With another showcase season upon us, we were once again reminded of our lucky we are to be located in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina. Despite the sweltering heat and humidity we get to see some pretty good baseball. With USA Baseball’s offices located just down the road as well as the National Training Complex, summers bring players from across the country whether they be high school, college or even professional, as the Olympic team trained less than 20 minutes from our headquarters.
One of our favorite events is the USA Baseball’s Tournament of Stars, an event used to select the trials roster for the 18U National Team. The tournament is made up of eight teams, representing seven youth leagues across the country as well as an at-large team put together by the USA Baseball staff. There are 144 players that participate and most of the top guys for the next draft make it out to the complex in Cary. A few graduates and underclassmen are sprinkled in as well.
This year was no different as the tournament began last Tuesday and ran through Saturday. Dozens of scouts, crosscheckers, directors and college recruiters were on hand to evaluate the talent in front of them. Players run the 60-yard dash, take batting practice and infield in the first couple mornings then play in the afternoons. We have a lot of notes to sift through and phone calls to make to put together rankings of the top prospects at the event, but here are a few observations we can share.
• The biggest news coming into the tournament was that Las Vegas High phenom Bryce Harper would be the catcher for the American Legion team. The local media was all over the Sports Illustrated cover boy and Baseball America High School Player of the Year. There was a designated media time for interviews so that Harper could concentrate on baseball this rest of the week. Once that was over his team took the field for the first contest. When he came to bat there was a noticeable hush that came over the stadium as everyone watched intently. Harper was anxious the first couple of days. He struck out twice in the first game but his tools are obvious. When he did make contact, the ball rocketed off the barrel, such as a single in his first at-bat, when the runner at first base had to dodge a line drive. As the week went on he was able to settle down and finished with 10 hits, four of which were doubles, in five games. He didn’t hit any 500-plus foot home runs but there is no question he is heads above the rest of the talent. He did show his aggressiveness, which got the better of him early on. Showing off his arm he’d try to throw behind runners though it probably wasn’t necessary. In the first game he almost hosed a runner stealing second from his knees, but the runner on third easily scored on the play.
• The 2008 event spoiled us (and scouts) with good pitching from the likes of Tyler Matzek, Matthew Purke, Jacob Turner and Trevor Bauer. It was easy to say this year’s pitching was underwhelming but looking back at notes and stats shows we got to see some quality arms. The first good outing came from Dixie’s staff on the second day. Rumor was that A.J. Cole (Oviedo HS, Orlando) would be starting but instead righthander Zach Lee (McKinney, Texas, HS) trotted out to the mound. Lee started hitting 91-92 mph with his fastball with a 76-77 slider and 78-80 changeup. Out of the stretch and later innings he dropped to 86-89, but he struck out three in three innings before giving way to righthander Karsten Whitson (Chipley, Fla., HS). His first fastball had me asking others to confirm it: 95. The BA gun had been acting up earlier—maybe it was the constant planes approaching RDU Airport—so I didn’t believe it. The second pitch was 94. In his first inning of work Whitson pounded 94-95 and then sat 91-93 for the rest of his outing. He also showed an 85-86 slider. In three innings he struck out six, walked none and gave up just two hits. Whitson’s second outing came on Saturday where he sat 91-92, touching 93-94. Cole made his first appearance on Thursday, sitting 91-92, touching 93 with his tall and projectable 6-foot-5, 190-pound frame. He also throws a pitch that looks like a slider, but I’m told it’s a knuckle-curve. It sat around 80 in his first outing. In Dixie’s final game, on Sunday, Cole came out again and sat 90-92, touching 93-94 with his breaking ball sitting 77-79.
• One of the fun things about tournaments or showcases like this is seeing guys you don’t know much about break out. There were the usual hyped guys that performed well as well as the ones that disappointed. But seeing guys like third baseman Chad Lewis (Marina HS, Huntington Beach, Calif.) and shortstop Manny Machado (Brito Miami Private School) is exciting. Lewis broke out in his first game, going 4-for-5 with two home runs and a double. Everybody was buzzing about him and made sure to get good looks the rest of the week. He didn’t go off quite like his first game but showed some ability at the plate and finished the week leading everyone with 11 hits in in 22 at-bats, five of which were for extra bases. Machado didn’t get as much playing time as many would have hoped, but when he was on he looked the part and performed. He collected eight hits in 19 at-bats, consistently making good contact. He also looked smooth at shortstop.
• Our main focus is on players for the 2010 draft, but there were plenty of 2011s that stood out. Outfielder Eric Snyder (Edison HS, Huntington Beach, Calif.) was a dynamic leadoff man for Babe Ruth, showing good speed, defense, hitting ability and arm strength. He wasn’t afraid to go with a pitch and absolutely terrorized opponents’ defense with his quickness. Shortstop Christian Lopes (Valencia, Calif., HS) also stood out as probably the top position player for 2011. He played a little second base as well with an older shortstop on the team but he made everything look easy. He also hit an inside-the-park home run when two Dixie outfielders—Jay Gonzalez and Jacoby Jones—collided in left-center field. Gonzalez remained in the game, but Jones unfortunately was removed and left the tournament early. Lopes also pitched on Saturday despite having not thrown in a year. It turned out to be a player’s worst nightmare as Lopes left the mound after five hitters with an injury. Any diagnosis at this point would be pure speculation and unfair to Lopes, but we’ll keep you posted when anything is confirmed.
This is just a small taste of what we saw, so be on the lookout for more to come at BA and prospectsplus.baseballamerica.com.