For weeks, pundits had debated. Would the Minnesota Twins select Sherman Oaks Notre Dame High pitcher and shortstop Hunter Greene with the first overall pick in the Major League Baseball draft Monday? Or maybe Brendan McKay, Louisville’s two-way player?
Earlier in the day, California’s next-highest rated prospect, Royce Lewis, from San Juan Capistrano JSerra, talked to Greene on the phone to wish him luck.
And then the draft began. Commissioner Rob Manfred stepped to the podium. And the answer was … Lewis, actually.
In a surprise selection, Lewis, a shortstop, went No. 1 overall to the Twins. Greene didn’t have to wait long. He was selected second by the Cincinnati Reds. It was the first time two players from the Southland had been taken with the first two picks since the MLB draft began in 1965.
"It just says that Southern Orange County and California is back, baby,” Lewis said.
The two had never played against each other in high school but had become friends playing for the USA 18-under national team. And they joined a draft class that, to Lewis’ delight, had 10 players from the Southland selected in the first two rounds.
UC Irvine second baseman Keston Hiura was selected ninth overall by the the Milwaukee Brewers and Huntington Beach first baseman Nick Pratto was chosen 14th by the Kansas City Royals.
Greene could end up being the jewel of the draft, what some consider a generational talent. Sports Illustrated put him on the cover. Rick Ingalls, a Southern California area scout for the Reds, told The Times recently that Greene “compares favorably” to other shortstops he has scouted, including Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.
The scouting evaluations “were like no other reports that I'd seen,” Brewers general manager David Stearns said.
The only question would be what position he would play. He was a five-tool shortstop and a right-hander whose fastball touched triple digits.
"We think the elite talent is there both ways,” Stearns said. “But pitching will be the first focus,”
That means building Greene’s innings workload and giving him some at-bats but keeping him from the field, at least initially
"I love doing both just as much,” Greene said. “Whatever they want me to do I'm going to be pumped to do."
Unlike Greene, Lewis rose gradually as a draft prospect. He was considered a likely top-five prospect but an unlikely first pick. Upon hearing of his selection, he said, he “broke down in tears.” He has an all-around array of tools, including impressive speed and some power, even though, he said, “I haven't even grown into any of my man strength yet."
Last season at JSerra, he hit .388 with 12 home runs and 25 stolen bases in 80 at-bats.
Four more local players were selected in the second round: UCLA right-hander Griffin Canning was chosen 47th by the Angels, Huntington Beach catcher Hagen Danner — Pratto’s teammate — went 61st to the Toronto Blue Jays, Dana Hills right-hander Hans Crouse went 66th to the Texas Rangers and Loyola Marymount right-hander Cory Abbott went 67th to the Chicago Cubs.
In the supplemental round, Mater Dei catcher Blake Hunt went 69th to the San Diego Padres and Etiwanda High shortstop Tyler Freeman went 71st to the Cleveland Indians.
The Angels selected Jordon Adell, a high school outfielder from Kentucky, and the Dodgers selected outfielder Jeren Kendall, of Vanderbilt and right-hander Morgan Cooper of Texas.
Hiura, the third local top-10 pick, batted .442 with eight home runs and an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of 1.260 in 199 at bats.
Pratto was another two-way player, though he said he will be strictly a first baseman in the pros. He supplied the walk-off single to win the 2011 Little League World Series. Asked to compare that day and Monday, he was uncertain.
“That’s a close one,” Pratto said. “This one was pretty special.”
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand