There was a sideshow brewing well before either team took to the field in a mid-April cross-river rivalry between the Eastmont and Wenatchee baseball teams.
A crowd of about 20 looked on as Dustin Driver fired up his arm in the bullpen. Driver, separated from the onlookers by netting, carried on with his warm-up, at least acting oblivious to the gathering.
The Big Nine baseball squads kicked off the doubleheader, and with Driver on the mound, the spectacle escalated.
In a crowded bleacher section of families and friends rooting for either side, there was a calm chatter simmering among fans discussing the Wenatchee hurler’s overpowering fastball and his future place in the baseball world — speculative, but highly uncertain.
There was a sizeable gathering of professional scouts in the front section dutifully tracking Driver’s performance, with a sea of radar guns popping up simultaneously every time the ball left the mound, his fastball hitting 94 miles per hour.
The senior left the mound after fanning nine, giving up four hits and no runs in 6 1/3 innings, and the entourage of scouts made its way for the exit.
It was just another day at the circus for Driver.
Based on his composure, it’s impossible to tell whether the 6-foot-2, 220-pound phenom was even aware of the commotion.
“He handled it better than our team, I think,” Panther coach Jeff Zehnder said of the ruly mob watching his every move in the early stages of the spring season.
Driver is arguably the most promising baseball prospect to come from the Wenatchee Valley, well, ever.
His powerful frame permits him to launch a four-seamer few high-school hitters can overcome, his no-nonsense demeanor on the mound is a highly-sought intangible and his off-speed stuff is developing.
“His two-seam fastball has good movement, (he has a) good changeup, has a curveball and a cut fastball that’s unbelievable,” said Bud Adams, who worked with Driver last summer to develop a diverse arsenal of pitches.
Without question, the righthander has a future in baseball. He’s signed a letter of intent to play for UCLA next season, and his name cracks just about every top-100 high school prospect list.
But professional baseball is calling Driver, and with the Major League Baseball draft Thursday — a day before Driver will graduate from high school — he will face one of the biggest decisions of his young life.
And while fathers and sons traded rumors of his draft stock during Big Nine contests this spring, the pitcher’s future is every bit a mystery to them as it his to him.
“I’m not too sure where I’d go,” he said in an interview during the prep season. “Because it depends on if I keep improving each week. … I’m not really sure. I can’t really elaborate on that, because I won’t know until draft day.
“But if it’s the right opportunity,” he continued after a brief pause, “I’ll go.”
Buying in early
Driver got his first letter from a Division-I school when he was in the eighth grade. Even then, his power was light years ahead of his peers.
“That was mind-blowing,” he said about getting the first letter.
The recruitment letters kept pouring in, and he got his first scholarship offer from Gonzaga as a freshman.
Around that point, he knew baseball was his ticket.
He attended the Baseball Northwest Tournament in Oregon after his freshman year and played for the Spokane Dodgers 18U club, a regional collection of elite players.
The muscle-bound athlete quit football to avoid injury and started working with Adams, who was drafted in the ninth round by the Kansas City Royals in the ninth round of the 1987 draft and played for 3 1/2 years professionally.
Driver competed in the New Balance Area Code Baseball Games — a collection of eight teams made up of the best prep players in the country — for the Royals (representing the Northwest) after his sophomore year. The week-long trip to Long Beach, Calif., thrust him headfirst into the spotlight.
Driver estimated there were upwards of 500 scouts in attendance at the week-long tournament. There, he saw competition with the bat speed and reaction time to catch his fastball for the first time in his career, a sign his work wasn’t complete.
Seeking more elite batters to battle, he returned to the Area Code games after his junior year and ramped up his exposure by attending the Under Armour All-America Baseball Game and the Perfect Game All-American Classic.
At that point, thanks to the exposure and the teachings of Adams, Driver started breaking into the national spotlight as one of the top power pitchers in the 2013 high school class.
This season, with scouts watching his every move and hitters anxiously looking to get their licks on Driver, he helped lead his team to a 4A state appearance.
For Driver, that’s just scratching the surface.
He believes he can ratchet up his velocity and continue to polish his breaking ball and off-speed stuff.
“I still have a high ceiling,” he said. “I’m not your tall, lanky, projectile pitcher — I’m power, I’m strong bodied. But yeah, I think I can still develop and get stronger and have a higher velocity and keep working on my pitches.”
Mechanics are key
Adams shares Driver’s optimism.
Adams, who specializes in pitch development, has seen Driver transform from an athletically-gifted physical specimen into a versatile prospect with plenty of upside and a masterful command over the mental side of the game.
Adams worked with Driver’s posture on the mound and engaged him in drills that focus on his direction toward the plate and spin and has been impressed with his retention.
“Some kids can’t make adjustments and make them and then perform them athletically, but he can,” Adams said.
Adams’ playing career was cut short because of a shoulder injury, but he thinks Driver is destined for a different career arc.
Adams said Driver’s stress-free release should keep him from throwing his arm out, another alluring trait for pro teams. Driver hasn’t suffered an injury so far in his playing career.
Additionally, Driver’s shown a propensity to pick up strength as he settles in, Adams said.
“What’s valuable for these pro teams is a young, strong, mature kid that has the ability to throw the ball in the mid 90s on a consistent basis,” he said. “And he’s the type of kid that gets stronger as the game goes, and that’s pretty rare.”
Still, for everything the Wenatchee product has to offer a professional club (and there is a lot), it’s a tough market.
Driver has worked overtime to upgrade his tool kit and packed on layers of muscle to compliment an already bulky frame. His velocity has shown stable improvement, just about everybody agrees that his off-speed stuff has come along since last season, his injury-free rap sheet is encouraging and his business-like demeanor on the mound gives him that mental edge not many 18-year-olds possess.
But in an era where power pitching is all the rage and budding pitchers are flirting with the upper 90s, how high in the draft can Driver go?
Although there’s an objective sample set to draw from, the answer changes depending on who you’re talking to.
MLB.com draft and prospect expert Jonathan Mayo said Driver has “the chance to be one of the best from the (Pacific Northwest) this year,” in a top 100 draft list, compiled earlier this spring.
Mayo has Driver ranked at No. 59 in the list.
“Driver has some good stuff, with a fastball that’s already touching 93-94 mph and a power breaking ball to go along with it,” the scouting report reads. “He threw very well at the Area Code Games, showing a good feel for mixing his fastball, breaking stuff and even a changeup. And while some feel he may be a reliever when all is said and done, there’s plenty to like about this young right arm.
“As good as his raw stuff is, he gets equally strong, if not better, marks for his mound presence, instincts and competitiveness, all of which add up to a very bright future.”
A pro scout who has seen Driver pitch on a number of occasions over his prep career said he was impressed with the pitcher’s steady improvement and said there is reason to believe Driver’s skill set will blossom as his career unfolds.
The scout, who attended the Panthers/Wildcats game in mid-April, said Driver could land anywhere between the third and fifth round of the draft.
Baseball America, a sports magazine that covers baseball at every level, ranked Driver at No. 106 in its top 500 prospects for the 2013 draft released Monday.
ESPN and ESPN Scouts, Inc. senior baseball writer Keith Law ranked Driver No. 57 in his top 100 in mid-May.
“Driver looked like a possible high pick coming out of last summer, but working on his secondary stuff this spring cost him some command and he’s settled more into the second- or third-round range,” Law wrote in a summary recently. “… There’s at least the chance for three pitches and enough size to project him as a back-end starter, although he might be better off in a relief role where he can focus on fastball command and on just one offspeed pitch instead.”
A weighty decision
Driver didn’t specify exactly what it would take for him to leap directly from high school to the pros. Money — especially in a fat lump sum — is hard to turn down. But a chance to chase a national championship for a dominant D-I program has its allure, too.
What it boils down to, essentially, is that the Wenatchee product is staring down a life-altering decision that will shape the next few years of his life, arguably more.
Each path offers a unique set of trials, expectations and benefits.
“When you’re speaking professional baseball, they own you,” Zehnder said. “They’re paying you and they own you. They’re going to tell you where to go, they’re going to tell you what to do and they’re going to put him on a plane somewhere and say ‘you’re going to go play in this league and you’re going to get coached by these guys,’ and the next year, they might be shipping him somewhere else. With a college, it’s more of a nurturing environment where he gets the opportunity to be a part of a program with other kids to develop. … There’s going to be a little more fun involved, I would say.”
Of course, Driver’s considered what life would be like at either stop. A career at UCLA would mean sunshine, beaches and significantly less pressure attached to each appearance at the mound.
At the same time, Driver’s spoken with finance people and nutritionists in case he goes the other route.
Zehnder and Adams have refrained from offering input on where Driver should go, partly because where he lands is so critical, and partly because only Driver can make that call.
Both men, however, are in his corner and fervently believe that Driver’s best days on the mound are still ahead of him.
“The sky’s the limit for him,” Zehnder said. “Sky’s the limit. He’s got the work ethic, he’s got the body, he’s got the tools. But he just has to mature, and when he steps on that field — it’s game on.”