Summer Collegiate : : Story
Thursday, July 28, 2011

Freshmen aplenty in NECBL ASG

Allan Simpson        
LYNN, Mass.—The New England Collegiate League played its annual all-star game here Wednesday at historic Fraser Field. Two nights later, and less than 10 miles away, the Cape Cod League will stage its all-star contest at venerable Fenway Park in Boston.

Despite the close proximity of the two games, both played in long-standing structures, and the relatively-close geographic proximity of the two New England-based summer college leagues, there are contrasting differences in style and perception between the leagues.

The Cape Cod League is the grand-daddy of all summer leagues, having been created in 1885. With its ability to attract the top college talent in the nation over the last 25 years, it stands head and shoulders above any summer league in terms of prestige.

With the same 10 franchises over the last quarter century, none located more than roughly an hour’s drive from each other, the Cape is also the standard for continuity and travel comfort in summer-league competition.

The NECBL is a relative newcomer on the block, having been formed in 1994. It has always played in the forboding shadow of its mighty neighbor and has been challenged from the start to keep pace in all phases, both on and off the field.

Despite benchmark franchises like the Newport Gulls and Keene Swamp Bats, the league has seen a constant shuffling of its 12 teams, which are spread among all six New England states with travel up to six hours for franchises on the league’s outer periphery.

And while about 2,000 fans took in Wednesday’s all-star game at Fraser Field, a recently-refurbished structure that was originally constructed in 1940, about 10 times that many are expected to see the Cape League’s all-star contest Friday at Fenway.

But if the fledgling NECBL has any kind of an image issue, it may be only in its comparison to the Cape Cod League. By almost any other standard, the league measures up favorably with any summer league in the country.

All I know is that we’re in the top two among summer leagues in the way we are funded by Major League Baseball,” says league commissioner Mario Tiani, a general manager in the league for 10 years at Danbury before taking over the helm of the league five years ago.

Other leagues like the Northwoods and Coastal Plain are also on the short list of established summer leagues, but they have different, for-profit business models and as a result receive no compensation from Major League Baseball. That means that the NECBL and Cape Cod League, the two New England neighbors, are at the top of the MLB pecking order.

Regional bragging rights might normally be at stake with such a ranking, but Tiani downplays any sense of competition between the two leagues.

I don’t personally look at the closeness of the leagues as an issue,” he said. “It’s strictly a geographical thing. We are our own program. We do our own thing. We have a good relationship with the Cape, especially as it pertains to players and contracts. Together, we give New England quite a baseball focus during the summer that I’m not sure exists elsewhere.

If we’re in competition at all, it’s probably in the off-season, in the recruiting season, when we are often going after the same player.”

Despite the pursuit of similar players, the most noticeable difference between the two leagues almost always comes down to talent. The NECBL’s talent base, while impressive, generally falls short of the high-profile base normally found on the Cape.

Some two dozen scouts attended Wednesday’s NECBL all-star game, but that number will likely be upwards of 100, including scouting directors from roughly half the major-league teams, for Friday’s Cape League classic.

The Cape has a documented history of producing a steady diet of first-round picks for the following year’s baseball draft, while the NECBL rarely has a player that becomes a first-rounder the year after he plays in that league. And it is unlikely to produce a first-rounder, or even an early-round pick for the 2012 draft, based on the talent on display at its showpiece event Wednesday.

But that’s not to say that the game was short on talent. To the contrary. Future pro-level talent was readily evident on both sides of the East vs. West confrontation, won 3-1 by the East in a pitcher’s duel.

Typical of the NECBL and its evolution as a player development source for professional baseball, most of the better players in the game were college freshmen who won’t be eligible for the draft until 2013.

In fact, there may not be another summer league in the country that year-in and year-out has as much quality in its freshman crop as the NECBL. In all, 26 freshmen were selected to play in its all-star game, more than any other demographic.

The NECBL has become a steppingstone league,” said one New England-based scout who took in Wednesday’s game and has followed the league closely over the years. “You see a lot of guys here that you’ll typically see in the Cape a year from now.

There are a lot of players here and in the Cape that you know will play at a high level down the road. The players in the Cape are just a little further along at this stage of their development. You’ll see a lot more big arms on Friday at the Cape all-star game than you will here, especially in the pitchers that work the sixth, seventh and eighth innings. That’s where you see the depth. The better arms on the Cape are just a little stronger, a little more physical than what you normally see here. The position players are a little more polished.”

By contrast, the Cape Cod all-star game will feature just 10 freshmen. It will be dominated by sophomores primed for next year’s draft.

Tiani refutes the notion that the NECBL is primarily a steppingstone league. He insists that his league makes no differentiation in the class of player that it typically recruits.

“We recruit the best players that we can, regardless if they are freshmen or juniors,” Tiani says. “We’re not a feeding ground for the Cape, that’s for sure.”

Nonetheless, the best pro-level talent on the field Wednesday was generally in the freshman class.

Though no freshman stood out as a probable future first-round draft pick, seven of the 10 starters for the West squad were freshmen. Only three starters on the East squad were freshmen.

Not surprisingly, experience prevailed as the East team utilized its older players to grab an early 3-1 lead and made it stand up after non-starters liberally entered the game for both teams in the fifth and sixth innings.

It was a freshman for the East team, though, that secured game MVP honors. Newport shortstop Jack Reinheimer (East Carolina), who was hitting just .256 with no homers on the season for the Gulls and was installed as the No. 9 hitter in the game by Newport coach Mike Coutts, who managed the East team, drilled a key, one-out double to the fence in the third inning to highlight his team’s two-run outburst that led to an early 2-0 lead. He later came around to score.

Reinheimer also handled three ground balls flawlessly in the field and was the middle man in turning a double play.

Among other freshmen whose talent stood out Wednesday for the Eastern Division were North Shore outfielder Eric Jagielo (Notre Dame) and Newport first baseman Tim Kiene (Maryland), two lefthanded power threats who hit in the 3-4 holes in the order. Both have enjoyed solid seasons to date, with Jagielo hitting .338-2-23 and Kiene .327-6-20.

Holyoke first baseman Trey Mancini (Notre Dame), hitting .313-7-33 on the season, was the biggest power threat of all the freshmen in the starting lineup for the West, but the best power source of all was probably Danbury outfielder Tyler Horan (Virginia Tech), who came on as a reserve but showed the best bat speed of anyone while walking and striking out in his two plate appearances. Horan (.337-10-28) leads the NECBL in home runs.

The best freshman arm in the game belonged to 6-foot-6 Keene righthander Jeff Thompson (Louisville), who started the game for the West and didn’t allow a base runner in his only inning of work. He was one of six pitchers whose velocity peaked at 91 mph. On the season, Thompson has fanned 49 (second in the league) in 35 innings.

Another freshman, Laconia righthander Chris Costantino (Walters State, Tenn., JC), also reached 91 mph while retiring all three hitters he faced in the fourth, two on strikeouts. But Costantino is not technically a freshman like others in the game as he was drafted this year out of a junior college. He was a 43rd
-round pick of the St. Louis Cardinals.

Costantino, who threw a no-hitter earlier this month and then fanned 14 in his last start before the all-star game, was one of nine different Eastern pitchers who threw an inning apiece. They combined to strike out 11 Western Division hitters

While freshmen were everywhere Wednesday, this year’s crop may have a tough time measuring up to the NECBL’s vaunted 2010 class that included Newport righthander Mark Appel and shortstop Kenny Diekroeger, both Stanford products, and Keene outfielder Jeremy Baltz (St. John’s), judged the league’s three best prospects a year ago.

Of the NECBL’s 10 best prospects a year ago, as compiled by Perfect Game, nine were rising sophomores and all moved on this summer to play in the Cape Cod League, though Diekroeger subsequently elected not to play this summer.

Coutts, who had the two best prospects in the NECBL a year ago in Appel and Diekroeger, both projected first-rounders in 2012, has his Gulls in first place this season and coached the East to its win Wednesday. He stopped short of comparing this year’s freshman crop in the league.

That was a pretty special crop we had a year ago,” he said. “We’ve still got some good freshmen in the league this year, including some players like Conrad Gregor (Vanderbilt) that weren’t picked to play here. But I’m not sure I see that kind of young talent overall in the league this year.”

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