Showcase : : Story
Sunday, April 27, 2014

3rd Spring Top a wrap for 'Iowa kid'

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – An appearance at the Perfect Game Spring Top Prospect Showcase can be beneficial in a lot of different ways to high school-aged prospects from coast-to-coast but, by design, the event focuses most of its attention on the young players from the state of Iowa.

Iowa kids don’t have the benefit of a spring high school season, so the scouting community would largely bypass the state in the months leading up to the MLB June Amateur First-Year Player Draft. “Keep moving, nothing to see here,” was justifiably their method of operation.

And it is for that reason that getting scouted at the PG Spring Top and the PG Iowa Spring Wood Bat League is so important to the Iowa preps. And it’s the reason a top prospect like Sioux City shortstop and right-handed pitcher Jake Westphal spent this weekend at the PG Spring Top for the third straight year and is also playing his third straight season in the PG Iowa Spring Wood Bat League.

“It’s a great experience, and Perfect Game has been so good to me; it’s got my name out there,” Westphal said when asked what keeps him coming back. “It’s helped me in the scouting world as a player, and with Perfect Game always having professional scouts here … it’s always nice being able to go out and show your talent in front of the pro scouts.

“I feel like I improve every day,” he continued. “There’s something that I can work on every day with my game and I feel like if I keep coming out here and improving and showing that I’ve gotten better as a player it’s going to help me.”

Westphal, a senior at Sioux City East High School and a University of Tennessee recruit, is ranked in the top-500 nationally and No. 4 in the state of Iowa in the class of 2014. He joined seven other 2014 prospects ranked in the state’s top-11 at the event, including No. 1 Keaton McKinney (Ankeny), No. 2 Ryan Lillard (Urbandale) and No. 3 Mitch Keller (Cedar Rapids). That trio signed with Arkansas, Kansas State and North Carolina, respectively.

Over the past three or four years, these top Iowa kids have developed friendships  at showcases like the PG Spring Top while working to become better ballplayers and reach whatever goals they have may have set for themselves.

“I’ve made some of my best friends through baseball,” Westphal said. “Baseball is a great community; you get to go out and be with your friends and enjoy (the game). That’s why I love the game so much – I get to go out there and absolutely enjoy every second of it.”

And that's what keeps these top-notch talents coming back time after time after time. Westphal, McKinney, Lillard and Keller have combined to be at nearly 80 Perfect Game events, including three or four seasons apiece in the PG Spring and Fall Leagues.

“It’s the atmosphere and being able to play against some of the better players, whether it’s from the state of Iowa or from across the country,” Westphal’s father, Dan Westphal, said Saturday. “Playing against these kids and getting to know them and the camaraderie that he gets from this, is all worth it.

“The people that run Perfect Game are from Iowa, they come from a family atmosphere, and we enjoy being around all the guys that do all of the showcases and the leagues,” he continued. “They’re all good family guys, they’re all good Iowa guys and that’s why we keep coming back.”

Ironically, the first PG event Jake Westphal attended was outside of Iowa – the 2011 National Underclass Showcase-Session 1 in Fort Myers, Fla. Since that debut, he has attended five showcases and played in one tournament in Cedar Rapids, and has traveled out of state for the 2012 PG WWBA Underclass World Championship (Fort Myers), the 2013 PG WWBA World Championship (Jupiter, Fla.) and the 2013 Perfect Game National Showcase (Minneapolis).

The PG National Showcase and PG WWBA World Championship are among the most heavily scouted events in amateur baseball and Westphal found both to be eye-opening.

“You got the opportunity to play with the best kids in the country – kids that are going to be drafted in the first round – and you’re just sitting there on the bench with them,” he said of being at the PG National. “It’s a great experience to go out there and prove your talents against kids like that.” And when speaking about those five special days he spent in Jupiter last October, he said:

“It’s one of the craziest experiences I’ve ever been through. It was just crazy to be playing in a game and there would be 200 scouts around the field in golf carts; it was an experience that not too many kids get to have. You feel the nerves at first, but once you get out there and start playing, your true ability comes out.”

Even with those travels, most of Westphal’s playing experience has come on high school fields sprinkled across Iowa, whether during the spring in the PG Spring League or during the summer playing his high school season with East High.

He has always been a primary shortstop but has developed into an effective pitcher, as well. As a junior last summer, he hit .388 (50-for-129) with 12 doubles, three home runs, 34 RBI and 32 runs scored, and went 0-2 with a 4.20 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 31 2/3 innings. He credits the PG Spring League with getting him ready for his high school season.

“It’s been very beneficial to me playing in the Perfect Game Spring League because we get to see the best pitching in the state, and if I was playing with my high school (in the spring) I wouldn’t see that,” Westphal said. “It’s helped me become better as a player seeing all that great pitching before I start the (summer) season.”

During his PG Spring Top outing Saturday at Washington High School he struck out three batters in two innings and his fastball reached 90 miles-per-hour. Westphal was recruited to Tennessee by head coach Dave Serrano as an “athlete” meaning that he may continue to both pitch and play shortstop.

“I’m going into it preparing like I could do both; I’m ready to do whatever,” he said. “I’ve been pitching more and I’m starting to like it a lot, but I still love going out there and playing shortstop and hitting. I’ve seen a lot of growth since I’ve gone through the years. Now that I’m getting older I can tell that I’m maturing into my body and that I’m starting to become the player I know I can be.”

His development may well continue on Rocky Top in Knoxville and it looks like that will be a great spot for him. Westphal said it has long been his dream to play in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) and the Volunteers presented the perfect opportunity.

“They came along and, I don’t know, there was just something that clicked,” he said. “I went on my visit there and I loved everything about the place – a great coaching staff, I loved the people, the players – and it was a great community and I could see myself considering it another home.”

As a former military man, Dan Westphal went to officer training school in Knoxville and fell in love with the area. He encouraged Jake to attend a camp at Tennessee and everything fell into place.

“It was a fit for him but it was also a fit for me because I actually fell in love with the area and that’s why we went out there,” Dan said. “For him to be able to play Division I baseball, and not only Division I baseball but for him to be able to play in the SEC, what kid wouldn’t want that? That is the epitome of college baseball. We’re very excited about the opportunity, it’s going to be wonderful for him and for us to be able to go out and watch him, and we can’t wait.”

Jake Westphal and his dad are close, and Jake said Dan has had the biggest influence on his baseball career. It’s been important enough to Dan that he’s given up his beloved golf leagues back home in Sioux City simply because he would rather watch Jake play a game of baseball than go out and play a round of golf in his free time. And getting his son to a PG showcase is most important of all.

“It’s an investment to us in his future,” Dan said. “He comes in, he enjoys playing and it gives him a chance to put his skills out there in front of people who are going to evaluate him and get him to where he wants to be, which is Major League Baseball. This is where we needed to be and this is where we always wanted to be.”

As a top-500 national prospect it’s difficult to gauge if Westphal will generate any draft interest. His father said he has had a few clubs send out some draft-related material and Westphal admits that he’s give it some thought but has no idea where he sits in any organization’s plans.

 “If it happens, great, and I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Dan Westphal said. “The next chapter is going to be either me going to watch college ball or going to watch him play minor league ball. It’s a win-win, and you just kind of turn the page and you go to the next step.”

The top Iowa guys in the class of 2014 have several more weeks to get together as the 2014 Iowa Spring Wood Bat League winds down. Some of them may also be back here at Perfect Game Field-Veterans Memorial Stadium on May 18 for the Perfect Game National Pre-Draft Showcase. The only certainty is that a year from now they will be playing on a far different stage.

“It is bittersweet knowing that I won’t be around here anymore but I’m also looking forward to the next chapter of my life,” Westphal said. “It’s going to be a great experience being able to play college baseball in the SEC and see where that takes me. Yeah, I’m going to miss this stuff but also it’s going to be exciting to make that next move.”

And leave it to a father to look back with nothing but positive thoughts on springtime showcase events at often chilly Perfect Game Field.

“This has been a long, long process,” Dan Westphal said. “It’s been very fruitful and we’re very proud and glad that we were affiliated with Perfect Game. I can’t even put a value on it; it’s just invaluable, especially for an Iowa kid. And I say ‘Iowa kid’, quote-unquote, because it’s true. The high school season is during the summer so this is how we do it.”

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