JUPITER, Fla. – Top 2018 outfield prospect Joe Gray Jr. was practically giddy with anticipation late Thursday night as he tried to absorb and effectively describe the scene that was simultaneously surrounding him while allowing him to breathe it all in.
Gray Jr. was sitting in a golf cart behind the third-base dugout on Field 5 in the Marlins quad at the Roger Dean Stadium Complex, getting ready to join his Braves Scout Team/Ohio Warhawks’ teammates in their pool-play opener at the Perfect Game WWBA World Championship.
The small, electric-powered vehicle in which Gray Jr. had positioned himself was crazily appropriate because it was the very presence of all these golf carts – hundreds of them – buzzing around the quad that had grabbed his attention.
It seemed as if there were at least two MLB scouts or college recruiters in each one of those carts and they were all positioning themselves in a prime location to watch one of the four late time-slot games that would be played on the quad’s lighted fields.
“The biggest impression this has made on me is that it feels like a drive-in theater out here with all these golf carts,” the personable Gray Jr. said, smiling widely. “It leaves a good impression because it shows you’re actually being watched.
“To see the MLB scouts and the college coaches that are out here doing their jobs and working hard scouting, and I really admire that because it lets a player know just who he is in the eyes of the scouts and the coaches.”
It is very possible, of course, a lot of those scouts had sat through a brief evening rain shower and rallied around Field 5 just for the opportunity to watch Gray Jr. perform. Or, if not Gray Jr. specifically, maybe top 2017 outfielders Calvin Mitchell and Drew Waters, a couple of 2016 Perfect Game All-Americans who would be filling the two outfield spots Gray Jr. wasn’t occupying.
The Braves Scout Team/Warhawks’ starting outfield of Mitchell, Waters and Gray Jr. was the subject of conversation before a single pitch was thrown at this year’s PG WWBA World, and for good reason. The Nos. 14- and 31-ranked Mitchell (San Diego commit) and Waters (Georgia) already hold the distinction of being named PG All-Americans, while it seems certain pigs will fly before the No. 4-ranked Gray Jr. (uncommitted) isn’t selected to play in the 2017 PG All-American Classic.
Atlanta Braves national crosschecker Tom Batista helped put this Scout Team together, and he had found a spot high up in the Marlins’ quad’s tower to watch the team play its opener against the Mountain West Slammers. And about an hour before the game started, he was more than happy to talk about this starting outfield.
“It all starts with hitting – all three of them can hit,” Batista said. “And also, these are three guys who could probably all play centerfield and they’re all very unselfish.”
He pointed specifically to Gray Jr., who started his high school career as a shortstop and just recently moved to the outfield. The young prospect now enjoys the realization that he can be an asset to any team he’s playing on as both an outfielder and shortstop (and right-handed pitcher).
“He’s playing the outfield here but he’s very happy to step-in at the middle-infield anytime we need him,” Batista said. “He also said, ‘I’m willing to close games if I need to; I want to win.’ A lot of these kids on this team have that same philosophy; they want to do whatever they can contribute to win a tournament like this.”
This GST/Warhawks’ outfield is drawing comparisons to the all-PG All-American outfield the Cardinals Scout Team/FTB Mizuno put out on the field at the 2011 PG WWBA World Championship. Left-fielder Albert Almora, center-fielder David Dahl and right-fielder Jesse Winker were all first-round picks in the 2012 MLB Amateur Draft; Almora and Dahl made their big-league debuts this summer with the Cubs and the Rockies, respectively, while Winker finished the 2016 season at Louisville, the Reds’ Triple-A affiliate.
Taking the comparison further, Almora, Dahl and Winker hit 1-2-3 in the CST/FTB Mizuno lineup; the left-fielder Waters, center-fielder Gray Jr. and right-fielder Mitchell hit 1-2-3 in the BST/Ohio Warhawks’ order. Waters doubled, singled, drove in a run and stole two bases; Mitchell had three singles and stole a base and Gray Jr. singled in the Braves' 4-2 win over the Slammers Thursday night.
“There’s a sense of camaraderie among the outfielders, making sure that our communication is good out there,” Mitchell said. “It’s fun to compete with each other a little bit because we’re all at that same level, seeing who can edge-out each other in certain situations.”
Added Waters: “I feel like if I mess-up – and I hope I don’t – one of them is going to have my back. I don’t really feel like there is a hole out in the outfield just because in every spot there’s speed, and we all take really good routes to the ball, and we all have pretty good arms from the outfield.”
The three outfielders aren’t the only top prospects on the Braves Scout Team rosters, and judging by the number of golf carts that turned out for the team’s exhibition game and early pool-play games, that’s no secret.
Five other top-200 2017s join Mitchell and Waters: Jose Visaez (No. 127, South Florida), Jason Rooks (No. 130, Georgia Tech), Weston Bizzle (No. 149, Vanderbilt), Oscar Serratos (No. 155, Georgia Tech) and Chaney Rogers (No. 185, Georgia). Right-hander Lyon Richardson (No. 45, Florida) and second baseman Jarrett Ford (No. 75, Tennessee) join Gray Jr. as the top 2018s on the roster.
“This is a great group, and I’d say the common denominator is makeup,” Batista said. “We have scouts all over the country who know the players in their area; we trust them and they know their players well. With our guys, in order to be a part of this organization, it has to start with good makeup. So all these guys have those intangibles, in addition to the tools and the ability, and that’s what comprises the heart and soul of our Scout Team.”
When the three outfielders spoke with PG Thursday night they were still very much in the “getting to know you” frame of mind with all of their teammates. Mitchell is from Rancho Bernardo, Calif., and plays his summer ball with the San Diego Show; Waters calls Woodstock, Ga., home and plays for the 6-4-3 DP Cougars; Gray Jr. is from Hattiesburg, Miss., and plays mostly for the Top Prospect Lab (TPL).
Mitchell wasted little time in getting to know his weekend teammates, talking with most of them during an exhibition game Thursday morning. Waters took pretty much the same approach, chatting up his new mates early and often in an effort to break the ice.
Gray Jr. wasn’t at the exhibition – he arrived in the area around 4 a.m. on Thursday and was given permission to sleep-in -- but prefers to take his own approach, anyway: “I have a loud mouth when it comes to baseball – I try to have as much fun as I can – and we’ve been talking and I think we’re going to be able to feed off each other out there. I don’t think even the scouts will be able to tell we haven’t known each other that long.”
Throughout the conversations Batista and the Braves Scout Team/Ohio Warhawks’ outfielders had with PG Thursday night, they spoke candidly about the importance of winning this tournament. From an individual standpoint, of course, the opportunity to perform in front of more than 1,000 scouts and recruiters is priceless and is also something that needs to be taken into account.
“I had been told that (the PG WWBA World) is really heavily scouted but until you get here and you look at it and see everything working together, you really get the whole idea,” Mitchell said.
But winning is important, too, and if you get to be fitted for a PG national championship ring at the end of the day on Monday, well, that’s all for the better. Batista, the Braves’ national crosschecker, said the team is “definitely here to win” but the scouts also want to spend time with the prospects just to see how they deal with failure, like every ballplayer at every level will ultimately have to do. Except these guys don’t expect to fail.
“This looks to me like a strong group and I think we have a good shot of winning (the championship),” Waters said. “Most of the guys are either SEC or ACC (commits) and I have to think our outfield is probably the best in this tournament. The team was put together for us to win it. I know I’m here to win it and I think everyone else is, too.”
“I hate to lose … and my job here is to win,” Gray Jr. added. “Whichever team wins this thing, they’ll be playing good team ball and they’re being disciplined as baseball players, and I’ll go ahead and congratulate whoever wins this thing.”
The GST/Warhawks couldn’t escape Friday without providing some drama playing its second pool-play game of the tournament against Training Premier Baseball Futures-Evans in front of a large collection scouts, a number conservatively estimated at about 300.
TPBF-Evans led 4-1 after an inning and 5-2 after 3½ before the Braves ST rallied for three runs in each of the fourth and fifth innings; they pulled an 8-5 victory and moved to 2-0 in pool-play. They totaled only seven singles in the win, with Waters getting one of them while driving in two runs and scoring one; Mitchell had a pair of singles and scored a run; and Ford singled and drove in two. They also benefitted from seven walks.
“All these guys on this team are pretty good, but honestly if you’re playing here in Jupiter you should consider yourself pretty good,” Gray Jr. said. “With the outfield that we have and this team in general and just being on the field with a bunch of guys that are seasoned players now (is special).
“Playing on the Perfect Game (tournament) circuit all summer realty prepares you, because it’s always a lot of good players, but with Drew and Calvin in the outfield with me, that’s (exciting).”
Now, if he can just find his way out of that darn drive-in theater …