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Leagues : : Story
A Good Day at the Iowa Spring League
Published: Monday, April 05, 2010

It was a beautiful spring day for baseball in Atlantic, Iowa, on Saturday for the second weekend of the Iowa Spring Wood Bat League, with temperatures in the mid 50’s and unfortunately just enough wind to cancel out most of the sunshine and remind you it was still early April in the Upper Midwest. On the one-hour drive over from Omaha on the back farm roads it looked like the fields were just starting to dry up enough for the farmers to start getting into the fields to turn the dirt over.

Players come from literally all over the state to play in the Spring League, and one of the things Perfect Game tries to do every year is move the games around to different parts of the state each weekend so players and their parents have different “commutes” each game. It wouldn’t be good for the league or any of the players if every game was in Cedar Rapids or Des Moines, so the games are spread out. Atlantic is a small farming town in Southwest Iowa and its high school baseball coach, Trace Peterson, does a great job hosting the league every year.

The next two weekends will be played in Waterloo and Carroll.

Both of the first two weekends have brought out about 20 scouts to watch the games, mostly area scouts with a smattering of cross checkers thrown into the mix. The number of cross checkers will increase later in the spring as they start to move north like migrating birds, and the top-prospect pitchers and players get some games under their belts. Many of those cross checkers likely will have circled the Perfect Game Spring Top Showcase the weekend of April 24-25 as a must-see event.

The main scouting game this past Saturday was the 1 p.m. matchup between the Black and Red teams, but plenty of the scouts, along with a couple of junior college coaches, showed up early for the first two games. It was a good time to find a few follows and to catch up on the scouting gossip, of which there is always plenty.

The most impressive performer for me the first two games was LHP Andrew Hedrick, a 2011 southpaw from Ankeny High School in the Des Moines area. I saw Hedrick pitch at the Pitcher/Catcher Indoor Showcase and he was impressive then, getting a PG 9 grade. He was better outdoors, especially in keeping his delivery directional to the plate. Hedrick pitched under control and pounded the strike zone with an 84-87 mph fastball that seemed to jump on hitters, a hard-spinning mid 70’s curveball and a nice changeup. He struck out 8 hitters in 3 innings of work.

One of the best things about the 6-0, 165 lb Hedrick is that there’s little question he’s going to get better over the next couple of years. He is very young in the face and hasn’t started to physically mature much yet. He shows his athleticism in the way he repeats his delivery and moves around the field, and it was instructive to find out that both his parents were college athletes (dad in baseball, mom in basketball), so he has athleticism in his background as well.

The 1 p.m. game between the Black and Red teams featured numerous prospects, all of whom were able to show their tools and skills. Here are some of the highlights.

LHP Jordan Shipers

I have seen Shipers pitch four times now and he’s been outstanding every time out. I am told he looked rusty in his debut the previous weekend, which is understandable, but he was in great form this time out, striking out the first 8 hitters before tiring a bit and allowing a couple of walks and a ground out. Adding up Shipers’ performances at the Area Code Games, Jupiter and Saturday, I’ve seen him throw 10 innings without allowing a hit while striking out 23 batters. I don’t know how much more dominating you can be.

Shipers pitched at the 89-91 mph range with his fastball and showed the ability to both sink it and cut it down in the strike zone. But by far his best pitch, one that had the scouts uttering “wow” just about every time he threw it, was a 78 mph changeup with excellent arm speed at release and hard-diving life at the plate. It was a plus big league pitch and a good lesson for young pitchers: No matter how hard you throw in high school, a good changeup is still going to overmatch hitters. Shipers’ 81 mph slider was his third-best pitch, which is an impressive statement right there.

The only issue that scouts have with Shipers, and it was much discussed, is that he is 5-11, 160 lbs with a fairly non-descript build. But his left arm and pitching ability are anything but non-descript.

RHP Jon Keller
This was Keller’s first outing of the spring and he didn’t pitch at the Pitcher/Catcher Indoor due to a sprained ankle, so a bit of rustiness was understandable. Keller pitched to 11 hitters before reaching his pitch count; he struck out 5 of them and walked the other 6. He threw about 95% fastballs and about 50% strikes and pretty much just reared back and fired. Interestingly, Keller almost never missed in and out, it was always up or down with the fastball.

There was no problem with the velocity, as Keller touched 94 mph and was consistently 92 mph, although the pitch was very straight. He threw a couple of 81 mph sliders that he’s been working on back in Cedar Rapids and a couple of mid 80’s sinkers that could have been an effort at a changeup.

Just as with Shipers last week to this week, it will be telling to watch how Keller throws his second time on the mound and what kind of adjustments he’s able to make with his command and secondary pitches.

SS Kellen Sweeney
Sweeney’s August elbow surgery is quickly becoming a dead issue, as he shows no real signs that it’s held him back in any way. In fact, the only visible effect from the surgery is the 15 lbs of very positive strength that Sweeney has added while focusing on recovery instead of baseball repetitions.

The three most telling moments in Sweeney’s afternoon were:

a) When he went into the hole at shortstop during the first game, backhanded the ball, planted and without hesitation made a strong and accurate throw across the diamond for the out at first. The elbow looked sound, both physically and mentally.

b) When he hit a laser-shot home run off the YMCA beyond the right-field fence off an upper 80’s fastball from 2011 RHP prospect Dakota Freese. That certainly reminded everyone of what Sweeney’s big future tool is going to be.
c) When he hit a line-drive single over the shortstop’s head, sprinted out of the box and never hesitated going around first base, narrowly beating the throw at second for a double. That’s the way Sweeney plays the game, all out, even in an early-season spring league game without a scoreboard on a team named after his jersey color.

RHP Jonathan Musser
It will be interesting watching the development of Musser and Keller over the next few years. Both are signed with Nebraska, so there is a strong chance that the comparison will be easy to watch unless pro ball steps in this summer and takes one of them.

But while Keller has thus far received more prospect attention for his abilities than the 6-4, 180 lb Musser, the difference between the two right handers is growing less and less. Musser had his second straight strong outing on Saturday and it’s easy to plot a steady improvement curve for him over the last few years. He was 88-90 mph over three smooth innings Saturday with good feel for his change up and less feel for his big breaking curveball, understandable at this point in the spring.

As one scout put it, “Yes, Keller throws 4 mph harder now and he could throw steady mid 90’s in the future. But Musser does throw 90 and has a better breaking ball, a better changeup, a better delivery and better command. And he’s going to keep improving as well. Don’t sell Musser short that he might not be the better pitcher in a couple of years.”

C Spencer Navin
Navin has signed with SEC Vanderbilt and there is no question in my mind that he has the defensive skills and tools to do very well at that Top 20 school. He was quick and fundamentally sound behind the plate on Saturday and showed excellent arm strength. Navin has the strength and bat speed to hit at that level and was very comfortable in the box against Shipers and Keller. He’s going to have to make some swing adjustments to shorten his swing and that will go a long way in determining how quickly he will earn his playing time.

Vanderbilt has two outstanding veteran catchers right now in senior Andrew Giobbi and junior Curt Casali, but with Giobbi graduating and Casali being a highly regarded prospect, they could be very well need Navin right away next spring. In RHPs Sonny Gray and Jack Armstrong, Vanderbilt has two 2011 draft-eligible pitchers who are potential first-round picks, a challenge for any young catcher to handle.

RHP Alec Rash
This is a name to definitely store away for the future. The 6-4, 185 lb Rash is a 2012 prospect from a small town just west of Des Moines named Adel. I saw him at the PG Midwest Underclass Showcase last September when he was listed at 6-2, 165 lbs, and he threw 83-86 mph at that event from a raw delivery and had obvious potential.
A bigger and stronger Rash sat at 88-89 mph on Saturday and his delivery mechanics and over-the-top release point were smoother and more consistent. He threw only fastballs and changeups this outing, although he did cut some fastballs with what seemed like intent. He showed nice spin on his curveball in September, so that ability is there.

Rash is also a standout basketball player and both his parents were college athletes (see Andrew Hedrick comments above, this is good background scouting information to have) so he has the requisite athletic ability to keep improving. Don’t be surprised when Rash becomes a national-level prospect over the next year and perhaps the state of Iowa’s top 2012 prospect as well.

2010 Iowa Spring League Stats



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