JUPITER, Fla. – As the members of the Texas Scout Team Yankees made their way from the outdoor batting cages to gather in the dugout at one of the fields on the Miami Marlins’ side of the Roger Dean Stadium Complex, one prominent teammate lingered behind, taking at least a couple of dozen extra cuts.
Alex Verdugo, a 6-foot, 195-pound outfielder and left-handed hitter and pitcher is one of the country’s top two-way players in the class of 2014 – he is ranked 20th nationally as a primary outfielder. An Arizona State commit from Tucson – home of ASU’s rival the University of Arizona – Verdugo would be starting on the mound in the TST Yankees’ opener at the PG WWBA World Championship about 45 minutes after he left the cage.
“For me, that’s just kind of the way I loosen up my whole body,” he said after the Yankees were beaten by the Dirtbags, 6-0, in that tournament-opener. “It lets me see more balls coming at me and kind of gets my timing down and my hand path, and just kind of gets me ready for the game.
“When you come into these games you know that the pitching you’re getting isn’t going to be high school pitching; these are going to be the very top of the top guys coming out here and trying to come after you so you’ve got to be ready from pitch-one.”
The loss in the opener was disappointing for the Yankees and firmly established the Dirtbags as an early title favorite in Pool K. Verdugo worked the game’s first three innings and didn’t allow a hit or an earned run while striking out nine and walking three; his fastball sat at 87 to 89 mph and topped out at 92. He singled in the top of the seventh, one of only five singles the Yankees could muster in the game.
The Dirtbags scored two unearned runs in the bottom of the second while the Yankees’ made three errors behind Verdugo.
“We have a great group of guys here,” he said. “This was our first game (playing) together and we were a little rusty and we’re still working on some things, but we’re going to come back (Friday) and work just as hard and hopefully get a better outcome.”
The Texas Scout Team Yankees came to this event heavily armed, with an arsenal of highly ranked right- and left-handers, most of them the products of Texas high schools. Being from Arizona, Verdugo is one of the exceptions, of course, but Texas Scout Team Yankees head coach Jay Heafner said the kid from the desert should give the Texans some added stability.
“He’s been to a lot of these (PG) events and he’s pretty much succeeded at all of them; coming into this thing he’s one of the elite players that we have,” Heafner said before his team took the field against the Dirtbags. “We should see some big velocity, and for him it’s going to be commanding the ball. At the plate, he has a very sound approach and he stays within his swing. We’re excited to watch him play.”
The other top-end pitchers include right-hander Turner Larkins (2014, Arlington, Texas, No. 56 nationally); righty Beau Burrows (2015, Weatherford, Texas, No. 7); Garrett Fulenchek (2014, Howe, Texas, No. 179); right-hander Andy Pagnozzi (2015, Fayetteville, Ark., No. 112); lefty Erikson Lanning (2015, Flower Mound, Texas, No. 188); right-hander Zac Carter (2014, Arlington, Texas, No. 307); and right-hander Matt Myers (2014, San Antonio, Texas, No. 326).
Most of those arms are already claimed by highly respected college programs. In addition to Verdugo’s commitment to Arizona State, Larkins and Burrows have committed to Texas A&M; Fulenchek to Dallas Baptist; Pagnozzi – the son of former big-leaguer Tom Pagnozzi – to Mississippi and Myers to Texas Christian. Heafner decided on a four-game starting rotation of Verdugo, Larkins, Burrows and Fulenchek. There are a total of eight available arms on the Yankees’ roster, which was done by design.
“We pretty much brought the bare minimum that we can so we can get guys their innings; if their pitch-counts get a little high, then we’ll pull them,” Heafner said. “If we do get deep into the tournament it would be great to bring guys back a second and possibly a third time, depending on how many innings they’ve gone.”
Outfielders Khevin Brewer (2014, Richmond, Texas) and Ryan Chandler (2014, Houston), and shortstop Tristan Gray (2014, Missouri City, Texas) have committed to Rice; outfielder Ryan Johnson (2015, College Station, Texas) to TCU; shortstop Chase Cryer (2014, Belton, Texas) to Houston; and shortstop Skyler Valentine (2014, Pearland, Texas) to Texas-San Antonio. Johnson is the No. 5-ranked national prospect in the class of 2015.
“It’s a great event and it’s great exposure but it hits the pocket book pretty hard as far as hotels and flights and all that stuff,” Heafner said. “We want our guys to get their ABs and get their innings out on the field; the last thing we want is for them to pay a lot of money and then get cheated out of their ABs and innings.”
Dozens of scouts parked their golf carts at least six rows deep behind home plate to watch the lefty Verdugo go head-to-head with Dirtbags’ left-handed slugger Braxton Davidson (ranked 11th nationally) in one of the first games of the tournament Thursday afternoon (Davidson walked in his only at-bat against Verdugo). The excitement of the moment didn’t escape Verdugo.
“It’s always exciting when you come to such a big tournament and you’re in front of a lot of scouts; some haven’t seen you and some have,” he said. “And then to just play defense and hit in front of them – it’s nerve wracking but most of the time it’s exciting.
“It’s always a thrill,” he continued. “No matter how use to it you get, you always have that anxious feeling or nervous feeling (in front of the scouts) but I feel like if you use it the right way then it makes you better. Just as long as you don’t let it overwhelm you or if you don’t get too caught up in the moment, you’ll be fine.”
Heafner is an area scout for the Texas Rangers and has seen first-hand how individual prospects handle the pressure of being heavily scouted differently. Having performed at the PG National Showcase, the 17u PG World Series, the PG/EvoShield Upper Class National Championship and the Area Code Games all since mid-June, Verdugo is well accustomed to the scrutiny – some of the younger Yankees, perhaps not so much.
“Everybody’s mindset right now is that they’re just really anxious to get out there; a lot of them haven’t played in front of 200 scouts before,” Heafner said. “It’s all pretty much of a whirlwind right now but once we get a couple of innings under us and once we get settled in we should be OK.
“This is a good event because it’s no geared toward a showcase type of deal it’s geared more towards winning and I hope that comforts them a little bit,” he said. “They can get back to playing the game like they know how to play instead of trying to hit the ball 800 miles or trying to throw 200 miles an hour.”
It’s obvious watching Verdugo play that he is first and foremost a competitor, as are his Texas Scout Team Yankees teammates – you don’t reach the top 20 (or the top 100, for that matter) in the PG national rankings without possessing a competitive nature.
“That’s what this game is; the game is all about competition,” Verdugo said. “No matter how close you get to anybody you’re always trying to beat out that guy. You just have to love the game and when you come out here and you make friends that are hopefully friends for a long time, you already know that at the end of the day you’ve got to compete and try to beat them out of a job.”
Verdugo, a senior at Sahuaro High School in Tucson, is a valued two-way prospect for his high school and travel ball teams but sooner or later he’s going to have to pick a card – or have somebody pick one for him. Whether that’s the coaching staff at ASU or the scouting staff for some major league club will most likely be determined after the 2014 MLB First-Year Player Draft in June.
“Right now, I love hitting,” Verdugo said emphatically. “I feel like if I can be in that lineup every day I can have an impact, and not just offensively but defensively and base-stealing and just all the little stuff in the game – I can be a game-changer.”
He can also be that game-changer on the mound, of course.
“I feel like I can control the game there, too, so I feel like that either way I go or either way the scouts see me, I’ll be happy with either one,” he said. “But my calling for me is definitely hitting, because when you hit a home run there is no better feeling than that or when you make a great play in the outfield, there’s no better feeling.”
One thing that is not lacking in Verdugo’s demeanor is confidence. It could be sensed when he was taking batting practice in the cage 45 minutes before the start of an important tournament-opener at the PG WWBA World Championship and it could be sensed when he stepped out on the mound to start that same tournament-opener.
“I feel like I can pitch and hit with anybody out there,” Verdugo said, the even tone of his voice oozing with confidence and without even a whiff of cockiness. “I feel like I’m the best, I feel like I’m at the top of my ability and still getting stronger and better, and I feel like I can go out there and compete with anybody, even the pros.”
He might get a chance to prove that as early as next summer.