Photo: Sandy Huffaker

P.R. A-A's living up to the legacy

Jeff Dahn

Published: Saturday, August 15, 2015

SAN DIEGO – When this current collection of Puerto Rican high school prospects was still in middle-school four or five years ago, it already had at least two prominent local heroes to look up to. In a sense, the duo became Perfect Game All-American Classic Puerto Rican pioneers, at least in the eyes of the four native Puerto Ricans that are on this year’s PG All-American Classic East Team roster.

Shortstop Francisco Lindor was the first to come to the attention of (all class of 2016) shortstops Luis Curbelo, Francisco Thomas and Alexis Torres, and catcher Mario Feliciano, when Lindor rose to No. 3 in PG’s class of 2011 national prospect rankings.

He excelled at both the 2010 PG National Showcase and PG All-American Classic, and the Cleveland Indians used the No. 8 overall pick in the first round of the 2011 MLB June Amateur Draft to bring him on board; he made his big-league debut with Cleveland on June 14.

If Lindor was the equivalent of a baseball asteroid in the eyes of Curbelo, Thomas, Torres and Feliciano, 2012 shortstop Carlos Correa was a full-blown comet. A year behind Lindor, Correa was the No. 1-ranked prospect in the star-laden class of 2012, and managed to shine the brightest of them all at the 2011 PG National and PG All-American Classic. The Houston Astros made Correa the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 MLB Draft and Correa debuted in the majors about a week before Lindor, on June 8.

Curbelo and Torres both attend the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy in Carolina, the same school Correa attended (Lindor attended Florida’s Montverde Academy.) Feliciano is at Puerto Rico’s Carlos Beltran Baseball Academy and Thomas attends Osceola (Fla.) High School.

All four of the top 60-ranked Puerto Rican prospects were at the University of San Diego’s Fowler Park Saturday morning taking part in the second and final practice session preparing for Sunday evening’s 13th annual Perfect Game All-American Classic at Petco Park downtown.

On an unusually hot and humid day in San Diego – the high temperature near the city’s beaches reached 90 degrees – they took a couple of minutes to reflect on the legacy Correa and Lindor established – one they continue to build upon.

“(Correa is) like a role model now; Lindor, too,” said Curbelo, the only one of the four who speaks fluent English. “They’re so young, and right now they’re playing with a major league team and they’re just doing great. They always stay humble, and that’s the best part of it.

“I want to be able to keep doing the same thing they’re doing and keep representing the island the same way they have been doing, and be not just a great player but a great person at the same time.”

“Luis Curbelo has matured physically and filled in nicely over the past couple of years, and he has solid present strength in his loose and athletic frame. As he continues to gain more experience, Curbelo will be able to consistently display the smooth actions and soft hands up the middle of the infield.”

2015 PG A-A Classic Official Program

Curbelo is a 6-foot-3, 185-pound middle-infielder who was named to the Top Prospect List at the PG National Showcase in mid-June and is performing in his 15th PG event, most of them WWBA and BCS tournaments with the Beyel Brothers Bulldogs.

As the No. 60-ranked national prospect in his class (PG’s national rankings include prospects from the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico) he has played on some big stages, but this whole PG All-American Classic deal is a completely different animal.

 “This has always been one of my goals, one of my dreams, to be a part of this game; I’m happy that I got to accomplish it,” Curbelo said. “I’m just having a blast and I feel so blessed to be around these great players and to be able to compete.”

Like so many of today’s teenaged Puerto Rican ballplayers, Curbelo first became aware of the PG All-American Classic after Lindor in 2010 and Correa in 2011 were put on its worldwide stage when he was about 12 years old.

“I’ve always wanted to be one of the top Puerto Rican players and I’ve always wanted to represent my island,” he said. “I just wanted to keep (the tradition) going.”

“Alexis Torres stands out as perhaps the most talented defensive shortstop in the 2016 high school class and leads a very talented overall group of Puerto Rican prospects. He’s a 6.7 runner with a very quick first step to the ball defensively and has the athletic grace and balance – along with a rifle throwing arm – top shortstop prospects always have.”

2015 PG A-A Classic Official Program

Torres earned Top Prospect List recognition and rose to No. 44 in PG’s national rankings after a standout performance at the PG National Showcase, which was only the second appearance at a PG event on the United States mainland (he had previously played at the 2014 PG WWBA Underclass World Championship with PRBAHS Red and was a TPL performer at the 2014 Caribbean Underclass Showcase in Puerto Rico.)

The Lindor-Correa effect also took hold of Torres in 2010-11 and never loosened its grip. He has followed the PG A-A Classic every year since, taking a look at who was selected while working hard on his game in anticipation of the day he would hear his named called during the Classic Selection Show.

“With Carlos, he stayed humble and he made it to the major leagues really quick,” Torres said with Curbelo translating his Spanish to English. “He never changed; he stayed the same person that he always was. I want to become the same kind of player just like that.”

Torres spoke from one of the dugouts at Fowler Park while decked out head-to-toe in new Nike practice gear, and seemed to enjoy all the other swag he had received from the other great sponsors of the event.

“It’s been a great experience. It’s been like Christmas for me getting all this (gear) from all of the sponsors,” he said. “It’s been great that I’ve been able to show off my skills in front of the scouts, and it’s just been a blast.”

“(Francisco Thomas is) a rapidly improving player with an outstanding athletic build. Thomas’ best present tool is his raw bat speed from both sides of the plate; he’s a legitimate switch-hitter with power from both sides. He projects as a third baseman in the future with a plus throwing arm.

2015 PG A-A Classic Official Program

When Carlos Correa was in attendance at the 2011 PG All-American Classic, it was obvious that the annual visit to Rady Children’s Hospital was what he enjoyed most about the experience. The same can be said for Thomas, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound shortstop (third baseman?) who like the other three Puerto Ricans here was named to the Top Prospect List at the PG National and has risen to No. 41 in the national rankings.

“The best part of this so far was being able to spend some time at the children’s hospital,” he told PG through Curbelo. “We had fun with the kids and gave them something to laugh about and smile about. And, of course, it’s an honor to be showcased with the top players in the country and showing off my skills to the scouts, but the best experience has been the hospital.”

Thomas remembered becoming aware of Correa playing in the Classic, and once he enrolled in high school in the States and began playing travel summer ball with the prominent FTB organization, the all-star game became his obsession.

“Right after Carlos Correa played here it became one of the goals I set and put my mind to (to achieve),” he said. “He’s one of the top players right now (in the big leagues) and I want to be one of the best players, too, in the future.”

“Yet another talented player from the island of Puerto Rico, (Mario) Feliciano displayed easy raw power in both batting practice and game action (at the PG National Showcase.) While he is a primary catcher, Feliciano also has the athleticism, foot speed and the instincts to handle the defensive responsibilities in the outfield.”

2015 PG A-A Classic Official Program

Feliciano’s experiences have been very similar to those of Thomas, earning TPL recognition at the PG National and all-tournament honors while playing for FTB. He, like Thomas, was deeply moved by the visit to Rady Children’s Hospital.

“This experience has been unique and it’s been a blessing to be here and be a part of this,” he said through Curbelo. “It broke my heart seeing so many sick kids because of cancer and different diseases, but I just focused on giving them a smile and trying to make them happy, and tried to make them forget about what they’re going through.”

Every PG All-American expresses sincere appreciation for having been given the opportunity to be on this stage, and Feliciano, a 6-foot, 180-pound catcher who has risen to No. 55 in the national rankings, was no exception.

“I feel very blessed that I got the opportunity to be here,” he said. “There are probably more than a thousand players out there that were dying to get this experience and I’m one of them, so I’m glad I got the chance.”

Through Friday, Lindor had played in 52 games (51 at short, one as DH) for the Indians since his June call-up and is hitting a solid .290 with eight doubles, five home runs, 24 RBI, 25 runs and three stolen bases. At age 21, it seems certain that he will a productive big-leaguer over the next two decades, simultaneously shining a bright light on both his native Puerto Rico and the PG All-American Classic.

As for Correa, well, what can be said? He has inserted himself solidly into any American League Rookie of the Year conversation by hitting .281 with 15 doubles, 14 home runs, 37 RBI, 32 runs and 10 stolen bases in 57 games, all at shortstop.

A 20-20 season (home runs-stolen bases) is not out of the question, not bad for a player who missed more than the first two months of the season. His performance couldn’t be any less surprising to his fellow islanders here in San Diego this weekend.

“He’s been focused throughout his whole career and he’ll stay focused until he retires,” Feliciano said.

Concluded Curbelo: “I saw that coming; he’s just blessed with talent. He was born to do that.”

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