LAGRANGE, GA- I went to bed Friday night wondering if I saw not just one, but three 1st-rounders that day: Catcher Austin Maddox, outfielder Donavan Tate, and righthanded pitcher Zach Wheeler.
The LaGrange Toyota Invitational Tournament is a yearly affair that brings eight top high school teams from around the southeast. This year’s groupings are especially intriguing, with three schools from Florida, one from Alabama, and four from Georgia.
The first game on Friday was an 11 AM matchup between two north Florida teams: Eagle’s View Academy against Niceville HS. It gave me a look at Mr. Maddox.
The thickly built 6-3, 225 Maddox came into the spring as one of the nation’s best catching prospects and a unique one at that. Maddox’s best tool is undoubtedly his arm-strength.
Texas Rangers catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia (a 1st-round sandwich pick of the Braves in 2003) used to be the “hardest-throwing” high school catcher I ever saw. I gave him a 70 for arm-strength and if I’d ever give an 80, it would be for Austin Maddox.
Now I’ve actually seen a handful of catchers who can put out similar pop-times to Maddox, but none who have his raw arm-strength.
Despite a long throwing motion and only fair footwork, he still pop-timed at 1.75 seconds during a warm-up before the first inning. His other warm-up pops were in 1.9-2.0 and nobody ran on him during 1 ½ games that I watched on Friday.
His arm-strength is such that many scouts are curious to see his start pitching on Saturday (blog to follow).
But for me, he’s a catcher first and foremost. Maddox has a chance to become a power-hitting catcher with a plus-plus arm and average receiving skills.
He’s not a particularly live-bodied or agile kid behind the plate. His hands work okay and he seems to adjust well. Maddox has the strong, developed lower-half with wide hips that should allow him to handle crouching duties over the long term.
In a 10-5 victory over Niceville in the morning, the right hand-hitting Maddox went 2-5 with two singles. In his last at-bat, he struck out on a curveball but I actually like the way he waits on breaking stuff. Maddox starts his swing with his hands low and has only a slight load, but he’s good at staying back on off-speed. There’s a tendency to get tied up with good hard stuff inside when he switches to wood. But he has shown some ability to use his hands. He impressed me by hitting two balls hard to right field (including a double in the night game).
I’d grade his present-day bat-speed to be average MLB (50) and his raw power as solid-average (55). There isn’t a lot of projection left to his relatively mature body, but you can still expect a little increase. Catchers with this overall package don’t grow on trees.
The negative separation between Maddox and the tall power/power high school catchers who went in recent first rounds (think Devin Mesoraco, Joe Mauer, Kyle Skipworth, as well as Saltalamacchia) is that they were all much more flexible and live-bodied. None of them were as physically developed as Maddox and his actions are considerably stiffer, even if they are more powerful.
Scouts like live bodies and loose arms because it often indicates that the best is yet to come whereas “stiff and tight” means the player has maxed out. That’s the debate teams will have about Maddox and where they want to take him.
THE ARMY PROCESSION FOR DONAVAN TATE
I saw something before the Cartersville-Providence (Fla.) game that I’ve never seen before. It was almost eerie.
I walked in about forty minutes prior to game time and saw a line of about thirty scouts on both sides of a pathway that led from the LaGrange High School parking lot to the indoor batting cage. If the scouts weren’t socializing and twirling stopwatches, one might have anticipated an army procession.
Someone made me aware that Cartersville’s bus had not yet arrived.
When it did, Donavan Tate walked out amidst his teammates as they moved down the line of scouts. The scouts, each one of them, ceased all conversation so they could stare him down with every step. This was no easy stroll in the park for Mr. Tate.
If that wasn’t nerve-wracking enough for a teenager, Tate walks into the batting cage (that was not made for spectators) and thirty scouts (including myself) follow, cramming into every nook and cranny just to watch him take his warm-up cuts.
If Tate was rattled, he didn’t show it. His teammates, on the other hand, were wondering what they signed up for.
In the cage, the 6-2, 200 Tate showed a short stroke with major league bat-speed and line-drive power in the present. He stands slightly open and holds his hands a little low. There’s some curl in his bat and he has very quick hips.
During the game against Providence, Tate would go 3-4 including a line-shot homerun to left. He hit the ball hard in all four at-bats. His lone out was an authoritative flyout to right.
Tate didn’t see any major league-type breaking balls, but he still impressed me by not flinching against good high school curves. And he showed me that he could use his hands to adjust to both inside pitches (which his homerun came off of) and outside. I believe, with his low hands and relatively low bat-angle, that major league stuff can get him out inside when he’s swinging wood. But that’s something he has plenty of time to learn and adjust to.
Tate is one of the best pure hitters available for the 2009 Draft and that would make him a high pick on its own. But it’s only part of the package; I have graded Tate as a 65 runner and thrower from the outfield. And though he didn’t have any particularly challenging fly balls to chase, I have seen good instincts and routes in the past. I feel he could be the prototype defensive outfielder with centerfield range and a rightfield arm.
My best body comparison would be to a younger Mike Cameron, who strangely enough played his high school ball on the same LaGrange HS field on which I was watching Tate. Tate has broad but sloped shoulders, with sturdy legs and hips. But there is no thickness, anywhere: not on his legs, not on his torso. I project he’ll gain twenty pounds and be 6-2, 220 by maturity, and still maintain his quickness assuming proper conditioning.
Tate has a chance to become a middle-order hitter who plays top-notch defense in right or center. Such a package is precious and Tate could go very early. He is represented by the Scott Boras Corporation and also has a football scholarship to North Carolina (where he’d play two sports). Those factors will certainly play a part in his bonus demands and that’s the only thing I could see dropping him out of the first five picks in June.
If money were not an object, from what I’ve seen, I’d take San Diego State righty Stephen Strasburg first overall and Tate second.
ZACK WHEELER IN THE NIGHTCAP
East Paulding (Ga.) HS righty Zack Wheeler comes into the spring as the #2 prospect in Georgia by PGCrosschecker.com and a projected first-rounder. He looked the part on Friday night, pitching against Niceville High School.
Wheeler did not throw particularly well last August at the East Coast Pro Baseball Showcase in Lakeland, at least not by his standards. At that event (which was the only time I’d seen him), Wheeler struggled with location and threw 88-90 with a slider that hung.
He came out firing on Friday night, throwing 92-95 MPH for the first three innings with life (sink) on his heater. Wheeler’s slider was much sharper as well, a big-breaking two-planer at 79-80 MPH. At their best (but not consistently), both pitches would grade as plus major league offerings. He was dominant, no-hitting Niceville for the first four of his five innings pitched.
Wheeler’s stuff did dissipate by the fourth; Wheeler’s fastball came down to the 89-91 MPH area and his slider to the mid-70s. More noticeably, he was up with his pitches and his slider was hanging like it did when I saw him in August. Wheeler’s change-up is a mid-80s pitch that’s mostly straight and lacks feel right now.
Physically, standing on the mound, Wheeler looks like a big leaguer. The Major League Scouting Bureau measured him at 6-3, 180 last summer, but I believe he’s 6-4, 200 now and with loads of projection. Wheeler’s legs are noticeably thicker and stronger, and his broad shoulders will allow for further strength gains in his upper-half. I can see him at a solid 6-4, 225+ one day.
A concern scouts will have with Wheeler is his command. Not that he’s wild, but he has a tendency to pitch up and he doesn’t repeat his delivery well. Wheeler would grade as a below-average athlete (by MLB pitcher standards) in the light that his delivery drifts and can get off-balance. His arm-action is quick, but long and also susceptible to differing slots. He does do a good job of employing his lower-half and a strong hip rotation, which will absorb much of the brunt of pitching a baseball 3,000 times a season.
With his stuff and size, Wheeler has 1st-round possibilities. Certainly if he shows consistently in May what he had the first three innings on Friday, he’d go early in the first round. Arms like that don’t get passed on for very long.
Who does he remind me of in the big leagues? My best comparison is unfair, but necessary; Toronto ace Roy Halladay minus a couple inches in height. Halladay didn’t look pretty with his delivery, either, but he became physically strong. He figured out how to repeat his delivery and put the ball where he wanted. The big slider is also reminiscent.
Check back with highlights from Saturday’s action in LaGrange, which featured 80-armed Austin Maddox as a pitcher, more Donavan Tate, and several sleepers. I’ll also have a report on Troup County High School catcher Luke Bailey, who played nearby and has 1st-2nd round potential in June.