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High school lefty quartet could go high

High school lefty quartet could go high

There are few commodities more prized in the game of baseball than great left-handed pitchers.

With lefties comprising just an estimated 10 percent of the general population, it naturally reduces a pool that is already elite when it comes to the best of the best at Draft time, and gives them that special éclat.

After all, do right-handed pitchers have their own nickname? Have you ever heard of a "northpaw"?

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While left-handers may evoke a few generalizations and stereotypes -- they're flaky, they're oddballs, they march to their own drummer -- one generalization is indisputable: If a young left-hander has really good stuff, he will earn a big payday when the First-Year Player Draft rolls around.

And this year, more than in recent memory, there are some young left-handers who have really, really good stuff.

Several scouts, among them Chicago Cubs scouting director Tim Wilken, singled out left-handed pitching as the deepest category in the Draft, and within that crop he emphasized the impressive youth movement.

"I think it's the most we've had in quite some time, and a fair amount of them are high school kids," Wilken said. "They dominate the college guys in this case."

In fact, the 2009 Draft could very well see a quartet of high school southpaws taken in the first round: Tyler Matzek of Mission Viejo, Calif.; Matthew Purke of Klein, Texas; Chad James of Yukon, Okla.; and Tyler Skaggs of Santa Monica, Calif.,

Most scouts place Matzek at the top of that list, with Purke just behind him, followed by James and Skaggs. But they agree that all four have the potential makings to be front-of-the-line starters.

Still, when you're talking about high school pitchers, you are always dealing with future projection versus present ability.

The Matzek-Purke duo, scouts say, have the best combination of both and are expected to be called early in the proceedings.

"They both have plus fastballs and I'd give Purke the double-plus curveball with just plus to Matzek," said one American League scout, though he added a caveat by comparing them to a recent high school southpaw who has become something of a "gold standard" for the crop.

"Neither one is Clayton Kershaw, though they might think they are," he said. "But they are both very talented high school guys."

Matzek, 18, is currently pitching for his Capistrano Valley High School squad in state playoff competition, and has been virtually carrying the team through the postseason.

The 6-foot-3, 205-pounder will take his 11-1 record and 1.38 ERA with 97 strikeouts in 78 1/3 innings into his team's next game on Friday, in which he could see time in late relief if needed. He tossed six shutout innings Tuesday night after throwing four innings of no-hit ball the previous Friday.

The 18-year-old boasts a quick arm with a lively low-to-mid-90s fastball, a sharp curve and a power slider with plus potential. He has tremendous poise on the mound coupled with a smooth, seemingly effortless delivery and mechanics.

Matzek jumped onto folks' radar screens as a junior when he faced fellow local ace Gerrit Cole in a scrimmage. Scouts had flocked to watch Cole, who ended up being taken in the first round that spring by the Yankees but opted to attend UCLA instead. They came away with Matzek high on their follow list for 2009 after he struck out five of the six batters he faced.

He's done nothing but add to his status since then.

"He's the 'mack-daddy' of the high school left-handers," said one National League scout. "The stronger one, the more advanced version, who does it all a little easier. He's got a good feeling for pitching and a good balance to his game, and that's what you're looking for with a high pick."

When it comes to upside and makeup, Purke isn't far behind Matzek.

Though his high school season ended a few weeks before Matzek's did, a few teams that wanted to see him more recently got their wish.

"I threw a bullpen for people who wanted to watch, some teams that had contacted me," he said.

The lanky Purke, who will turn 19 in July, is still growing into his 6-foot-3, 180-pound frame. He throws a fastball that tops out around 95 mph with sink and tailing life, along with a hard slider and a changeup he rarely has had to use.

Throwing from a low three-quarters delivery that is deceptive but a little less "effortless" than that of Matzek, he has good command of all three of his pitches and great makeup on the mound. Scouts like his potential durability and his feel for the game.

Purke has a college commitment to Texas Christian, but because of his age, would be Draft-eligible after his sophomore year rather than a year later. The biggest and perhaps only concern on most clubs' part with Purke is perceived signability issues.

"He's an outstanding talent but his signability may affect his Draft status," said one NL scout. "This is a kid that Major League Baseball scouts have seen a whole lot of and I don't know how much more you'd need to see of him. In fact, it's probably a good thing that a high school pitcher gets a little rest in there."

Purke has been enjoying some unaccustomed time off prior to his high school graduation, hanging out with his friends and playing a lot of MLB 2K9.

And while he is admired for his all-business approach on the mound, he admits that off of it, he may live up to the offbeat left-hander stereotype, at least if you ask his buddies.

"If you talk to my teammates, they'll say I'm the goofiest person they know," he said. "I'm a completely different person on the days that I'm pitching, but the rest of the time I'm just a random teen who enjoys baseball."

After Matzek and Purke, both considered sure-fire first-rounders, scouts' opinions differ as to whether/where James and/or Skaggs will land in the first round. Those who think they won't go in the first round believe they'd go soon after, as early as the first sandwich round or the second round.

Most think, at this point, that James is the likelier one to join Matzek and Purke as a 2009 first-round pick.

James, 6-foot-5, went through an offseason nutrition and weight-training regimen, and now weighs in at about 205 pounds, which has added to his stamina and strength.

In addition, his fastball has gained speed from the upper 80s as a junior to the low-to-mid 90s, to go along with a circle change that is considered one of the best in the high school ranks. His curveball is also improving.

"He's not quite as polished as Matzek or Purke, but he's got good present-day stuff and he's a very good athlete," said one NL scout. "I would say he'd go in the first round."

The top high school prospect in his state this year, he's also gotten an inside look at the pro game thanks to his older brother Justin, who was a fifth-round pick in 2003 out of Missouri. After pitching in the Toronto and Cincinnati systems, Justin is currently with the Kansas City T-Bones in the independent Northern League.

"I'm very competitive, I never quit," James said when asked what he believed is the biggest asset he'd bring to a team. "I'm always going to work as hard as I can to beat the person next to me."

Skaggs, whose Santa Monica team was eliminated from the California state playoffs Tuesday night, was considered a likely first-round pick early in the season until a sprained ankle sidelined him for the past month.

He returned to action in Tuesday's loss, tossing seven innings of five-hit ball and striking out nine after having posted a 1.37 ERA in seven starts to open the season. But the layoff has probably affected where he'll fall now.

Skaggs, a Cal State-Fullerton recruit, has a projectable frame at 6-foot-4 and 180, with a low-90s fastball and overhand curve.

According to published reports, several teams have already requested and received his medical reports and he's expected to work out for some of them in the days before the Draft.

"He's not as far along stuff-wise as the others, and there's a little more projection for him," said an NL scout. "And the more we have to project in this business, the bigger chance as have of being wrong."

That doesn't mean the scout doesn't think Skaggs could sneak into the first round.

"It's not that he's not a good-looking pitcher," he said. "Could he squeeze into the first round? Possibly with one of the California teams that has seen him a lot."

MLB.com will offer live coverage and analysis of the entire First-Year Player Draft on June 9-11, on MLB.com/Live, where host Vinny Micucci will be joined by MLB.com Draft expert Jonathan Mayo and Major League Scouting Bureau director Frank Marcos. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on June 9, noon on June 10 and 11:30 a.m. on June 11.

Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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