High-SchoolFlorida: Zach Collins

Martinez heads Class of 2013 backstops

April, 20, 2012
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.
Each week from now until the end of April, we’ll take a look at the elite Class of 2013 baseball prospects by ranking the Top 5 players at each position. This week, we continue with the Top 5 catchers led by Jeremy Martinez of Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.). Martinez batted .388 with 32 RBIs as a sophomore and led Mater Dei to the USA Baseball National High School Invitational this season.

1. Jeremy Martinez, Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.)
Martinez receives above-average or better grades across the board. He excels on defense, where he possesses a plus arm, good feet and a good understanding of the position. He also shows plus makeup and leadership skills. He's already a draft prospect without talking about his bat and work ethic. Martinez can hit and there's some present power upon which to build. He's headed to USC should he pass on pro ball, but the phone could ring early on Day 1 come June. 2013.

2. Chris Okey, Eustis (Fla.)
Okey is a workout warrior and looks the part of a big-league backstop. He's athletic and has solid defensive tools, including good footwork and an above-average throwing arm. Okey is also very impressive at the plate, using his strong hands, wrists and forearms to generate good bat speed. His approach is sound and there are very few mechanical flaws in his swing. He's a Clemson commit, but he has a shot to play his way into first-day discussion with a strong senior year.

3. Nick Ciuffo, Lexington (S.C.)
Ciuffo has a solid left-handed swing that generates good power and searing line drives. The rest of his game is polished and he shows good makeup and feel. He committed to the Gamecocks prior to his freshman season, which lends an idea how long he's been on the radar. He's as good a present prep backstop there is, including the two players ranked ahead of him.

4. Arden Pabst, Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.)
Pabst can hit and there's at least gap power in the bat to complement his defensive work. He's a solid athlete, too, and has proven he can handle good velocity, suggesting he has the hands to stick at the position long term. He's chosen Georgia Tech for college ball, and they certainly have a way with catchers, having produced Jason Varitek and Matt Wieters.

5. Zach Collins, American Heritage (Plantation, Fla.)
Collins' calling card is plus raw power — the best among the top prep catchers in the country — which goes well with his advanced approach and good feel for catching. At 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, there's a good chance Collins has to move from behind the dish. If he can stay conditioned and focused, however, he could join Wieters as a 6-foot-5 catchers in Major League Baseball. If not, his left-handed power bat could carry him through as a first baseman. And yes, if Collins' chances to remain at catcher were greater, he'd likely sit a few spots higher on this list, perhaps even No. 1.

Others to Watch
Tyler Alamo, Cypress (Calif.)
Jarrett Freeland, Parkview (Lilburn, Ga.)
Ronnie Healy, Jupiter (Fla.)
Anthony Sherlag, Marist (Atlanta)
Christin Stewart, Providence Christian (Lilburn, Ga.)

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: Preseason look

February, 29, 2012
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.

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
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.”