The must-see high school game of the week, if not the month, takes place on Thursday when Lee's Summit (Mo.) West High visits Lawrence (Kan.) High in the opening round of the River City Baseball Tournament.
While the event is held annually, each of those teams has a talent that doesn't come around nearly as often. One area scout quipped that the stands will look like a convention of scouting directors.
In the last 10 Drafts, only one Missouri high school position player (Blake DeWitt, 2004) and two Kansas prep pitchers (Garrett Gould, 2009; Collin Wiles, 2012) have been taken in the first two rounds. This year, both Lee's Summit West outfielder Monte Harrison and Lawrence right-hander Bryce Montes de Oca could get selected that early.
Harrison could go in the first round as the best athlete in the entire Draft. He's a three-sport star who's committed to playing football (wide receiver) and baseball at Nebraska. He caught 13 touchdowns, rushed for 12 more, returned three kicks for scores and threw a TD pass in the fall while helping Lee's Summit West win the Missouri Class 5 state title.
During the winter, Harrison averaged 16.4 points and 6.0 rebounds per game as a guard on a Lee's Summit West basketball team that finished third in the state. He won the dunk contest at the Greater Kansas City All-Star Challenge in April.
And yeah, Harrison can play some baseball, too. He's a 6-foot-2, 205-pounder who continues to get better as he spends more time on the diamond. He has above-average raw power and speed, and he was clocked at 97 mph making a throw from the outfield at the Perfect Game National showcase last summer.
Area scouts put Harrison's tools in the same class as those of Bubba Starling, the Kansas prep outfielder whom the Royals drafted fifth overall in 2011. Starling, who also had a football scholarship (quarterback) from Nebraska, has struggled to hit in pro ball. The right-handed-hitting Harrison has encouraged scouts by showing an improved swing and approach at the plate as a senior.
"His athleticism is ridiculous," a senior scouting official said. "The raw power/speed/athleticism combo, you're talking about elite level. Is he going to hit? That's the $2 million question. I feel a little bit better about Monte's bat than I did about Bubba Starling's.
"It's just that breaking ball/spin issue with pitch recognition. How do you know? How many times are you going to see him against a good right-handed slider? But his other tools are off the charts. He's explosive. You're talking about Adam Jones and guys like that."
Harrison will face his toughest test this year when he opposes Montes de Oca, who has made a stunningly swift recovery from Tommy John surgery. He blew out his elbow last spring and returned to the mound this April 11, one year to the day after his elbow reconstruction. In his first outing, he threw 35 pitches -- all fastballs clocked from 94-97 mph with some sinking and tailing action.
Montes de Oca continued to bring the heat in his second outing last week, working at 92-96 mph while throwing 45 pitches and mixing in a couple of curveballs. He's still raw and his secondary pitches and command will need a lot of work, but it's hard not to dream on his combination of size (6-foot-8, 265 pounds) and arm strength.
"He has a great arm," an area scout said. "I saw him up to 97 in his first start and he's really interesting. This is kind of a longshot, but he's similar to Jonathan Gray [the No. 3 pick overall pick in the 2013 Draft] when he was in high school. The delivery needs work but the ball jumps out of his hand, and he could be a No. 1 starter or a closer if it all comes together."
Hitters can't touch Imhof
Hard as it may be to believe, NCAA Division I's strikeout leader has a fastball that sits around 90-91 mph and lacks an above-average secondary pitch.
Neverthless, hitters struggle to make contact against Cal Poly left-hander Matt Imhof. He opened his junior season by fanning 14 in seven innings against Kansas State and hasn't let up since. He paces Division I in both strikeouts (97) and strikeouts per nine innings (13.0) and has set the tone for a 34-5 Mustangs club that currently owns the highest ranking (No. 2 by Baseball America) in program history.
"He's really deceptive," a national crosschecker said. "He throws from a high slot, and that fastball has got really good angle on it. I think that's where a lot of the sneakiness of his fastball comes from. His 90 looks like 94 and he's got a lot of life on it as well. He misses a lot of bats with 90."
Batters have trouble picking up pitches out of the 6-foot-5, 220-pounder's hand. Imhof's fastball life and his curveball are effective, if not outstanding. He displays some feel for a changeup with some fade, though he rarely uses it during games.
Imhof foreshadowed his breakout junior season with a strong summer with Team USA, during which he allowed just one run and fanned 18 in 17 innings. He improved his record to 8-2, 1.87 by two-hitting slumping Cal State Fullerton over 6 2/3 shutout innings on Thursday. Though he matched his season-high with four walks, he struck out nine and allowed only two runners to reach second base -- one of whom he picked off.
"He's a guy you have to put the radar guy away on," the crosschecker said. "He's tricky. Carlos Rodon, Kyle Freeland and Brandon Finnegan are the top college left-handers, and Imhof doesn't have the big fastball velocity of those guys or the secondary pitches they have. But I see him in the next group and he could go in the second round, maybe a tick higher.
"If there's one kind of Draft pick that seems to overachieve, it has been college left-handers. A lot of guys who we say are No. 5 starters seem to overachieve. He's similar to Drew Smyly and he could be the next in that group."
Bukauskas crashes prospect party early
North Carolina's coaching staff persuaded Stone Bridge High (Ashburn, Va.) right-hander J.B. Bukauskas to reclassify last summer, so he could graduate early this June and become a Tar Heel a year ahead of schedule. But with the way he has thrown this spring as a junior-turned-senior, he may never set foot on campus.
After throwing mostly 88-92 mph last summer, when scouts paid him little attention because they didn't think he'd be Draft-eligible until 2015, Bukauskas caused jaws to drop when he came out throwing 94-97 mph in the first inning of his first start of the season in March. Last week, he struck out a school-record 18 batters and hit 100 mph in a win over West Potomac High (Alexandria, Va.).
"He puts big numbers on the radar gun," a national crosshecker said. "He was 96 or 97 the day I saw him. He's a little guy with a big arm, but he's not as big as Dylan Bundy and it's not a smooth delivery like Bundy. It's max effort. It's a big arm in a little body."
Therein lies the rub with Bukauskas. He's only 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, and the effort he expends has some evaluators questioning if he can handle the demands of starting at the professional level. Craig Kimbrel has dominated as a 5-foot-11 closer, though he has a stronger build and a smoother delivery.
One of the youngest players in the 2014 Draft, Bukauskas won't turn 18 until Oct. 11. Along with his blazing fastball and youth, he also has the making of a solid slider in the low 80s. He's still refining his changeup, control and command.
"He's got a pretty good breaking ball, too, but it's hard to take that body and delivery with your first pick," the crosschecker said. "If you have multiple picks, then you could take him in the first couple of rounds, but you might be getting a reliever. I like him but I didn't love him, and with my first pick, I want to love him."