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Scouting the USC Trojans

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USC has burst into the top 10 seemingly out of nowhere. So who are the straws that stir the Trojans' drink and how do they stack up as professional prospects?

Jeremy Martinez is among the only top recruits on a resurgent Trojan baseball team
Jeremy Martinez is among the only top recruits on a resurgent Trojan baseball team
William Ehart - Daily Trojan

The Trojans started creeping into the national conscience this spring after an unpredicted 12-0 start to the season saw them crack the top 25, and then promptly exploded to legitimacy after a weekend sweep of powerhouses Vanderbilt, TCU, and UCLA at the Dodgertown Classic a week ago. I caught one of those conquests, and came away not quite sure what I’d just seen. To get a better look I headed to University Park last weekend as they hosted an unimposing Washington State squad for the opening of their PAC-12 schedule.

Ultimately this Trojan team is more interesting as a college team than a factory of potential big league impact talent, as it boasts a deep roster of above-average collegiate players. Still, there are a couple guys who show projection as potential big leaguers down the line, and they warrant some discussion.

Note: Junior left-hander Kyle Twomey is the best prospect on this team, but I haven’t managed to catch him live since the Cape last summer. I’ll have a report up for him after I do.

Garrett Stubbs, C

Stubbs has all the makings of an excellent senior sign this June, packaging athleticism, a strong defensive profile, and a solid approach and contact skills in the batter’s box to offer intriguing projection as a quality backup catcher down the line. The first thing that stands out about him is the body control and agility. He’s not a big guy, with a relatively narrow frame and proportionate distribution of his 165-170 pounds that could stand some added bulk. Still, his underlying leg strength is apparent in his quick, fluid movement, and he shows both range behind the plate and above-average foot speed. I had him clocked at 4.09 to first on a bunt attempt, and he’s stolen 13 bases in 16 attempts so far this spring despite an oddly vertical starting stance when he takes a lead off first.

The hands and receiving present as solid, though he’ll get a little quick and stabby to the ball at times. His arm is strong and accurate, a plus weapon that plays to its potential thanks to solid present footwork and a quick transfer. He put up in-game pop times of 1.88 and 1.94 over the weekend on unremarkable pitches around the zone, both with outstanding throws on the bag.

At the plate his stance is upright, with his hands tucked high behind his back ear and his weight distributed to the back foot at start. His stride is short and quick, allowing him to get to his front foot quickly and start his hips early to maximize rotation. He doesn’t generate a ton of separation or torque, however, limiting further a below-average power tool. There isn’t a ton of projection to that tool at present, but his swing path is compact and on line early, limiting swing-and-miss and pairing well with an up-the-middle approach. With added strength there’s a future 50 in there if he maxes out.

He’s not the kind of prospect that’s going to set the world on fire with a record bonus, but he’s exactly the kind of pick that can return strong mid-round value on investment for a big league club.

Jeremy Martinez, C/1B

Considered one of the top prep catchers in the 2013 class, Martinez slipped to an overslot pick by the Cubs in the 37th round of the draft in light of an early commitment to USC, and the offer indeed wasn’t enough to woo him away from college. With Stubbs behind the plate the Trojans have been giving Martinez reps at DH and 1B to keep his bat in the lineup, and it is that bat that’ll be his ticket going forward.

Martinez has a thick, well-developed build at 5’11" 200, with broad shoulders and evident upper body strength. He starts with a wide base and slight crouch, with his hands high and back arm near-horizontal. He raises up on his feet as he prepares to load, leaving his front foot dangling on the toe with a very minimal stride as he starts his weight transfer. The bat remains slightly vertical at launch, so there’s some steepness to the barrel delivery that limits his ability to drive the ball at present. But he fires cleanly into the hitting zone with easy plus speed thanks to strong wrists and quick hands, and the contact skills are very solid (as evidenced by a miniscule 6.7% strikeout rate thus far in his college career).

Coupled with a patient approach and very strong spin recognition, Martinez has the ingredients of a plus hit tool down the line. The game power has not materialized as yet, and it was unclear from his equally-line drive-oriented BP session just how big the raw is either. His frame and strength suggests cause for optimism to this end, but the approach and orientation of his present swing mechanics do not allow for him to generate a ton of backspin and carry to the pull side.

Dante Flores, 2B

Flores makes for another interesting potential senior sign, as he’s experienced an early-season offensive resurgence that has put him back on the radar after very disappointing seasons in his sophomore and junior campaigns. Flores presents as one of those sum-of-his-parts players that can often go overlooked, but he’s sure doing his best to force the issue with a .33/.449/.524 line through the early going.

At the plate Flores is another contact-oriented hitter (sense a theme here?), though he’s shown both a willingness and ability to turn on pitches with surprising pop of late. Check out this bomb against Vanderbilt last weekend:

Video courtesy of Prospect Pipeline

You can see there's some length in his load there, as the hands and back elbow drift up high pre-launch to create a steep angle of descent into the hitting zone. It's a poor swing path to maximize hard contact, yet he's managed to do just that in my looks. He does well to consistently establish his front foot and control his weight transfer, and the hand-eye and pitch selection both appear quite strong. He's consistent in repeating his mechanics as well. The above isn't a step-in-the-bucket homer against a southpaw; he stays well disciplined through his swing here and drives a ball up in the zone with impressive carry to the pull side.

Flores lacks an explosive step and shows a rather surprising deficit of foot speed given the profile. I had him with a fringy 4.22 to first with a clean dig on my only clock, and stolen bases have not really been a part of his game in college. Defensively he's limited to the right side of the infield on account of an average-at-best arm and borderline lateral quickness. But he gets good reads and shows fluid fielding actions, with enough quickness of transfer to inspire confidence as an average keystoner.

Brent Wheatley, RHP

One of the more curious Friday Night starters as far as pedigree is concerned, Wheatley has defied the odds of a modest arsenal to get outs consistently this season while dramatically improving his strikeout rate. He’s taken significant strides forward with his command and control as well, cutting his walk rate by 1.4-per-nine while almost tripling his whiff rate.

First things first about Wheatley, the stuff is not particularly overwhelming, nor does he flash any special kind of deception. Against Washington State his fastball sat 86-87, topping out at 88 with a bunch of effort when he got in trouble, and featured subtle boring movement. He supplemented it with a nice cutter at 83-85, a change in the high 70’s that worked well off his fastball plane, and a curve that showed sweeping action and solid depth in the mid-70’s. It’s a solid-average assortment that plays down a bit on account of the velocity.

Wheatley stands 6’4" and comes from a high three-quarter arm slot, using a short stride to create over-the-top plane on his pitches. It’s a double-edged sword, as on the one hand it allows him to attack the lower half of the zone effectively, but on the other it limits the arm speed and drive he can create to his release point, leading to fringy velocity that sees his stuff play down. The body type suggests there should be more velocity, and there's enough length in his arm that he should be able to generate plane with a stronger push and slightly lower slot, but for now if there is an additional gear it's locked up tight.

Despite getting squeezed consistently in this start he demonstrated a cool mound presence and confidence to throw any of his pitches in any count, going frequently to the curve and cutter when he found himself behind hitters. He showed an impressive ability to change eye levels and stay mentally ahead of hitters, and the lack of shake-offs and consistency of attack gave the impression of confidence in his game plan.

I came away impressed with what I’d seen from an approach and execution standpoint. Wheatley’s a smart pitcher, his mechanics are quick and repeatable despite their limitations, and he executes his pitches consistently. Still, it’s not a profile that has much margin for error if and when he gets to the next level. The command profile is good, but not quite good enough to overcome his fringy velocity and lack of a put-away secondary, and that puts a low ceiling on the package. He needs to find a way to unlock another couple (at least) miles an hour as a prerequisite, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility that some simple mechanical tweaks to his lower half could do just that. It’s a more interesting package of raw materials than I was expecting, but there's a lot of work to do if he's going to develop into a prospect.

Other Notes:

* Freshman right-hander Mitch Hart had a rough outing results-wise in my viewing against UCLA that bellied what has been an otherwise-successful debut campaign. The stuff was apparent despite poor command, as he worked off a low-90’s fastball with good life and sink and showed a nice change-up to work off of it. He flashed two breakers as well, but neither left much of an impression in this start.

* David Oppenheim can hit the ball hard. His swing has some effort and inconsistency that can sap the force of his barrel delivery, but he’s got good pull-side power driven by ferocious hip rotation, and he shows a knack for getting to pitches across the four quadrants.