Great Plains Region: Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Wyoming
Injury bug continues to plague Great Plains, but plenty of bright spots remain
It's a narrative that nobody involved in amateur baseball in the region is happy about. But the Great Plains region has had more than its share of injuries to the region's top prospects in the past year. It began with potential first rounder Ryan Boldt, who suffered a partial tear in his meniscus in the second game of the season last spring. Then flamethrowing junior Bryce Montes de Oca underwent Tommy John surgery after pitching in one game.
Before the 2014 campaign has even begun, two-way Missouri standout Shane Benes tore his ACL in a high school basketball game and left handed pitcher David Peterson suffered a fractured fibula. Benes will miss the entire season, and the same may be true of Peterson.
The region that is made up of cold weather states with smaller populations has some highly talented prospects, but not in the same abundance that they're found in the baseball hotbeds of California, Florida, Georgia or Texas. Thus each significant injury to a high level prospect drags the overall region down more than it would in other parts of the country.
On the bright side, right hander Devin Williams continued to improve last spring and went on to become a second round pick by Milwaukee after striking out 101 hitters and allowing just 19 hits over 55 innings for 22-5 Hazelwood West (Mo.). It wasn't necessarily a breakout season, as Williams was a highly ranked prospect in the 2013 class for years, but it was a case of a young prospect taking a significant step towards reaching his lofty ceiling.
Williams was the only player from this region to be selected in the first 10 rounds of the 2013 draft, although there are several alumni who have a chance to go high in 2016. From a team standpoint, ThunderRidge (Colo.) was the most pleasant surprise. In this space a year ago we highlighted the Colorado 5A preseason favorites, weighing the merits of the two on-paper favorites who began the season ranked in the top 50 in the nation; defending state champion Cherry Creek and 2011 champion Regis Jesuit. But ThunderRidge ended Cherry Creek's repeat bid in the state semifinals before beating Rocky Mountain in the championship game. Much like Cherry Creek a year ago, the reigning champs begin the season ranked among the top 50 teams in the nation.
Blue Valley West of Kansas is perhaps the most overwhelming favorite to win a state title of any team in the region. Ranked just behind ThunderRidge in the national rankings and the second highest ranked team in the region, the Tigers are also defending state champions. While ThunderRidge returns their top standout from last year's team in shortstop Brody Westmoreland, Blue Valley West returns nearly the entire roster from a team that went 26-3, having graduated just four players. They will have to replace some pitching depth, but they boast a pair of Division I signees (Ryan Ralston, Zach Engelken) on the mound and have the Nos. 2, 3 and 5 ranked 2014 grads in the state on their roster and the target on their backs couldn't get much bigger.
While they don't field official high school teams in Montana, the state looks to produce another draft pick from the high school ranks this year after being shut out in 2013, as catcher Slade Heggen is likely to draw a lot of interest and right hander Gage Hinsz could also hear his name called in June. Montana has produced three top 10 round picks from the high school ranks in the past three years after not having a single player drafted in the top 10 rounds between 1994 and 2010. Outfielder Ben Roberts went in the seventh round in 2011 and 2012 was a historic draft for the Big Sky state, as outfielder Justin Black went in the fourth round to the Braves and right hander Andrew Sopko went in the seventh to the Padres.
Iowa right hander Keaton McKinney has a chance to be the highest drafted player from the region this year, and his presence makes Ankeny a favorite on paper to win their second title in the past three years. Ankeny was the top ranked team in the state a year ago before being upset in the first round of the playoffs. Perhaps Ankeny's biggest threat to a potential state title is professional baseball, as the state championship is played in early August, three weeks after the MLB draft's signing deadline. If McKinney opts to forgo his scholarship to the University of Arkansas he will have to end his senior season early to begin his professional career.
Much like McKinney in Iowa, two-way standout Jakson Reetz almost singlehandedly makes Norris high school the overwhelming favorite in Nebraska. They are the defending state champions, and unlike in Iowa, the Nebraska state championship does not take place after draft picks who sign a contract are required to report to their organization. Thus barring an injury or major postseason upset, Norris is likely to defend their title.
Great Pains High School Dream Team
Based on present tools
C - Wyatt Cross, Jr., Legacy (Colo.)
This is the deepest position in this region and may be the deepest region for catching in the entire country. Jackson Reetz lands in the Util spot this year given his two-way ability. Cross' elite defensive skills gives him the nod over other deserving candidates like Slade Heggen a well rounded catching prospect from Montana, standout defender Tanner Gragg of Kansas and offensive minded Colby Fitch of Missouri.
1B - TJ Martin, Sr., Blue Valley Southwest (Kan.)
Martin is a primary catcher, but his ability to handle first base and the relative depth at his two positions lines up to make him the dream team's first baseman. Martin first arrived on the prospect map when he hit leadoff as a freshman with fifth overall draft pick Bubba Starling batting second when they were teammates at Gardner-Edgerton high school. His bat can certainly play at first for the Great Plains Dream Team and while his defensive ability goes to waste, the ability to pick throws in the dirt should carry over well to his current secondary position.
MIF - Max George, Sr., Regis Jesuit (Colo.)
He's not particularly big, he can run but he's not a burner, he has a playable arm but it's not a rocket, and while he can really hit he doesn't hit for a ton of power. But what George does extremely well is play baseball. In terms of winning games at this level this season, he might just be the best player to build a team around in the entire region, which includes four 2013 PG All-Americans. He will be counted on to play a huge role for Regis this year after the graduation of his double play partner Brody Weiss, whom he has played alongside for his entire high school career. The Raiders are now George's team, which would suggest they are in good hands.
MIF - Ryan Lillard, Sr., Urbandale (Iowa)
There is a lot of competition for this spot. It's very difficult to leave off two-way standout Shane Benes of Missouri and highly ranked 2015 prospect Nick Shumpert of Colorado off the dream team. Power hitter Brody Westmoreland has made a lot of noise as well, but Lillard's all around athleticism and polished middle infield skills combined with his surprising present power (with more to come) makes him the pick here.
3B - Ryan MantleJr., Linn (Mo.)
The two way prospect has standout arm strength both from third base and on the mound. He's ahead of the pack at the third base position which is surprisingly junior heavy, but may have a future on the mound as well. Greyson Jennista of Kansas and Ty Buck of Minnesota look to be his competition for this spot next year, but Mantle gets the nod this year for the combination of his power bat and arm strength.
OF - Monte Harrison, Sr., Lee's Summit West (Mo.)
He makes a return trip to the dream team and is one of four players in the region who was chosen as a 2013 Perfect Game All-American last summer. Harrison is an elite athlete whose defensive tools are top of the charts with a plus arm and plus speed at present. He's still learning the finer points of how to put those plus tools to use, but he's already one of the best defensive outfielders in the nation at this point and should continue to improve if he chooses to stick with baseball at the next level (he is also a highly regarded football recruit signed with Nebraska). At the plate Harrison has plenty of pop in his bat, capable of hitting home runs and driving balls into the gaps for doubles that his speed will allow him to stretch into triples. He is the most dynamic and athletic player in the region, and while he lacks polish, his moderately refined present baseball skills are more than adequate for his talent to translate at this level, making him an impact player.
OF - Greg Pickett, Jr., Legend (Colo.)
Power is the name of the game for Pickett, who features plus bat speed from the left side and plenty of strength to hammer the ball out of any part of the park. He has the arm strength to stand out in right field at this level as well, though his middle of the order power production is clearly the reason that he's an obvious selection to the dream team as a junior.
OF - Jack Benninghoff, Sr., Rockhurst (Mo.)
Benninghoff is technically a Kansas resident and appears on prospect lists ranked amongst Kansas players as he resides just west of the Missouri river in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, but attends nearby Rockhurst high school, located on the Missouri side of the border. Benninghoff has a well rounded skill-set highlighted by a plus arm. On this dream team he'd be the right fielder because of the elite athleticism of Harrison, but he's plenty rangy for a center fielder at this level in his own right. He has good offensive tools as well that should allow him to hit for a high average and power at this level. Others considered included 2015 Missouri grads Matthew Vierling and Marquise Doherty as well as Colorado product Keenan Eaton.
UT - Jakson Reetz, Sr., C/RHP/OF, Norris (Nebr.)
Reetz returns to the dream team after being selected as the team's catcher as a junior a year ago. At the time this spot was occupied by elite two-way prospect AJ Puk, but with his graduation Reetz makes the obvious move from the catcher position (where he profiles at the next level) to the Util spot, which is much more reflective of his current role in the high school game. For Norris high school, Reetz's primary contribution is as the ace of the pitching staff. He's one of the top catching prospects in the class and has the athleticism to be a right field prospect as well long term. Reetz was named the MVP of the 2013 PG All-American Classic and is one of the best catching prospects in the 2014 class and has signed a letter of intent to play at nearby University of Nebraska.
P - Keaton McKinney, RHP/1B, Sr., Ankeny (Iowa)
He has continued to progress steadily since impressing as an underclassman and earning a scholarship offer to Arkansas. McKinney's biggest improvement in the past year has been the development of his changeup, which is arguably the best in the nation. The changeup plays well off of his low 90s fastball that has seen steady improvements in the command department and a quality upper 70s curveball with good depth and bite. Combining his elite ability on the mound with his power bat makes him easily the most valuable high school player in the state of Iowa.
P - Bryce Montes de Oca, RHP, Sr., Lawrence (Kan.)
The massive flamethrower missed last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. If he can make a full recovery he should regain his previous status as the most intriguing pitching prospect in the region and become an overpowering presence for the Lions. When healthy he sat 93-95 with his fastball showing a hard breaking curveball and the makings of a quality changeup.
P - David Peterson, LHP, Sr., Regis Jesuit (Colo.)
Peterson will miss most, if not all of his senior season with a fractured right fibula in his landing leg. It's a huge blow for Regis Jesuit, who were among the preseason favorites in Colorado's 5A class. They won't be completely depleted, as it was a deep team and fellow senior lefty Reagan Todd is well equipped to fill the role as a staff ace. Peterson's low 90s fastball features good life and he has added a quality slider that has enhanced his repertoire that counts four pitches at times, though he rarely had a need for his changeup at this level. Peterson is committed to Oregon, and while the injury increases the likelihood that he honors that commitment, there should still be plenty of draft interest. He has not been completely ruled out for the state tournament yet, and if he were to surprise with an early comeback it could be a huge boost to the Raiders.
Great Plains Region Best Tools
Best Hitter For Average: Max George, Sr., MIF, Regis Jesuit (Colo.)
Not only did he hit .468 last spring for Regis, George did plenty of hitting while playing on the national stage over the summer as well. His quick hands and hand-eye coordination make him an extremely tough out thanks to his advanced approach and willingness to take a walk if he doesn't get a pitch he can drive. He has a short swing with good feel for the location of his barrel within the strike zone and he squares the ball up very frequently.
Best Hitter For Power: Greg Pickett, Jr., OF, Legend (Colo.)
The obvious choice in this category, Pickett's only real competition comes from Monte Harrison, Brody Westmoreland and pitcher Keaton McKinney who has good raw power in his own right. But Pickett's high level bat speed and big physical frame combine to create impressive power at a young age.
Best Baserunner: Monte Harrison, Sr., OF, Lee's Summit West (Mo.)
Perhaps his biggest offensive asset is his ability to take the extra base on balls hit into the outfield, turning singles into doubles and doubles into triples. While his 60 yard dash times are impressive in the 6.6-6.7 range, more importantly his in-game speed is equally impressive.
Best Defensive Catcher: Wyatt Cross, Jr., Legacy (Colo.)
Cross is not only the best defensive catcher in this region, he's the best defensive catcher in the 2015 class. In fact, with the graduation of Reese McGuire last year, Cross became the best defensive catcher in all of high school baseball. Choosing between Montana's Sledge Heggen and Kansas' Tanner Gragg would have been a tough call in this category if it weren't for the presence of Cross, who is a runaway winner.
Best Defensive Infielder: Nick Shumpert, Jr., MIF, Highlands Ranch (Colo.)
His athleticism and arm strength allow him to make spectacular and routine plays alike. He's the kind of live bodied athlete who scouts can confidently project to stay up the middle as he progresses to the next level and has all of the raw physical tools necessary to be a standout defender.
Best Defensive Outfielder: Monte Harrison, Sr., Lee's Summit West (Mo.)
He's not only the best athlete in the region but he also has the best arm, and by a significant margin. This is a no-brainer.
Best Infield Arm: Shane Benes, Sr., MIF/RHP, Westminster Christian (Mo.)
The two-way star will miss the season with a torn ACL, which is a huge blow to the Wildcats who had not only one of the best infielders in the state, but also one of the best pitchers in Benes. His arm strength is a huge asset to his defensive game and will continue to be so when he recovers from his injury.