Photo: Perfect Game

Vargas, fellow PRs bounce back

Jeff Dahn

Published: Saturday, January 6, 2018

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Although the day dawned chilly and there was a cold wind bearing down from the north, the Terry Park Sports Complex was awash in sunshine Saturday morning, lifting the spirits of everyone who was here for the PG World, PG World Uncommitted and PG National Underclass East showcases.

No one felt more invigorated by the setting than the more than 50 young prospects and their support groups from Puerto Rico, here to compete in one of the three events that helped kickoff the 2018 PG showcase calendar.

These young men and their families have experienced unimaginable hardship over the last four months after two hurricanes – Category 5 Irma and Category 4 Maria – decimated their island home with a pair of September body blows spaced only about two weeks apart.

With its palm trees standing upright and its immaculately prepared fields lined and ready for action, Terry Park must have looked like some sort of holiday season wonderland to the Puerto Rican players.

“My dad said, ‘Hey Kevin, you’re going to the World Showcase,'” top 2018 shortstop prospect Kevin Vargas said Saturday. “I said, ‘Yeah, let’s go. No problem. Let’s go and play baseball.’”

Vargas, a 2017 Perfect Game All-American and a Florida International University recruit ranked No. 67 in his class, said he and his family’s home in Las Mareas de Salinas was destroyed by the storms but through hard work and unfailing faith they are determined to rebound.

Baseball provides the ultimate positive distraction for these young Puerto Rican players, perhaps especially for top prospects like Vargas who hope to one day use the game to put their families in a better position both financially and emotionally. After September’s historic weather events, everyone must have been wondering what kind of future awaited them.

Hurricane Irma struck the Caribbean – and eventually the Florida Keys and the Florida Gulf Coast – first, a Category 5 storm that skirted Puerto Rico to the north on Sept. 5 and left 1 million residents without power.

Hurricane Marie was graded a Category 4 storm with 150 mph winds and was much more destructive than Irma because it made direct landfall on Puerto Rico on Sept. 20. In the aftermath of the two storms, the official death toll on PR was posted at 64. Weeks later, an investigative review made by the New York Times put the toll at more than 1,050.

Edwin Rodriguez runs a program back home called Team Elite of Puerto Rico, where he brings together a lot of the top talent from several of the local academies and works with Perfect Game to make sure their exposure opportunities are maximized.

On Saturday morning, Rodriguez described a situation in Puerto Rico where the recovery has been agonizingly slow; he estimated that 40-50 percent of the island was still without electrical power nearly four months after the monster storms struck. He has been told off the record that it may take up to a year before power is restored to the more rural parts of the hard-hit U.S. territory.

From the very narrow perspective of baseball, the young, up-and-coming prospects from Puerto Rico have been impacted not only because there are no lighted fields to play on, but because there are no fields at all. The devastation is that wide-spread.

The storm-damage forced PG to cancel its popular Puerto Rico-based Caribbean Showcase in November. While both were in attendance at the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., PG President Jerry Ford sought-out Rodriguez to discuss the situation.

Ford told Rodriguez that Perfect Game wanted to get involved and offer a helping hand, and attempt to get as many players as possible from the island to one of these three showcases this weekend.

“A lot of these kids wouldn’t have been able to be here if Perfect Game had not helped, so they really appreciate that,” Rodriguez said. “Scouts have not been in Puerto Rico because the field conditions are terrible, there are no (hotel) rooms, and this type of event helps them to be able to get out and to try to catch-up; let the scouts be able to see them.”

PG National Showcase Director Kirk Gardner was also part of those discussions in Jupiter, and said Saturday it was in everybody’s best interest to get as many of the talented PR prospects here as possible. That took on added urgency after the PG Caribbean showcases was canceled.

Gardner pointed out that it remains very difficult to get anywhere in the Caribbean, and it would be a waste of the scouting community’s time and money to travel there without knowing if any baseball is even going to be played.

“We got all the ones here that are playing the best, and we tried to get them all here for the International scouts and the Puerto Rican scouts to see,” Gardner said. “Most of these kids would have come to the Caribbean Showcase to get their (PG) National invite for (this summer) or their (PG) World invite for this year. But since we didn’t have that we had to do everything we could to get as many of them here at all three of these events.”

That effort proved to be more than worthwhile. There are 30 Puerto Rican prospects at the PG World Showcase, eight at the PG World Uncommitted Showcase and another 12 at the PG National Underclass East Showcase.

Vargas, a 6-foot-2, 175-pound senior at the International Baseball Academy in Puerto Rico, is the centerpiece of the contingent at the PG World, although No. 187 outfielder Erick Rivera, No. 302 outfielder/third baseman Ezequiel Pagan and No. 361 middle-infielder Kenan Irizarry are other 2018s capable of turning heads. No. 75 2020 outfielder Mario Zabala was also among the showcase’s early eyebrow-raisers.

Vargas has signed with head coach Mervyl Melendez and assistant coach/recruiting coordinator Jared Goodwin at FIU, but he is back at the PG World Showcase for a second straight year hoping to impress the hundreds of MLB scouts, national crosscheckers and assorted front-office personnel that are in attendance. He is following in some sizable footsteps.

The young and talented baseball players Puerto Rico produces on an annual basis seems to be getting better and better every year, and PG’s All-American Classic rosters reflect that. There have been 11 native Puerto Ricans suited up for the East Team at the PGAAC just since the 2010 game, and Javier Baez (2010), Francisco Lindor (2010) and Carlos Correa (2011) – all shortstops – are already forging promising MLB careers.

“We’ve seen it how Puerto Ricans are (rising) and you can see it in the big leagues,” Rodriguez said. “The same thing is happening on the island. Kids are playing more baseball and more kids are doing good.”

He noted that in 2017 Puerto Rican teams won the Caribbean Winter Ball Series and were runner-up at the MLB World Baseball Classic and many of the island’s top products enjoyed terrific seasons in the big leagues; Correa starred for the World Champion Houston Astros.

Rodriguez is reluctant to compare a raw, 17-year-old like Vargas to established major league All-Stars like Correa and Lindor, but he does see similarities.

“(Vargas is) a big-bodied shortstop that can play defense even though he’s tall; he can swing the bat and he projects power,” Rodriguez said. “He has all the tools and all the projections, but he still needs to develop them like those other guys did when they were young.”

Perfect Game ranks Vargas as the No. 123 overall (high school, college, juco) top prospect in this year’s MLB June Amateur Draft, which means he is being projected to leave the board sometime in at least the first 3-to-5 rounds. Correa was the No. 1 overall pick of the Astros in the 2012 MLB June Amateur Draft; Lindor was the No. 8 overall pick of the Cleveland Indians in 2011.

Vargas calls Correa his favorite player and tries to pattern his own game after that of the Astros’ All-Star. He is encouraged by the comparisons but also seems to realize any comparisons along those lines are very premature. They do all share one thing in common, however: the PG All-American Classic.

“The All-American game was the best experience of my life,” Vargas said. “I liked it a lot, I liked being in San Diego; it was so exciting. I (enjoyed) being around all the other players.”

“All of these other guys that have already made it, they had all been to Perfect Game events,” Rodriguez added. “These guys know what (the older players) did, so they’re just trying to come in and copy that and be able to (accomplish) the same things that they did.”

The World, World Uncommitted and National Underclass East showcases conclude Sunday and the Puerto Rican prospects will return to their storm ravaged Caribbean island. Rodriguez knows that this short respite away from the challenges they face at home will work wonders in the long-term. Just getting out and having fun playing baseball once again can provide the ultimate therapy.

Rodriguez does take the view that the hurricanes’ wrath was a bit of a set-back to Puerto Rico’s burgeoning high school-aged baseball scene, but he also knows these young players will bounce back and just keep right on going. It’s not going to hurt us in the future, he promised, and he vowed there are many more outstanding Puerto Rican players coming up who will make their marks very soon.

“At the end of the day you just want them to be good citizens and good people and to learn how to respect the game and play the game the right way,” Rodriguez said. “If they have the talent they’re going to make it far; they just need to continue to work hard.

“I just want them to see the competition they’re going to face and to know that’s always going to be there and you just have to give it 100 percent.”

These are young men that know all about giving it 100 percent, whether it’s on a baseball field in Lee County, Fla., or back home where they’re trying to help their families rebuild their lives. They’ve learned at a young age that nothing is ever handed to you, but when you are presented with an opportunity – like what this weekend offered – it’s best to take advantage of it.

“They’re some of the best players here, so we’re happy to have them,” PG’s Gardner said. “The players are happy and the scouts are happy, so it’s been a good deal. Everybody’s happy.”

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