There are right around 4,500 good-hearted people that call the southeast Georgia town of Baxley home, and most of them enthusiastically support the athletic teams at hometown Appling County High School. The high school has desks for about 950 students in grades 9 through 12, and hundreds of those students gladly don their Pirates uniforms to compete in any one of eight sports offered during the school year.
Beginning with the 2008-09 school year and continuing through the 2011-12 school calendar, the folks in Baxley took front row seats to watch Byron Buxton’s extraordinary exploits on both the baseball and football fields. After a sensational performance during a regional tournament game in his freshman year, Appling County HS head baseball coach Jeremy Smith was already impressed.
“We knew then we had something special,” Smith told David Auguste from espnhs.com in a 2012 report. “He’s the best player I’ve ever had.”
Buxton, a center fielder with a powerful bat, explosive speed and Gold Glove potential defensively, is special. He was selected with the No. 2 overall pick in the first round of the 2012 MLB First-Year Player Draft by the Minnesota Twins as an 18-year-old right out of Baxley, and after two stellar seasons at three levels in the minor leagues, he is ranked by Baseball Prospectus as the No. 1 prospect in the Twins’ farm system.
While perhaps a noticeable notch ahead of the pack, Buxton is also not that rare of an occurrence on the high school fields of Georgia. He is one of at least eight elite outfield prospects to be selected in the early rounds of the draft right out of a Georgia high school since 2011.
None of the eight have reached the big leagues yet, but seven are playing in the minor leagues. The eighth – 2011 Perfect Game All-American Skye Bolt from Woodstock – is coming off a Perfect Game Freshman All-American season at North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
The standout Georgia outfield prospects just keep getting bigger-stronger-faster with each passing year. Many of the state’s high school programs – like those at Parkview (Lilburn), Gainesville and Milton – are recognized nationally, and a proliferation of summer travel ball organizations has led to more year-around participation and player development.
Team Elite (Winder), East Cobb Baseball (Marietta), Georgia Jackets (Milton), Georgia Roadrunners (Alpharetta), 6-4-3 DP (Marietta), BigStix Gamers (McDonough), Chain Baseball (Warner Robins) and TGBA (Marietta) are just a few of dozens of Georgia-based travel ball programs.
Brad Bouras, a native Georgian and a Parkview High School graduate, played four seasons in the minor leagues (2001-04) and founded Team Elite Baseball in 2005. He has witnessed first-hand the accelerated development of these Georgia outfield prospects and doesn’t see it slowing anytime soon.
“I think baseball in general in Georgia and the Atlanta area has gotten so strong that you’re going to keep finding these top-tier athletes,” Bouras told PG this week. “Ideally, you’re going to put the best athletes at shortstop or they’re going to go to the outfield. … A lot of the best athletes go to center field – they have good arms, they run well and they hit well.”
The beginning of this “trend” of Georgia high schools producing elite outfield prospects could be traced back to more than a decade ago when the Atlanta Braves selected Parkview HS graduate Jeff Francoeur with the 23rd pick of the first round of the2002 MLB amateur draft. The Braves harvested their own backyard again in 2007 when they grabbed outfielder Jason Heyward with the 14th pick of the first round out of Henry County High School in McDonough.
Francoeur has played in all or parts of nine major league seasons with five clubs and recently signed a minor league contract with the Cleveland Indians. Heyward, a National League All-Star with the Braves during his rookie season in 2010, is about to begin his fifth big-league campaign.
The 2009 draft saw outfielder Brandon Jacobs picked in the 10th round out of Parkview HS by the Boston Red Sox and he finished the 2013 season in the Chicago White Sox organization at Double-A Birmingham in the Southern League.
Larry Greene is a 2010 Perfect Game All-American and a 2011 graduate of Berrien High School in Nashville, Ga., a town of about 5,000 residents located in Berrien County in southern Georgia. The Philadelphia Phillies made the outfielder the 39th pick of the first round in the 2011 MLB amateur draft and Baseball Prospectus ranks him the No. 7 prospect in the Phillies’ organization.
In that same draft, the Texas Rangers used the 37th pick of the first round on outfielder Zach Cone out of the University of Georgia. Cone was previously drafted by the Los Angeles Angels in the third round of 2008 draft out of Parkview HS, but he opted to head to Athens and improved his draft standing by two rounds.
The flood gates had opened. Buxton and Bolt were taken in the 2012 draft – the Washington Nationals selected Bolt in the 25th round but he decided to take his talents to Chapel Hill – and scouts trained their eyes on Georgia high school outfields with added scrutiny.
“If I had to point to one thing,” Bouras said, “I’d say it’s just the overall (level of play) in Georgia (has improved); the area has completely grown from a baseball perspective in high school and travel ball. It’s a lot more competitive at high school and in travel ball than it has ever been and all the positions have jumped (in talent levels), from the outfield to the pitching.”
The 2013 MLB draft featured four Georgia school-boy outfielders drafted right out their respective high schools, including three in the first round or supplementary first round: Clint Frazier from Loganville (Ga.) High School by the Cleveland Indians with the fifth overall pick; Austin Meadows from Grayson (Ga.) High School by the Pittsburgh Pirates, ninth overall; and Josh Hart out of Parkview by the Baltimore Orioles with the 37th overall selection.
Outfielder Terry McClure, a 2013 graduate of Riverwood High School in Atlanta was taken in the eighth round by the Colorado Rockies. Frazier, Meadows and McClure were frequently the starting outfielders for Bouras' Team Elite top 17u team in the summer of 2012.
Frazier, Meadows and Hart will always be connected at the hip. All three were at the 2012 Perfect Game National Showcase in Minneapolis, all three were on the East Team at the 2012 Perfect Game All-American Classic and all three were first-round picks in the 2013 MLB amateur draft (Hart was a first-round compensation pick).
They all showed their excellent speed and strong arms at the PG National. Frazier, who graduated as the No. 1-ranked overall prospect in the national class of 2013, ran a 6.42-second 60-yard dash and threw 98 mph from the outfield; Meadows, a big kid at 6-foot-3, 200-pounds, ran a 6.31 60 and threw 87 from the outfield; and Hart ran a 6.49 and threw 88.
Those clockings and velocities came as no surprise to Bouras.
“There are speed and agility groups all over (Georgia) now, and high school coaches and travel ball coaches have teamed up with these groups for training to help their players,” he said. “A player is either getting training with weights and speed and agility in the high school program or travel ball programs. The increase in velocity could be attributed to high school and travel ball programs instituting year-round throwing programs, too.”
Frazier spent the 2013 season with the Indians’ affiliate in the Arizona Rookie League and is recognized by Baseball Prospectus as the No. 2 top overall prospect in Cleveland’s organization. Meadows, the No. 4 overall prospect in the Pirates’ farm system (piratesprospects.com) split his time between the Pirates’ affiliate in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and with Jamestown in the low-A New York-Penn League in 2013.
Hart, the No. 10 prospect in the Orioles’ system (Baseball Prospectus), made it up to Aberdeen in the low-A New York-Penn League last season and McClure, a top-15 prospect with the Rockies, spent 2013 with Grand Junction in the Rookie-Level Pioneer League.
The stream of elite outfield talent flowing from Georgia high school fields into the early rounds of the MLB amateur draft isn’t about to be dammed anytime soon. Look no farther than Gainesville (Ga.) High School – the No. 1 ranked team in Perfect Game’s 2014 Preseason National High School Rankings – to find the next Georgia high school outfield prospect to join Francoeur, Heyward, Cone, Greene, Buxton, Frazier, Meadows and Hart on the list of recent first-rounders.
Michael Gettys is a 6-foot-2, 205-pound outfielder and right-handed pitcher from Gainesville (pop. est. 35,000) who is ranked the No. 2 national prospect in the 2014 class and who could be drafted as either an outfielder or a pitcher. A 2013 PG All-American, Gettys emerged as one of the country’s top guys after a phenomenal showing at the PG National Showcase last June. The U. of Georgia signee is ranked the No. 7 overall prospect in June’s amateur draft.
Kel Johnson is another 2013 PG All-American that could be an early round pick. A home-schooled 2014 from Palmeto, Ga. (pop. 4,500), Johnson – a Georgia Tech signee – can play either outfield or first base, and is the No. 107-ranked prospect in the draft.
The 2015 Georgia outfield draft class is deeper yet. Dazmon Cameron from Heyward’s hometown of McDonough, is ranked No. 1 not only in his class but also No. 1 among all prospects – college, junior college and high school – that will be draft-eligible in 2015.
Jahmai Jones, a converted shortstop, is a junior at Wesleyan High School in Roswell (pop. 95,000) ranked No. 5 in his high school class and No. 7 in his draft class; Bryant Harris, a junior at Luella High School in Hampton, Ga. (pop. 7,200) is 39th in his high school class and 75th in his draft class.
There is no end in sight, and for good reason. The Georgia outfield pipeline is no where close to running dry.
“Players train the around and they can play games the year around,” Bouras said of the uptick in skill level. “More travel ball programs are offering year-around training and once players saw other players from previous years getting drafted, it boosted their confidence. (They wanted) to start working harder (when) they saw that is was possible to play professional baseball if they worked hard enough.”