Juco | Story | 1/26/2012

Perez takes early JUCO route

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game
Experiencing the college game – even at the junior college level – wasn’t something standout third base prospect Fernando Perez felt like putting off. There was nothing more to gain by staying in high school after he had already earned enough credits for a diploma.

Perez, a left-handed hitter ranked this year’s No. 112 top draft prospect and No. 1 among draft-eligible junior college players, is enrolled in classes for the spring semester at Central Arizona College and is about to begin his first – and quite possibly his last – season of college baseball.

Perez earned enough credits to graduate in December from Otay Ranch High School in Chula Vista, Calif., and immediately made his way to CAC after meeting head coach Jon Wente. Perez was acquainted with current CAC shortstop Jorge Flores – an Arizona State signee – from their early high school days in Mexico, and a new bond was formed.

“We just caught wind that he was looking to find a new avenue for baseball and that the junior college route was what he wanted to do,” Wente said in a recent telephone conversation with Perfect Game. “We were fortunate that Fernando was playing in a lot of tournaments in Arizona at the same time he was thinking about moving on to junior college.

“Having the chance to meet Fernando and learn more about him, and him having a comfort level with Jorge being here, we were fortunate enough to have Fernando actually show up here on campus.”

Perez, also speaking with PG over the phone, said after he began receiving letters from NCAA Division I schools requesting his transcripts, he approached his guidance counselor who informed him he had already compiled enough credits to graduate early, if that’s what he wanted to do.

After discussing it with his parents, he decided the juco route was the way to go and wound up enrolling at Central Arizona.

“I just decided to play better competition than high school against older guys,” Perez said. “I think it will make me a better baseball player.”

By enrolling at Central Arizona College a semester early, Perez has entered a world of national junior college excellence, certainly in terms of the school’s baseball program anyway. The Vaqueros debuted at No. 3 in the Perfect Game JUCO Top 50 rankings released Wednesday, trailing only Howard (Texas) and Chipola (Florida).

Central Arizona College, based in the small town of Coolidge in the Arizona desert between Phoenix and Tucson, has emerged as a juco powerhouse. The Vaqueros won National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) national championships in 1976 and 2002, the latter when Wente was the program’s pitching coach and recruiting coordinator.

“It’s really the perfect location,” Wente said of the school’s appeal. “It’s in the middle of nowhere but it’s close enough to Phoenix and Tucson, and it makes it a very good destination for baseball players. You can really focus on the classroom, on the baseball field (and) on the weight room, but yet when you feel like the big city, they’re not very far away.”

Wente, who is beginning his seventh season as head coach in 2012, has led CAC to two NJCAA World Series (2008 and 2011), two NJCAA Western District championships (2008, 2011) and five straight NJCAA Region 1 titles (2007-11).

Twenty-seven players Wente coached at CAC are played professionally in 2011, including major-leaguers Rich Harden (Oakland A’s), Scott Hairston (New York Mets), Ian Kinsler (Texas Rangers), Matt Pagnozzi (Pittsburgh Pirates) and Josh Spence (San Diego Padres).

Perez is part of a 2012 CAC recruiting class that also includes New York City top prospects Fernelys Sanchez and Nelson Rodriguez, although neither may make it to campus in the fall. Sanchez is ranked No. 133 among the 2012 top draft prospects and Rodriguez – a Perfect Game All-American in 2011 – is ranked No. 373.

“Coach (Anthony) Gilich, our recruiting coordinator, did an unbelievable job with that class for next year, but it’s also one of those things where they also have to make it here on campus,” Wente said. “It’s nice to have and it looks great and we hope it works out, and we hope a lot of those guys actually show up on campus because it will be quite special to be able to coach those unbelievable players.”

Perez has risen to the top of that group, at least in the eyes of scouts and analysts dissecting the 2012 draft class. The 18-year-old is already a fairly polished player with a level of maturity that would seem to make him very adaptable to the junior college game and beyond.

“For Fernando, it really starts with the type of kid he is. He’s a tremendous young man,” Wente said. “He’s very polite, he’s very responsible, he knows what hard work it takes to be a quality baseball player – and he certainly has a tremendous talent. He’s just a well-rounded young man.”

Perez participated in nine Perfect Game events the last two years, including five in 2011. He was a productive member of the San Diego Show squad that won PG national championships at the 2011 PG WWBA 2011 Grads or 18u National Championship in Marietta, Ga., in July and at the Perfect Game/EvoShield National Championship (Upperclass) in Scottsdale, Ariz., in late September.

He also played for the Show at the 2011 PG WWBA 2012 Grads or 17u National Championship in Marietta in July and for the Ohio Warhawks at the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., in late October.

Perez played well for the Show in all three national championship tournaments but was especially productive at the WWBA 17u National Championship. In seven games that week, he hit .522 (12-for-23) with five doubles, one triple, one home run, 10 RBI and six runs scored.

Perez also performed well at the PG National Showcase and at the Area Code Games last summer. The PG scouting report from the National Showcase called Perez a “polished hitter with good balance and actions (who) can turn on the ball but stays back and lines the ball to left field.” It also noted that Perez is a “polished player best appreciated over many games.”

Speaking of his PG experiences, he said: “They helped me a lot because there were a lot of good players I was playing against in front of a lot of the scouts.”

Wente knows this spring may be the only season he has Perez on campus. It’s a fact of life in junior college baseball, something Wente has learned to accept.

“At junior college you learn to take it one season at a time just because of the turnover (that comes) with junior college baseball,” he said. “We’re just taking it this season and trying to do the best we can as a team and try to help our players continue to grow and become the best that we can.”

Perez will enter the 2012 campaign with high expectations for himself and his teammates. He’s aware of the Vaqueros rich history which includes that trip to the NJCAA World Series just last season when the Vaqueros finished 56-15.

“For now I just want to concentrate and have a good season and help my team to win,” he said. “I really want to play in the (NJCAA) World Series – they played there last year – so I’m looking to have a good year and help the team as much as I can. Those are my goals for now: have a good year, get better every day and play in that World Series.

“After that, there’s the draft, and hopefully I can get drafted and we’ll see what happens.”

That’s the reason why, after all, he’s in college a semester early.

“I just want to play the best I can in front of the scouts because every baseball player wants to play in the bigs – that’s my dream,” Perez said. “I want to be as close as I can to that opportunity if someday it comes.”
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