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Desert Baseball Challenge Notebook


Les Lukach
State Scouting Director

          

PALM DESERT, CA. - The Desert Baseball Challenge annually attracts some of the top teams from the Southland and now is bringing in some of the top programs from Nevada as well. The event takes place over the course of the better part of a week with games spread out amongst the 10 host schools. This year a few Orange County teams took advantage of the Great Park and played a game before heading to the desert. 

With the start of the high school season two months away the tournament provides players a competitive environment (see Game of the Tournament) before going on a break for the Holidays. Obviously with the tournament taking place at the end of the calendar year most pitchers were on strict pitch counts while many were taking the mound for the first, second, or third time since summer and in some cases since last year after injury. 

The tournament provides pro scouts an opportunity to get that last look this year before laying out their priority list for spring. Pro scouts were present at every game I attended with some games attracting close to 20 of them to the field. The event also provides many uncommitted players an opportunity to be seen by Division II/III and JUCO coaches. By my estimation there were over a dozen schools present for the tournament all looking for players to complete their recruiting classes.  

I’m going to split the coverage of this event into two parts. This post will feature some notable players while the next one will break down some featured players and couple it with video. 

Video has been uploaded into all players profiles and can be accessed with a PBR subscription

With eight games in 49 hours (10 if you go back to Wednesday night) there was plenty to see so let’s dive into what I saw at the Desert Baseball Challenge. 

GAME OF THE TOURNAMENT

There may have been better games from a scoring, execution, even pitching (not likely) standpoint, but of the eight games I saw over the weekend none were better than the first one between King (Riverside) and Palm Desert under the lights on Thursday night. The longer it went on the more the game had the feel of a playoff game in May and not a winter ball game. Palm Desert started senior Cal Baptist signee Alec Weigel while King countered with junior Evan Yates, a recent Cal State Fullerton commit. Both pitchers came out sitting 87-88 mph in their first inning. Weigel showed the moxy of an ace when his stuff deserted him a bit in the second inning. The righty battled out of a one-out threat for King with a strikeout and a groundout induced by his slurve at 74-77 mph that when contacted didn’t get out of the infield all night. He constantly battled in key situations and won most of them while the ones he lost didn’t hurt him on the scoreboard. Wiegel maintained his velocity for the most part working 85-86 mph in his last inning on a cold night. Yates showed his upside on the night with his consistent fastball, a sharp curveball at 74 mph, and his developing feel for his changeup at 77-78 mph. Long, lean, and wiry strong, Yates has the type of physical projection that is highly sought in pitchers. Yates got out of a bases loaded, one out jam in the second inning by striking out the last two batters. He let out a significant holler after the last pitch setting the tone for the rest of the game. While there will certainly be some cleaning up of things, Yates provides the type arm that has King thinking this could be a special season. 

Following Weigel and Yates for Palm Desert and King were Ramon Romo (Central Arizona) and Kaden Moeller (Long Beach State) respectively. Romo came out firing with the fastball showing life at the plate and inducing swing-and-miss results. Working 87-88 mph, Romo showed the ability to spot the fastball repeatedly from his easy and repeatable delivery showing a clean, quick arm from a high 3/4 slot. Romo impressed with his ability to regroup and get back to basics when his command began to get spotty with his 73-74 mph curveball. There’s plenty to project physically with Romo as he’s presently fairly thin and lean with some present strength. For Moeller it was more of the same of what we’ve grown accustomed to on the mound from the southpaw. Working 86-88 mph with the fastball, Moeller relied on the pitch to get swing-and-miss results particularly when command of his 73-74 mph curveball wasn’t on point. He was challenged in his second inning when Palm Desert loaded the bases with one out before he induced an inning-ending 6-4-3 double play on a 2-1 count with a hammer curveball. 

The game went into the seventh inning scoreless and after King couldn’t muster a run it was Palm Desert’s turn. The Aztecs managed to get the bases loaded with one out with the heart of the order coming up. With the infield drawn in, the Aztecs went on contact on a ball hit sharply at the King third baseman who gathered the ball, and himself, and threw a rocket home to get the runner. After a groundout the game went to the eighth inning where neither team would score resulting in a 0-0 tie. 

Nothing beats an exciting game to start a tournament and that’s what these two teams provided. Now, with the Game of the Tournament out of the way, let’s dive into some notable players from the weekend. 

NOTABLE PLAYERS

The class of 2023 has observers very excited because of the quality of talent at the top and it’s perceived depth at this point. While only freshman there are some players that simply standout for their abilities on the field and you can add Angel Cortez (Gahr HS) to that ever growing list. The silky smooth shortstop has the tools to be the next man up for a Gladiators program that has developed plenty of Division I/professional players in its time. Cortez has the instincts, actions, and arm strength to stay at shortstop and should continue to develop physically to help the bat which shows flashes presently. Shows electric hands on exchanges with ample range to both sides. Made one play to the backhand side on the edge of the grass and had the ability to turn and make a throw to get the force at second base. Eye opening to say the least...Senior Elijah Buries (Orange Lutheran HS) continues to be a force in the three-hole for the Lancers. The uncommitted senior appears stronger and more physical than my last viewing and that strength is translating into greater power while his pitch recognition seems to be improving as well. With the ability to play in the outfield and infield, Buries’ versatility along with his burgeoning power will certainly draw plenty of recruiters eyes in the spring…Junior center fielder Luke Honikel (Servite HS) impressed this summer at the Area Code Games tryout where he showed his left-handed bat was going to be one that would garner attention. For me that impression came partly because of what he did, but also from what he didn’t do at that tryout. He did hit the ball hard during BP and in-game. He didn’t chase pitches out of the zone or give in to pitchers when they challenged him in. That mentality continued this weekend and should be a huge key as to why he’ll have an opportunity to play beyond high school. Honikel’s discerning eye was evident in his at-bats where pitchers were nibbling the edges trying to get him to chase to no avail. He did take a huge hack on a fastball that was up managing to foul it off. Honikel made a great catch in center-field; after initially breaking in and losing it in the sun, he turned and ran to a spot before looking up and making the grab. It was one of the best I saw this weekend…Junior third baseman Carson Case (Foothill HS) is a physical, athletic third baseman with some pop in the bat and the ability to drive balls into the gaps for extra bases. Case, who also plays football at Foothill where he helped the Knights to a league championship as a middle linebacker, shows that same sort of approach at the plate where he’s patiently aggressive. Smoked a ball to the left-field gap for a stand-up double with a 4.79 turn before taking third on the throw. It was loud contact against a firm pitch (88 mph) on a very cold night...Freshman outfielder Garvey Rumary (El Dorado HS) has the look of a future standout for the Golden Hawks. Head Coach Matt Lucas had mentioned Rumary to me a while ago as a name to remember and he wasn’t joking. I saw three at-bats and didn’t get a chance to see him pitch where he really projects I’m told. The at-bats showed me enough to think that Rumary will indeed be a name to remember. He showed patience at the plate and the discipline required to stick to his plan/approach. The frame has a long way to go as he’s very lean and wiry presently, but there’s a foundation to build on with his squared shoulders, high waist and long limbs...Freshman catcher Eric Aguayo (King HS) is also going to be a name to remember in the 2023 class. At 5-foot-11, 145-pounds there’s wiry strength to the frame that doesn’t come at the expense of flexibility/quickness behind the dish. Shows very soft hands while framing well. He gets your attention defensively with his throws flashing a presently big arm. With in-between inning throwdowns ranging between 1.99-2.09 it was on a stolen base attempt that he unleashed a perfect throw on the bag at 1.97 to get the runner by the length of an outstretched arm....Sophomore outfielder Trevor Schmidt (Servite HS) is showing strength gains that are beginning to catch up to his athleticism and melding into what could be a very, very good player. He’s rangy in the outfield with a graceful gait as he funnels balls out front and shows a quick release with a strong arm. At the plate those strength gains could prove to play a big part in what he does. After getting domed in his first at-bat, he battled through an eight-pitch at-bat that ended in a hot shot up the middle that saw the shortstop make a strong play/throw to get Schmidt by half step. There’s quickness in the bat, if strength gets added to that you’ll hear about Schmidt a lot....Junior catcher Dane Flashberg (Damien HS) is like many catchers in that the more you watch him the more you appreciate just how good he is at his job. With a smaller, athletic frame, Flashberg shows the type of athleticism that is desirable in that position with his quick feet and transfers behind the plate. Bought his pitchers several strikes with his glovework/framing. Shows feel for the barrel at the plate with developing strength there too....Senior OF/RHP Conor Burdian (Santa Margarita HS) is an uncommitted senior that opened plenty of eyes during his outing on the mound. I last saw Burdian at the Uncommitted Senior Games in October where he did not pitch but played a very good outfield and showed some knowledge at the plate. However, despite all his athleticism in the outfield it may be on the mound where he ultimately ends up. After pitching at 80-82 mph in this tournament last year, Burdian was popping 88-90 this year. He struck out the side in his first inning on nothing but fastballs that flashes running action into righties on a downhill plane. The pitch was very difficult to pick up from behind the plate. The delivery can get stiff at times, but the arm is free and loose. While nowhere near a finished product on the mound, the velocity gains coupled with the movement on the fastball would indicate that Burdian may have found a position that will provide him an opportunity to continue playing baseball…If there’s one thing you can count on when you watch a Foothill HS game is that the pitcher is going to throw strikes while mixing his fastball and breaking ball masterfully. Junior righty Zach Yates appears to be the next in a long line of arms developed under pitching coach Iran Novak that should have a chance to continue his playing days after receiving a high school diploma. Facing a deep Santa Margarita lineup Yates overcame some first inning troubles to put together a brilliant outing. Working 83-85 mph Yates was able to command and locate a changeup at 73-75 mph that was virtually unhittable. For good measure he’d really slow things down with a 66-68 mph curveball that left hitters guessing. He wasn’t perfect on the night by any measure, but he was impressive and will be a pitcher to follow this coming spring...Junior outfielder Jack Finnigan (San Juan Hills HS) is going to be a guy that should garner some attention this spring. Finnigan is a hybrid linebacker/safety for the CIF-SS Division IV champion Stallions who saw their season end just last week (12/6) meaning Finnigan is just getting into baseball shape/mentality making what he showed all the more intriguing. A left-handed hitter, Finnigan shows present bat speed with some strength and plenty of feel for the barrel while his athleticism (4.28 H-1 on groundout) stands out in the outfield tracking/attacking balls despite playing in a five-club (golf reference) wind. Another very projectable player who will be a high follow in the spring....Senior shortstop Sebastian Murillo (Fountain Valley HS/Long Beach State) looks like he’s in the best shape of his young life. The future Dirtbag has pronounced strength/mass throughout his body particularly in the legs and down from the shoulders. The strength certainly hasn’t affected his athleticism on the dirt where the combination of range, footwork and arm strength were on display in the two Fountain Valley games I saw. Made a play up the middle to his left and one to the backhand side that really stood out to me. The arm strength has improved as has the accuracy to the bag. If the power Murillo showed his sophomore year returns his senior year he could/should find himself in the mix of the MLB Draft next June....Senior John-Howard Bobo (Basic HS) was seemingly everywhere for Basic in the couple viewings I had of them. Bobo played centerfield with the ease and grace that comes naturally to those with high levels of athleticism which is precisely what he has. He tracks balls well while arriving under control and ready to throw with a strong, accurate arm. Traditionally an infielder, Bobo really stands out in center field. At the plate the right-handed hitter squared up everything he made contact with while showing strong plate discipline/pitch awareness. There’s whip to the barrel generated by his fast hands. Instinctive baserunner who won’t hurt a team there....Junior catcher Max Shor (Palm Desert HS/San Diego) has taken to the weight room/conditioning program like a man possessed and the results are showing themselves in his game. He’s completely shed the “baby fat” he had and is a chiseled 175-pounds now that shows itself in his quick, athletic actions behind the plate. On a ball that bounced a few inches inside the lefties batters box, Shor slid over with ease to get his chest in front to knock it down and keep a runner from advancing. It was a play that he likely does not  make a year ago. The 15th ranked player (#2 catcher) in the Class of 2021 state rankings there’s no reason to believe Shor won’t have a big spring which should carry into the summer and beyond. 



UPCOMING EVENTS

SHOWCASE STATE DATE LOCATION
Orange County Preseason All-State CA 01/04 JSerra High School
Winter Update Series powered by EM Sports CA 01/07 EM Sports - San Diego
Central Valley Preseason I.D. CA 01/11 Clovis North HS
Winter Update Series powered by EM Sports CA 01/13 EM Sports - Rancho Cucamonga
California Far North Preseason I.D. CA 01/18 Chico HS
NorCal Preseason All-State CA 01/25 Islanders Field at River Islands
Winter Update Series powered by EM Sports CA 01/27 EM Sports - Long Beach
Super 60 Pro Showcase NATIONAL 02/02 The MAX - McCook, IL

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