JUPITER, Fla.-The Sunshine State was anything but this fall, and thanks to that, 67 teams composed of high school seniors, juniors and sophomores had to wait an extra three weeks for the eighth annual Perfect Game/Baseball America World Wood Bat Fall Championship.
The tournament was postponed because of wind and flood damage from Hurricane Wilma, and was interrupted intermittently by rain and eventually ended with co-champions because of heavy rainfall on the event's final day. Chet Lemon's Juice and the East Cobb Astros-two perennial heavyweights of the national travel ball landscape-were scheduled to meet in the championship game at Roger Dean Stadium when the event was finally discontinued.
While the Juice and Astros, both 7-0, packed their bags and were left to ponder the outcome of their intriguing showdown, both teams featured players who made positive impressions on the throng of scouts in attendance. The event served as the final wide-scale evaluating stage for high school seniors positioning themselves for the 2006 draft, and although just three of the top 13 players in the class (as rated by Prospects Plus) were in attendance, a host of the class' top players improved their stock.
"I thought it was pretty good for November," said a scouting director with an American League organization. "It's hard to expect kids to be in playing shape then, and obviously the hurricane pushed everything back, but I thought that some kids distinguished themselves."
East Cobb's pitching staff was unrivaled. Seniors Evan Parrish, a righthander from Portal (Ga.) High, and lefthanders James Gilheeney from Bishop Hendricken High in Warwick, R.I., and Chattahoochee (Ga.) High's Jeff Lorick were dominating as East Cobb outscored its opponents 58-1. The lone run the Astros allowed scored in a 2-1 quarterfinal win against the Florida Bombers on a wild pitch.
Astros junior lefthander Josh Smoker of Calhoun (Ga.) High went 2-0 with eight shutout innings, including five one-hit innings in the Astros' 2-0 win over the North Carolina-based Dirtbags in the semifinals. Smoker was named the tournament's most valuable pitcher.
With all games in the playoff round shortened to five innings because of rain delays, the Juice escaped a quarterfinals thriller against Cincinnati's Midland Redskins in the event's most exciting game. The Juice scored three two-out runs in the fifth inning to tie the game 3-3, then won 4-3 when Orlando's Olympia High senior lefty Justin Edwards struck out two batters with the bases loaded in the tie-breaker.
Juice righthander Jason Wonn, a senior from Winter Park (Fla.) High, tossed five shutout innings, allowing two hits in the semifinals, leading the Juice past the California-based ABD Bulldogs 5-0. ABD senior right fielder/first baseman Chris Parmelee of Chino Hills (Calif.) High was 7-for-10 with three home runs and 11 walks on his way to tournament MVP honors.
Parmelee, Ryan Adams (Jesuit High, New Orleans), David Christensen (Douglas High, Parkland, Fla.), Hank Conger (Huntington Beach, Calif., High), Chris Marrero (Monsignor Pace High, Opa Locka, Fla.) and Max Sapp (Bishop Moore High, Orlando) upheld their lofty reputations with good showings at the plate. All are expected to be premium picks in next year's draft.
Marrero, a third baseman who missed significant time this summer with a hamstring injury, came on strong in the fall and-in the eyes of many of the scouts in attendance-surpassed outfielder Cody Johnson (Mosley High, Lynnhaven, Fla.) as the classes' top position player heading into the spring.
"Marrero is the best (high school) player in the country," said a scout with a National League organization. "He's right up there with the (Ryan) Harveys, (Prince) Fielders, (Elijah) Dukes and (Brian) Dopiraks in terms of high school hitters. This guy can hit, plus he's got a laser for an arm."
Adams and Conger were among a collection of the country's best players assembled on a team by the Atlanta Braves. Despite plenty of star power, the Braves lost two of five games, including 5-4 in the Round of 16 to the Dirtbags.
With more than 100 scouts looking on, the Braves also lost in pool play 9-8 to Florida-based Prime Time Prospects in the wildest game of the tournament. At dusk on the event's third night on one of the back fields of the Marlins/Cardinals spring training complex-with no lights available-the Braves scored three runs in the top of the fifth inning to go ahead 8-5, only for Prime Time to score four in the bottom of the inning off Robert Stock to win 9-8. Stock, a junior righthander/catcher from Agoura (Calif.) High, ran his fastball up to 95 mph, but Baseball America's 2005 Youth Player of the Year struggled to find the strike zone and balked home the winning run.
Only Ohio Warhawks righty Cory Rasmus, a senior from Russell County High in Seale, Ala., was clocked with higher velocity. Rasmus, the younger brother of Cardinals 2005 first-round pick Colby Rasmus, touched 97.
While Rasmus' velocity created a buzz, most scouts in attendance were less concerned with radar gun readings and instead concentrated on identifying as many names as possible for their 2006 follow lists.
"Our staff was just trying to lay our eyes on as many guys as possible. Do a body check and check out an arm action, take a look at a swing," the AL scouting director said. "It helps us a little bit to be able to put a picture in our mind with a name."
"The way we were approaching it is with the pitchers, it was sort of like watching guys pitching in instructional league," said a scouting director with a National League club. "A lot of them had been throwing since January and February and we knew they were tired."
Yet the depth in the 2006 high school class-as well as college-appears to be on the bump. Rasmus' arm strength was intriguing, while righthanders Jacob Brigham (Central Florida Christian Academy, Ocoee, Fla.) and Josh Thrailkill (T.C. Roberson High, Asheville, N.C.) showed slightly smoother deliveries and comparable stuff-with fastballs in the low 90s.
In addition to Edwards, the state of Florida boasted a pair of promising senior lefthanders in Carmine Giardina (Durant HS, Plant City, Fla.) and Bryan Morgado (Florida Christian HS, Miami).
The postponement of the event presented a problem for Division I college coaches. The NCAA in 2003 implemented a dead period in its recruiting calendar from the Friday of the week of the fall signing period through the month of February, when coaches are not permitted to make in-person recruiting contacts or evaluations on or off college campuses. That meant only NAIA and junior college coaches, as well as scouts, could attend the event.
DROPS OF JUPITER
• The event has traditionally hosted many of the nation's top players from across the country, though this year's top 20 prospects list was dominated by player's from the state of Florida. It was no coincidence. Scouts were whispering about the depth and talent of Florida's 2006 high school class more than a year ago, and the current crop of seniors might be the best of any state in the country. "Florida is definitely stronger than it was a year ago," an AL scouting director said. "We'll be spending plenty of time there next spring."
• The majority of high-profile players who elected to stay home were pitchers, including Texas righthanders Kyle Drabek and Jordan Walden, California righties Jason Stoffel and Chris Tillman, Oklahoma lefthander Brett Anderson, New York's Dellin Betances and Virgnia's Jeremy Jeffress.
• The 2006 event was scheduled for Oct. 26-30, which would allow Division-I college coaches to attend.
Contributing: Allan Simpson.