Baseball America’s annual Baseball For The Ages feature, which began in 1998, recognizes the top players in each age group, from 12 to 25. No players have dominated their age groups through the years more than Devil Rays prospect Delmon Young, 19, and Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols, 25, who are being recognized for a record fifth time. Young was Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year, while Pujols is a leading candidate to be the National League MVP.
It’s difficult to predict whether some of our younger winners will ever be recognized as frequently as Young and Pujols, but it won’t be for lack of opportunity or exposure, as the interest in youth baseball has exploded in the last few years.
The Little League World Series, for 11-12 year-olds, still generates more interest than any youth baseball event, particularly as it has expanded from eight to 16 teams with almost all games televised by ESPN. But that’s only one of about 200 national championship staged annually for young players of all ages. Little League may not even be the most competitive event in its own age group, as Cooperstown Dreamspark’s National Tournament of Champions and the U. S. Specialty Sports Association (USSSA) Elite 24 World Series are drawing a greater number of the nation’s elite players at that age.
The dominance of powerful travel leagues over the traditional recreation leagues is also becoming more pronounced in the 13-17 age groups, as weaker players fall by the wayside after age 12 and the best teenage players seek the best competition available.
The criteria for choosing our winners depends on the player’s age. Older players are judged on ability and what they have achieved on the field--generally in the major or minor leagues. Winners in the younger age groups are based more on potential and performance at major national and international competitions. Players in the 12-14 year age groups were selected in conjunction with Illinois-based Travel Ball Select organization.
In each case, the universal youth baseball cutoff date of Aug. 1 has been used to establish a player’s age, though that deadline will change to May 1 beginning in 2006. At each age from 12 to 19, we have selected a winner and two honorable mentions. The accomplishments of winners from ages 20-25 speak for themselves.
AGE 12: DELINO DeSHIELDS, of, Fairburn, Ga.
ALL-STARS BY THE AGES: 12
—ALLAN SIMPSON, TRAVEL BALL SELECT
“There’s not another player in the country as athletic as this kid,” said Kevin Thomas of Travel Ball Select, which tracks the nation’s best 12- to 14-year-olds. “He is one of the strongest 12-year-olds I’ve ever seen, and he is the fastest.”
DeShields put his talent on display for Alabama’s Boys of Baseball during Cooperstown Dreamspark’s National Tournament of Champions when he set an all-time record during the Road Runner Race, circling the 70-foot bases in 12.06 seconds. In the championship game, he launched one of the longest home runs in the 10-year history of the event. On the week, he hit .667-6-12. “He was the talk of the tournament the entire week in Cooperstown,” Thomas said.
DeShields, an eighth-grader at Woodward Academy in College Park, Ga., has spent the last five seasons playing for the Georgia Seminoles and is a lifetime .600 hitter. As a 10-year-old, he was the MVP of the 2003 USSSA World Series as the Seminoles won a national title.
Overall in 2005, spanning 75 games, he hit .584-24-95 with 107 runs and 62 stolen bases. He was at his best at the Battle of the South, which attracted a number of the nation’s best 12-year-old teams, when he went 13-for-14 with a home run and 11 RBIs.
DeShields is also the starting tailback on his eighth-grade football team and is, by all accounts, a gifted football player. His father, known on the team as Bop, has been the Seminoles’ first-base coach the last two years and has been an instrumental part of his progression as a baseball talent. Delino’s mother also has a significant athletic background, as she was a track star and academic all-American at Tennessee.
MICHAEL GILL, rhp/of, Flower Mound, Texas
Gill ranks with Robert Stock (2002) and Ryan Klem (2003) as the most dominant 12-year-old pitchers of his generation. He separated himself from this year’s crop of 12-year-olds with his dominant all-around play. He overpowered hitters from 50 feet with a fastball that touched 84 mph and baffled them with a tantalizing knuckleball, while also exceling at the plate, on the bases and in the field.
He was at his best at the prestigious USSSA Elite 24 World Series at Disney World, where he was named the tournament MVP and led the Oklahoma City Mets to their third national title in five years. He went 3-0 on the mound and delivered a two-run double and three-run homer in both the semifinals and championship game. His home run in the final was a 340-foot blast. He also saved the game in the bottom of the fifth when he robbed a Southern California Redwings batter of a potential grand slam with a spectacular over-the-fence grab. Gill also beat the Redwings, the nation’s top 12-year-old team, for the third time in the championship game at the Cooperstown Dreamspark National Tournament of Champions, when he came on relief in the third inning for Alabama’s Boys of Baseball and hung on to win 5-4. He had already pitched a complete-game win earlier in the day. Overall at Cooperstown, he went 3-0, 0.29 with six home runs.
Gill also excelled for his local team, the Texas Knights, who won nine tournaments while Gill was a 12-year-old, including three state titles. He has pitched the championship game of almost every tournament he has played in, and has been so dominant in his age group that he has never allowed a home run or lost a game in his life.
KALEN PIMENTEL, rhp/c, Rancho Buena Vista, Calif.
Though his Vista, Calif., team bowed out in the U.S. championship game, Pimentel was the star of this year’s Little League World Series. He opened the tournament by recording all 18 outs by strikeout in a victory over Owensboro, Ky. By the end of the 16-team competition, he had recorded two more wins while hitting grand slam home runs in back-to-back games. His 18 strikeouts tied a record for a six-inning game, originally set in 1979 by a pitcher from Taiwan. Prior to Vista’s loss to Hawaii, Pimentel led his Little League teams to a combined 63-0 record in 2005—38-0 in regular league play and 25-0 in all-star competition. His father Joe, one of the Vista coaches, previously played in the Giants system and was a batting practice pitcher for the Padres.
AGE 13: VINNY PONCE, c, Huntington Beach, Calif.
Five of the last seven catchers at Marina High in Huntington Beach have been drafted, including first-rounder Daric Barton (Cardinals, 2003) and second-rounder Craig Wilson (Blue Jays, 1995). A sixth should be drafted next June.
Ponce is only an eighth grader and still a year away from attending Marina High, but he’s so advanced defensively that he has already been penciled in as the starter as a freshman. None of the catchers who came before him started at Marina until they were at least sophomores.
“He’s an outstanding defensive catcher with the same quick bat as Barton,” said Mark Ward, who has tutored every Marina catcher for years as an assistant coach and has doubled as Ponce’s coach with the Huntington Beach Vikings the last two years.
The Vikings have been the nation’s most prolific team in their age group the last two years, going 151-12 overall. They finished second at the USSSA Elite 12-year-old World Series a year ago and closed out the season by winning Cooperstown’s Dreamspark National Tournament of Champions. This year, the Vikings avenged a loss to the Texas Express in the championship game of the 2004 USSSA Elite tournament by beating the same team 10-4.
Ponce exceled at the tournament, hitting .500 overall while throwing out 11-of-11 base runners. He also did not allow a single passed ball as the Vikings cruised to the title. “He completely shut down every team’s running game,” Ward said. With a 1.95 second pop time to second on a regulation 60-90-foot field, Ponce has thrown out base runners at a 90 percent clip the last two years.
Because of his speed, Ponce has been used as the Vikings leadoff hitter. He hit .610 in 2004, .535 in 2005 and has a combined 25 home runs in the two years.
CALLAN DAWSON, rhp/of, Carlsbad, Calif.
A teammate of Ponce’s on the powerful Huntington Beach Vikings, Dawson excelled the last two years as both the team’s best pitcher and top power hitter.
He was the offensive MVP at this year’s USSSA Elite 24 13-year old World Series after going 8-for-11 with eight RBIs in the final two games of the tournament. He went 2-0 as a pitcher and closed five of his team’s seven games—all wins—including the final three innings of a 10-4 win over the Texas Express, the team that beat the Vikings in the finals of last year’s USSSA 12-and-under tournament. Dawson was named the top pitcher at that event.
Dawson went 31-1 overall on the mound in 2004 while hitting .624 for a team that went 90-6. This year, he went 10-1 with 29 saves and hit .572 as the Vikings went 61-6. He hit a combined 35 home runs in 2004-05.
Both of Dawson’s parents are former professional tennis players. His mother Jennifer, one of the top 40-and-over players in the world, was a member of the U.S. Lenglen Cup team (for women 35-and-older).
CHASE BUTLER, ss, Rome, Ga.
The 5-foot-10, 170-pound Butler was the star player on East Cobb’s 13-year-old Astros, one of the signature teams with one of the nation’s most celebrated youth program. He led the Astros to the AAU 13-year-old title, earning MVP honors while closing out the national championship game. While he was the hardest thrower on the Astros and one of their best pitchers, Butler is a natural shortstop. He hit more than 20 home runs on the season.
AGE 14: MILES HEAD, c/1b, Fayetteville, Ga.
ALL-STARS BY THE AGES: 14
—ALLAN SIMPSON, TRAVEL BALL SELECT
Head has enjoyed folk hero status in youth baseball circles since he’s been 10. As a 12-year-old, he slugged 75 home runs against the top youth competition in the country. At 13, he hit .627-32-125. He’s played with many teams at major national events over the years.
He spent most of his 2005 season playing for Tennessee’s Southeast Road Warriors, who went 73-12 while often playing against top 15- and 16-year-old competition. Head hit .642 for the Road Warriors with 91 extra-base hits and 228 RBIs. At least five of his 22 homers were more than 400 feet.
At the Battle of the South, featuring the best 14-year-old teams in the country, he hit .708 with 10 extra-base hits and 19 RBIs in 10 games while leading the Road Warriors to the championship. He later joined a team from Bergen Beach, N.Y., for the Continental Amateur Baseball Association 14 World Series and hit .739-6-18, leading the tournament in the triple crown categories as Bergen Beach, a melting pot of talent, ran the table by winning 11 straight games. Head led the same team to the 13-year-old CABA title a year earlier.
Head will be eligible to play as a 14-year-old again in 2006 as his May birthdate will be unaffected by the change in the age cutoff date, from Aug. 1 to May 1, which goes into effect next year.
MICHAEL BROAD, ss, Boynton Beach, Fla.
Broad was the top player on the Boynton Beach team that won the U.S. championship at the 2003 Little League World Series and he has continued to be one of the most polished players in his age group.
A year after leading powerful Bergen Beach, N.Y., to the CABA 13 World Series title, he led the same team to the CABA 14-year-old crown. In both years, the team went 11-0. Broad was named MVP of the 2005 tournament after hitting .485-5-10 and anchoring the Bergen Beach infield.
Broad played little travel baseball this year beyond the CABA event because he spent the majority of his summer season with his high school team, North Broward Prep, while also working out with professional instructors. He spent his first year on the varsity in 2005, hitting over .300. Scouts say he is the whole package, a five-tool talent with explosive offensive potential and solid, fluid shortstop actions.
JACOB MAYERS, 1b/of, Mechanicsville, Va.
Though just 14, Mayers exceled in two older age groups for the Richmond Braves, who won the World Wood Bat Association’s 15-year-old national championship and finished second at the 16-year-old tournament, both played in Marietta, Ga. Mayers was named MVP of the former and co-MVP of the latter, sharing the award with East Cobb’s Cody Johnson, the Baseball For The Ages 16-year-old winner. Mayers, a freshman at Hanover High in suburban Richmond, hit .700 with two homers at the WWBA 15 event, while winning the championship game as a pitcher. He slammed four homers in the more competitive 16 tournament, including a game-winning grand slam.
AGE 15: ROBERT STOCK, rhp, Agoura, Calif.
Stock’s acclaim as a youth league player has been surpassed in the last decade by only Delmon Young and Justin Upton, the first picks in the 2003 and 2005 drafts. He also was honored as the best in his age at 13 and 14, and was no less dominant as a 12-year-old.
A year ago, he was the youngest player ever selected to play for USA Baseball’s youth national team. This year, he was the second-youngest player on the same team that finished second at the World Youth Championship in Mexico. He started three games in the tournament, including both the semifinal and gold-medal game for the U.S. He was brilliant in the first three innings of a showdown against Cuba, before rain upset his tempo and a lengthy delay led to his being lifted after four innings. By then, he had fanned eight, giving him 27 strikeouts in 14 innings—a tournament record. Overall, he went 1-1, 0.64.
Though he has more upside as a righthander and is the No. 2 prospect in the Draft Class of 2007 at that position, Stock has made a greater impact in high school as a lefthanded-hitting catcher. He hit .404-8-29 for Agoura High as a sophomore in earning all-county honors. He worked just 20 innings last spring, going 5-1, 2.90 with 29 strikeouts in 20 innings, as he played a secondary role on a veteran staff.
He has exceled on the mound in summer competition. He pitched two complete-game wins at USA Baseball’s Junior Olympics in June with a fastball that topped at 93 mph. At the Area Code Games in August, he tied Jordan Walden (the top high school pitching prospect in the 2006 draft) for best velocity, at 94. This fall, he was clocked at 95 in a scout league game, the same day he launched a 430-foot home run.
FREDDIE FREEMAN, of, Villa Park, Calif.
A virtual unknown nationally heading into USA Baseball’s Junior Olympic competition in June, Freeman made a big impression and went on to excel at the World Youth Championship in Mexico. The 6-foot-4, 195-pounder hit .548-3-16 with seven doubles, leading Team USA in all categories, to power the U.S. to a second-place finish. Prior to his emergence as a legitimate power-hitting prospect this summer, Freeman had not hit a home run in two seasons at El Modena High. But he’s already considered one of the top prospects in the Class of 2007.
TIM MELVILLE, rhp, Wentzville, Mo.
The 6-foot-3, 185-pound Melville made a big impression in his first season at Holt High in suburban St. Louis, earning second-team all-Missouri honors after going 6-1, 0.76 while hitting .380-4-21. Having just moved to the area from Virginia, Melville elected to return home for the summer to play for his former team, the Richmond Braves, and helped lead that team to the WWBA 15-year-old national title and a second-place finish at 16.
Melville was also selected to the U.S. squad that finished second at the World Youth Championship in Mexico, fashioning a 1-0, 0.00 record with 11 strikeouts in five innings. With a fastball that peaked at 92 mph on the summer, Melville elevated his stock to No. 2 overall among players in the high school class of 2008, according to Perfect Game USA.
AGE 16: CODY JOHNSON, 1b/of, Lynnhaven, Fla.
ALL-STARS BY THE AGES: 16
Though he went on to strike out four times in the third annual Aflac All-American Game, Johnson was presented with the Jackie Robinson Award as the 2005 Aflac national player of the year.
The nation’s top-ranked high school position player for the 2006 draft, Johnson hit .489-10-30 last spring for Mosley High, earning Florida 5-A third-team all-state honors. Scouts say he has outstanding pitch recognition and above-average power potential. A 6.7 second runner in the 60-yard dash, Johnson also has been clocked at 88 mph off a mound, and worked a 1-2-3 ninth inning at the Aflac Classic.
ELVIS ANDRUS, ss, Braves
Andrus was the youngest player in professional baseball this season, playing the entire Rookie-level Gulf Coast League season at 16. A product of Venezuela, he signed with the Braves in January. Despite his age, Andrus excelled in all phases of the game in his pro debut, hitting .295-3-20.
“He has maturity, polish and present tools,” Braves assistant general manager Dayton Moore said. “I get goosebumps when I hear our reports about him from the Gulf Coast League.”
Andrus ranked as the No. 4 prospect in the league, displaying an advanced feel for hitting while showcasing the arm, range, footwork and first-step quickness to be an above-average shortstop.
BLAKE BEAVAN, rhp/3b, Irving, Texas
A 6-foot-6 righthander, Beavan excelled for Team USA at the World Youth Championship in Mexico. In 16 innings, he went 3-0, 1.10 and didn’t walk a batter while striking out 22. He also hit .545-0-3 in a part-time role at third base. Beavan, whose fastball was clocked consistently at 91-93 mph and touched 94 this summer, prepped for his role with Team USA by leading the Dallas Tigers to consecutive Mickey Mantle (15-16) World Series titles. He was the winning pitcher in the championship game in 2004 and was selected the MVP of this year’s event while earning a save in the deciding game.
AGE 17: BRETT ANDERSON, lhp, Stillwater, Okla.
Anderson, the son of Oklahoma State head coach Frank Anderson, was one of the most well-traveled youth players in the country this summer—and one of the best.
He spent the bulk of his time playing for Cincinnati’s Midland Redskins, the defending Connie Mack World Series champions. Anderson went 5-0, 0.80 with six walks and 49 strikeouts in 35 innings for the Redskins, and won a tournament-opening game. His ERA was the second lowest in the history of the Redskins program, topped only by Mark Mulder, who compiled a 0.69 mark in 1996. “He’s the best we’ve had since Mulder, period, as far as everything he did,” Midland coach Brian Hiler said. “He pitched every big game facing everybody’s best.”
Anderson juggled his Midland schedule around trips to Atlanta for the Perfect Game national showcase; to Joplin, Mo., for USA Baseball’s Tournament of Stars, which served as a tryout for the U.S. junior national team; to Aberdeen, Md., for the annual Aflac All-American game, where he was the winning pitcher; to the COPABE Junior Pan Ams in Mexico.
He was the ace for Team USA in Mexico, going 2-0, 0.56 with three walks and 24 strikeouts in 16 innings. He also went 2-0 with 24 strikeouts a year earlier as the No. 1 pitcher for Team USA’s youth squad at a similar qualifier.
A 6-foot-4, 205-pound lefthander who went 9-1, 1.14 as a sophomore at Stillwater High in 2004, Anderson went 5-0 with five saves and a school record 0.68 ERA as an all-Oklahoma junior pitcher in 2005. He allowed only one walk in 49 innings, while striking out 64.
Anderson also excels in the classroom. He was ranked No. 1 academically in his high school class as both a sophomore and freshman.
JUSTIN UPTON, ss, Chesapeake, Va.
Upton was the nation’s best 14-year-old in 2002, best 15-year-old in 2003 and best 16-year-old in 2004. Had he played this summer after being selected the first overall pick by the Diamondbacks in this year’s draft, he might have topped his age group for a fourth year in a row.
A 6-foot-2, 190-pound shortstop, Upton has five-tool ability. He’s been clocked at 6.23 seconds in the 60-yard dash and has above-average power potential. His arm strength is above-average, though he lacks consistent accuracy—his only obvious flaw. Upton earned first-team All-America honors at Great Bridge High in Chesapeake as a junior, hitting .565-8-23 with 30 stolen bases. As a senior, he was BA’s High School Player of the Year. Despite being a marked man, he hit .509-12-33 with 10 stolen bases.
JORDAN WALDEN, rhp, Mansfield, Texas
An all-state outfielder in 2005 at Mansfield High, where he hit .488-5-44, Walden didn’t begin to showcase his talent as a pitcher until this summer. Though he posted a 1.04 ERA in 54 innings as a junior, the 6-foot-4 righthander didn’t make his mark as a pitcher until his fastball was clocked at 97 mph at a tryout for the Area Code Games. Suddenly his stock surged and he moved to the head of the class among high school players for the 2006 draft.
Walden was selected to start for the West squad at the Aflac All-American game, and responded by throwing two hitless innings. He was selected the Pitching Prospect of the Year at the event by Baseball America.
Walden spent the majority of his summer playing for the Dallas-based DBAT-18 team, going 4-1, 1.73 with two saves and 40 strikeouts in 36 innings, while hitting .417-2-32. He has already committed to reigning national champion Texas as that school’s top recruit, but should be among the first five to 10 picks in next year’s draft
AGE 18: ANDREW McCUTCHEN, of, Pirates
McCutchen was drafted in the first round (11th overall) in June by the Pirates after hitting .709-16-42 with 16 stolen bases at Fort Meade (Fla.) High. Scouts were impressed with his all-around game, particularly the bat speed he generated from a compact 5-foot-11, 170-pound frame.
He exceled in his first exposure to pro ball, earning top prospect honors in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League after hitting .297-2-30 with 13 stolen bases. Promoted to short-season Williamsport, he hit .346-0-4 in 13 games and may have also become the top prospect in that league if he had sufficient plate appearances to qualify.
COLBY RASMUS, of, Cardinals
Along with his three younger brothers, Rasmus was a member of the Russell County High team that went 38-1, won the Alabama 5-A championship and was ranked No. 1 in the Baseball America/National High School Baseball Coaches Association poll. Rasmus contributed a .484 average and 24 homers, the second-most in Alabama high school history, while going 3-0, 0.00 with three saves. His younger brother Cory, a top prospect for the 2006 draft, was also a key member of the team. Rasmus became a first-round pick of the Cardinals in the June draft and went on to hit .296-7-27 for Johnson City of the Rookie-level Appalachian League. He was selected the league’s second-best prospect.
CHRIS VOLSTAD, rhp, Marlins
The first of three first-round draft picks by the Marlins in June, Volstad stood out in his professional debut, exhibiting command of three pitches well beyond his level of experience. He was selected the top pitching prospect in two leagues, the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and the short-season New York-Penn League. Overall, he went 4-3, 2.07 with 15 walks and 55 strikeouts in 65 innings. The 6-foot-7 Volstad’s fastball registered 95 mph during the spring at Palm Beach Gardens (Fla.) High, where he went 8-2, 0.46 as a first-team All-American.
YOUNG PROFESSIONALS BY THE AGES
|19||Delmon Young. BA’s Minor League Player of the Year is a five-time BFTA winner.|
|20||Brandon Wood. Tore up California League with first 100 extra-base hit binge in memory.|
|21||Huston Street. A year removed from college ball, he was one of the AL’s best cloesrs.|
|22||David Wright. One of the game’s rising stars was a sensation for Mets in field, at plate.|
|23||Dontrelle Willis. Marlins fell short of postseason, but his Cy Young chances are solid.|
|24||Jake Peavy. National League strikeout leader was ace pitcher for NL West champions.|
|25||Albert Pujols. Five-time age group winner is prime NL MVP candidate.|