MESA, Ariz.—The nearly 400 players participating in the Under Armour All-America Preseason Tournament thought they were getting a break from high school over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. Instead, school was still in session at the Cubs training facility in Mesa—baseball school, that is.
Baseball Factory's annual three-day event is designed to give the kids as much coaching and instruction as possible, with upward of 40 professional and college coaches, players and scouts on the field with the players during the workouts and games. The games are much more informal than 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.
“We think that player development's an important piece," said Steve Bernhardt, Baseball Factory's executive vice president of baseball operations and chairman of the Under Armour All-America Game selection committee. “We understand that these guys are talented players, but when you look at guys at the major league level they're still working on things and improving and making adjustments. When we have high school players, we like to try to take advantage of that and see if they can pick up one thing—one nugget—something that helps them in the spring or in the season."
The Preseason Tournament is just one of the events used by Baseball Factory and Under Armour to select players for the annual Under Armour All-America game, this year scheduled for Aug. 15 at Wrigley Field.
Three 2016-draft eligible players—Blake Rutherford (Chaminade College Prep, Canoga Park, Calif.), Alex Speas (McEachern HS, Powder Springs, Ga.) and Garrett Gooden (St. Pius X, Decatur, Ga.) were introduced during the opening ceremony as the most recent players named to the All-America game.
Three more players, to be announced later this week, were invited to the All-America game based on their performances in the Preseason Tournament.
This year's opening ceremony was highlighted by a keynote address given by Royals general manager Dayton Moore.
KELLY TO CATCH ON?
It's going to be a bit unusual to not have a member of the Kelly family of Portland, Ore., participating in the Under Armour events after this year. Parker Kelly (Westview HS, 2015) is a four-time Under Armour All-American, following in the footsteps of his brother Carson, a catcher in the Cardinals system who earned the same honor four times. Like his brother, Parker Kelly has gained considerable benefit from the Baseball Factory and Under Armour events.
“It's a great tournament … it's early in the year, a new year, and you want to get out and start playing before high school workouts," Kelly said. “They always have great events, great sponsors and a great venue to play at … These guys (instructors) are coming in and they're giving us tips, and it's great to get in front of all these scouts … different eyes on you and on your game and what you've been working on in your offseason."
Like his brother, Parker Kelly has committed to the University of Oregon, but only time will tell if he joins the Ducks or picks pro ball.
Carson Kelly, the Cardinals' second-round pick in 2012, converted from third base to catcher after beginning his pro career. Don't be surprised if Parker follows the same path.
“It's been a big focus of mine this offseason as I've started to catch," the younger Kelly said. “I've been working out with him … I just tag along and learn the ropes kind of like he did. I caught when I was younger just like him and he said, 'We've got similar body types.' If there's an opportunity there, the more tools in your tool bag the better you're going to be."
WATSON FITS LSU FORM
One of the tournament's most electric runners was 2016 draft-eligible shortstop Zachary Watson (West Ouachita HS, Ruston, La.), who recorded the fastest 60-yard time of 6.57 seconds during timed drills on Saturday. While some observers noted that the Louisiana State commit may lack the strength to be an impact hitter, Watson turned on pitches and drove balls into the outfield gaps for extra-base hits in several of his at-bats over the weekend.
Watson understands the style of game in which he excels.
“Little things make a big difference," Watson said. “My game is to run and to hit. I try to steal bases every time if I can. If I get the right jump, I will."
Regarding the college commitment, one of the Baseball Factory on-field instructors commented that Watson's style of play perfectly suits the LSU prototype. Watson is certainly eager to get to the Baton Rouge campus in the fall of 2016. His interest in all things LSU comes naturally to Watson for one big reason.
“I was born and raised in Louisiana," Watson said.
Greer Holston (Saint Stanislaus HS, Long Beach, Miss., 2016) wasn't one of the better-known pitchers coming into the tournament, but his three-inning stint on Sunday was considered by some observers to be the best performance of the weekend. Holston already has a solid four-pitch mix that he locates well and throws with a clean delivery and free arm action. His fastball was generally 88-89 mph, and with a sturdy 6-foot-4, 210-pound frame and repeatable delivery Holston could be able to touch the mid-90s in time.
The Duke coaching staff can look forward to the addition of a power lefty in the fall of 2016 if Norcross (Ga.) High’s Graeme Stinson makes it to Durham. The 6-foot-5, 245-pound southpaw's 94 mph fastball was recorded as the top pitching velocity of the weekend. With his fastball sitting at 88-92 mph and a quality slider, Stinson fanned 10 of the 15 batters he faced on Saturday.
THE BLAIR PROJECT
Another impressive pitcher was projectable 2016 righthander Blair Hensley (Arlington Heights HS, Fort Worth, Tex.) whose repertoire featured a solid curveball and a fastball that sat 85-86 mph. Hensley's lanky 6-foot-2, 175-pound frame and loose arm are indicators that the velocity could bump past 90 mph.
One of the more intriguing 2017 players was lefthanded-hitting center fielder Je'Von Ward (Long Beach (Cal.) Poly HS). The son of a former Notre Dame wide receiver, Ward possesses a lanky 6-foot-4, 180-pound frame that screams projection. He has a high-waisted, athletic build that draws comparisons to Astros outfielder Dexter Fowler. Ward's swing has strength with length, he gets the barrel through the zone, and shows an ability to hit the ball to the opposite field.