Prep Prospects Finish Summer Strong At Area Code Games

Area Code All-Stars
BA’s Aaron Fitt and Clint Longenecker selected this team. It is not a list of the top prospects at each position, although prospect status was a consideration, but rather a team of the players who showed the best and performed well over the six days of the Area Code Games:
C—Alex Jackson (Rancho Bernardo HS, San Diego): Jackson has one of the best arms in the country, hitting ability and power from a strong build.
1B—Jeremy Vasquez (Martin County HS, Stuart, Fla.): Vasquez has one of the best pure hit tools in the class and had some of the best at-bats, showing patience and contact ability.
2B—Trace Loehr (Putnam HS, Milwaukie, Ore.): A lefthanded-hitting sparkplug with athleticism and feel to hit, Loehr has above-average speed, an above-average arm and a good glove.
3B—Blake Wiggins (Pulaski Academy, Little Rock, Ark.): The strong-bodied, 6-foot, 200-pound Wiggins had the only home run of the event and showed off his power in BP.
SS—Jacob Gatewood (Clovis, Calif., HS): Gatewood, who hit a home run at the 2012 ACGs, made Blair Field look small in BP. He has fluid actions and a strong arm.
OF—Derek Hill (Elk Grove, Calif., HS): Hill, who has premium speed, covered lots of ground in center field and took good in-game at-bats, showing contact ability and patience.
OF—Jeren Kendall (Holmen, Wis., HS): Kendall created lots of buzz by showing plus speed and defensive ability, feel to hit and an above-average arm.
OF—Raphael Ramirez (Pace Academy, Atlanta): Ramirez took great game at-bats, showed plus speed on the bases and in the field and a strong glove and arm in center field.
DH—Chris Betts (Wilson HS, Long Beach): The hometown Betts, a catcher, showed present hitting ability and power in batting practice, especially for a rising junior.
UTIL—Alex Verdugo (Sahuaro HS, Tucson): Verdugo showed a powerful lefthanded bat and good outfield defense, low-90s velocity and a good curveball on the mound.
RHP—Tyler Kolek (Shepherd, Texas, HS): The intimidating 6-foot-6, 250-pound Texan touched 96 mph with life on his fastball and a low-80s breaking ball.
RHP—Luis Ortiz (Sanger, Calif., HS): The strong-bodied 6-foot-3, 205-pound Ortiz was up to 95 mph with a plus slider and showed feel for a changeup.
LHP—Brady Aiken (Cathedral Catholic HS, San Diego): Aiken was up to 91 mph with gloveside run and a potentially plus curveball. He struck out eight over three innings.
LHP—Mac Marshall (Parkview HS, Lilburn, Ga.): Marshall showed polish and a three-pitch mix with a fastball up to 91 mph. His has an above-average changeup and curveball.
LHP — Kodi Medeiros (Waiakea HS, Hilo, Hawaii): Medeiros has a 90-94 mph fastball with plus movement that produced lots of groundballs and a plus slider from a low slot.

LONG BEACH–The high school showcase and travel ball circuit has exploded in the last 10 years, making it almost an industry unto itself. But one of the original events, the New Balance Area Code Games, not only remains one of the best, but it’s also still completely free of charge for all participants.

As it has for nearly three decades, the Area Code Games featured nearly 250 of the best high school players in the nation. The event provides a tremendous platform for players to finish the summer strong, as eight teams representing each part of the country play in front of more than 200 talent evaluators representing every major league team–as well as many prominent college coaches.

The Area Code Games is a favorite in the scouting community not only because of the beautiful Southern California weather but also because scouts themselves are part of the process. A longtime scout started the event 27 year ago as a way for talent evaluators to see the best players from different regions (or area codes). The eight squads are run by scouts from major league organizations, and the selection process commences with invitations to nearly 3,000 players for tryouts. A player must receive any invitation to be eligible for the tryout, and tryout camps in the early summer winnow the rosters to about 25 per team for Long Beach.

Each team is named for the major league team that sponsors it, and scouts coach the teams during six days of game action. Scouts love the access this provides to the players. They get to see how the players prepare for game action, interact with their teammates and handle a large setting. And parents and players love it because the event is free of charge–though they do have to pay for the usual travel expenses.

While no player dominated this year’s event, as Alex Jackson did last year, it was a solid showing for many of the top players in the 2014 draft class. As has often been the case this summer, the top arms were ahead of the bats, which speaks to the strength of this high school class. Even at the end of a lengthy summer, nine pitchers hit 93 mph or better. And like last year, many of the top arms are southpaws.

It could be the byproduct of a long, grueling summer, but many of the top hitters in the class did not have their best weeks. Some of the toolsier and higher-profile position players struggled to hit in game action. With six days of games, the Area Code Games provides more game action than the average showcase.

This provided an opportunity for several players to benefit from extended looks, like lefthander/outfielder Alex Verdugo, outfielders Raphael Ramirez and Jeren Kendall.

Kendall, a 5-foot-9, 171-pound outfielder from Holmen (Wis.) High, arguably helped his draft stock more than any player at the event. His energetic style of play, premium speed and well-rounded skills created lots of buzz among scouts, as did the debate about the professional future of one of the top two-way players in the class, Alex Verdugo. The lefthander from Sahuaro High in Tucson touched 93 mph and commanded a plus curveball, in addition to showing raw power, good bat speed and above-average speed. Ramirez, who attends Pace Academy in Atlanta, made mechanical adjustments to his swing two weeks prior to the event and made lots of loud contact in games and played strong defense in center field.

The Area Code Games always features a boatload of future premium draft picks, and the 2012 event featured 15 players who became first-day selections in the 2013 draft, with seven first-rounders. Many of the 2013 first-rounders from the college ranks played in the Area Code Games during high school, including the first two picks in the draft, righthander Mark Appel and third baseman Kris Bryant. This year’s group should be no different and will be littered with first-rounders when we look back next June.

But the Area Codes also provide an opportunity for underclassman to gain their first significant national recognition, and some of the highest-profile players in the major leagues first put themselves on the prospect map at the Area Code Games. In 2008, Bryce Harper wowed all in attendance with his jaw-dropping power as a 15-year-old. Just a few months after his brother B.J. was drafted second overall by Tampa Bay, Justin Upton was arguably the best player at the event as a 14-year old shortstop in 2002.

Last year, Jacob Gatewood (Clovis, Calif., High) and Jackson (Rancho Bernardo High, San Diego) were two of the best players at the event as underclassmen. Gatewood hit a majestic, 420-foot home run out of Blair Field that landed in the street beyond the left-field wall. Jackson ranked as the No. 1 standout from last year’s event, ahead of 2013 first-rounders Kohl Stewart, Trey Ball and Dominic Smith, to name a few. The Oregon commit hit a home run and went 6-for-7, hitting everything hard.

While no underclassmen created as much excitement this year, many of the rising juniors flashed premium potential. A pair of righthanders from Texas showed big velocity, as Beau Burrows from Weatherford High touched 95 mph and Chris Andritsos from The Woodlands High touched 93. A third Texas righthander, who also happens to be the younger brother of the top pitcher in the 2014 class, Stephen Kolek of Shepherd High has an athletic pitcher’s body at 6-foot-2, 205-pounds and touched 89 mph.

Other exciting 2015 arms were Justin Hooper, Joe DeMers and Kyle Molnar. Hooper, a 6-foot-6, 217-pound lefthander from De La Salle High, San Ramon, Calif., was up to 92 mph and struck out three in two hitless innings. The only underclassman competing for a spot on the USA Baseball 18-and-under team, physical righthander DeMers hit 92 and showed two promising offspeed offerings. Aliso Viejo (Calif.) High righthander Molnar showed a good breaking ball with two-plane break and touched 91.

Three potent lefthanded bats, Chris Betts, Alex Webb (Columbia, Tenn., Central High) and Ryan Johnson (College Station, Texas, High), hit well in games, making loud contact and showing natural strength with sound approaches. Betts was comfortable in the environment, as his school Wilson High, which also produced 2007 Area Code standout outfielder Aaron Hicks, is across the street from Blair Field.

Lessons Off The Field As Well

Players and parents also benefited from the MLB Symposium held during the event. All the players and their parents gathered to hear a presentation about the draft process by Chuck Fox, who works in Major League Baseball’s baseball operations department and has day-to-day responsibility for the draft, and learn more about the draft itself, the scouting process, professional contracts and even post-baseball career opportunities.

A four-person panel featured some of the sharpest minds in the game–scouting directors Brad Grant (Indians), Tommy Tanous (Mets) and Mike Elias (Astros), as well as Rick Oliver, assistant director of the MLB Scouting Bureau–addressing a variety of important draft topics. Tanous kept the crowd laughing while providing candid, insightful and informative answers.

Players asked what the typical schedule of a minor league was like, and the panelists detailed the long hours spent at the fields and in the weight room. Some players seemed surprised to just how much time was required to be a professional athlete performing at a peak level.

Baseball’s scholarship plan for drafted players was top of mind for many parents. Every player who signs a professional contract is eligible to receive scholarship money to pursue a college degree either during his playing career or after–though the amount is negotiable. Players must start taking classes within two years of retirement to retain that scholarship money.

Parents also asked tough questions about the use of “advisers” throughout the draft process. Advisers are actually what people commonly refer to as agents, but they act in an advisory role only before a player signs a professional contract in order to preserve the player’s eligibility should he decide to go (or return) to college. Parents were told that an adviser is helpful throughout the draft process and can bring stability to an otherwise hectic year.

With the current labor agreement placing greater emphasis on signability, advisers can provide guidance to those who have not gone through the process. The information asymmetry between people going through the process for the first (and usually only) time, and those with knowledge of what to expect is expansive. Parents were told to think about what it would be like if they didn’t have an adviser and their son was drafted high; dozens of people will be offering differing opinions, some good and some poor and uninformed. The executives told the players and parents that this scenario plays out all too frequently.

As part of the symposium, New Balance also announced the winner of its Game Changer Award. Marco Burgarello, a middle infielder from O’Connor High in Phoenix won the award, which recognizes players who excel on and off the field, with an emphasis on community service. Burgarello has a 4.58 GPA and has drawn baseball interest from some Ivy League schools. He will receive a $10,000 scholarship, and all the finalists will be able to donate New Balance gear to an organization of their choice.

Two of the finalists, Cadyn Grenier and Jakob Goldfarb, may not have won the award, but they did perform at a high level during the week. Grenier, an athletic middle infielder from Bishop Gorman High in Henderson, Nev., showed quickness, defensive aptitude and a line-drive stroke. Goldfarb, a physical, lefthanded-hitting outfielder from Desert Mountain High in Scottsdale, Ariz., displayed extra-base pop and scored five runs, the most of any player.