The Breakthrough Series has become one of the most talent-laden events of the summer, and talent evaluators are taking notice.
A collaborative effort between USA Baseball, the Major League Baseball Urban Youth Academies and the MLB Scouting Bureau, the series is designed to showcase talented players who may not have received the exposure their ability warrants. The BTS also provides educational opportunities, professional instruction and off-field development. Most of the players who participate are African-American. This year’s event, in its new home in Houston, gets under way today.
As amateur baseball has become more expensive over the last decade, some players lacked access to the platforms that would generate more widespread exposure for their talent. Getting these players in front of college coaches and professional scouts at no cost to the player was the impetus for inaugural 2008 event.
"There are lots of kids that never get the chance to go to a showcase," Urban Youth Academies director Darrell Miller said. "Why should you have to pay $500-$800 to go to a showcase? We were thinking how we can create opportunities from a showcase perspective for those that are under-served or may not have a chance to be seen."
The first two events achieved that objective, as nearly every player found opportunities in college ball. A handful were drafted, most notably Jonathan Singleton, who went in the eighth round in 2009 to the Phillies and is now one of the Astros' top prospects.
In 2010, the event moved from the MLB Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., to the USA Baseball National Training Complex in Cary, N.C., and the championship game found a home on MLB Network. Organizers also made an even bigger push to attract the best players, and the overall talent level made an appreciable leap. First baseman Keon Barnum, a supplemental first-round pick of the White Sox in 2012, and outfielder Shawon Dunston Jr., an 11th-round pick of the Cubs in 2011, were among those who participated.
The series also was building a track record of players who entered college out of the early events and became draft eligible again after working to turn their athletic ability into baseball skills. The 2012 draft featured 10 alumni, including first-rounder Victor Roache (Georgia Southern/Brewers) and third-rounder Adam Brett Walker (Jacksonville/Twins).
The talent base has continued to improve every year, culminating with 2012's banner crop. The rising senior class was the strongest yet, as righthanders Devin Williams and Akeem Bostick went in the second round of the 2013 draft and another, Jordan Sheffield, might have been a first-rounder if not for Tommy John surgery (he'll be going to Vanderbilt instead). A quartet of outfielders were drafted, including Ivan Wilson (third round, Mets), Matt McPhearson (fourth, Diamondbacks) Corey Simpson (sixth, Mariners) and Silento Sayles (14th, Indians). All told, the 2013 draft had 22 Breakthrough Series alums.
Throughout its history, two-thirds of the players in the Breakthrough Series have been rising seniors, while the rest were underclassmen. The Scouting Bureau also has consistently found top underclassmen, like first-rounders Dominic Smith, Addison Russell and Courtney Hawkins, and introduced them to a national audience. The underclassmen in 2012 were particularly notable, with five of the top 25 players in the 2014 class in outfielders Monte Harrison and Marcus Wilson, shortstop Jacob Gatewood, righthander Touki Toussaint and lefthander Justus Sheffield.
The improved talent level has benefited all the participants. A perfect example is Ro Coleman, an Illinois second baseman listed at 5-foot-5, 155 pounds. He was injured during his sophomore summer and remained largely unseen entering last summer. He played for Team RBI at the Tournament of Stars with a lone scholarship offer, but after that event and the Breakthrough Series in the summer of 2012, coaches were beating down his door.
"It's all about the exposure," Coleman said. "Going to events like the Breakthrough Series gave me an opportunity to play in front of a lot of college coaches and scouts, and that helped open a lot of doors."
Coleman's leadership, defensive aptitude and approach at the plate make him a coach's dream. He committed to Vanderbilt and has already started classes there.
This year's Breakthrough Series has a chance to be the best yet. Gatewood (Clovis, Calif., HS) and righthander Luis Ortiz (Sanger, Calif., HS) are the two highest-profile players in the event's history. Russell, who went No. 11 overall to the Athletics in 2012, is the event's highest-drafted player ever, but Gatewood could go higher. The 6-foot-5, 190-pounder is a physical specimen with power and is one of the top position players in the 2014 class. Ortiz, who touches 97 mph and sits 93-95, will likely show the best velocity in the event's history. The 6-foot-3, 205-pounder flashes an above-average slider.
Shortstop Josh Morgan, outfielder Darius Day and righthander Luis Alvarado are also promising rising seniors, and many of the 21 rising juniors will likely emerge as top talents in the 2015 class.
New Home In Houston
The event now moves to the Astros Urban Youth Academy in Houston. Players will attend an Astros-A's game and receive instruction from current and former major league players, including current Astros and A's players. Professional scouts will speak to the players about what to expect throughout the draft process. NCAA compliance officials will address the procedures of the recruiting process and what scholarships cover, which is a subject full of misconceptions.
The 60 players at the event will be separated into four teams coached by scouts and former big leaguers, and will compete in a round-robin tournament that starts today, leading to the championship game at Minute Maid Park on Thursday. For the fourth year in a row, MLB Network will broadcast the championship game. As many as 150 scouts and college coaches are expected to attend.
Moving the event to Houston should help the Breakthrough Series reach a larger audience, and one that better represents the audience the event is trying to target. Houston is the fifth-largest metro area in the country and has seen his population grow at twice the national average since 1990 (26 percent), and its largest county, Harris County, was the fastest-growing in the nation in 2012. And 23 percent of the city's population is African-American.
“We have a five-year plan at every academy,” Miller said. “What we hope to see in Houston are kids that have been coming there since they are 9-11 years old and are going to have the opportunity to see good baseball.”
The Compton academy, which was MLB's first and opened in 2006, provides a blueprint for improving lives and for creating a sustainable pipeline of talent at the grassroots level. Creating baseball opportunities for those who might not otherwise consider the sport is a critical part of MLB's mission, and baseball officials say these efforts are starting to bear fruit. Four players selected in the first two rounds of the 2013 draft had ties to the Compton academy, including J.P. Crawford and Dominic Smith, who began regularly attending the academy at age 12.
The Houston academy, which has four fields and two NCAA fields, was the second academy to open, debuting in 2010. It has several full-time baseball instructors, including former major leaguer Bobby Tolan.
“There are so many great athletes in Houston,” Miller said. “You just want these great athletes to know that baseball will provide an equal opportunity for them to get to college and play at a higher level.”
In Texas, football is king, and the Lone Star State produces far more Division I football recruits than any other state: one-sixth of all Division I signees in 2012. Houston is particularly fertile, producing the second-most 2012 NFL players of any metro area in the country (24).
“We just want to make sure that we are in the same sentence as football,” Miller said. “This is just another catalyst to reignite what we are doing in Houston.”
The Urban Invitational, a February college baseball tournament featuring four historically black college and universities, also moved from Compton to Houston last year. MLB's other academies are in Cincinnati, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Gurabo, Puerto Rico.
“We are looking forward to Houston this year and maybe another year or two,” Scouting Bureau director Frank Marcos said. “Cincinnati is going to be a viable option real soon and Philadelphia. Those are only pluses for the event and being able to give more people exposure."
To expand the event's geographic reach and help even more players gain exposure, the Scouting Bureau is considering a regional tryout or workout system to find players for the event, similar to what other events like the Area Code Games do.
“We would conduct somewhat of identification camps for players that would be considered for the Breakthrough Series across the country in various inner cities,” Marcos said. “That is something on the table right now to help us identify even more players.”
Regional Breakthrough Series events would feed into the national event.
“We would like to expand and do this on a larger scale and have more showcases in different areas of the country,” Miller said. “Have four, five or six of these.
“If we expand this, there are a lot more kids we can help place with HBCUs, or Division II or smaller schools, schools that don't have the budgets to go out and scout nationally. Do it in areas where we can make it easy for those guys to come and see players.”
That expanded structure in the short term could be a steppingstone to a much larger format in the long term.
“I think the Breakthrough Series has the ability to be a 50-60-showcase type of function, where we have these in every state and we have them at multiple ages, a freshman, sophomore, junior and senior showcases that is extremely affordable, if not free,” Miller said. “That is where I see this going in five to six years. By 2018-2019, I hope we are well on our way toward giving this opportunity to everyone that wants to play baseball at a higher level.”
And with greater opportunity will come greater talent.
“Going forward, we are going to see some things put in place where we are going to get a more talented athlete from the inner cities,” Marcos said. “The series as it continues should only see a better and more refined quality inner city player that gets a chance because of the RBI programs, the academies and the Breakthrough Series.”
The Breakthrough Series has has already produced plenty of success stories by giving a platform to previously overlooked players, and organizers say this has just been the first chapter in a longer story.
“It is an outstanding event that has made progress, and will only get better,” Marcos said. “We are all about helping young men achieve their dreams.”