Tournaments | Story | 10/20/2015

Quick math: Jupiter + 5 = MLB

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

2015 WWBA World Championship Pool Preview

JUPITER, Fla. – With the first games at the 17th annual Perfect Game WWBA World Championship just days away from being played at the Roger Dean Stadium Complex – the Grapefruit League spring training home of the Cardinals and Marlins – it seemed an appropriate time to turn back the clock.

In late October 2010, exactly five years ago this week, in fact, I was given the opportunity to attend my first PG WWBA World Championship. What I witnessed over those days was an exhibition of elite athleticism and skill sets mixed with an equal part of raw emotion that at the time left me at once overdosed on adrenaline and completely overwhelmed by the sheer scale of it all.

At its conclusion, I penned a short essay describing the entire overall experience that included the following brief observation:

“The games are, of course, entertaining and competitive because the players are entertaining and competitive. More than a few of them represent the next generation of major-leaguers.”

While writing that line, I had no idea the prescience I possessed. In the last three years, 17 prospects that were at Roger Dean during those late October days  in 2010 have already made their debuts in Major League Baseball only five short years after performing in Jupiter; 14 of those 17 debuted this summer.

Class of 2011 high school grad Jose Fernandez was already with the Marlins' big club in 2013 and fellow class of 2011 prospects Javier Baez and Daniel Norris debuted with the Cubs and Blue Jays, respectively, in 2014. Eleven of the 17 were selected in the 2011 MLB First-Year Player Draft, three went in the 2012 MLB Draft and three others signed when selected in 2014 after three years of college; 10 were either first-round or first-round compensation picks.

Perhaps most remarkably, quite a few of these alumni from the 2010 PG WWBA World not only achieved their goals of reaching the major leagues but have already become impact players for their respective teams.

Corey Seager (Dodgers), Lance McCullers (Astros) and Baez (Cubs) helped their big-league clubs make deep playoff runs this month – Baez is playing on as this is written – just five years after performing for the Dirtbags, Midland Redskins/Royals Scout Team and FTB Mizuno/Cardinals Scout Team, respectively. (Seager returned to Jupiter with the Dirtbags in 2011; the Astros’ rookie standout Carlos Correa was also in Jupiter in 2011, playing for Puerto Rico Baseball Academy High School.)

IT WAS WITH GREAT INTEREST I STUDIED THE LIST OF 17, and it was impossible not to notice that four of them played for Jered Goodwin and the FTB Mizuno/Cardinals Scout Team: The Indians’ Francisco Lindor – who is certain to take some votes away from Correa in this year’s American League Rookie of the Year balloting – and the Red Sox’s Henry Owens joined Fernandez and Baez on that electric roster. Five years after the fact, Goodwin stills comes across as being somewhat in awe of that particular FTB roster.

“It’s crazy when you think about it, but those are the type of guys that not only want to go and play in Jupiter, they’re the type of guys that do go and play in Jupiter,” he told me during an enjoyable telephone conversation late last week. “There are going to be guys who go to college and have really good college careers and then there are guys who are going to play one more year as an amateur and then get up (to the big leagues) really fast.”

That FTB/Cardinals roster was not only filled with talent but it was filled with fantastic storylines, as well; a feature I pursued was one on the team’s power-hitting first baseman Daniel Vogelbach from North Fort Myers, Fla.

He’s a kid with a personality as big and loud as the bat he swings, who became a second-round pick of the Cubs in the 2011 draft – Baez was their first-rounder – and has worked his way through the Cubs’ farm system to Class Double-A. It’s not all that far-fetched of a notion to believe Vogelbach might also be in the big leagues if a fellow named Anthony Rizzo – an alumnus of the 2005 and 2006 WWBA World while playing with the ABD Bulldogs – didn’t have a lock on the Cubs’ first base job.

Aaron Nola (Marucci Elite), Carlos Rodon (Royals Baseball Club) and Trea Turner (Palm Beach PAL) are the three 2010 alumni that headed off for three-year college careers before becoming first-round draft picks of the Phillies, White Sox and Padres, respectively, in 2014. In retrospect, that three-year college experience certainly proved to be worthwhile when viewed in terms of their development as ballplayers and the thickness of their wallets.

The other players from 2010 that were drafted in 2011 and made their major league debuts this summer include Joey Gallo (Ohio Warhawks, Rangers); Adrian Houser (Dallas Yankees, Brewers); Jorge Lopez (Team Mizuno Puerto Rico, Brewers); Greg Bird (Ohio Warhawks, Yankees); Michael Reed (Texas Sun Devils, Brewers); and Matt Wisler (Marucci Elite, Braves).

THE DIRTBAGS FROM SEDALIA, N.C., AND CHET LEMON’S JUICE out of Mount Dora, Fla., shared the PG WWBA World Championship title in 2010 after Chet’s – which was involved in a play-in game and played nine games in four days – ran out pitching during the extra-inning championship game; both teams agreed to be named co-champs.

Andy Partin is the affable and successful founder, owner and head coach of the Dirtbags and he has told me more than once that he was more than happy to defer to former big-league great Chet Lemon’s request to stop the game; he still speaks of Lemon in almost reverential terms (“I mean, it's Chet Lemon!”).

Francisco Lindor at the 2010 WWBA World Championship
I decided to give Andy a call late last week to listen again to his recollections of that magical 2010 event and some of the Dirtbags’ players from that year, and he remembers the run to the co-championship in vivid detail. The first recollection he offered to me was the fact that the Dirtbags broke out their now-trademark “camo” pants for the first time during the 2010 PG WWBA World.

The Dirtbags lost their last of four pool-play games to Bo Jackson Midwest but still reached bracket-play, and won three straight playoff games – including a 1-0 victory over Goodwin’s ultra-talented Cardinals Scout Team in the semifinals – before facing Chet’s in the championship.

That semifinal game really stands out in Partin’s mind. Owens was on the mound for FTB Mizuno and Partin decided to call on unheralded right-hander Dylan Dickens from Hurdle Mills, N.C., to make the start. Dickens, a right-handed submariner, had already thrown 7 1/3 scoreless innings for the Dirtbags earlier the tournament but responded with a complete-game shutout, out-dueling the masterful Owens in a 1-0 Dirtbags victory.

The players populating the dugouts at that one semifinal game included one prospect (Fernandez) that would be wearing a major league uniform three years later, one (Baez) that had to wait all of four years and three others (Seager, Lindor and Owens) that debuted five years later. That, my friends, is called taking the fast-track.

“I’d say that’s really fast … but the rare cases, they seem to figure out a way, don’t they?” Partin told me with a knowing laugh. “Certainly, when you play against a kid like Baez or Lindor, you can see that those kids have got something different. Corey Seager, for sure, he had something different; (former Dirtbag and current San Diego Padre) Wil Myers, he had something different. Especially at a young age, those kids are able to do stuff that the other kids can’t do.”

AT LEAST TWO OR THREE TIMES DURING MY CONVERSATION with Goodwin, he called the PG WWBA World “just a real cool event” if a person will only take the time to consider all the great players that have performed there. And he was quick to note that sometimes the best players aren’t necessarily on the best rosters.

“Some guys pop up at Jupiter that no one had really seen before, and they end up on a platform that makes them more accessible to scouts and all of a sudden they’re on their way up the same type of path (as the top prospects),” he told me, “and that’s really the cool thing about Jupiter.”

And then there’s a prospect like Fernandez, who everyone knew was special coming in. The Emperor of Japan probably had an opinion about the 6-foot-3, 215-pound 18-year-old from Tampa with the 97 mph fastball and absolutely devastating 83 mph slider who was named the 2010 PG WWBA World Championship Most Valuable Pitcher.

There is no need to remind Goodwin of the details involving Fernandez’s two appearances that weekend; it’s probably not necessary to refresh the minds of the hundreds of scouts that watched him pitch during those outings. Goodwin, the head coach at Hegarty High School in Oviedo, Fla., during the spring, was accompanied by his long-time Hegarty HS pitching coach and former minor league pitcher Derek Griffith, and they enjoyed the view from two of the best seats in the house.

Fernandez told Goodwin and Griffith that he would be willing to throw 45 to 50 pitches in the opener against the Reds Midwest Scout Team on Thursday and then would be good for another 50 to 60 pitches in a Sunday playoff game, if such a schedule could be accommodated. Game on, the coaches told him.

The pool-play game between FTB Mizuno and Reds Midwest ended in a 0-0 tie. Afterwards, Griffin walked over from the bullpen after watching Fernandez pitch for the first time and Goodwin asked him what he thought.

“He said that was the most impressive thing he had ever seen from an 18-year-old kid,” Goodwin recalled during our conversation. “I said, ‘Come on,’ and he said, ‘No. I just called my dad on the walk over here and told him I had just seen a big-leaguer throw.’ That was how it started with Jose.”

When Fernandez was marched back out there for the Sunday night playoff game against the Dallas Patriots, hundreds of scouts parked a hundred golf carts all around Field Blue 7 at the Roger Dean complex and watched him throw five more seemingly effortless shutout innings.

It’s important to note the Patriots’ lineup included high-end hitting prospects Josh Bell and Trevor Story, both of whom Goodwin expects to see in the big leagues as early as next season. In Goodwin’s recollection, Fernandez allowed just two hits in the 8-0 victory: singles to Bell and Story.

“I’ve said it so many times about Jupiter – you never know walking into a game what you’re going to get,” he said. “The guys that you’re playing are so talented, on any given day it could be somebody on your roster or it could be somebody on another roster that makes a name for themselves and all of a sudden they’re on the fast-track.”

SO, WHO’S NEXT? WHO ARE THE PROSPECTS THAT WILL take to the fields at Roger Dean Thursday through Monday who will be making their big-league debuts at some point in the next five years and destined to become the focal point of an article written by a crusty and cynical PG feature writer and published in late October 2020?

As of early this week, 38 prospects that played in August’s Perfect Game All-American Classic in San Diego were on the rosters of 19 teams at the PG WWBA World Championship, including six with the two-time defending champion EvoShield Canes – all ranked in the top-58 nationally – and five with the Mets Scout Team/Scorpions – all ranked in the top-45.

Goodwin will be coaching the Astros Scout Team/FTB Tucci this weekend, a team that includes All-Americans Herbert Iser (No. 35), Ryan Zeferjahn (No. 41), Fancisco Thomas (No. 52) and Max Guzman (No. 59). The roster also features No. 25 Bo Bichette, who brings with him bloodlines handed down by his father, former big-league slugger Dante Bichette, and shared by his brother, Dante Bichette, Jr. Bichette, Jr., was at both the 2009 and 2010 PG WWBA World Championship with FTB Mizuno and is a Yankees’ farmhand who finished up the 2015 season at Double-A Trenton.

Left-hander Jason Groome, the No. 1-ranked prospect in the class of 2016 whose name is bandied about frequently when conversations turn to the No. 1 overall pick in June’s MLB First-Year Player Draft is with the Tri-State Arsenal. No. 5-ranked third baseman/outfielder/right-hander Joshua Lowe is with the Braves Scout Team/Ohio Warhawks.

No. 7 right-hander/middle-infielder Austin Bergner can be found on the Florida Burn’s roster, No. 9 right-hander Reggie Lawson strap it up with CBA Marucci, and No. 10 California right-hander Mike Manning will pitch for the Canes Thursday night. It really comes as no surprise to anyone who has been around this event that prospects are willing to travel coast-to-coast just to pitch in one ballgame if, in fact, that is Manning’s plan.

“It’s not hard for people to get guys to want to come to Jupiter if you’re a baseball player,” FTB’s Goodwin told me. “If you’re a pitcher and you threw for Team USA all fall, my advice maybe would be to shut-down, but I just don’t understand how anybody doesn’t want to experience that event. It’s such a special feeling.”

No fewer than 491 PG WWBA World Championship alumni have played in the major leagues, including the 17 that were here just five years ago; nearly 4,000 have been drafted and close to 10,500 made college commitments. While it seems like prospects may be on more of a fast-track to the big leagues these days, there were at least eight players that were at the 2000 event that had reached the major leagues by 2005.

“I expect that now from Perfect Game, absolutely,” the Dirtbags’ Partin told me. “We get a big kick of sitting around former players, the guys that were down there and playing. I remember one the first years I went down (2001) Prince Fielder was on one field beside me and across from me on another field was Scott Kazmir. I was thinking, ‘What in the world?’”

That short essay that I wrote five years ago contained one other passage that remains relevant just days before the Roger Dean Stadium Complex once again comes alive with thousands of ballplayers and a thousand more professional scouts and college coaches:

“At some point over the last five days, someone compared the event to a big circus coming to town, and in a way I could understand the analogy. But it is too down-to-the-detail to be accurately compared to a circus. It’s more like a well-orchestrated invasion.

Let the invasion begin, and be sure to keep your eye out for those kids who will be playing meaningful innings in the big leagues sometime in the next three to five years. I'll take a look at their progress, sometime in late October 2020.

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