CAGUAS, P.R. — The biggest draft names in Puerto Rico coming into the season were shortstop Carlos Correa, who ranked No. 11 in Baseball America's preseason High School Top 100, second baseman Jesmuel Valentin Diaz (No. 52) and righthander Edwin Diaz (No. 82).
Those players still figure to be premium draft picks in June, but the player who has improved his stock the most since then is righthander J.O. Berrios, from Papa Juan XXIII High in Bayamon, P.R.
Berrios continued to move up teams' draft boards on the first day of the Excellence Tournament here, Puerto Rico's annual event to spotlight the top high school baseball players on the island. Six teams play in the tournament, which has been taking place since 1996 and was started by longtime scout Jorge Posada Sr., and scouts flock to get a long look at the island's top talent in advance of making final decisions for the draft.
Berrios has gained a lot of strength since last summer, when he drew the notice of scouts at the Under Armour All-America Game in Chicago. He said he has been working with a conditioning coach and has added 20-25 pounds since then. He has a strong, athletic build, and the changes are also reflected in his delivery. The added muscle has allowed him to smooth things out, and he has boosted his fastball velocity.
Berrios threw three innings on Wednesday, sitting in the 93-94 mph range and touching 96 a few times. He threw his fastball down in the zone and overmatched hitters with a three-pitch arsenal. Berrios mixed in an 80-81 mph slider and showed an improved changeup with good fade. He struck out the side in his final inning, with his last pitch registering at 95 mph.
"I like to play in this type of atmosphere and I enjoy performing well in front of everybody," Berrios said through an interpreter. "I felt very prepared. I've trained very strenuously throughout the whole year and I wasn't surprised with my performance because I've prepared to pitch in this manner."
Still, Correa is the main attraction for scouts at the event, and he did not disappoint. In his first game, Correa went 2-for-3 with two home runs. The hitters are using metal bats and the first home run was a mammoth shot to left field, probably about 375 feet. The second home run came on a hanging curveball and was more of a line drive about 350 feet, also to left field.
"I feel great. That was a great game for me," Correa said. "I feel comfortable, I feel good, I feel healthy, so that's good. I dreamt it would be like this, so it's like a dream come true. I love it . . . It feels good to be in front of the scouts. There's a lot of scouts here in Puerto Rico coming from the USA, so it feels good that they came to see every Puerto Rican player."
Correa set lofty goals for himself coming into the Excellence Tournament.
"I was joking with my friend that I want to be in the 5-5 club in the tournament, with five home runs and five stolen bases," Correa said. "I was just joking and told him that and he said, 'Nah, you can't do that.' But we'll see. I've already got two, so we'll see how it goes. I've got four games left."
Commitment To Excellence
• Diaz entered the game after Berrios and continued to light up the radar guns. His first two pitches were clocked at 97 mph, and he settled into the 92-95 mph range. Diaz has a tall, lean body, repeats his delivery well and threw strikes. He preferred to pitch away from hitters and mixed in a 77-80 mph slurve and a changeup.
• The middle infield for the Coliceba team stood out. Both shortstop Angel Ortega and second baseman Janluis Castro attend the International Baseball Academy in Ceiba, P.R., but they stood out for different reasons. Ortega made a spectacular defensive play in the first game of the day, ranging to his right and laying out for a ball in the hole, popping up and firing a seed to first to get the runner, who thought the ball got through and was running as if he was going to round the bag.
"I wasn't sure that I was going to make it," Ortega said of the play. "My arm is tired a little bit, so I have to be quick in my play. But I practice every day and I work hard to make things look easy and I was very proud that I made the play."
Ortega said he was looking forward to showcasing his skills on such a big stage. "I'm really excited because this is the most important tournament," he said. "I've worked really hard for this. It feels good."
Castro, a switch-hitter, hit the first home run of the event. He and Ortega have been playing together for the past six years and could continue doing so, as both players are committed to Alabama State.
"They enjoy the game and they don't feel any pressure," said the director of the International Baseball Academy, Luis Castro—who is Janluis' father. "They love to play the game. They know how to turn the double plays and they coach each other."
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