FORT MYERS, Fla. – It’s a roster peppered with prospects and topped with talent. Not everyone listed on that roster is here this weekend, but that didn’t diminish expectations in the slightest as FTB Chandler 2015 set sail Friday on a voyage that team members, coaches and families hope concludes with a paid invitation to Perfect Game’s most prestigious tournament event on its annual schedule.
The 6th annual PG WWBA Florida Qualifier kicked off its four-day run on Friday with 14 games played at current and former big league spring training facilities. While FTB Chandler 2015 is an underclass team playing in a very upper class event, it has enough college-level talent to contend for a championship and the paid invite to the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., that goes with it.
“We have a good group here; this is one of the most talented groups that we have,” long-time FTB coach and instructor Jesus Cortez said Friday from Terry Park, where the team was getting ready for its tournament opener against ProStyle Baseball Academy from North Fort Myers.
“We have a good group, and they just have to jell together and see what we can do with it,” he said. “We have at least six guys that have played together and another five or six guys that are coming in who are pretty easy going, and they’re jelling with the other guys. It’s been a good experience for me working with them.”
The roster is teeming with top talent from the 2015 and 2016 high school classes (juniors and sophomores), many of whom have already made college commitments.
A few are absent, most notably 2015 shortstop Ryan Mountcastle (a University of Central Florida commit from Winter Springs, Fla., ranked No. 33 nationally); 2015 outfielder Braden Rollins (an uncommitted prospect from Lake Mary, Fla., ranked 101st) and 2015 left-hander Juan Hillman (another Central Florida commit from Haines City, Fla., ranked 187th). But with the tournament now under way, it’s more important to consider who is here for the FTB Chandlers.
Even with Mountcastle and Hillman missing, Central Florida (with its main campus in Orlando) still maintains a large presence on Cortez’s roster. UCF recruits 2015 first baseman/right-hander Jason Heinrich from Spring Hill (ranked No. 222 nationally and No. 39 in the state of Florida) and 2015 first baseman/left-hander Jacob Corso from Lake Mary (384-58) are here, as is 2016 left-hander Joe Sheridan, a “high follow” from Oviedo, who has also committed to the Knights.
“I’m excited about every Perfect Game tournament I go to,” Heinrich said Friday. “These are the best tournaments so if you want to be the best you should play the best. I’ve played with a lot of these guys before and I’m good friends with almost every one of them.”
FTB (Florida Travel Ball) is based in Kissimmee and with a roster filled with Orlando-area talent, it only makes sense that prospects looking to stay close to home would take a good long look at head coach Terry Rooney’s program at UCF. Rooney just completed his fifth season at the school and led the Knights to back-to-back NCAA Regional tournament appearances in 2011-12.
One of UCF’s most notable recent products is Dalton “D.J.” Hicks who was a 17th round selection of the Minnesota Twins in the 2012 MLB amateur draft and split this summer between low-A Cedar Rapids (Iowa) in the Midwest League and high-A Fort Myers in the Florida State League. Hicks played in the 2006 and 2007 PG WWBA World Championship with Chet Lemon’s Juice.
“The thing with UCF is (Rooney) is seeing the guys before anybody else,” Cortez said. “He’s seeing the talent before anybody else because he’s local. We practice at Hegarty High School which is local, and with schools like Lake Mary, that district is really hot. He has the first look and when he sees talent he jumps on it.”
Heinrich said the familiarity he enjoys with UCF and its coaches definitely figured into his decision.
“I visited a few other campuses here in Florida and UCF was by far the best,” Heinrich said. “I see (coaches from) UCF at every one of my games so I know they’re really good at recruiting; I see that my friends are on their team so I thought, why not?”
He considers himself friends with his 2015 classmates and fellow UCF commits Mountcastle, Corso and Hillman, but the decisions to commit to UCF were personal and private ones.
“I think it was just coincidence that we all ended up at the same spot,” Heinrich said. “I remember facing Juan (Hillman) when I was about 10 years old when he was pitching against me and I was hitting, and he was really tough to hit.”
Not all of FTB Chandler 2015’s top guys will spend their college days in Orlando, although two of the highest ranked are uncommitted. 2015 right-hander Joseph Arce, No. 141 nationally, will leave his Orlando home town and head to Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton and Tyrone Perry, a first baseman from Avon Park ranked 179th nationally, will head to Florida State in Tallahassee.
FTB Chandler 2015 shortstop Bo Bichette from Tierra Verde, the country’s No. 6-ranked prospect in the class of 2016, is uncommitted, as is the previously mentioned Braden Rollins. Bichette is the son of former Colorado Rockies slugger Dante Bichette and the brother of New York Yankees farmhand Dante Bichette Jr.
This team was put together primarily for this event, although it did compete as a group at the PG Super25 2015 Grads or 17u North Florida Qualifier Sept. 20-22 in Winter Haven, Fla. It won its Florida Qualifier opener Friday night at Terry Park in a 12-3, five-inning cakewalk over ProStyle Baseball Academy.
Michael Zimmerman, a 2015 lefty and a Florida Gators commit out of Naples, pitched three innings of one-hit ball with seven strikeouts. FTB Chandler 2015 pounded out 13 hits – 12 singles – and Heinrich and Robert Lopez each drove in two runs.
Cortez likes the lineup he can send to the plate, especially when the team is at full-strength.
“Mountcastle is a kid who never played a high school varsity game and he was already committed, so that guy is pretty high in everybody’s book,” he said. “Heinrich is a young guy that can hit the ball and Bo Bichette is a great hitter. We have some good bats on this team.”
Most of these guys will be right back here next weekend playing for FTB Chandler Mizuno at the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship. A select few may even end up in Jupiter, Fla., playing for an elite FTB team at the PG WWBA World Championship Oct. 24-28. At the end of the day, the young players’ dreams and ambitions remain the same.
“We’re all working towards the same goal,” Heinrich said. “We all want to be drafted; we all want to be someone’s favorite player.”