Disclaimer: This annual WWBA World Championship preview reflects only the writer’s thoughts and not those of any other Perfect Game employee. Anyone wishing to give the writer good natured grief when he proves incorrect is more than welcome!
All 85 teams who are in Jupiter, Florida, this week for the WWBA World Championships are all worthy of it, as it is the most difficult and exclusive travel team tournament in the baseball world. There are literally hundreds of teams from across the country who would love to be here to play in front of the hundreds and hundreds of professional scouts and college coaches who will be closely following every pitch and every swing. It is the task of the Perfect Game staff during the year to narrow this huge national field down to 85 teams and eventually get the top teams and the top players to Jupiter.
It is this writer’s job to go over the rosters and put together his thoughts on who the top 20 teams are. I’ve been to every WWBA World Championship dating back to 2001 (when there were no golf carts) and seen some amazing performances and expect to see more this year. In just looking at the rosters, it might be the most talent filled event ever!
After seeing teams such as Cangelosi Baseball, the Orange County Boxers and Central Florida PG Royal reach the Championship Game over just the last four years, everyone knows than literally every one of the 85 teams has a chance before the tournament starts.
But when the first pitch is thrown Thursday afternoon, these 20 teams have a bit more of a chance than the others.
1. CARDINALS SCOUT TEAM/FTB CHANDLER
The Cardinals/FTB has all the talent to win this year’s WWBA World Championship title, no question. But the most impressive thing about how this year’s FTB roster has been constructed, though, is that it isn’t based so much on prospect status/raw talent but on performance factors. For instance, there are six very high level left handed pitchers on the roster, including such experienced stalwarts as John Kilichowski, Sean Brady, Ian McKinney and Alex Hagner, long with dominating 2014 southpaw David Peterson. Those types of pitchers (add RHP Cre Finfrock to that list) win games at these types of tournaments. You have three absolute top level hitters in IF Christian Arroyo, OF/1B Nick Longhi and 1B Eugene Vasquez, none of whom might win a scout’s popularity contest just yet but all who are on the very short list of the top performers at this level. Mix in a couple of top talents such as PG All Americans C Chris Okey and C Jeremy Martinez and top 2014 prospect SS/RHP Nick Gordon and you have an ideal mix. Coach Jered Goodwin may have figured out the optimum combination talent and performance.
2. MARUCCI ELITE
Coach Chad Raley’s group is well positioned to defend their championship, although the Elite haven’t been as consistent this summer and fall as they were in 2011. The two strengths of the team should be the pitching depth, which features 14 full-time pitchers on the roster, and the outfield, which could start Anfernee Grier, Matt McPhearson and Justin Williams, with top 2014 prospect Justin Smith in reserve. Marucci is based out of Louisiana but is a national team, with players from 11 states and Canada on the roster. Interestingly, two of the most important pitchers are from the state of Washington, as PG All-American RHP Dustin Driver and 2014 RHP Brandon Kelilher are both the types you want on the mound in playoff games. The Elite are also one of the younger top teams in Jupiter; look for contributions from such underclassmen as outfielder Smith, infielders Gregory Deichmann, Nicholas Shumpert and RHP/1B Keaton McKinney.
3. EVOSHIELD CANES
The Virginia based Canes are a national team much along the lines of the Marucci Elite, as they have rostered players from 13 different states for this event. No area stands out for coach Jeff Petty’s team more than the left handed power hitters that no right handed pitcher would want to face. OF Ryan Kirby, 1B Justin Bellinger, 1B A.J. Puk and OF Jerret DeHart are all not only big and strong middle of the order types but have all been on the national stage plenty of enough times to be comfortable with the pressure of Jupiter. Throw in Team USA 18U veteran SS Connor Heady and California catcher Tyler Alamo and the Canes should score plenty, especially against right handers. There will be plenty of pitching depth as well, even if PG All-American Puk is unable to throw due to a minor injury. RHPs Connor Jones and Caanan Cropper, along with Utah RHP Tanner Draper, have the type of stuff and experience to lead the Canes through the playoffs from the mound.
4. ORLANDO SCORPIONS PURPLE
The Orlando Scorpions and the Dirtbags (below) are very similar teams. Like the Dirtbags, the Scorpions’ roster is almost entirely gathered from the same area, in this case Central Florida, and almost the entire roster has a college scholarship commitment. 24 of the Scorpions 27 player roster has a college commitment, with the only three players not committed being a 2014 pitcher who throws in the low-90s (RHP Jesse Lepore) and a pair of 2015 prospects. That kind of depth plays well over a tournament that requires the winning team to play 8 games over a 4-5 day period and would probably be even more effective playing 14 games in two weeks, if that was possible. The Scorpions depth is most obvious in position players, with PG All-American 3B John Sternagal, hitting machine OF J.P. Woodman, slugging 1B Gunner McNeill and athletic SS Ben DeLuzio leading the way. There are 12 primary pitchers on the roster, so how manager Matt Gerber matches up his staff with his opponents will be interesting to follow.
5. EAST COBB BASEBALL
The East Cobb Braves and East Cobb Astros have no shortage of trophies from WWBA and BCS events over the past decade but they have not played in a championship game in Jupiter since 2005, when they shared the title with Chet Lemon’s Juice. They will certainly have the offense to do just that in 2012. PG All-Americans OF Josh Hart, 3B Travis Demeritte and C Brian Navarreto will all play major roles, especially Hart, who has established himself as the top leadoff hitter at this level for the last couple of years. But the two most dominant players in the East Cobb program this summer and fall have been a pair of precocious 2014 hitters, IF Michael Chavis and OF/1B Kel Johnson. Where East Cobb will have to come up with some standout performances is one the mound, where they lack the obvious “stopper” or two to put up against the teams at the top level of the rankings, although RHP Jackson Smith and RHP Keenan Innis have performed well in this role in the past.
6. HOUSTON BANDITOS
Coach Rey DeLeon’s oft repeated mantra is “If you Hit, you will play”, so you know where the Banditos are coming from when they take the field. They have probably the deepest set of outfielders in the tournament, with PG All-American Nicholas Banks, top 2014 prospect Stone Garrett, Darryn Shephard, Walker Pennington and Nicholas Buckner all capable of starring. The most important player on the team, though, may be SS Ryne Birk, who sets the table from the top of the order and is a standout defensive player as well. There is no lack of recognizable names on the pitching staff, either, including PG All-Americans Casey Shane and Kacy Clemens (also the Banditos regular first baseman), and hard throwing WWBA 17U Most Valuable Pitcher Bryce Welborn, plus RHP Mark Ecker. Being from Texas, the Banditos are perhaps harder hit by losing players to football than most teams, as RHP Kohl Stewart and C Tres Berrera will not be in Jupiter.
The first thing that jumps out about coach Andy Partin’s Dirtbag roster is that 16 of the 19 players have college commitments, with the three exceptions all being underclassmen. And 10 of those commitments are to North Carolina, South Carolina, Stanford and North Carolina State. So while the Dirtbags’ roster might not feature any PG All-Americans or obvious 2013 first round types, they are deep and talented across the board. The top prospect is 2014 1B/OF Braxton Davidson, an outstanding left handed hitter who is one of the six UNC commits, but IF Wood Myers is probably the team’s most important and impactful player based on past national WWBA tournaments. One more thing to remember; the Dirtbags were co-champions of this event just two years ago with a roster that looked very similar in its overall construction.
8. TEAM ELITE
Team Elite suffered a blow when top ranked 2013 prospect OF Clint Frazier was unable to play, but they should still have the firepower to make an impact on the tournament. Having a pair of PG All-Americans in OF Austin Meadows and 1B Rowdy Tellez pretty much guarantees that, although having the right handed hitting Frazier hitting between the two left handed sluggers would have been nice, too. Hunter Webb and Terry McClure give Team Elite the fastest trio of outfielders in the event, perhaps historically as well, as all are sub 6.5 runners (as Frazier qualifies as too). 2014 SS Montrell Marshall is a rising star who will be heavily scouted. Team Elite’s pitching looks deep, with at least 6 pitchers having committed to D1 schools, but the interesting question to follow will be when they choose to throw PG All-American LHP Jonah Wesely. Do you throw him in your most difficult pool play match up, in this case likely against PG East Coast Grey, or do you save his nasty curveball and low-90s fastball for the playoffs?
9. YAK BASEBALL
Yak will undoubtedly be one of the most enjoyable teams to watch this week, with dynamic talents such as 1B Dominic Smith, SS Chris Rivera and SS John Paul Crawford leading the way. Unfortunately, a fourth PG All-American, 3B Kevin Franklin, was unable to make the trip from California. The question about Yak will be if they have enough pitching depth. Their only two pitchers with college commitments are LHP Chris Kohler and top 2014 RHP Grant Hockin, although Rivera and Smith are also low-90s hurlers. They will need some pitchers to step up at some point in the tournament. Yak Baseball is also a relative newcomer to the WWBA World Championships and the whole environment that surrounds the event.
10. SOUTH FLORIDA ELITE
The South Florida Elite put together a great run to win the 17U World Series against a very strong field in late July and bring back pretty much the same team for Jupiter. PG All-American C/1B Zack Collins may be the singular most impactful player at WWBA/BCS events in the 2013 class and has collected multiple MVP trophies for his efforts. OF William Abreu, 3B Danny Zardon, SS Luis Guillorme and OF Brandon Diaz give him ample support, among others. The Elite’s big question will come on the mound, where they feature a number of untested 2014s on their roster to support workhorse RHP Shaun Anderson.
11. TEXAS SCOUT TEAM YANKEES
The Texas Scout Team Yankees bear an unmistakable resemblance, as they usually do, to the Texas Rangers Area Code Games team; not coincidental since long-time Rangers scout Randy Taylor organizes both teams. The drawback is that these players do not really play together at any time other time of the year, a proven issue with winning in Jupiter. The positive is there is a ton of talent on the roster and the Texas games will be a scout magnate, for sure. Oklahoma catcher Jon Denney has established himself as one of the top catching prospects in the loaded 2013 high school catching class. LHP Tyler Alexander is a fast rising southpaw and national level scouts were teased by power hitting 1B/C Corey Simpson late in the summer. PG All-Americans OF Billy McKinney and SS/RHP Sheldon Neuse are well known standouts and RHP Dominic Taccolini threw well for the Team USA 18U team early this fall. If they gel as a team, Texas could advance well into the playoffs.
12. MIDLAND REDSKINS
Midland is a difficult team to evaluate, as they play a different summer circuit than most other teams at Jupiter and their players are less familiar to scouts in general. That being said, there is no question that they both have the cohesion as a team and the physical talent to make a strong playoff run. IF Drew Ward has some mystery to him for scouts as he may end up being eligible for the 2013 draft despite his current 2014 status. RHP Bryce Montes de Oca, a 2014 from Kansas, will be another very intriguing puzzle for scouts, as 6-7/265 pitchers who throw at least into the low-90s are neither common or easy to evaluate.
13. FLORIDA BURN
The Burn are essentially an underclass 2014 team but they’ve shown themselves to be the best 2014 team in the country over the past few months, winning the 16U World Series, the WWBA World Underclass Championship and the Florida Qualifier. There is something said for knowing how to win and coach Mark Guthrie’s team has proven they have learned that lesson at a young age, especially his standout 2014 son, SS Dalton Guthrie. They will have to overcome their own youth and sharing a pool with East Cobb Baseball to make the playoffs, but top underclass teams have a history in Jupiter of doing just that.
14. DIAMOND DEVILS
The Diamond Devils pool play game (Pool B) against the South Florida Elite Squad should be one of the most interesting contests of the first part of the tournament. The Diamond Devils rarely rank high on the name recognition list for prospects but coach John Rhodes always has players working as well as a group as any team in the tournament, which usually results in a run into the playoffs. The Diamond Devils have 7 players committed to South Carolina, Clemson or Georgia, so it’s not as if there is a middling level of talent. Some believe that PG All-American Nick Cuiffo is the top catching prospect in the 2014 class, while 2014 RHP/OF Grant Holmes is a top talent who can impact both sides of the game.
15. ABD BULLDOGS
The dynamics have changed in Southern California travel baseball over the last few years since the Bulldogs effectively won two consecutive WWBA World Championships in 2008 and 2009 (the second playing as the Braves Scout Team). But that doesn’t mean that the Bulldogs don’t have to be treated seriously. Three of the team’s top talents are highly rated underclassmen in top 2015 RHP Kyle Molnar, 2015 C Chris Betts and 2014 OF Gerard Hernandez, but veteran 2013s such as SS Elliot Barzilli, 3B Derek Rustich and 1B David Denson will contribute strongly.
16. OHIO WARHAWKS
The Warhawks have a persistent habit of losing a pool play game one would never suspect they would lose and thus have not been a frequent participant deep into the playoffs in recent years despite very talented teams. Could this year be different? CF Ryan Boldt was the MVP of the Perfect Game All-American Classic and one of the key contributors on the gold medal winning Team USA 18U team and should stand out in every game at the top of the Warhawks line-up. Fellow PG All-Americans LHP Ian Clarkin and RHP Jordan Sheffield, along with strong armed Tennessee RHP Trevor Clifton, will be a focal point of every national level scout when they take the mound. If the balance of the roster performs well, 2012 could very well be different.
17. ALL AMERICAN PROSPECTS
The Prospects don’t have the most fortunate pool play draw, as they share a pool with Marucci Elite. But the talent is certainly there to pull off an upset, led by hard hitting 1B/3B Pete Alonso, 3B Juan Escarra and C Kevin Abraham. The most interesting part of the Prospects roster, however, might be that they have arguably the top left handed pitching prospects in both the 2014 and 2015 classes in Bennett Sousa and Thomas Szapucki respectively. Whether Sousa in particular is up to going through the Marucci line up a couple of times is unknown, but we certainly might find out.
18. SOUTH CHARLOTTE PANTHERS
The Panthers have an impressive total of 14 college commitments on their roster, a total that doesn’t include standout two-way 2014 prospect Ryder Ryan, who is uncommitted. Eight of those commitments are pitchers, including LHP Alexander Bostic, a Clemson commit who falls solidly into the “underrated” category of prospects heading into the event. The Panthers will likely have to beat the even deeper Orlando Scorpions to get out of pool play and that will be a much anticipated game.
19. FTB LOUISVILLE SLUGGER
We’ve seen the presumptive second team/underclass team from two different organizations reach the championship game in the last three years, with the FTB youngsters, playing as Central Florida PG Royal, losing to Marucci Elite last October and the Orange County Boxers losing to their parent Braves Scout Team (aka ABD Bulldogs) in 2009. Can it happen again? Obviously! The team to do it might be FTB Louisville Slugger, who has a very high level of 2014 talent and a smattering of solid 2013 talents to provide experience.
20. CHET LEMON’S JUICE
There is no team in this preview with fewer perceived prospect level players than the Juice (only 3 have college commits) but that really isn’t much different than the Juice teams that shared the WWBA World Championship titles in 2010 and 2005, either. They play greater than the sum of their parts and always seem to have a deep staff of mid-80s pitchers who pound the strike zone and get quick wins. The key for the Juice, aside from their consistent style of play, will be the same as it’s been for the last two years: How often they use durable and dominating RHP Tyler Dansh.