Pitching Decision Awaits for Thomas Johnson Ace

Thomas Johnson High School senior Branden Kline is a potential high draft pick in next month¿s Major League Baseball draft. He has accepted a scholarship to play for Virginia, but now faces the choice of skipping college and signing a contract worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
By Josh Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 11, 2009

The first time Branden Kline took the mound for Thomas Johnson this spring, the scene was typical for an early-season high school baseball game: a relatively sparse crowd made up of mostly classmates, friends and relatives.

A month later, those crowds are larger, and now include about two dozen mostly middle-aged men, toting notebooks, video cameras and radar guns. They scrutinize Kline's every move, from how he throws in the bullpen and swings in the on-deck circle, to the release point of his 90 mph fastball, to how fast he gets himself down to first base on a hit.

All of a sudden, a 17-year-old who was barely on the map for some major league scouts has become a hot commodity as the start of the first-year player draft approaches on June 9. Scouts are flocking to Frederick to witness his last few pitching appearances, often bringing their bosses and sometimes their bosses' bosses to get a second or third evaluation before Kline's season ends.

"We didn't think he would be this kind of kid," one scout said on the condition of anonymity because area scouts generally are not authorized to discuss prospects. "He's the flavor of the week. Heck, he's the flavor of the month."

Kline has shot up the charts to the point that some scouts project him being selected in the first five rounds, with an accompanying signing bonus well into six figures if he chooses to turn professional and skip college. He already has accepted a scholarship to play for the University of Virginia, but the opportunity to immediately begin the pursuit of a major league dream can be enticing.

"When I was young, I always wanted to play some type of professional sport," said Kline, who has a 6-1 record and has allowed just three earned runs and 16 hits with 79 strikeouts in 41 innings, though he was scratched from today's scheduled start because of a slightly strained elbow, according to Coach Jim Foit.

"As I got older and older, I noticed how good the kids were coming out of high school. But now [being included in that group is] a high possibility. It feels pretty cool knowing you could get drafted coming out of high school, but there is a lot of pressure with people asking me what I'm going to do.

"It's actually something I have had to sit down and talk to my parents about. It's getting real serious, thinking about the pros and cons of going to the pros against going to college first."

Not that Kline's situation is unprecedented. Danny Hultzen, last season's All-Met Player of the Year, went from totally unknown to potential first-round draft pick. With concerns that he was unlikely to sign a pro contract, Hultzen slipped to the 10th round, where he was picked by the Arizona Diamondbacks before turning down their contract offers to follow through on his scholarship to play for Virginia.

While Kline has indicated to scouts that he also wants to go to college, some teams likely still will pursue him because of his talent. His parents, Linda Kline and Gary Bowens, also would like to see their son attend Virginia.

"For me, growing up, I didn't have a chance to go to a university," Linda Kline said. "I would like for him to go to college and get a good education. Plus, he'll get more experience with baseball on a higher level. It wouldn't be going from high school to the minor leagues. That would be nerve-wracking. I never thought his playing ball would get this far."

The decision to possibly put off college is one Kline never anticipated having to make, even after his senior season started. That's not to say he wasn't a good player, because Kline often played against older competition and has spent the past two falls playing on a well-known travel team, the Mid-Atlantic Red Sox, which draws players from all over the East Coast and has sent 40 players to NCAA Division I programs the past two years, according to General Manager Allen Haines. But in the 10 years of the Red Sox, Kline could be the highest draft pick.

"I saw his potential, but I never thought he could do this," said Haines, noting that Kline threw in the low- to mid-80s when he invited Kline to join the Red Sox. "I saw a projectable kid with potential."

That's the same thing pro scouts see now. Although Haines set up Kline with a pitching coach for offseason workouts -- Clear Spring Coach Mark Shives, who played at Florida International -- scouts still consider Kline a raw talent, not a polished pitcher. They like his arm strength and velocity. While Kline is 6 feet 3 and 185 pounds, he is still growing. With proper nutrition and a dedicated weightlifting regimen, scouts envision him adding another 25 pounds, perhaps adding even more velocity to a fastball often in the low 90s that requires his catcher to wear two batting gloves for padding under his catcher's mitt.

It was after Kline hit 95 in a game at Hedgesville, W.Va., that things took off. A few scouts had started to trickle in to see Kline, but word of his performance against Hedgesville quickly made it through the tight-knit scouting community. For his next start against Tuscarora, about 25 scouts and a potential agent were on hand. Ditto his following start last week against North Carroll.

"In the fall I knew pro scouts would come out and look at our team, but I never thought I would be one of the guys they would be looking at to draft high," Kline said. "I got a couple questionnaires in the fall, but I didn't think anything about it. I figured they just wanted to know my info."

Now they want to know more. They will watch an inning or two from behind the plate, then move to a spot down the foul lines to get a different vantage point. From any angle, they've seen the emergence of a pitcher.

"Anybody can walk to the field now and see it. A year ago it was Virginia that had a pretty keen eye," Shives said. "There is still more in that arm. His breaking stuff is still maturing. He's learning how to pitch. That's what is so attractive. He is still raw on the mound. All of this stuff is new to him."

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