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MLB, USA Baseball Announce PDP League

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Ethan Hankins (Photo Courtesy Of Cameron Harris)

MLB And USA Baseball announced the 'PDP League' Tuesday morning, an expansion of the existing Prospect Development Pipeline that will aim to serve as a "premier development showcase experience for dozens of high school baseball prospects based in the United States," per a release from MLB.

The PDP League will be a three-week, invite-only event held from mid-June through early July at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. The event's focus is as a development opportunity for 80 of the top high school players in the country and will feature competitive play, practice sessions, evaluations and individualized development programs for every player, including various classroom settings that will include information on leadership development, diversity training, social media training and nutrition, among other topics.

"We are thrilled to join USA Baseball in announcing the PDP League, which is the newest initiative in our ongoing commitment to improving the amateur levels of our game and connecting the next generation of stars to Major League Baseball," said Morgan Sword, MLB’s Senior Vice President of League Economics & Operations, in a press release.

"The PDP League will provide these players, the majority of whom will be in consideration for the following year’s MLB Draft, with the most dynamic, development-focused experience available to high school baseball athletes. Uniquely, the PDP League will also offer players the opportunity to prepare for life beyond baseball by prioritizing leadership and character development as well as personal health and well-being."

Those familiar with the timing and elite, 80-player field will note the similarities with USA Baseball's Tournament of Stars (TOS) event, but those with USA Baseball see the PDP League as much more than an expansion of the TOS event—though it still offers the same 18U National Team and major league scouting evaluation opportunities that the TOS offered.

The event will still serve as the 18U National Team's primary identification event, with 40 players selected from the 80-player field to attend the 2019 18U National Team Trials, which will take place in Los Angeles next August. The team will eventually pair down to a 20-man roster, which will compete in the World Baseball Softball Confederation U-18 Baseball World Cup, in Busan, South Korea.

A number of high-performing players will also be selected from the PDP League to compete in additional events connected to the 2019 MLB All-Star Game, including the High School Home Run Derby and a new high school showcase game that hopes to follow in the success of the Futures Game.

“The creation of the PDP League signifies a new, groundbreaking opportunity to cultivate excellence amongst athletes both on and off the field,” said Rick Riccobono, USA Baseball’s Chief Development Officer in a press release.

“The development of the next generation of collegiate and professional stars has long been a core mission of USA Baseball, and we are proud to reinforce this commitment with the creation of this innovative program with the support of Major League Baseball and its clubs. The PDP League will have an immediate and positive impact on the amateur landscape while fostering the continued success of Team USA on the international stage.”

To get more information on the new PDP League, Baseball America caught up with Riccobono to discuss the event in more detail.

Baseball America: Is the PDP League essentially an expansion of the Tournament of Stars?

Rick Riccobono: I don’t think so. And I understand the comparison, but I don’t think this is going to be quite like the Tournament of Stars. The Tournament of Stars was a competitive tournament, in that it was only a week long. It really was an identification opportunity. So it’s much more about evaluations and pitting the best players against each other, but for the purpose of evaluating their abilities, ultimately, with an aim and a goal towards Team USA.

I think at its absolute core, the PDP League is a developmental opportunity. And the curriculum for the program is going to speak to that. The first and last question we’re going to ask is, ‘What’s in the best interest of the athlete?' And for us, whatever the subject matter is, that’s going to be the lens. Now that’s not to say there aren’t evaluations being made as part of that process. Obviously Team USA has a heavy interest in that, in trying to select the best national team to move forward and represent our country, and it goes without saying the professional community has a responsibility and an interest in making their own evaluations.

But we do believe with the way the program is being set up, and the fact that it’s virtually going to be a month-long program, there’s plenty of room for any types of assessments or evaluations that need to be made, alongside with the developmental undercurrents that will be the center of the whole initiative.

BA: USA Baseball and MLB have had a lot of initiatives to improve the development side of the game. Is this event about improving what the summer offers for players, rather than simply attending different showcases?

RR: Yeah, it’s not a showcase event. There’s no question about that. To the heart of your question, the development of the elite athlete—the athlete who aspires to play collegiately or professionally—and the way they are developed, largely was something we identified as a gap area for our sport.

And saying that I want to be clear: it’s not that there aren’t good programs out there and good clubs out there, even good high schools out there that aren’t doing a good job—because there are. But on the whole, when we look at the experience that that high-end, blue-chip kid has in our sport, in the past there really wasn’t a lot of strategy to it. And the reality is, the way that most of these kids bounce around, we’ve kind of arrived where we are almost completely by accident. There just wasn’t the clear direction and purpose.

We’ve got a really good teenage kid. How are we going to get him to the next level of the sport? There really wasn’t that methodology. So I think it’s fair to say that as we think about the overall impact our programing can have—and I was involved with the launch of the Breakthrough Series way back in 2008—looking at what the Breakthrough and (Elite Developmental Invitational) and some of those programs do—the PDP over the last couple years—I don’t think there’s any question that the PDP League is an extension of all of that, and it’s a significant step forward for our joint programming with MLB.

BA: Were there any other sports that you looked to as a model for the PDP League?

RR: I’ll say this, we—at least Team USA—we look at other sports all the time. We really do. It’s not just the sports, but also the elite national federations within them. We want to know what the All Blacks (New Zealand National Rugby Team) are doing. We want to know what the FA (Football Association) and what the French Football Federation is doing. We look at groups like Hockey Canada. That’s important to us. And we don’t pretend to have it all figured out. I think the evolution of sport is something that we want to be a part of and hopefully we are on the front end of.

Specific to this program, one of the laments for a long time—and I ran the 18U National Team program for two years back in '09 and '10—essentially we had the Tournament of Stars model where we had them for a week, they try out, we go into another trial period for a week and then we train for a week. A lot of times that process was disjointed because of the competitive nature of the way it was set up.

There just wasn’t enough time to really develop the kids and develop some team concepts and ways of doing things the Team USA way. And we looked at what Baseball Canada has been able to do over the years, with sending teams down to Florida to play pro clubs, we’re in tune to what the Japanese have been able to do. And so identifying that, having that chance to have more of an impact than strictly having the best kids try out for Team USA and then play for Team USA, this is going to really give us a very comprehensive and meaningful touch to those athletes.

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BA: Can you speak more to the All-Star week showcase game and the details of what that will look like?

RR: I suspect we’ll probably jump all-in on that one at a later date and provide more details, but I do know having an All-Star exposure for amateurs, specifically the high school guys, is something we’ve talked about for a while at All-Star. The tremendous growth and success of the Futures Game has been so much fun to watch. The baseball community just continues to embrace that upcoming wave of players, you know? I think that’s a great thing and it’s good for the sport.

With the success we’ve had with the high school home run derby, the natural next step in that progression is to have a high school game there. It’s a natural fit obviously. We’re going to have the best players in the PDP League, bring the best of those kids into Cleveland to be a part of the All-Star festivities. I think there’s a lot we can do with that, and we’re excited to make that part of the overall opportunity.

BA: Can you speak to the health, wellness and personal development classroom seminars?

RR: Even the kids, even the athlete who has access to the best types of training, chances are the majority of that access is skill-development specific. Maybe there are some weight training components to that if they are really on top of things. But as we look at, again, trying to make this a comprehensive opportunity and at developing not only major league players, but major league citizens and kids who are going to be able to go on and captain a Division I program as an example, that’s where I felt like as we discussed this, leadership workshops are something we want to do. Being the face of a program, an organization—whatever that is for you as an athlete—that’s something that we want to put some framework around for these guys. Use of social media—that’s something that we collectively, probably as a society, but as a sport need to spend some time on.

So I think those things, nutritional things, I think just straight up—we’ll throw the leadership umbrella over it—but character development. These are kids who come to us, and we see this every year with our 18U program, kids in their local community, probably people at their high school, but certainly kids in the youth leagues in their area, they know who they are. Whether they realize it or not, young kids in our game are probably looking up to these guys. Even before they turn pro. If we can go out and encourage, or coach these guys up to be great representatives of the sport, then I think that’s a win. Not only for them, but for their communities and for the baseball community as a whole.

BA: What was behind the decision-making process to go to IMG Academy rather than USA Baseball’s facility in Cary, N.C.?

RR: Let me first and foremost just say that USA Baseball has been so fortunate to have a tremendous partner in the Town of Cary. And we’re continuing to do great things and I think there are great things ahead with the partnership and with what we’re able to do at our facility.

In terms of where we’re at at the time right now, we did go through a lengthy process to identify a host facility for this. We did go through and actually finalize and visit with a handful of facilities. I think at the end of the day we were just so impressed with—first and foremost—the staff at IMG. But also, looking at making it a true developmental experience and an experience that the athletes are going to have just such a positive takeaway from.

Things like being able to house the athletes on site, on campus. That was certainly a really big one for us. And if you think about IMG, their weight training facilities that are on site, the Gatorade sports science institute that’s on site, some indoor space that’s on site—there are a lot of boxes that got checked as we really began to learn and get to know that facility. For us, for right now, we really feel strongly that this is a great place to launch this program and we couldn’t be more excited to be down in Bradenton next year.

BA: Any final comments to leave us with?

RR: I think it will be talked about quite a bit in the community, I know it already has been. It’s kind of a poorly kept secret, but we feel strongly about the impact we are going to have with this. We really do. It’s going to be exciting to watch it unfold and we think the takeaways, and what it’s going to do for USA Baseball and the 18U Team are going to be outstanding.

But also for the greater baseball marketplace. Trying to get these guys, these rising seniors on a little bit more of a linear path than they are currently on right now as they bounce from place to place around the country. We’re excited about it.

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