USA Baseball's National Team Championships—West kicked off this weekend for the 17U, 15U and 14U divisions. Many of the bigger names were missing from the 17U event due to the Tournament of Stars event in Cary, N.C., but the three tournaments still boasted a combined 188 teams and more than 4,000 players participating.
Pool play continues during the week, with championship rounds starting on Thursday and concluding with the bronze and gold medal games on Saturday.
From the perspective of the USA Baseball organization, this tournament is used to identify possible players for the 14U National Team Development Program, 15U National Team Trials and 17U National Team Development Program.
One of the top teams participating in the 17U division is the CBA Marucci team, sponsored by the California Baseball Academy in Southern California. Multiple scouts, representing major university baseball programs from California and Arizona, lined up to watch CBA Marucci take on Headfirst Bercovich on Sunday morning, with the latter defeating the talented CBA squad, 3-0.
The CBA Marucci players, many of whom already have major college commitments in hand, took the loss in stride, knowing that their reputation puts a target on them.
"Since we're the CBA Marucci, everyone's going to throw their No. 1 against us," CBA middle infielder Nick Allen said. "If we don't come out and be ready, they're going to stick it to us. But when we come out and we're ready, we're going to stick it to them in a big way."
Being in the 2017 class, Allen is one of the younger players on the CBA Marucci 17U team. But with three years remaining in his high school career at Francis W. Parker High in San Diego, the righthanded hitter already has a commitment with the University of Southern California. A veteran of USA Baseball's national teams, Allen shows signs of being a heady ballplayer with the ability to play above his skills.
"He's a lot more toolsy than people realize," CBA Marucci coach Daylon Monette said. "Just because he's small, people don't think he has a lot of power. He does, and sometimes that's a gift and a curse. He knows he can go over people's heads and can actually go out of the yard. He gets a little pull-happy at times, but in the end he realizes … you're going to have to take your single to right field."
In his last at-bat in the Sunday morning game, Allen showed excellent bat control by stroking a line drive single to the right side of the field.
Allen doesn't have blinding speed, running the 60-yard dash in 6.9 seconds, but is an instinctual baserunner who gets good jumps and reads pitchers well. Defensively, he has the range and plus arm strength to stay at shortstop.
Scouts were most interested in tracking Reggie Lawson, CBA Marucci's pitcher in the Sunday morning game. The 2016 class member, who combines size, athleticism and a clean, repeatable delivery, despite pitching for only a year, has yet to commit to a college. A student at Victor Valley High in Victorville, California, already has a muscular 6-foot-4 frame that could get stronger as he matures.
Lawson's fastball, currently at 87-88 mph, has good movement and explosiveness that gets on batters quickly. His 82-mph changeup is already an effective pitch for him despite only working with it since last fall. The 78-79 mph curveball is still a work in progress and he struggled with his command in the zone against Headfirst Bercovich, delivering too many pitches up in the zone. Lawson was aware of his issues in this game.
"I've got to work on getting my ball down," Lawson said. "Today it was a little high, and then I've got to establish getting the first pitch fastball to put the batters in the hole."
Another of Southern California's top programs, Garciaparra Baseball Group, had multiple teams, both with solid pitching staffs, in the tournament. Established just two years ago by brothers Nomar and Michael Garciaparra along with their father, the GBG teams are already regulars at the top youth tournaments.
"We started it just to use our college connections and our last name to try to get exposure for our kids," Michael Garciaparra said. "We have a lot of talented kids, and my father, my brother and myself know a lot of college scouts. We want to use this to put these guys in the right position to get scholarships and to get drafted."
In addition to hiring top-notch coaches for their teams, the GBG group also retains a recruiting coordinator, Ricki Marder, who helps the players with writing letters to colleges and keeping their GPAs and SAT scores up in order to qualify academically.
Notable pitchers for GBG teams in this tournament include Kevin Gowdy, a 2016 class member from Santa Barbara, who has a clean delivery and a fastball up to 89 mph. The UCLA commit is a hard worker and is projected to add velocity as he matures. Nick Sprengel, a southpaw from Placentia, Calif., showed advanced pitchability for the GBG Marucci 2015 squad, with a fastball between 85-87 mph (reportedly up to 91 this year) and effective off-speed pitches.