Team USA 18U Begins Road To Thunder Bay

Cary, N.C.—For the fourth consecutive year, USA Baseball's Tournament of Stars took place at the National Training Complex with its two usual elements: talent and heat.

The latter element could be divided into two categories itself by using heat to describe the large number of college recruiters, scouts and cross-checkers in attendance, as well as the record temperatures that hit the Triangle-area during the week.

The good type of heat—the talent evaluators—were yet again treated well by seeing a competitive tournament that featured some of the best prep players in the country vying for a spot on the USA Baseball 18U National Team roster. Those on the final 20-player roster will travel to Thunder Bay, Ontario, to compete in the IBAF World Junior 'AAA' Championships. The 2009 National Team won a gold medal at the COPABE World Championship in Venezuela and featured the first three picks of the 2010 draft in Bryce Harper, Jameson Taillon and Manny Machado.

While this year's group doesn't seem to have a trio of standouts like 2009, there are several elite prospects and a strength in depth of talent.

"It was a deeper event this year," said Rick Riccobono, director of the 18U National Team. "The selection process was much more difficult this year and I think that shows itself in the trials roster this year."

Over the years, Riccobono and USA Baseball have found that power hasn't translated well to the international game, so they shifted their focus on the type of player they look for. This year's candidates can certainly hit and show some power, but their strength will be on defense and the basepaths.

"Athleticism is a strength," Riccobono said. "We're very good defensively and have above-average team speed. Overall, we're a team that is going to put a lot of pressure on the defense."

Experience will also be a strength. Riccobono said the international calendar has typically left Team USA playing with a 17U-type team since most 18-year-olds are signed with a professional franchise or attending college classes when a tournament is taking place.

But this year, the championship will be decided on Aug. 1, two weeks before the draft signing deadline, which means there are a smattering of 2010 graduates who should be available to participate. Returning members of the gold medal winning team include infielders Tony Wolters, Marcus Littlewood and Nicky Delmonico, outfielder Brian Ragira, lefthander Phillip Pfeifer and righthander A.J. Vanegas.

"From a macro perspective, it puts us on an even playing field," Riccobono said. "You won't ever have 100 percent of the best players for any team. But it gives us the opportunity to have the best 18U team. That's the main reason we've had challenges in the past."

Last year was Team USA's first gold medal in the Pan Am games, ending a dominant run by Cuba. In 2010, Team USA will look to get past three consecutive losses to Korea in the IBAF tournament.

With the 20-man roster in place, the squad traveled to New York City to play the Greater N.Y. Sandlot Alliance—a team of mostly high school seniors and college freshmen put together to represent the New York and Long Island areas in a five-game series. Team USA  also had a tune-up in Minnesota and some international friendlies before heading to Thunder Bay to open tournament play against Australia on July 25.

Star Standouts

There was plenty of talent to be found at the Tournament of Stars. Below are scouting reports of 2011 draft-eligible prospects from the event who have not been mentioned in our coverage of previous showcaes.

Jay Anderson, of, Bishop Amat HS, La Puente, Calif.: Anderson has a strong, compact frame at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds. He bats and throws lefthanded and consistently put together impressive at-bats, working the count and laying off bat pitches. He drew two walks against A.J. Vanegas and also ran the event's fastest 60-yard dash at 6.45 seconds.

Tyler Beede, rhp, Lawrence Academy, Groton, Mass.: Beede spotted his 89-91 mph fastball to both sides of the plate and touched 92, but it was his secondary stuff that really shined. The 6-foot-4, 200-pounder threw a good, 79-81 mph changeup and a 76-77 mph curveball that showed flashes of being an above-average pitch.

Amir Garrett, lhp, Leuzinger HS, Lawndale, Calif.: The 6-foot-5, 175-pound Garrett is also a standout basketball player and is being recruited by Division I colleges for both sports. He's intriguing as a baseball prospect because of his long, loose body and the fact that his fastball was in the 88-90 mph range from the left side. But he's also raw, as his curveball needs work and his fastball doesn't hold its velocity out of the stretch.

Cody Kukuk, lhp, Free State HS, Lawrence, Kan.: Kukuk stands at a projectable 6-foot-4, 185 pounds and offers a good mix from the left side. His fastball sits 88-90 mph with good armside life. He showed solid command along with a good 78 mph slider, his best secondary offering. He also mixes in a changeup and curveball.

Chris McFarland, 3b, Lufkin (Texas) HS: McFarland is a muscular 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds. He showed defensive versatility by playing all around the infield and outfield. McFarland squared up many balls at the event with a quick and compact swing from the right side of the plate. He ran a 6.91-second 60-yard dash and is one of the youngest players in this year's class, as he doesn't turn 17 until November.

Christian Montgomery, rhp, Lawrence Central HS, Indianapolis: Montgomery is a husky 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, and has a big fastball to match his big frame. Montgomery sat at 92-93 mph and touched 95. His curveball was anywhere from 72-76 mph and he also mixed in a low-80s changeup. Scouts will want him to trim down some, but he has some of the best stuff in this year's class.

Brandon Nimmo, of, East HS,Cheyenne, Wyo.: Since Wyoming doesn't have high school baseball, scouts will be getting most of their looks at Nimmo this summer with his American Legion team. He has a nice, lean, 6-foot-3, 185-pound frame and a smooth swing from the left side of the plate. He centers the ball frequently and also showed some speed, running a 6.9-second 60-yard dash.

Henry Owens, lhp, Edison HS, Huntington Beach, Calif.: Owens has a lean and projectable frame at 6-foot-5 and 185 pounds. His fastball sat in the 89-91 mph range at the event and he mixed in 68-72 mph curveball and a 76-78 mph changeup. Owens has an easy delivery, so it's not hard to envision him adding velocity as he gets stronger. Owens notched 11 strikeouts over his six innings of work and showed good competitiveness as he pitched with a bad cut on his landing foot from a pool-related injury earlier in the week.

Phillip Pfeifer III, lhp, Farragut HS, Knoxville, Tenn.: Pfeifer pitches for Farragut High, a high school powerhouse, and has yet to lose a game in high school. His raw stuff wasn't jaw dropping like other pitchers at the event, but he pounds the lower-half of the strike zone and keeps hitters off-balance with a funky delivery and seemingly-endless array of pitches. He mostly throws a fastball, curveball and changeup but also messes around with a slider and a splitter.

Bubba Starling, of/rhp, Gardner Edgerton HS, Gardner, Kan.: Starling, who is also a standout quarterback committed to Nebraska, showed five-tool potential at the event. He's still a little raw at the plate, but showed some discipline and hit balls hard. He ran the event's second-fastest 60-yard dash at 6.53 seconds.

—contributing: Conor Glassey