The Starting Nine: Preseason look

(From left to right) Byron Buxton, Lucas Giolito and Joey Gallo are the three top preseason candidates for The Diamond Gem, the title bestowed upon the nation's most outstanding baseball player based on on-field performance. Mike Janes/Four Seam Images via AP Images, Scott Kurtz/ESPNHS

With spring right around the corner, ESPNHS has begun its search for the nation’s top high school baseball player, regardless of school year and based solely on on-field performance.

Every two weeks, we’ll rank the nine players in order in The Starting Nine. And at the end of the season, whoever is in the top spot will be crowned The Diamond Gem, our award given to the nation’s most outstanding player.

So to kick it off, we give you our preseason Starting Nine. Leading the way is Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.) senior Lucas Giolito, the nation’s top right-handed pitcher who dominated opposing hitters last season and has looked very much like an early first-round pick in the early going this year.

The Starting Nine: Preseason

1. Lucas Giolito, Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.)

RHP, Senior

Why he’s here: The nation’s top right-hander, Giolito went 9-0 last year with a 1.00 ERA with 78 strikeouts in 70.1 innings. He also pitched four complete games, three of which were shutouts.

2. Joey Gallo, Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas)

1B/3B/RHP, Senior

Why he’s here: The top player on the top team in the POWERADE FAB 50, Gallo hit .471 last year with 25 homers and 78 RBIs while leading Gorman to its sixth straight state title. He also was 3-1 on the bump with a 1.12 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 18.2 innings.

3. Byron Buxton, Appling County (Baxley, Ga.)

OF, Senior

Why he’s here: The nation’s top outfielder and potential top 10 pick in June’s MLB draft flirted with the .600 mark last season (he finished hitting .594) and clubbed 10 homers while driving in 48 runs.

4. Lance McCullers Jr., Jesuit (Tampa, Fla.)

RHP/SS, Senior

Why he’s here: The hard-throwing right-hander (he’s hit 100 mph on the radar gun) went 5-2 with a 1.71 ERA and 70 strikeouts in 45 innings last season for the Class 4A state runner-up. He also hit .422 with seven homers and 24 RBIs.

5. Kayden Porter, Spanish Fork (Utah)

RHP/OF, Senior

Why he’s here: Porter picked up ESPNHS National Junior of the Year honors last year after leading Spanish Fork to its third straight state title. He went 9-1 with 85 strikeouts in 59 innings and hit .570 with 14 homers and 50 RBIs.

6. Gavin Cecchini, Barbe (Lake Charles, La.)

SS, Senior

Why he’s here: Leader of Louisiana powerhouse picked up Gatorade State Player of the Year honors last season after hitting .548 with 10 homers, 41 RBIs and 32 stolen bases.

7. Max Fried, Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.)

LHP, Senior

Why he’s here: The nation’s top lefty, Fried went 7-3 with a 1.31 ERA and 100 strikeouts in 69.2 innings at Montclair Prep (Van Nuys, Calif.). He transferred to Harvard-Westlake after Montclair Prep cut its athletics program.

8. Kyle Carter, Columbus (Ga.)

OF/LHP, Senior

Why he’s here: Carter, who starred on the Columbus team that won the 2006 Little League World Series, set a single-season school record with 22 homers last season to help Columbus earn its second straight state title and 11th overall. He also hit .467 with 47 RBIs and went 9-4 on the mound with a 2.33 ERA.

9. Courtney Hawkins, Carroll (Corpus Christi, Texas)

RHP/OF, Senior

Why he’s here: The leader of the No. 4 team in the POWERADE FAB 50, Hawkins led Carroll to a state title as a sophomore and the state semifinals last season. As a junior, he hit .410 with 15 homers, 49 RBIs and 22 stolen bases and was 10-2 with a 2.35 ERA and 81 strikeouts.


Another 25 players we’re tracking to begin the 2012 season

OF Albert Almora, Mater Academy (Hialeah Gardens, Fla.), Sr.

RHP Freddy Avis, Menlo School (Atherton, Calif.), Sr.

1B Keon Barnum, King (Tampa, Fla.), Sr.

RHP Ryan Burr, Highlands Ranch (Colo.), Sr.

C Zach Collins, American Heritage (Plantation, Fla.), Jr.

C Clint Coulter, Union (Camas, Wash.), Sr.

OF David Dahl, Oak Mountain (Birmingham, Ala.), Sr.

RHP Ty Hensley, Santa Fe (Edmond, Okla.), Sr.

3B/RHP Carson Kelly, Westview (Portland, Ore.), Sr.

LHP Nathan Kirby, James River (Midlothian, Va.), Sr.

C Jeremy Martinez, Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.), Jr.

C/SS/RHP Wyatt Mathisen, Calallen (Corpus Christi, Texas), Sr.

OF/RHP Ty Moore, Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.), Sr.

3B/OF Mitch Nay, Hamilton (Chandler, Ariz.), Sr.

1B/RHP Matt Olson, Parkview (Lilburn, Ga.), Sr.

3B Rio Ruiz, Bishop Amat (La Puente, Calif.), Sr.

SS Addison Russell, Pace (Fla.), Sr.

RHP Lucas Sims, Brookwood (Snellville, Ga.), Sr.

LHP Matt Smoral, Solon (Ohio), Sr.

1B/RHP Jake Thompson, Rockwall-Heath (Heath, Texas), Sr.

RHP/OF Keegan Thompson, Cullman (Ala.), Jr.

C Stryker Trahan, Acadiana (Lafayette, La.), Sr.

LHP Hunter Virant, Camarillo (Calif.), Sr.

RHP Walker Weickel, Olympia (Orlando, Fla.), Sr.

OF/LHP Jesse Winker, Olympia (Orlando, Fla.), Sr.