PHOENIX—A smorgasbord of baseball activity over the Martin Luther King Jr. weekend helped kick off the 2016 baseball calendar. Three high school-age events were held at various locations across the Valley, with nearly 2,000 teen-aged players participating in the games.
The Under Armour All-America Preseason Tournament brought nearly 400 players to the Cubs' spring training facility in Mesa, Ariz., for controlled games and on-field instruction from professional coaches. The Preseason Tournament is just one of the events used by Baseball Factory to select players for the annual Under Armour All-America game, this year scheduled for July 23 under the lights at Wrigley Field in Chicago. It's the 17th year for this event and the second time it's been held at the Mesa facility, an appropriate connection since the players are vying for an invitation to play in the summer showcase at the Cubs' major league park.
"We call it 'The Road To Wrigley' and it really involves all of our events," said Steve Bernhardt, executive vice present of baseball operations for Baseball Factory, "but certainly this (hosting the game at the Cubs spring training facility) connects the dots a little bit better."
During the opening ceremony for the tournament, six players were announced as selections for the Wrigley Field game, including Cole Brannen (The Westfield Schools, Elko, Ga.), Jack Conlon (Clements HS, Sugar Land, Texas), Kyle Hurt (Torrey Pines HS, Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.), Garrett Mitchell (Orange Lutheran HS, Anaheim), and Cole Turney (Fort Bend Travis HS, Richmond, Texas).
Former major league pitcher Dave Burba delivered the ceremony's keynote address to the players and family members.
Baseball Factory utilizes a host of professional coaches and scouts to serve as instructors during the two days of competition. The actual games are less formal than in other tournaments and showcases, and it's not uncommon for the instructors to pass on tips to the players during the course of the game.
Overall, the talent level at the 2016 event looked to be better than in past years, a fact confirmed by Bernhardt. That's saying a lot considering that alumni of the event include future first-round picks Kris Bryant, Alex Bregman and Billy McKinney.
"Each year the talent is upgraded a little bit," Bernhardt said. "I'm always surprised, having done this a long time, at how physical these players seem to continue to become. They get bigger, stronger and faster every year."
Conlon didn't waste time in proving that he belongs in the Wrigley Field game by putting on a strong pitching performance Saturday morning with two hitless innings for his Texas Orange squad. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound righthander, pitching for the first time since November, showed a fastball up to 89 mph with downhill plane, good armside life and natural run and sink. He normally hits the low 90s in-season, and with easy arm action and a body built for innings he should be able to add velocity as he matures. The 2017 grad, committed to Texas A&M, also flashed a sharp slider with two-plane break.
"I felt pretty loose … I felt like I was throwing pretty good," Conlon said. "I threw a lot of strikes and my offspeed (stuff) was working pretty well."
While some of Conlon's strength comes naturally because of his size, he's also a devotee of a regular long-toss regimen, going pole-to-pole before his starts and exceeding distances of 300 feet. His coaches, both current and future, buy into his philosophy.
"Long-tossing is a very important routine for me," Conlon said. "It's the No. 1 thing that helps build arm strength … My coach in high school lets me do my long-toss before I pitch. He wants me to be 100 percent prepared. The coaches at A&M also believe that they don't necessarily want to have a certain program for everyone but individual programs to help each person as a pitcher."
Texas high school product and Arkansas commit Turney also stuck around for the entire weekend, showing why he projects as one of the top-rated hitters for the 2017 draft class. While not a blazing runner, Turney has a solid lefthanded batting stroke with very good bat speed, an advanced approach at the plate with good strike zone discipline. Defensively, he's an instinctual outfielder with a strong, accurate arm.
Turney, playing over the weekend with the Southeast Texas team, saw a lot of value in participating in the event and is impressed by what the Baseball Factory team puts on. "They're very organized," Turney said. "They run very smoothly. They pay a lot of attention to you individually and they tell you how to improve."
In addition to enjoying his time at the preseason event, being selected for the All-America game at Wrigley Field fulfills a goal for the Texas youngster.
"It's an honor," Turney said. "It's something I've always dreamed of since I was 13, 14 years old, thinking how awesome it would be to be part of this game. Now it's come true and just a great feeling."
The player drawing the most attention from scouts during the weekend was Paxton (Fla.) High righthander Austin Franklin, in part because as a senior the Samford commit will be eligible for the 2016 draft draft. Franklin didn't disappoint, showing a fastball up to 94 mph with some run, a sharp curveball and good feel for his changeup. He delivers his pitches with a high-three-quarters arm slot with some effort and ending with a slight head whack, but it doesn't prevent him from consistently throwing strikes. Franklin impressed observers with his poise on the mound.
It wasn't just high school seniors and juniors in the spotlight during the preseason tournament, with a number of 2018 class members standing out. One of the most noticeable was Hialeah, Fla., shortstop Raynel Delgado, playing for the Florida squad. The switch-hitter makes good contact using a compact, line drive stroke at the plate. Defensively, he's got an advanced feel for the game and is a smooth fielder with very good, soft hands. The Baseball Factory team honored Delgado with the Easton Gloveman award as the top defensive infielder at the event.
Delgado is also an eager student of the game, soaking up as much instruction as he could during his time in Arizona.
"There are a couple of major leaguers here that work with the team and they help us out," Delgado said. "For example, I don't use my feet when I'm fielding, and they instructed me to help myself and my arm with my feet forward."
Breaking Through With USA Baseball
Another excellent showcase of premier players was being held at the Angels complex in Tempe just a short drive from the Under Armour event, with MLB and USA Baseball teaming up for an expansion of their Breakthrough Series. Designed to promote baseball for youth from urban and underserved communities, the event was cost-free for the 60 players invited to the three-day event. The showcase in Tempe is the first of five similar events hosted in several regions of the United States.
"The real theme is to get kids exposure who wouldn't normally get exposure," said former Angels general manager Tony Reagins, now MLB's senior vice president for youth programs. "They don't have the financial means to travel to the premier showcases and those types of events … We wanted to be able to provide a platform where these kids can be seen by college coaches or Major League Baseball personnel."
The expansion of the program is a natural next step for an already highly successful venture.
"Kids are already getting drafted out of this program," Reagins said. "Kids are getting college educations out of this program. We want to enhance it, continue to grow it and continue to give kids more opportunities."
The invited players were coached during the weekend by a host of former major leaguers, including Eric Davis, Tom Gordon, Jerry Manuel, Marquis Grissom, Dmitri Young, Rob Picciolo, Lou Collier and others. Most of the weekend centered around drills and on-field instruction, with only one set of games against live pitching on Sunday afternoon.
The coaches in the program also see the value of this type of program, especially in helping the attendees grow not just as ballplayers but also as people.
"I feel privileged to be here to try to make change and have an effect on the next generation of kids," Grissom said, "and pave the way for other African-American kids to be productive. It may not be in baseball, but it may be in something else. They have an opportunity to learn the game and to respect the game, and from that I think they become productive citizens."
The most notable players participating in the event were Ronald Washington (Ridge Point HS, Houston) and Luis Curbelo (Cocoa HS, Miami). Both young ballplayers are expected to be ranked highly on MLB draft boards in June, with Curbelo checking in at No. 19 on BA's High School Top 100.
Washington isn't on the list yet, with good reason. The Texas commit took extra classes over the summer and continues with a heavier than usual workload so that he can graduate early, thus being reclassified from the class of 2017 to 2016 and becoming draft-eligible this year.
Jumping ahead a year has been quite the endeavor, but Washington doesn't regret his decision. "I've been studying a lot more and practicing a lot more baseball," Washington said, "so (I've got) a lot less free time. But it's going to be really worth it, I feel like."
It's not just schoolwork that keeps Washington busy. He's set certain areas for improvement with his baseball skills.
"Working on my speed and driving the ball gap-to-gap." Washington said. "That's what I'm working on in the cages. Defensively I'm doing a lot of foot drills and staying light … doing a lot of running."
Curbelo is a native of Puerto Rico but is finishing his high school career in Florida. The Miami commit is noted for his smooth actions at shortstop, good bat speed and a feel for hitting. He was thrilled by what he learned during his time at the Breakthrough Series.
"No doubt, this has been a great experience," Curbelo said. "This is my second invite. The first one was in Sarasota and I had a blast there, too. I'm just so blessed to meet former players that know so much about the game and we get to learn new things from them (such as) just keep working hard. Never dog up the line, just be intense until the last inning, the last out, and never back down."
Glendale PG Event
Perfect Game hosted its annual MLK West Championship tournaments at the White Sox and Dodgers training facilities in Glendale, with 96 teams split into three age groups competing over four days.
The Pacific Northwest Regional Baseball 2016 team dominated the Upperclass division, going undefeated in six games including three straight wins in the championship round over Dbacks Elite Scout Team, eXposure West and Aggies Baseball.
The Pacific Northwest squad included nine 2016 Pac-12 Conference commits, most notably showcase regulars Morgan McCullough (Oregon), Kenyon Yovan (Oregon), Brady Whalen (Oregon), Brendan Ecklebarger (Washington) and Jake Mulholland (Oregon State).
San Diego Show defeated national travel team Phenom Signature 16U to capture the Underclass division, while the Padres Scout Team, from Mesa, Ariz., took the Freshman division championship over Phenom AZ.