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Showcase  | Story  | 6/14/2019

Veen gets down in the desert

Jeff Dahn     
Photo: Zac Veen (Perfect Game)

PHOENIX – The kid from Port Orange, Fla., a city just south of Daytona Beach on Florida’s Atlantic Coast, was here in Arizona for the first time in his life this week, and he was impressed to say the least.

No, it wasn’t the triple-digit temperatures or the architecture of downtown Phoenix (save one building) or even the different food choices that most impressed Zac Veen. It was the fact that he was at Chase Field with close to 300 other top prospects from the class of 2020, competing with all his might after being invited to the Perfect Game National Showcase.

“I think this is very humbling,” Veen told PG early Friday afternoon while standing just outside the first  base dugout at Chase. “It’s a great experience to be playing with the best of the best and playing in a major league stadium could be a once-in-a-lifetime thing. So, I’m just going to take it all in and have some fun.”

That’s a pretty typical approach these teenagers take coming into the PG National, and it was obvious Veen was sincere when he spoke those words. He is a top prospect in his class, ranked No. 70 overall and the No. 18 outfielder nationally, and it’s easy to get the feeling he’s just getting started.

Veen has made tremendous strides while he’s climbed the prospect rankings over the past nine months or so. When he took home the Most Valuable Player award from the 2018 PG WWBA Underclass World Championship in Fort Myers, Fla., last October, he was ranked No. 478 nationally. Moving up 402 spots in a matter of months borders on jaw-dropping.

“I’ve been working hard in the weight room and just really trying to improve my strength and my speed,” Veen said. “I’m just trying to get the best swing I can (get) and going out there every day and competing, just trying to have some fun.

“The only things I’ve done is try to get faster, and just bigger and stronger,” he repeated. “I’m trying to be one of the bigger guys out on the field.”

During this past offseason, Veen worked closely with a couple of professional players who have been doing their winter workouts at Spruce Creek High School in Port Orange, where Veen will be a senior in the fall.

One is Austin Hays, a graduate of Spruce Creek himself and an outfielder who the Orioles selected in the eighth-round of the 2016 MLB June Amateur Draft out of Jacksonville University; he played four games with the Orioles in 2017 but is now back in the minors.

The other is Patrick Mazeika, a catcher/first baseman the Mets selected in the eighth-round of the 2015 draft out of Stetson University in Deland, Fla.; he is with Double-A Binghamton in the Eastern League this season. The two combined to play in 17 PG events between 2009 and 2012

“They both really took me under their wing this offseason,” Veen said. “They helped me gain some weight, and just really helped me with the mental side of the game and the defensive side of the game, and they’ve help make me who I am.”

Spring Creek’s baseball team, coached by Johnny Goodrich, is coming off a 21-3 season after losing in the Florida Class 9A Regional quarterfinals in May. The Daytona Beach News-Journal named Veen its Player of the Year after the junior hit .414 with 29 hits – 11 for extra bases – in 100 plate appearances; he walked 26 times, scored 36 runs and stole 32 bases.

After the last out was made in that regional quarterfinal, the News-Journal reported that Veen immediately went into the cage and started hitting, even though his high school season was over.

“I’ve only known one other kid that’s put in the effort that (Veen) has, and he’s in the big leagues,” Goodrich told the News-Journal, referring to Hays.

Veen, a left-handed hitter (he throws righty) is listed at 6-foot-4, 185-pounds in the PG National program, and the Florida commit considers hitting to be the best part of his game.

A scout blogger at the PG National agreed, writing: “(Veen) has a loose swing at the plate and a pull side approach. He used his clean shift into contact combined with strong hands that project extremely well for big-time power and juice.”

PG Vice President of Player Personnel David Rawnsley has become a fan of Veen’s and really likes the way the young athlete projects:

Zac Veen has one of those profile bodies: 6-4, 185-pounds, left-handed hitter with a really smooth swing,” Rawnsley said Friday. “Please understand that I’m not comparing him to these guys, but if you look at some of the best players in baseball right now, guys like Bellinger and Yelich, they had that same build at that same age.

“It’s a body and a left-handed swing that you could really dream on,” he added. “Obviously, Zac is going to have to grow a lot and get stronger, but those base elements of the left-handed hitter with the loose swing and the power potential are all there right now.”

The Brewers’ Christian Yelich and the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger – front-runners in this year’s National League MVP competition – were at the PG National Showcase in 2009 and 2012, respectively.

Veen was a member of the PG Green team at the National and its 25-man roster included 15 prospects from the state of Florida, including Veen (there were also four from Georgia, three from Alabama, three from California and one from Mississippi).

The top guys are all bunched around Veen in the 2020 rankings, and they include Florida outfielder Anthony Shaver (No. 69, Florida State), Alabama right-hander Logan Austin (No. 76, Auburn) and California shortstop Daylen Reyes (No. 82, UCLA).

“I know a bunch of them because I either played with in the past or I’m playing with them right now on my travel team,” Veen said. “Some of these kids, we go way back to 9u.”

He has been rostered at eight PG WWBA or PG BCS tournaments since 2016 and has earned all-tournament recognition at 10 of them, including his MVP performance at the 2018 WWBA Underclass World.

Two of those A-T performances came when playing the Nation Elite program in 2017 and the other two came when playing with the Scorpions Baseball program in 2018. The fit with the Scorps has been a good one.

“It’s been amazing,” Veen said. “It’s awesome to play with some of the best kids in the country, and that’s one of the most prestigious teams out there. That team always competes and is always one of the top teams in the tournament, and it really helped me get to where I am today and with my (college) commitment.”

When it came to making his college choice, Veen said he’s always wanted to play for an in-state school and he considers the Gators’ program to be the best. He has watched closely as head coach Kevin O’Sullivan brought in guys as freshmen who don’t look like first-rounders at the tine but three years later, there they are,  hearing their name called in the first round.

Veen also carries a 3.9 GPA at Spruce Creek, so academics is another priority in his life. Florida fits in nicely there, too.

“I’ve always had good grades and Florida, I know, is a really good academic school,” he said. “I thought it was a good fit because it’s really good both academically and in baseball, so whether or not I get drafted out of there, I will get out of there with a good degree and a good education.”

There will right around 52 of the prospects that were here this week who will also be invited to the nationally televised PG All-American Classic in San Diego in August, a fact that Veen is fully aware of. And now that he’s seen the Arizona desert he really wouldn’t mind checking out the Southern California beaches.

“It’s definitely something that I want to be a part of,” he said. “It’s something that I’ve watched on TV  as a kid for years now, and it’s actually what I’ve been working for this whole offseason, trying to get into that event. It would be a lot of fun to go out there to California and play in the Padres’ stadium.

“The more you play around the best the hungrier you are to get better, and the more you strive to be the best one out here.”