Talent Grows Deep In Warm Weather Regions
Sunny days gives California, Florida prospects advantages
The sun is shining, it's 65 degrees outside with a nice breeze and the grass, freshly cut, couldn't be greener—just another beautiful day for a baseball game. Oh, and one more thing: it's December. the 300th-plus day of the baseball season.
This scene is a familiar one across the landscapes of the prospect fertile states of California, Florida and Texas.
With large populations and ideal weather, it's no secret or surprise that "The Big Three" produce over half the high school talent selected each year in Major League Baseball's amateur draft.
"Those areas get to play more and we get to scout more," an American League scouting director said. "They are just afforded more looks from us as an industry."
Since 2001, the draft has averaged 13 high school selections in the first round. California and Florida have each averaged over two high school players a year taken in the first round while Texas averaged just under two selections.
Youth Programs Serve Talent
While the trend in The Big Three will probably never change, the rest of the country is working to catch up. Georgia is the leader of the next tier of talent development and is making a push to enter the same category. The Peach State has the nation's ninth-largest population but may have one of the best youth programs and feeder systems in the country. East Cobb Baseball, located a short drive from Atlanta, has grown tremendously over the past 15 years and boasts a list of famous alumni that includes Kris Benson, Jeff Francoeur, Nick Markakis, Brian McCann and Corey Patterson.
"The evolution of the East Cobb league has been remarkable," the American League scouting director said. "It has played a huge role, getting more kids involved and making (Georgia) more visible."
It's no coincidence that Georgia's rise to prominence coincides with the Braves' decade and a half of National League divisional dominance.
"Anytime you have a team that has the success that team had over the years, you're going to have good local, high school and college talent," Royals scouting director Deric Ladnier said. "Players want to dream and be just like (John) Smoltz and Chipper (Jones)."
The effect of the Braves and the East Cobb league has spilled over into other parts of the state, making the entire state of Georgia a prospect hotbed.
"The opportunities in that state are good. They start at a young age and go through the (feeder) systems. "It's not just East Cobb. It's Newnan, Peachtree City, Griffin, etcetera. Those kids watch baseball, see it on the news and read about it in the newspaper."
Georgia has had seven high school players drafted in the first round since 2001, but this year could be their coming out party. Boasting the nation's top high school prospect, Griffin's Tim Beckham, Georgia has three potential first-rounders. If that isn't enough proof of Georgia's amateur success, a team from the state has won the past two Little League World Series championships—Warner Robins last year and Columbus in 2006.
As proven not only by Georgia, but across the country, the importance of youth baseball programs and its impact on the production of high school prospects is glaringly evident.
"Players come from all over but they consistently come from where youth baseball is good and where they play a lot of baseball," a National League scouting director said.
Since the turn of the century, the U.S. representative in the Little League World Series final has, in chronological order, come from: Bellaire, Texas; Apopka, Fla.; Louisville; East Boynton Beach, Fla.; Thousand Oaks, Calif.; Ewa Beach, Hawaii; and the aforementioned Georgia teams.
Even if players on the teams that reach the Little League World Series don't turn into prospects, their success is a measure of youth baseball's good health in the region or even the entire state. Therefore, the presence of The Big Three and Georgia is to be expected, but what about Kentucky and Hawaii? It's possible that improvements in their youth programs are now bearing fruit.
Louisville won the Little League World Series, which is a competition of mainly 12-year olds, in 2002—six years before this year's amateur draft. It's no wonder the state of Kentucky is showing vast improvement six years later, with four potential first-round high school prospects for the 2008 draft; led by hard throwing Daniel Webb of Heath High (West Paducah,)—and last year, Ben Revere was taken in first round out of Lexington. Before that, Jeremy Sowers was the only other high school player taken (2001) in the first round from the Bluegrass State since Austin Kearns in 1998.
Just as the South is known for its hospitality, there are regions that are noted for certain types of baseball players. For example, the state of Texas, especially south Texas, is known for producing power pitchers.
"You don't have to run very far in Houston to find someone with an above-average fastball. They grow them every year down there," the American League scouting director said.
This year's version is righthander Austin Dicharry from Klein-Collins High. The No. 34 rated high school prospect, Dicharry is from the Houston suburb of Spring, the same city that produced Josh Beckett.
In the past 10 years, the state of Virginia has developed a reputation for producing not only prospects, but major league impact players. B.J. and Justin Upton, Ryan Zimmerman, David Wright and Michael Cuddyer are all from the Virginia Beach area in southeastern Virginia. The state has produced five first-round picks out of high school since 2001, the fifth highest producer behind Georgia. Virginia's most recent first-rounder was Brewers' No. 4 prospect Jeremy Jeffress in 2006.
New England had one of its best draft classes in history last year with the likes of hard-throwing pitchers Rick Porcello, Jack McGeary and Matt Harvey. As it is not unusual for the Northeast to produce quality pitchers, last year was unique.
"There are always a handful of pitchers that are big and strong up there but, you aren't sure who is going to be the guy until later in the season," Ladnier said. "Last year, all of those guys were already guys before the season started."
The weather cuts the baseball season short and is a reason for the typical late blooming of players—but it also might be a blessing in disguise.
"We see pitchers in the Northeast who haven't been overworked. We can enter them into our systems with fresh arms and a clean baseline that gives them a chance to reach their projections." Indians' assistant GM John Mirabelli said.
Phoenix, one of the nation's fastest-growing cities, is thought by many to be baseball's Mecca. With the influence of the Diamondbacks, several minor league teams, the Cactus League and the Arizona Fall League, baseball is played year round in Arizona.
The amateur ranks are no different. Brandon Wood (2003) and Tim Alderson (2007) were each first-round picks out of perennial power Horizon High in Phoenix. This year's 10th-rated prospect, lefthander Kyle Lobstein of Flagstaff, was expected to be the fourth high school player from Arizona drafted in the first round since 2001.
"There should be more (players) coming from there due to the emphasis on baseball," the American League scouting director said. "In the next 10 years you'll see an increase."
• Jaff Decker of Sunrise Mountain High (Peoria, Ariz.) may be considered a prospect as an outfielder, but he made headlines on Opening Day by throwing a no-hitter against Glendale's Deer Valley in front of a few dozen scouts. Sunrise Mountain coach Mike Gardner figured Decker would throw five innings or 80 pitches, but his count was only at 64 in the fifth. So Decker marched back out to the mound and finished the job at 84 pitches. He had 10 strikeouts in the outing.
• Firstbaseman Eric Hosmer took advantage of being pitched to in his first two games. Hosmer, arguably one of the best power bats in the 2008 draft, hit two home runs in his first five at-bats. Pitchers got wise and walked him seven times in the next three games. Hosmer likely won't see a lot of good pitches this year because of his power, but opponents will have to face someone in a lineup that has two All-Americans and seven Division I recruits.
• Wilson High (Long Beach), BA's preseason No. 1 team, lost its first game of the season 3-1 to Katella High (Anaheim). Nick Ramirez pitched a complete game, striking out Aaron Hicks for the final out to get the win.