Showcases Have Turned Baseball Into A Year-Round Sport




As the cost of amateur talent has increased over the past 15 years, so has the scrutiny placed upon those players. Coast-to-coast from June through October, showcases have become the standard for how baseball's top prospects spend their summer vacations. It's difficult to find a highly-drafted high school player that didn't play in at least one high-profile showcase and many players attend several, racking up frequent-flyer miles crisscrossing the country with the hope that it will help them play baseball at the next level—whether that's in college or as a professional.

There are the elite showcases like the Aflac and Under Armour  All-Ameircan games, showcases run by scouts like the East Coast Professional Showcase in Lakeland, Fla. and the Area Code Games in Long Beach, Calif. Perfect Game USA is a company that organizes showcases all over the country. In 2009, according to its Web site, Perfect Game hosted 52 different showcases and events. There were events in 16 different states and events targeted toward players as young as nine years old. Perfect Game's National Showcase kicks off showcase season in early June. This year, it actually started before the 2009 draft was even over.

Some of the summer's big events are summer-team tournaments like East Cobb National Tournament in Georgia and the World Wood Bat Association World Championship that takes place Oct. 22-25 in Jupiter, Fla. The 85-team event wraps up the summer showcase season and nearly every top prospect will be in attendance, making it a prime event for teams and college recruiting coordinators. Major league teams typically send 10 or more scouts to make sure they have a pair of eyes on every player there.

TEAMS TO WATCH
The playoffs are cruising at full speed, which means one thing for amateur baseball: the World Wood Bat Championships are about to get started. This year's event has as much anticipation as ones of the past. Many of the top arms are scheduled to face the top hitters as the event expands to 85 teams this year. Baseball America will have three people covering what goes on so be sure to be on the lookout for some quality information about prospects for the 2010 draft and beyond.

To get things started, here is a look at five teams that are stacked with talent and arguably the favorites to make some noise.

Texas Scout Team Yankees: This squad has the No. 1 prospect on BA's early Top 25 high school list. Jameson Taillon, a big righthander from The Woodlands (Texas) High, leads a pitching staff that also includes righthanders Connor Mason (Home Schooled, Suwanee, Ga.) and John Barbato (Varela HS, Miami) as well as Dylan Bundy (Sperry, Okla., HS), a top prospect for 2011. The Yankees offense will be led by outfielders Josh Sale (Bishop Blanchet HS, Seattle) and Brian Ragira (Martin HS, Arlington, Texas). Trace Tam Sing (Newport HS, Bellevue, Wash.) will hold down shortstop. The Yankees also have somewhat of a wild card as Dominican prospect Wagner Mateo, the outfielder who had a $3.1 million contract voided by the Cardinals, will be on the club.

San Gabriel Valley Arsenal: In 2008, this team featured outfielder Trayce Thompson (White Sox, second round) and first baseman Jonathan Singleton (Phillies, eighth round) as well as some interesting underclassmen. A couple of them are back, along with some other prospects for 2010. San Gabriel's rotation is arguably one of the best in the tournament with righthanders Aaron Sanchez (Barstow, Calif., HS), Dylan Covey (Maranatha HS, Pasadena, Calif.), A.J. Berglund (St. Francis HS, La Canada Flintridge, Calif.) and A.J. Vanegas (Redwood Christian HS, Alameda, Calif.).

Royals Baseball Club: The Royals put on a show with several underclassmen in 2008 and most of them return for 2009. Righthander Robbie Aviles (Suffern, N.Y., HS) is expected to start the first afternoon and can be followed by righthander Kennan Kish (Germantown HS, Philadelphia) and lefthander Robbie Ray (Brentwood, Tenn., HS), who is scheduled to pitch Sunday. The Royals are also loaded with shortstops in Manny Machado (Brito HS, Miami), Mike Antonio (Washington HS, New York City) and Francisco Lindor (Montverde, Fla., HS), a 2011 prospect that has already made a name for himself with Team USA.

East Cobb Baseball: Always a favorite at any tournament attended, East Cobb isn't short on talent this year. It has a nice blend of speed, power and big arms with shortstop Zach Alvord (South Forsyth HS, Cumming, Ga.), outfielders Chevez Clarke (Marietta, Ga., HS), Trey Griffin (King HS, Stockbridge, Ga.), third basemen/righthanders Kaleb Cowart (Cook County HS, Adel, Ga.) and Stetson Allie (St. Edward Prep, Olmstead Falls, Ohio), and righthander Karsten Whitson (Chipley, Fla., HS).

Ohio Warhawks: The Warhawks will have righthander Kevin Gausman (Grandview HS, Aurora, Colo.) throw on Friday. Also on the staff will be righthander Adam Duke (Spanish Fork, Utah, HS) and lefthander Griffin Murphy (East Valley HS, Redlands, Calif.). The offense will be led by shortstop Marcus Littlewood (Pineview HS, St. George, Utah), third baseman Chad Lewis (Marina HS, Huntington Beach, Calif.) and third baseman/first baseman Kris Bryant (Bonanza HS, Las Vegas).

Other teams to watch: The ABD Bulldogs are usually competitive and feature big bats in catcher Stefan Sabol (Aliso Niguel HS, Aliso Viejo, Calif.) and first baseman/outfielder Christian Yelich (Westlake HS, Thousand Oaks, Calif.). The Braves Scout Team will also be interesting to watch as it will feature all underclassmen, such as Tournament of Stars standout outfielder Eric Snyder (Edison HS, Huntington Beach, Calif.)
But there's a difference between showcasing and simply playing baseball.

Everyone wants to put their best foot forward in a job interview, and that's essentially what showcases are, in a sense. But unlike their peers, who are interviewing for jobs at the mall, players at showcases are putting their talent on display with the hope of landing a college scholarship or a significant signing bonus and chance to play the game they love professionally.

Catchers and outfielders routinely trade in accuracy for arm strength, going all out on throws during fielding drills. Pitchers can be caught looking over their shoulder at radar gun readings, hitters swing for the fences and speedsters lace up track shoes to run the 60-yard dash—all to show off the upper limits of their tools for the droves of scouts and college recruiting coordinators in the stands.

"You can almost be a tricked by a kid that's a professional showcase player," said an agent. "He knows how to wear his uniform. He knows how to take a good infield. He looks the part. At the end of the day, the best scouting or anything else is going to happen when you see a player play on a daily basis."

Some showcases cater to scouts so much that the rules are changed to give scouts a better look at a player's tools. At the PG National Showcase, for instance, hitters aren't allowed to draw a walk or even take their base after being hit by a pitch. At this year's event, shortstop Justin O'Conner from Muncie, Ind. got hit three times in the same at-bat.

Showcases can help put a player on the map and make it easier for teams to see the best player against quality competition with wood bats. But, they're also expensive and some scouts feel that turning baseball into a year-round sport might be doing more harm than good—especially for young pitchers.

Making The Rounds

Being a top prospect has its price—and it's not cheap. It costs $1,500 per team to play in Jupiter or at East Cobb, and that price is split amongst the players on the roster. On top of that, teams have to stay in hotels in the area and multi-day tournaments like those can be a huge boon for local hotels and businesses. But teams participating in those events are no longer allowed to shop around for the best deal when choosing where to stay. Though a partnership with a travel agency, Perfect Game controls where teams stay and how much they pay. One coach said his team ended up paying nearly $4,000 more than they had in the past.

After paying hundreds of dollars for their child to attend, parents have to pay to get into the events and, of course, there's the cost of traveling and extra equipment to consider.

Other Perfect Game events, like their National Showcase, cost around $500 per player. East Coast Professional Showcase, on the other hand, costs $175 for players and that price includes lodging, food, a banquet, educational meetings, a roster book, a T-shirt and a hat. Each player receives one participant pass and two free parent passes.

Steve Franklin knows all about the showcase circuit. His son, Nick, started playing in showcase events as a sophomore in high school and was a first-round pick by the Mariners this June. Nick played in most of his showcases as a member of the Orlando Scorpions, but also went to two Perfect Game showcases on his own. During the summer before his draft year, he was a member of Team USA, which limited the time he had for showcase events.

Steve Franklin weighed the pros and cons of showcase events.

"The pros are definitely, if you're with a good team, you're definitely going to get seen," Steve Franklin said. "I think that's the key to going to some of these showcases. I think it's very helpful—maybe you don't have to be—but I think it's very helpful to be on a high-profile team, a team that has a good reputation. The negatives are, you have to be very, very objective as to where you stand in relationship to the rest of your peers and your class. I think that's vitally important. If you're really not up to the level that you need to be, you're probably wasting your money. That's why it's very important to be very objective as to what your talents are. If you try and do the showcases by yourself, it's going to end up being a lot more expensive. I would suggest someone that's going to do that, that they join a team because then the costs are spread out and not quite as expensive."

Steve said that Nick gained a lot by playing with and against the best-of-the-best.

"I think he got tested," Steve Franklin said. "He saw a lot of good competition. I think if you just stay in your area, you get a false sense of perhaps what your talents are, but when you get out there and start traveling the state and going up to the East Cobb and some of these other places, you start to see some of the best talent."

Showcases and training can turn baseball into a year-round sport. As a position player, like Nick, that can be a good thing because the players get more at-bats against good pitching and more repetitions to adjust to handling wood bats. Steve said his son never got too tired or burned out.

"There towards the end, going into his senior year, we actually took a fall season off for the first time and actually hired a personal trainer and that was a huge boost for him," Steve Franklin said. "His power numbers doubled the next season after he did that for just two and a half months. When you're playing all the time, I think it can only make you better."

It's hard enough having one child go through this process, but imagine having two teenage ball players in the house. The Cecchinis have a 17-year-old, Garin, and a 15-year-old, Gavin. Their father, Glenn, is the head coach of Barbe High in Lake Charles, La., one of the best high school baseball programs in the country in the last 20 years. With the difference in age between Garin and Gavin, Glenn and his wife, Raissa, are often in separate parts of the country during the summers as they attend different events.

"It really gets expensive," Glenn said. "I don't know how some afford it. We coach the Southeast Texas SunDevils, so the team pays for some of it. We're fortunate that we teach and coach so we're off during the summer. Some parents don't go because they can't get off work or afford it. You make it work. We manage."

The Cecchinis' schedule was very busy this summer. Garin went to PG National in Minneapolis and the Tournament of Stars in Cary, N.C. The whole family traveled to Chicago in August for the Under Armour game then returned to Cary as Garin played in the USA Baseball 18U Trials and Gavin was in the National Team Identification Series. Garin made the 18U team and the family joined him in Venezuela for the COPABE Pan Am "AAA" Championships. Now Garin and Gavin will be teammates on the SunDevils for the World Wood Bat Championships in Jupiter, Fla.

If it sounds like a lot of traveling, that's because it is. It is also a lot of playing, which can take a serious toll on a body that is so young. For that, Glenn has a plan that he feels is a fit for his sons.

"You have to take some time off. We came up with a solution. After Jupiter ends, Garin is going to take some time off. Two weeks. No baseball. No throwing, hitting. He wants to lift and get faster. We'll take one week off from everything. After a week he can lift and run. But no baseball."

Not only does he want his son to stay healthy, but he wants him to still enjoy the game. In height of his season Garin is practicing and working out for five hours per day.

"There isn't a baseball bible for what is too much," Glenn added. "You have to have a feel for your kid. Guys will be as talented as each other but it comes down to how much work you'll put toward it."

Garin and his brother have interests outside of baseball that keep their mind fresh. They enjoy snowboarding and PlayStation, as much as the next adolescent. It helps them keep a clear mind and temporarily get away from the game, though Glenn may be rethinking one of those hobbies.

"Snowboarding is probably a little dangerous," he said.

No Time For Rest

While playing year-round might be advantageous for position players, some teams worry about high school pitchers pitching nine to 10 months out of the year.

BA REPRESENTS
For several years, Baseball America sent a team of players to the World Wood Bat tournament and won it all in 2000 and 2002. Looking over the old rosters, there are certainly some names that stand out. Here is the all-time roster for players that represented BA in Jupiter:
C: J.P. Arencibia (2004)
1B: Ike Davis (2004)
MIF: Trevor Plouffe (2002) & Ryan Jackson (2004)
3B: Ian Stewart (2002)
OF: Delmon Young (2000, 2001 & 2002), Michael Taylor (2003) & Domonic Brown (2005)
P: Scott Kazmir (2000), Andrew Miller (2002), Chris Volstad (2004), Stephen Strasburg (2005),  Matt Capps (2001) & Kevin Jepsen (2001)
"The kids pitch too much," an American League crosschecker said. "Especially down in Florida or Southern California, where they're starting to throw at the end of January in preparation for their spring season. So, they throw all spring, they pitch in every showcase known to man through the summer. Then, they come into the fall, where we have three more showcases in the fall with Team USA, Jupiter and Diamond Club. So then they're done with their fall season at the end of October or early November. When do they rest their arms? That's a major concern. It's a real reason that a lot of times we show up in the spring and guys are throwing 87, when in the past we've seen them at 91. Years ago, guys would play football or play basketball or guys would take four months off to rest or run or lift weights or whatever it is. That's not the case in a lot of instances now and it's a little concerning."

In addition to playing nearly year-round, the crosschecker expressed concern that pitchers are more concerned with lighting up the radar gun rather than getting outs.

"One thing I think, in regards to the pitchers, that's a little bit concerning to me is that they're all going one- and two-inning stints at these showcases and I think there's a little bit of . . . I won't say it's us as an industry, but I think we're breeding relievers a little bit," the crosschecker said. "The kids are trained year-round for one and two inning stints, whereas 15 years ago, kids were playing (American) Legion and Babe Ruth ball and they're pitching their teams to victories and learning to go seven innings and get through the lineup three times and developing their secondary pitches. Now, at times, it's a little bit more about the radar gun and the fastball velocity and just getting through one or two innings. I think that's definitely a downside with the pitchers. I don't know if I see quite as much of a downside with the position players because I think just logging ABs and seeing pitching and swinging the wood bat, that's a big part of just getting repetitions and so forth."

While scouting is by no means easy, some of these events help to alleviate some of the stress for scouting departments.

"The biggest pro is obviously having numerous good players in one environment," a National League scout said. "You have the chance to see good matchups. You get to see better hitters face better pitchers and there are lots of players in one spot so the competition is elevated."

But, teams take the bad with the good.

"Kids aren't learning how to play baseball," the NL scout said. "They're learning how to throw to a gun and hit a good BP. A lot of the little things are being lost. They're not playing games anymore. They're also losing the fact of playing with teammates and winning and losing together. It's becoming an 'I' game."

Putting their talent on display against elevated competition helps a lot of the players seeking a scholarship or signing bonus. Wil Myers can attest to that. He was just drafted in the third round by Kansas City in June. They signed him for $2 million and he played for two short-season clubs before the regular season ended.

"They're definitely good to go to," Myers said of the events he attended. "Especially in my situation with a small private school there wasn't that great of competition. Being at a showcase allows you to play against the best talent in the country and show off your skills."

Lefthander Tyler Skaggs pitched in the Area Code Games, the World Wood Bat tournament in Jupiter and a few events at MLB's Urban Youth Academy last summer on his way to being a second-round selection by the Angels in June. He said the advanced competition prepared him for the next step.

"It helped me a lot because you're always playing the best players," Skaggs said. "You're basically facing the best hitters around and then when you come up to pro baseball, it's usually the best hitters here and in college, so it gets you ready for that."

Skaggs said he was never worried about the risk of injury.

"If you think about it, most of the showcases you only throw to about five batters, so it's really not too bad," he said. "Area Codes, you kind of stretch it out a bit, but actually it's fun. It's not going to hurt your arm. It helped me a lot. It put me on the map."