On June 24, the Reds became the first team to announce their 2016 Area Code Games roster, just eight days after holding their first tryout at the JC of Southern Nevada.
On the surface, it took barely a week for the team, which represents the Four Corners states as well as Hawaii, to pick a 27-man roster. But for the Reds and the other organizations running Area Code teams, the tryouts and even the roster selection are the culmination of an exhaustive and inexact year-round evaluation process that involves high school coaches, travel baseball coaches, everyone in the scouting department and even rival scouts.
The Area Code Games is not a singular all-star game, it is five days of games. And it is exclusive, because you have to get invited by a major league organization to even attend a tryout. But because of that format and those barriers to entry, it is one of the best opportunities for major league clubs to evaluate players of an extended period of time. For the scouts from every team in the league, that opportunity means one thing: make sure you identify the 150-200 best high school baseball players and make sure you convince them to come play in Long Beach in August.
The obvious problem is that trying to pick the best 25-30 players in a region that can span hundreds of miles and multiple states is not easy. Over the years, organizations have tried to solve this problem by expanding the number of tryouts they hold each year. The White Sox, who represent the Midwest region, are hosting four tryouts across Minnesota, Indiana, Oklahoma and Illinois this year. But scouts putting the team together readily admit even four tryouts is not enough. Instead, in an effort to make sure they don’t miss anyone, these scouts rely on an ad-hoc network of opposing scouts in the area, coaches and everyone and anyone whose baseball opinion they trust.
“This is not something where we get together in May and start putting together a list of players,” said Nathan Durst, a national crosschecker for the White Sox who has been involved with the Area Code Games for almost two decades. “We are getting recommendations throughout the year and a lot of the time we are extending invitations just based on those recommendations. It is not the perfect method, but I think we get it right most of the time.”
What makes the selection process particularly interesting is that each team has a different method for putting together its team. Ask Durst or Brewers Area Code manager Corey Rodriguez and they will tell you that they don’t care what a player did in his high school season, it is all about the tools. Nationals Area Code manager Jimmy Gonzalez generally agrees with their sentiment, but he also said he has always been willing to look beyond the tools and accolades if there is someone that catches his eye.
That isn’t the only difference in methodology, either. Durst and Rodriguez both freely discussed getting recommendations from scouts from other teams as commonplace, whereas Gonzalez said the Nationals prefer to keep their recommendations and evaluations in-house. Gonzalez said he always likes to take more pitchers because he prefers not to use any for more than two or three innings throughout the Games. He also keeps an eye on balancing the team from a positional standpoint. Durst, on the other hand, summed up his view on positionality by saying, “if the best six players we see are all shortstops, we are taking six shortstops.”
What they can all seem to agree on is that the most important part of the entire process is getting it right. Lost in the minutiae of splitting hairs between the 20th and 30th-best player in the Pacific Northwest is that this showcase is an extremely valuable opportunity for major league teams. If these teams can do a thorough job of picking the best 200 high school players in the country, then they are giving themselves a week-long chance to evaluate a potential first-round prospect and his family up close.
“It’s one thing to watch a kid get a few at-bats in a showcase tournament or pitch in a high school game, but it is totally different when you get to spend a week in the dugout getting to know these kids,” Gonzalez said. “Not only do they get 15 or 20 at-bats instead of five, but we are really able to get a feel for the character of the kid and how he handles adversity and the nerves.”
The best way to explain the importance of getting the process right is with dollar signs.
In the 2015 Area Code Games, lefthander Jesus Luzardo dazzled scouts with his pitchability and polish while playing for the Nationals’ team. In March, right at the start of his senior season, Luzardo injured his UCL and hasn’t pitched since. Just last week, despite sliding to the second day of the draft because of elbow concerns, the team that drafted Luzardo with the 94th-overall pick signed him for $1.4 million, more than double the slot value of the pick.
That team was the Washington Nationals.