JUPITER, Fla.—USA Baseball is looking for the next Brady Aiken.
With the first overall selection in this year's draft, the Astros took the 18-year-old San Diego high school lefthander as their pick. Years before, Aiken was a member of USA Baseball's first-ever National Team Development Program, an event used to identify the country's elite players earlier than ever before. He eventually played on the 18-and-under national team that won the 18U World Cup in Taiwan last summer.
"Brady Aiken was a member of the first 17U (program) back in 2012," said Brooks Webb, USA Baseball's director of the 15-and-under national program. "He came back in 2013 and was one of the top pitchers on the 18U staff that won another world championship in 2013.
"He's probably the biggest success story out of NTDP because he was on the first one ever. Then to come back on the 18U team the following year and win a gold medal, his success overseas last year probably helped his cause going into the draft."
USA Baseball’s National Team Championship events, East and West, will bring together about 7,500 players this June and July at spring training complexes in Phoenix and Jupiter. Top travel ball teams from across the country compete at the 14-and-under, 15-and-under and 17-and-under age groups for team titles, but also to get identified for consideration for USA Baseball teams.
The 14U and 17U East tournaments are currently running in Florida, with the 15U and 17U West events about to get under way in Arizona. The 15U East event will be in July, while the 14U West event starts at the end of June. USA Baseball's task force, which includes staff, coaches and scouts, use the weeklong events to identify players to watch for future national teams.
"Some of the top select programs across the country play in these events and we staff them with top-level high school or college coaches," Webb said. “They know exactly what we're looking for in a Team USA-type player."
Jupiter's event began at Roger Dean Stadium on Tuesday, with players running the 60-yard dash, taking infield and outfield practice, and giving scouts a chance to see arm strength, athleticism and foot speed.
"Our scouts are actively searching for talent, evaluating each game, watching each guy and trying to pick the best players at the end of the day," Webb said. "The scout day gave an early read for some of our guys to look at those players before they actually see them on the field."
Out of the 17U group, Tre Turner (MLB UYA South) had the best run at 6.36 seconds, followed by C.J. Newsoro (Marlins Scout Team) at 6.38 seconds. At the younger level, Georgia Select player Lyndon Weaver ran the best time at 6.8 seconds and Jason Thomas (Baseline Baseball) and Auston Spires (CFBL Elite 2018s) were right behind him at 6.9.
"The first year we had the (14U and 17U National Team Identification Series) was 2012," Webb said. "Those kids will have the opportunity to be on the 15U and 18U national teams, so they're very important to those programs.
"We're investing time and money into these kids at the (younger) level in the hopes that they will come in, get great coaching and learn a lot during their week with us—learn what it means to wear the USA jersey."
There's no guarantee for players identified through the event to make the final rosters the following year, but the program has found great success in developing a bigger funnel for the 15U or 18U national teams, and several participants can attest to how much it aided them.
"On the 15U pitching staff last year, our unquestioned ace was Mason Thompson, a big 6-foot-6 righthander out of Round Rock, Texas," Webb said. "He was on the mound for us in the gold-medal game against Cuba. He was very good for us and advanced beyond his years on the mound. He was on the 14U NTDP the year before and he talked about what a great experience that was and how it really did help him prepare for trials."
Webb and the USA Baseball task force are actively searching for more players like Thompson in this year’s events and are confident they will find future national team stars throughout the week.
"Mason is one of many who were on that team who were a part of the NTDP, who came back the following year and were a really big part of our team, both in the dugout and also on the field," Webb said. "At the end of the day, we're looking for great players on the field and good guys off the field, who we know can represent us the right way and not just us, but represent our country. The NTDP gives us a great opportunity to get to know these kids, too.”