FORT MYERS, Fla. – This year’s Perfect Game Sunshine West Showcase was held this past weekend, June 7-8, at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, Calif., down in San Diego County. It is one of PG’s largest showcase events on the West Coast, and this year’s edition drew more than 320 prospects from the high school graduating classes of 2015, 2016 and 2017, the vast majority from the state of California.
While the Sunshine West Showcase was packing its tents Sunday evening, things were just getting cooking over on the other side of the country. From Monday through Wednesday, 175 prospects from all across the country – almost all of them from the class of 2016 – were gearing up for this year’s Perfect Game Junior National Showcase, staged this year at dynamic JetBlue Park, the spring training home of the Boston Red Sox.
Among those gathering on Florida’s Gulf Coast were 2016 outfielder Josh Stephen from Chino Hills, Calif., and 2016 right-hander/shortstop Isaak Gutierrez from Norwalk, Calif. Chino Hills and Norwalk are suburbs of Los Angeles and are a heck of a lot closer to Chula Vista than Fort Meyers. To these two young prospects – and presumably to three others who are also here from California – proximity made little difference.
“When I got the invitation I just wanted to come out here and show people what I have skill-wise, and just be out here with all these great players; some of them are ranked in the top-50 (nationally),” Stephen told PG Monday afternoon. “It’s just a great experience to be out here, and it’s 100 percent worth the effort. To be out here with all these guys, it’s just an honor.”
Stephen, a 6-foot, 185-pound junior-to-be at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif., entered the PG Jr. National Showcase as the No. 27-ranked prospect in the 2016 class; he has committed to the University of Southern California. Gutierrez, a 5-foot-11, 180-pound junior-to-be at St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, Calif., is ranked No. 169 nationally; he is uncommitted.
Gutierrez and Stephen knew they would have to make the adjustment from the relatively dry and comfortable heat in Southern California to the heat and humidity of Southwest Florida, but through their experiences they felt they would be able to fit in seamlessly.
“When I got my invitation, I just wanted to get mentally and physically prepared before I came out here,” Gutierrez said. “Every day I got out on the field, taking ground balls, taking batting practice, getting in the gym – trying to get in good shape to be out here in this kind of weather. I think I’ve done a pretty good job of preparing myself.
“All of us want to do our best; I’m expecting to do my best, especially,” he added. “Hopefully I can bring that out of myself.”
Gutierrez pitched three scoreless innings, striking out three, in game action Monday afternoon and showed a fastball that sat 82-85 miles-per-hour – “His fastball showed good fastball life,” a PG scout noted – with a “solid” curveball that reached 71 mph.
Stephen and Gutierrez made the trip east with Stephen’s father, Mike, and endured a full day of travel on Saturday. They flew directly from Los Angeles to Miami, then rented a car and drove 2 ½ hours over Alligator Alley on their way to the Gulf Coast.
Mike Stephen owns his own business in Chino Hills and enjoys a flexible enough schedule that he was able to make the trip with the two teen-aged prospects. His son’s school is still in session so concessions had to be made there, but all-in-all Mike felt it was a justifiable investment of time and money to invest.
“Anytime you can be somewhere with some of the best kids in the country, I thought it would be worthwhile to get them out here,” Mike said. “Sometimes you get stuck in one place regionally – although I think Southern California has a pretty high quality of baseball – but we had the chance last year to go to North Carolina and Georgia, and those were two great trips.
“Josh is really getting the opportunity to play in some of the best areas of the country, and I think meeting the different kids and enjoying the whole experience is going to help him down the road.”
Both young guys just completed their sophomore seasons at their respective high schools and both admitted to some trepidation when they started their high school careers – California high school baseball offers as high a level of competition as anywhere in the country.
“Ever since I got into high school, I didn’t know what to expect; I didn’t know what was going to go on or how the summer was going to be,” Gutierrez said. “But the coaches at my high school have gotten me prepared for all of this and I’m really pleased with where I’m at right now.”
The PG Jr. National is the ninth PG event for both Stephen and Gutierrez. Stephen attended one PG WWBA National Championship tournament in Marietta, Ga., with CBA Marucci last summer, but otherwise all of his activity has been in California and Arizona. That includes attendance at the 2012 California Underclass Showcase in Walnut, Calif., and the 2013 Sunshine West Showcase in Chula Vista, Calif.
Gutierrez, on the other hand, has spent quite a bit of time in the eastern part of the country. He played in three 2013 PG WWBA and PG BCS tournaments in Marietta and Fort Myers when a member of the East Cobb Expos and one in Georgia with CBA Marucci. He was with CBA Marucci in a couple of other tournaments in 2013 – including a PG Super25 event – and was a teammate of Stephen’s at the 2014 16u Perfect Game MLK Championship in Goodyear, Ariz.
They’ve got to know a lot of other players from across the country through their travels and experiences, and the PG Gold team they were a part of here on Monday and Tuesday included players from 14 states. Among them was right-hander/third baseman/first baseman Dakota Donovan from Washington, Utah, the country’s No. 6-ranked prospect in the class of 2016, and shortstop Nicholas Quintana from Las Vegas, ranked No. 12.
“Some of the guys out here both of us know personally, and we’re meeting more of them today and we’ll meet some more tomorrow,” Stephen said Monday. “Some of these guys ranked in the top-50 we’ve just come across by playing in tournaments or at other showcases we’ve done.”
Their association with CBA Marucci and executive director Jon Paino has been especially beneficial to Stephen’s and Gutierrez’s way of thinking. They have been give and will continue to be given opportunities to compete in many of Perfect Game’s top national championship tournaments stretching from Phoenix to Jupiter, Fla.
“Being with CBA has opened up so many doors to college guys and pro scouts,” Stephen said. “Just to be out here in front of the biggest schools and playing in Perfect Game (tournaments), it’s just opened up so many doors for me and all the other guys on the team. … It pushes us all and brings out the best in us, and it’s been a great experience.”
Gutierrez echoed Stephen’s thoughts: “Jon Paino has done a great job getting us recruited, getting us looked at, putting us in these big (showcases) and getting out there trying to get exposed,” he said. “I know a lot of these schools out here haven’t seen me because I’m out on the West Coast, so when I’m out here I try to do my best and try to have them get a good look at me and maybe I’ll get a scholarship sooner or later.”
It’s likely to happen sooner than later, and Gutierrez and Stephen are doing everything correctly to make sure their careers advance to a level beyond high school. They’ve stayed at home and learned and they’ve traveled the country and learned even more. A 2,300-mile airplane and car ride fit in nicely with the learning experience.
And it’s been an education for Mike Steffen, as well.
“I’ve been fortunate that (Josh) has been with some high quality kids out in California, and some of the parents have had older siblings that have been through the process,” he said. “I’ve kind of let it all unfold, and everybody has told me to just enjoy the process; it’s been great so far.”
It’s speculation right now, but a couple of invitation’s to next year’s Perfect Game National Showcase at a yet to be determined site might lie in the future. The two So Cal prospects will keep their bags packed.