he goes, 'I wasn’t thinking about it.' And I said, ‘No, coach, even if it’s like the 20th inning don’t take me out. It’s my game.’”

In many ways, it was Moore’s tournament. On Thursday, the UCLA signee jacked a three-run homer in addition to picking up the win on the mound, and Friday he went 1-2 with two RBIs and a run scored, plus some highlight-reel plays in the outfield.

“He has this desire to win and he puts it out there on the line every pitch; he’s that type of guy,” said Mater Dei coach Burt Call. “He’s an amazing baseball player.”

Harvard-Westlake first baseman Joe Corrigan doubled to open the game and came around to score on catcher Arden Pabst’s two-bagger. The Wolverines went up 2-0 in the top of the third when Max Fried drove home Casey Rosenfield, who had doubled to start the frame.

The Monarchs had only hit one home run entering the tournament but found the long ball when they needed it. Moore homered on Thursday, and the Monarchs got on the board Saturday in the bottom of the fourth when junior cleanup hitter Ryan McMahon went yard.

Then with one out in the bottom of the seventh, junior Davis Tominaga crushed a Brandon Deere offering over the right field fence to even the game at 2-2.

“I was just trying to help my team any way I could,” Tominaga said. “I don’t mind the home run, though. It was awesome.”

Like Moore, Tominaga had a huge tournament, limiting POWERADE FAB 50 No. 1 Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas) to just three runs in a complete-game effort on Wednesday. He also pitched an inning of scoreless relief on Saturday.

Deere, who didn’t allow a hit through the first three frames, pitched seven strong innings and nearly became the fourth different Wolverine pitcher to toss a complete game in as many days. He was lifted in the eighth — the first time Harvard-Westlake had utilized a relief pitcher all tournament.

While only one team went home smiling, both had reason to be proud of what they accomplished at this elite showcase, which featured 16 national powerhouse programs. Ultimately, though, it came down to two squads from Southern California. No surprise there.

“We kind of feel like in Southern California we play the best brand of baseball in the nation,” Harvard-Westlake coach Matt LaCour said prior to the game. “And there’s other great teams out there and I’m not taking anything away from them, (but) on a daily basis you get tested in Southern California.”

This was certainly a test for both teams. For Mater Dei, it was the first tourney game in which they’d trailed for any substantial amount of time, while Harvard-Westlake was coming off a draining 1-0, nine-inning semifinal win 20 hours earlier. On top of that, both teams endured a three-hour rain delay before the title tilt began.

Mater Dei, which entered the season ranked No. 2 in the FAB 50 but had fallen out of the rankings prior to the event, beat No. 1 Bishop Gorman and No. 2 Carroll (Corpus Christi, Texas) the first two days of the tournament, then two of the best representatives from Florida (American Heritage) and California (Harvard-Westlake) in the next two days.

“I think we’ve proven that we’ve played quality competition,” Call said. “I think we’ve proven ourselves nationwide this week.”

So did Westlake. Missing the nation’s top player in RHP Lucas Giolito, who is out for the season with an injury, the Wolverines got players to step up time and time again, particularly on the mound.

“I don’t think many people gave us a shot in extra innings against Mater Dei on the fourth day of a tournament without Lucas being with us,” LaCour said, “so that’s a credit to the guys that are on the field, that are doing the job. They have stepped up every bit of the way.”

Top prospects shine at H.S. Invitational

April, 1, 2012
4/01/12
1:31
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Baseball NHSIAndrew Craft/ESPNHSMater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) junior catcher Jeremy Martinez celebrates the Monarchs' win over Harvard-Westlake in the championship of the inaugural USA Baseball H.S. Invitational.
CARY, N.C. -- From a scouting perspective, the problem with high school baseball is the lack of competition top draft prospects face throughout the season. With prospects spread out across the country, the cream of the crop are rarely matched up against one another, which makes it difficult to accurately assess their skills.

That is why the USA Baseball National High School Invitational is such a welcome addition to the spring schedule. And not only by the major league scouts and front office executives who came out in droves, but also by the players who got a chance to prove themselves in a competitive environment. You’d be hard pressed to see better high school baseball played anywhere in the country. As one scout put it, “It’s the best collection of talent I’ve seen in one complex in my 20 years of doing this.”

Here’s a look at 10 prospects — in no particular order — who stood out over the four days in North Carolina.

Jeremy Martinez
Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.), C, Jr.

Martinez's beautiful line-drive stroke — in addition to his hustle and leadership — was on full display throughout his team's run to the title. The USC commit also shut down the opposition's running game. Overall, the junior backstop showed once again why he’s one of the top prep prospects in the Class of 2013.

Lucas Sims
Brookwood (Snellville, Ga.), RHP, Sr.

Sims was close to unhittable in his start against Highlands Ranch on Wednesday, giving up just one knock over six innings while striking out 11. His fastball sat between 91-93 mph with a devastating curveball and a changeup that has improved since the Prospect Classic. He’s currently committed to Clemson, but there’s a real chance he’ll be taken in the first 20 picks of June's draft.

Ty Moore
Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.), RHP/OF, Sr.

Moore was one of the better two-way prospects on display over the week. He shut out the vaunted Carroll lineup over five innings on Thursday using a fastball with plenty of movement and a breaking-ball that he commanded well all day. He made good reads on the ball in the outfield, and he showed some pop at the plate by hitting one of the longer homers of the event.

Max Fried
Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.), LHP, Sr.

At No. 4 in the ESPN 100, Fried was one of the most-hyped prospects coming into the event. He didn’t disappoint. The left-handed ace struggled early against Parkview (Lilburn, Ga.), but the UCLA pledge ended up throwing a complete game and striking out eight. He hit 94 on the gun and showed the best breaking-ball of any pitcher in the field.

Arden Pabst
Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.), C, Jr.

Another impressive SoCal catcher from the Class of 2013, Pabst showed impressive pitch recognition and a swing that should be conducive to power as he gets stronger. Behind the plate, he demonstrated solid catch-throw skills. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if Pabst and Martinez are off the draft board very early in 2013.

Courtney Hawkins
Carroll (Corpus Christi, Texas), OF/RHP, Sr.

When you throw a shutout and hit a home run in a 1-0 victory, you know you've had yourself a pretty good day. Hawkins did that Thursday, and he did it against Florida power Gulliver Prep (Pinecrest, Fla.). Hawkins' fastball sat in the low-90s all game, and he touched 94. His combination of arm strength, speed and raw power makes him one of the top prospects for the 2012 draft.

Brandon Lopez
American Heritage (Plantation, Fla.), SS, Sr.

There was no better defensive shortstop over the week than Lopez. The Miami recruit made dazzling plays going to his left and right, and he showed plenty of arm strength for the position as well. He was no slouch with the stick, either, but it’s his glove that makes Lopez such a valuable commodity.

Ryan Burr
Highlands Ranch (Colo.), RHP, Sr.

Burr battled Sims neck and neck for five innings on Wednesday, but some defensive miscues ultimately led to the lopsided final score of 7-0. The Arizona State signee sat in the low-90s and touched 93. Additionally, he showed good commanded of both his fastball and hard-biting breaking ball.

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

Georgia's Gatorade State Player of the Year in 2011, Olson was a dominant force on the mound and at the plate during the tournament. He shut down a strong George Washington (New York) lineup on Wednesday and then crushed a Fried fastball for a homer on Thursday.

Rock Rucker
Russell County (Seale, Ala.), OF, Sr.

In addition to having one of the best names out there, Rucker is an impressive athlete who turned a lot of heads at the event. The left-handed hitting OF has plenty of arm strength — his fastball has been clocked in the 90s — and there’s raw power and plenty of bat-speed in his stroke as well.

Honorable Mentions
Joey Gallo, Bishop Gormon (Las Vegas), 3B/RHP, Sr.
Jack Flaherty, Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.), RHP, Soph.
Adrian Marin, Gulliver Prep (Pinecrest, Fla.), SS, Sr.
Ryan McMahon, Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.), 3B, Jr.
Ivan Pelaez, Gulliver Prep (Pinecrest, Fla.), LHP, Sr.

Christopher Crawford is the founder and executive editor of MLB Draft Insider and a contributor to Prospect Insider. Follow him on Twitter @CrawfordChrisV.

Top NYC team plays on without injured star

March, 29, 2012
3/29/12
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Nelson Rodriguez & Fernelys SanchezLucas O'Neill/ESPNHSNelson Rodriguez (left) has been forced to play without George Washington (New York) teammate Fernelys Sanchez, who is out with a broken leg, at the USA Baseball H.S. Invitational.
CARY, N.C. -- George Washington (New York) has had a rough go of it so far at the USA Baseball National High School Invitational. The lone representative from the Northeast, the Trojans fell to Parkview (Lilburn, Ga.) 11-3 on Wednesday and Russell County (Seale, Ala.) 8-0 on Thursday.

Unlike most of the teams at the tournament, George Washington’s season has essentially just started. They played nine games in March — none against what would be considered national-caliber programs. But the bigger obstacle for the Trojans this week is that they are without star outfielder Fernelys Sanchez, the No. 93 recruit in the ESPN 100.

Well, that’s not technically true. Fernelys made the trip to North Carolina and was there in the dugout for both games, but the large cast on his right leg made playing impossible. Sanchez broke his leg last week when his foot got stuck in the dirt while running the basepaths and is expected to miss 4-6 weeks.

“All I was thinking was just, ‘North Carolina, North Carolina,’ man,” Sanchez recalled. “I was just thinking about this week. I was just really looking forward to joining my team and Nelson…

“It happens, though; it’s baseball," he continued. "Now I’ve just got to adjust to what’s next.”

Nelson would be Nelson Rodriguez, the Trojans’ other senior leader. A star since his freshman campaign, Rodriguez has long been compared to another Trojans’ power-hitter: Manny Ramirez. And the person making the comparison, coach Steve Mandl, is in a position to know: He coached Ramirez at GW.

Rodriguez and Sanchez have been best friends since Little League. One year they were opponents, the next year they were teammates, and the rest is history.

“That’s where everything started right there,” said Sanchez. “From then on, we always played together.”

But that could change next year. While both players have committed to Central Arizona CC, it’s likely that one or both will choose to go pro instead following June's MLB draft. That’s what makes this year all the more important — and Sanchez’s injury all the more disappointing. Still, the Trojans will settle for nothing less than a city championship.

“Now that Fernelys is injured, we have to adjust to the atmosphere,” said Rodriguez. “It’s a big loss and hopefully he gets better soon.”

Playing or not, Sanchez will be there every step of the way.

One-Man Show

Courtney Hawkins led Carroll (Corpus Christi, Texas) over Gulliver Prep (Pinecrest, Fla.) Thursday morning, supplying the game’s only run with a solo blast in the top of the third. Hawkins, No. 26 in the ESPN 100, also pitched 5.1 innings of four-hit ball with nine strikeouts and two walks.

“Courtney kind of showed up today,” said Carroll coach Lee Yeager, whose team entered the tournament No. 2 in the POWERADE FAB 50. “It came down to what he did for us.”

Making the performance more impressive is the fact that Gulliver boasts at least a trio of potential early-round draft picks in Adrian Marin, Chris Chinea and Eric Neitzel. Hawkins did some reconnaissance work before the game to get an edge on the Raiders’ potent lineup.

“I got a little help from some guys in Florida I know that play with them,” he said with a smile.

Giant Killers

Hawkins’ smile was short-lived, figuratively speaking, as within a couple hours his Tiger team was getting trounced by Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.). The Monarchs, who were ranked No. 2 in the preseason POWERADE FAB 50 but had since fallen out of the rankings, had the tournament's toughest draw, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at their box scores.

A day after taking out the nation’s No. 1 team, Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas), by a score of 10-3, Mater Dei defeated No. 2 Carroll by mercy rule, 12-0. Ty Moore led the way for the Monarchs on Thursday, pitching four scoreless innings and hitting a three-run home run.

No. 1*

The radar guns were out in force Thursday as Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.) co-ace Max Fried took the hill against Parkview. The nation’s No. 4 prospect in the ESPN 100, Fried didn’t disappoint, striking out eight in the Wolverines' 10-3 win.

Perhaps more important to the many scouts in attendance, Fried touched 94 mph on the gun and was consistently in the 89-91 range on his fastball. His 80-mph breaking ball was equally devastating. While Fried’s injured teammate, RHP Lucas Giolito, is the No. 1 player in the ESPN 100, Fried might be just as coveted by MLB teams come draft time for one reason: He’s a southpaw.

Harvard-Westlake will face American Heritage (Plantation, Fla.) in the semifinals on Friday.

Come Sail Away

Sarasota (Fla.) is one of the few teams that entered the tournament unranked in the FAB 50, but that could change after the Sailors won both ends of a double-header on Thursday to earn a semifinal tilt with Mater Dei on Friday.

In a morning matchup with Lee County (Sanford, N.C.), Sarasota scored 14 unanswered runs, breaking the game open with five runs in the sixth and another six in the seventh in a 14-2 victory. In the nightcap, sophomore Evan Mendoza went the distance for the Sailors in the 5-3 win.

“This is the best thing I’ve seen done for high school baseball yet,” said coach Clyde Metcalf, who’s in his 31st year at the helm. “Our kids have been really excited about this since it was announced. We’re grateful to be here.”

The Starting Nine: March 29th Edition

March, 29, 2012
3/29/12
9:45
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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.
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.

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.

Virant is other big arm in UCLA's class

March, 9, 2012
3/09/12
7:40
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Hunter Virant, Milwaukee Brewers, Area Code Baseball, Camarillo High SchoolScott Kurtz/ESPNHSCamarillo (Calif.) senior left-hander Hunter Virant went 6-1 last year with a 1.54 ERA and 56 strikeouts in 50 innings.
Recruiting always brings a great deal of hope to college sports fans, who believe multiple four- and five-star prospects signing with their school will change everything.

And sometimes it works out — Michigan’s “Fab Five” in college basketball is a classic example of that.

Now, baseball is a little different when it comes to recruiting those four- and five-star recruits because of the MLB draft. But putting the draft aside, UCLA’s signing class this year is loaded.

The Bruins inked the nation’s top right-hander in Lucas Giolito and left-hander in Max Fried, both from Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.), though Giolito recently found out he could be out of action for up 10 weeks after spraining the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.

Because of Giolito and Fried, Hunter Virant often gets lost in the shuffle in UCLA’s recruiting class, but the Camarillo (Calif.) senior left-hander has plenty of talent himself.

“It’s as good a pitching class as I’ve seen, and (Virant) is a huge reason why,” said a Pac-12 assistant coach. “The kids at Harvard-Westlake get all the attention with good reason, but you watch this kid pitch and you realize that he’s got just as much talent as anyone in the state. That’s going to be one heck of a weekend rotation.”

Rated the nation’s No. 3 left-hander by ESPNHS, Virant went 6-1 last year with a 1.54 ERA and 56 strikeouts in 50 innings pitched, threw a perfect game against Rio Mesa (Oxnard, Calif.) and was named the Pacific View League pitcher of the year. As a reward for his strong season, he was selected to participate in the 2011 Prospect Classic -- a matchup of USA Baseball’s 18U and collegiate national teams --and this summer’s Area Code Games, where he was selected to the New Balance All-Area Code team.

“Being able to play in the Area Code Games is a great honor for any high school baseball player,” said Virant. “One of the more interesting aspects is being around all these different players and seeing the different types of characters. Whenever a team of new players is able to get along, it strengthens the team’s ability to win and play together better. ”

Virant has looked strong once again this season, fanning eight in a recent win over Oaks Christian (Westlake Village, Calif.). And while he’s looking forward to becoming a Bruin, one thing that could stand in the way of him pitching in Steele Field in 2013 is the MLB Draft. ESPN Insider senior baseball analyst Keith Law saw Virant at the Southern California Invitational this February and graded his changeup as the best at the event. He also rates Virant as the draft's No. 17 overall prospect.

So while he might not get the hype of his potential future teammates, Hunter Virant is proving he’s a name to watch this season.

Christopher Crawford is the founder and executive editor of MLB Draft Insider and a contributor to Prospect Insider. Follow him on Twitter @CrawfordChrisV.

The Starting Nine: Preseason look

February, 29, 2012
2/29/12
9:51
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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.

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