GLENDALE, Ariz. – One of the best 16-and-under teams in the country arrived at the Camelback Ranch Cactus League spring training facility late Friday morning carrying a roster studded with top prospects and expectations exceeded only by the star-power in its lineup.
With six roster spots occupied by elite 2016 prospects ranked in the top 82 nationally, California Baseball Academy (CBA) Marucci 2016 wasn’t about to arrive at the 3rd annual 16u Perfect Game MLK Championship with any anonymity. But as talented as this CBA team is, the players aren’t any different from those on any of the other 27 teams in the 16u field when it comes to their reason for being here this weekend.
“This is a great opportunity to see some of the other great players in the nation, from all around the States,” CBA Marucci 2016 standout outfielder Blake Rutherford said Friday morning. “It’s nice to get to play with my team again because I haven’t played with them for awhile, so I’m real excited.”
This is no ordinary team that Rutherford is a part of and the one coached by Daylon Monette. Rutherford, from Simi Valley, Calif., is the nation’s No. 5-ranked prospect in the 2016 high school class and has committed to UCLA so he is, perhaps, the most elite of the elite.
He is joined on the CBA roster by right-hander Reggie Lawson (2016, Adelento, Calif.), ranked No. 14; outfielder Josh Stephen (2016, Chino Hills, Calif.), a Southern Cal commit ranked No. 22; catcher Blake Sabol (2016, Aliso Niguel, Calif.), ranked No. 37; shortstop Shane Martinez (2016, Riverside, Calif.), an Arizona recruit ranked No. 53; and outfielder Griffen Herrera (2016, Glendora, Calif.), ranked No. 82.
CBA Marucci 2016 opened the tournament with a 14-2, four inning win over the Illinois Indians early Friday afternoon, a game in which the 2016s went 12-for-21 with five extra-base hits. Stephen doubled and tripled and scored two runs; Sabol tripled and drove in three runs; and Henry Martinez (2015, South Gate, Calif.) doubled and drove in three.
Coach Monette, an outfielder who played at Oklahoma State and then three years in the minor leagues in the St. Louis Cardinals farm system from 2002 to 2004, started out coaching for the late Mike Spiers at ABD and moved over to CBA when that organization was founded last March. Some of the players on this CBA Marucci 2016 roster have been playing together since elementary school on teams with several different names.
“We have kids that are always looking to play a good brand of baseball,” Monette said. “Any opportunity we get with the type of players we have, anytime I know that I can field a team with this level of talent that we have, I like to take the opportunity to get out and play.
“They’re an extremely close group – I’ve never seen such a close-knit group like this – and as soon as there is a tournament they’re all calling each other and messaging each other, and they can’t wait to get out here.”
Rutherford, a sophomore at Chaminade College Preparatory School, is an example of the type of player that is drawn to the CBA organization. He is also appreciative of the platform CBA and Perfect Game have provided him.
“Ever since I’ve been playing with CBA, it’s been a real positive experience,” Rutherford said. “I made the 15u USA (National) Team, I committed to UCLA, and it’s just allowed me to get a lot of different experiences that I never would have gotten. … Playing with CBA has opened a lot of opportunities for me.
“I’ve been real happy with my progress and I’ve definitely come a long way since I joined CBA. When I joined CBA I think I was a good player … and now I’ve been able to progress and become a pretty elite player for my age.”
In 2013 alone, Rutherford – and most of these other top prospects that are his teammates this weekend – played with CBA Marucci at the PG WWBA 16u National Championship in Marietta, Ga., the PG/EvoShield Underclass National Championship in nearby Goodyear, Ariz., and at the PG Super25 17u Fall Classic in Ontario, Calif.
“I look forward to showing what I can do and showing my abilities and showing what I can do against some of the other best players in the nation,” Rutherford said. “I also like coming out here and competing with my team and hopefully getting the win every time.”
Monette said he’s had the opportunity to coach a couple of guys who made it to the big leagues, with Giancarlo (formerly Mike) Stanton and Tyler Skaggs among them.
“I would put Blake right up there with some very special and talented young men,” Monette said. “He’s very gifted and still works extremely hard, and that’s what I like about him.”
If its opener was any indication, CBA Marucci 2016 looks poised to do quite a bit of winning over the weekend and into Monday when the playoffs start at the 16u PG MLK Championship (along with the 14u and 16u PG MLK Championships, which are running concurrently). Monette’s job is to keep his talented players focused on their task at hand, which he said isn’t all that difficult.
The one thing he will not do is discuss each of the prospects’ individual rankings.
“I know it’s there and they all kind of know what they’re ranked and they push each other, but they’re very happy for each other at the same time,” Monette said. “I don’t necessarily always agree with the rankings because there are some (unranked) kids that I feel like three years from now they’re going to be the guy. … I’m very honest with those kids about where they stand and that’s just a piece of paper, you’ve got to go and produce.”
Monette said he himself was a late bloomer, a player that as a sophomore in high school no one gave much of a chance of playing at the NCAA Division I level and then professionally for three seasons. He said his 15th-ranked right-hander, Reggie Lawson, is another kid who just recently came into his own.
“Reggie kind of came out nowhere, and I’ve know Reggie since he was 11,” Monette said. “He’s a great kid and a lot of (the success) happened really fast for him. For a kid like that, we try to play a little extra attention to him to say, ‘Now you’re in the spotlight a little bit, watch what you tweet, watch what you say, watch your body language, your actions – all those different things.’
“All of these guys are very humble and they stay that way,” he continued. “It’s an organization-wide thing where we really try to level off what they’re reading on the Internet and where we want them to be.”
CBA Marucci 2016 has two more pool-play games Saturday and Sunday and would play three more games on Monday if it advances to the 16u PG MLK Championship title game. For the next three days some of the most talented players in the 18u, 16u and 14u age divisions from across the country will continue to trade notes and judge themselves against one another.
Most importantly, perhaps, they’ll enjoy playing baseball in some of the nicest weather conditions – 75 degrees, a cloudless sky – that can be found in the Northern Hemisphere in the month of January.
“Once you’re out here and seeing everyone, every (player) out here has the same goal and everyone wants to be a Major League Baseball player,” Rutherford said. “You see all the other talent and it’s just fun competing with all these other guys.”