When you think of baseball prospects from the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic will typically dominate the thought, with Puerto Rico and maybe even Curacao entering the picture. The U.S. Virgin Islands isn't nearly on the same level, but Darren Canton is doing all he can to get players there noticed.
Canton grew up in New York, playing in the Brooklyn Bonnies youth organization but returned to his family's roots of the Virgin Islands as an adult to see if he could have an influence in baseball. He took with him the hard-nosed mentality he learned from his Bonnies coaches and began the Virgin Islands Future Stars Baseball program.
"There has been raw talent here going back to the 40s and 50s," Canton said. "There's a good history of baseball, but a shortage of exposure. I decided to move down here and see how far the talent could go. I didn't imagine it going this well."
Canton was a solid player himself and went to Miami-Dade CC. He says he wasn't prepared for some of the obstacles that come with the transition to playing beyond high school, and he uses those experiences to mold his current program.
Two alumni currently in professional ball are outfielder Jabari Blash and righthander Akeel Morris. Blash, who like Canton wound up at Miami-Dade, signed with the Mariners as an eighth-round pick in 2010. He hit .266/.362/.477 in 109 at-bats for Rookie-level Pulaski last summer. Morris was taken in the 10th round by the Mets and went 1-1, 2.19 in 25 innings with 28 strikeouts and 17 walks.
Blash had originally signed with Alcorn State before detouring to Miami-Dade, while Morris was drafted out of Charlotte Amaile High on the island of St. Thomas.
Most of Canton's players go the route Blash did, taking a couple years of junior college to get acclimated to better competition and lifestyle on the mainland.
"It's a similar formula to what raw kids in Puerto Rico do," one scout said. "When you get a good arm that needs work on secondary stuff, those strong junior college programs do a great job of developing guys and getting them experience against better competition."
Occasionally, there is a player that will make the jump out of high school, like Morris. The likeliest to do that in 2011 is righthander Deshorn Lake.
Lake is from the Virgin Islands but moved in with family in Virginia and attends Menchville High in Newport News. He has an athletic frame at 6-foot-1, 180 pounds, and a live arm. His fastball can sit 90-92 mph and he mixes in a 77-79 slider and low-80s changeup. He is committed to East Carolina.
Lake has had the benefit of pitching on the showcase circuit and is a fairly well-known prospect among draft followers, but the Virgin Islands have a few others to think about as June creeps closer.
Richard White is righthander from St. Croix. He is just 5-foot-11, 180 pounds, but he can bring it with the fastball. It ranges from 88-95, not uncommon for a raw arm that is new to pitching.
"White is young in terms of pitching experience," Canton said. "He's only been pitching for three years. He's developing real well and has some pro guys working with him."
While the body isn't big, it's live and athletic. Secondary pitches and command are still a work in progress, but the fastball has some run and life to it.
Jharel Cotton is another righthander that moved from the Virgin Islands to pitch for Menchville. He is a 6-foot, 180-pound sophomore at Miami-Dade and starred for the Coastal Plains League's Peninsula Pilots last summer. In 46 innings he went 3-2, 3.33 with 57 strikeouts and 11 walks. His fastball ranges from 89-92.
"Cotton has a very good body," the scout said. "He is long-limbed and high-waisted. He has a strong, clean arm action. His changeup and curveball could both be average."
Looking ahead to 2012, Jahmoy Williams will likely generate some buzz. He is a long and loose, 6-foot-5 righthander. He sits in the high 80s now, but has touched 93. Like his peers, he faces the challenge of being seen, but Canton will do all he can to make that part easy.
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