Illinois top five in high school baseball prospects

Illinois top five in high school baseball prospects
February 1, 2012, 6:23 pm
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You might have a prior commitment on Super Bowl Sunday but Sean Duncan, executive director and publisher of Lake Forest-based Prep Baseball Report magazine and PrepBaseballReport.com, has invited 60 of the best high school baseball prospects in the Midwest to attend a Super 60 Pro Showcase at the Max in suburban McCook.

This is the 10th year for the event. A year ago, 70 major league scouts showed up for the pre-draft combine that attracted invitation-only players from Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin.

Illinois is acknowledged as a basketball state--it has sent more players to the NBA than any region outside southern California--and it also is the leading producer of football talent outside of Texas, Florida, California, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Georgia.

But Illinois youngsters play baseball, too.

"Look at the statistics," Duncan said. "Aside from the baseball hotbeds of Georgia, Texas, California and Florida, Illinois has the highest number of players drafted and is one of the leading producers of players in the major leagues.

"It is one of the most heavily recruited areas in the country. The state's top players always go to powerhouse college programs or they are drafted. The perception is that Illinois is a cold-weather state and doesn't produce baseball talent. But that isn't true."

Duncan said that people in the baseball business recognize that Chicago players rank in the upper echelon of all players in the country despite their limitation of not being able to play on a year-round basis. In fact, Duncan pointed out, Chicago is over-recruited. Over 100 Illinois products annually enroll at Division I schools.

The class of 2012, for example, is deep but not extraordinarily top-heavy with big-time talent. "There are a lot of good but not great players. But some have the ability to be great. No one is slotted as a high draft choice," Duncan said.

He rates left-handed pitcher Brett Lilek of Marian Catholic at the top of the class. Lilek, who is committed to Arizona State, has a high ceiling, according to Duncan. He is 6-foot-3 and has a 92 mph fastball. "He can be electric and could go in the first five rounds of the draft," Duncan said.

Duncan also is high on catcher Jason Goldstein of Highland Park, who is committed to Illinois, and right-handed pitcher Kyle Funkhouser of Oak Forest, who is committed to Louisville.

The class of 2012 doesn't compare to the classes of 2005 and 2007, which Duncan rates as the best he has seen since he began evaluating players in 2005. The class of 2005 featured Michael Bowden of Waubonsie Valley, one of the leading pitching prospects in major league baseball who still is trying to earn a spot on the Boston Red Sox' starting rotation.

Bowden is "the best player I ever covered," Duncan said. He was on the cover of the first issue of Prep Baseball Report.

His top 16 list includes Bowden, pitchershortstop Jake Odorizzi (2009) of Highland, outfielder Joe Benson (2006) of Joliet Catholic, pitcher John Ely (2005) of Homewood-Flossmoor, pitcher Ian Krol (2009) of Neuqua Valley, pitcher Mike Foltynewicz (2010) of Minooka, pitcher Zach McAllister (2006) of Illinois Valley Central, first baseballthird baseball Connor Powers (2006) of Benet, pitcher Jake Smolinski (2007) of Rockford Boylan, pitcher Derek Thompson (2011) of Teutopolis, pitcher Casey Crosby (2007) of Kaneland, catcher Jake DePew (2010) of Granite City, pitcheroutfielder Kenny Smalley (2005) of St. Charles North, designated hitter Tim Barry (2011) of Oak Forest, outfielder Casey McMurray (2007) of Lyons and shortstop Dan Brewer (2005) of Lyons.

What about the future? Who is the next Michael Bowden? Or who could be the next Illinois product to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, joining the likes of Lou Boudreau, Freddie Lindstrom, Kirby Puckett, Robin Roberts, Red Ruffing, Ray Schalk, Jim Bottomley and Red Schoendienst?

"Simeon has a string of players who are highly touted, the best group since the 1990s with Wes Chamberlain, Jeff Jackson and Shawn Livesay," Duncan said.

The blue chippers are senior catcher Blake Hickman, a 6-foot-4, 190-pounder who is committed to Iowa; left-handed hitting junior outfielder Corey Ray, who is committed to Louisville; and the top-rated prospect in the class of 2014, left-handed hitting outfielder Darius Day.

Duncan, 37, a Deerfield graduate of 1992, played basketball and baseball in high school, majored in English at Pittsburgh, then obtained a masters degree in creative writing at Northwestern. "I wanted to write the great American novel," he said.

He covered high school sports for newspapers in Florida and California, then returned to Chicago in 2001 and covered high school sports for the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times.

From 2001 to 2005, Duncan and his best friend Todd Fine got together to organize Full Package Athletics, a basketball and baseball training company based in Lake Forest. Duncan started Prep Baseball Report in 2005 under the same umbrella. In 2008, baseball went its way and basketball went its way.

Duncan started in basketball in 2001. He thought he was a basketball guy who wanted a basketball scouting service. He started with the late Mac Irvin and had 150 schools subscribing in the first six months to "The Truth: The Complete Recruiters' Guide To Illinois Basketball."

"I became disenchanted with basketball," he said. "As I went to events, I became acquainted with shoe wards, summer camps, posses of great players, street agents, the scummy world of recruiting. I wondered if all of this wouldn't work in baseball. No one else was doing it at our level. There was such a need for publicity for high school baseball players. There was so little coverage in newspapers but so many kids who want to play at the next level."

So he founded Prep Baseball Report in 2005, then founded the website in 2009. Its mission is to promote high school players to play at the next level and give them a platform through its multimedia avenues. From November to November, 1.4 million viewers visit the website. Over 400 colleges subscribe to the service, online or print. At its major events, 100 or more colleges will attend.

"Baseball is my passion, the sport I love," Duncan said. "I find it cerebral. There is a lot of stuff that more than meets the eye. I am fascinated by the game. Some people think it is slow. But I think there is a lot of stuff that is involved, like a giant chess game from pitch to pitch and batter to batter. I appreciate it.

"You think you know a lot about the game but there is more and more to it, from draft to farm system, like the whole infrastructure of baseball. At Prep Baseball Report, we try to be the authoritative voice at the state level.

"There are other companies out there that are national who cater to the top 4 percent, the high draft choices, but they are few and far between. Look at Illinois. There are 400 to 500 kids who will go on to play at the next level. There are so many Division II and III schools and junior colleges that don't have recruiting budgets of Division I schools and are looking for players.

"If you have a modicum of skill and a desire to play, you can find a place to play at the next level. They should use their athletic gifts to get into a school that they might not normally be able to afford to get into.

"We try to link players to schools, give them a platform to be seen and publicize them. We create a carrot. Even during a recruiting dead period, a college can go online and see a kid at any time."

Duncan recalled in 2010, at a Prep Baseball Report-sponsored indoor junior event during a recruiting dead period in December, an unknown player whom nobody had ever heard of walked in and threw a fastball at 88-90 mph. Within a month, he committed to Kentucky. Amazingly, Kentucky wasn't even at the event. They had seen the youngster on the website.

What about the future?

"We want to have someone in every state representing our brand and serving as an expert at that state level," Duncan said. "Our goal is to have someone in every relevant state--Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, Indiana and Wisconsin.

"The hardest part of growth is finding the right people to grow with you. We want to continue to provide a service for kids and help them to achieve their dreams of playing baseball at the next level."