FORT MYERS, Fla. – It seems difficult to contemplate, but it was just five years ago this week that a young infielder from Hialeah, Fla., wearing the No. 32 jersey for the All-American Prospects Red, walked out onto the playing fields at Terry Park to begin play at the 2008 PG WWBA Underclass World Championship.
Manny Machado was a junior at Miami Brito Private School in October 2008. Today he has traded that All-American Prospects Red jersey for the one he wears for the Baltimore Orioles, where this season he became a 21-year-old American League All-Star. His rise to the highest level of the game was meteoric, to say the least, while maybe not totally unprecedented.
And so the question begs to be asked: Is there another 16-year-old prospect that at some point this week will walk out onto the playing fields at Terry Park and who in October of 2018 will be looking back on an All-Star season in the major leagues? The obvious answer to that question is yet another question: Who knows?
The 12th annual PG WWBA Underclass World Championship begins with 26 games Thursday afternoon and evening, and continues over the next four days at 16 venues in Fort Myers, Cape Coral and Port Charlotte, including the spring training Grapefruit League homes of the Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins and Tampa Bay Rays. Two hundred and eight teams from all across the eastern half of the United States (and as far west as Texas), Puerto Rico and Canada will contend for the Perfect Game national championship over the event’s five-day run.
There is certainly no lack of worthy contenders. Rosters of the top underclass teams in the country are teeming with dozens of high school juniors and sophomores that have already made college commitments to NCAA Division I powerhouse programs; nearly 4,200 alumni of the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship have gone on to play college baseball at some level.
With so many elite teams and travel ball programs in attendance it is impossible to indentify a clear-cut favorite to wrest the championship from 2012 winner Florida Burn Orange, but there are about two dozen teams that seem to separate themselves from the pack.
Many of the usual suspects are right there at the top with a few newcomers poking their heads in. Elite Baseball Training-Chicago ’15 comes in with 12 D-I commits on its roster, including 2016 shortstop Nick Derr, a Florida State recruit ranked 25th nationally in his class.
Powerhouses FTB Chandler Mizuno (Kissimmee, Fla.) and the Orlando Scorpions ’15 Prime (Altamonte Springs, Fla.) both have 11 prospects that have made D-I commitments. The EvoShield Canes (Fredericksburg, Va.), Marucci Elite (Baton Rouge, La.), Dirtbags (Sedalia, N.C.) and South Florida Elite Squad-Louisville Slugger (Miami) are also loaded.
The St. Louis Gamers are bringing the same roster that just won the PG WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship and earned a berth to the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., later this month.
The Indiana Prospects (Indianapolis), DBAT-Bonesio (Dallas), East Cobb Baseball (Marietta, Ga.), Midland Redskins (Cincinnati), Tri-State Arsenal Underclass 1 (Flemington, N.J.) and Team Mizuno of Puerto Rico (Caguas, P.R.) also look intriguing, to name just a few.
It’s important to remember that most of the elite underclass teams from the western half of the country vied for their Perfect Game national championship at the Perfect Game/EvoShield National Championship in Goodyear, Ariz., in mid-September.
Ten of the top 30-ranked national prospects from the class of 2015 and 15 of the top 30 from the class of 2016 appear on rosters for the event. 2015 No. 1-ranked Daz Cameron is with East Cobb Baseball and 2016 No. 1-ranked Austin Bergner is with the Florida Burn ’16.
Marucci Elite hit the jackpot in terms of grabbing highly ranked personnel: 2015 No. 2 Jahmai Jones, No. 6 Nick Shumpert and No. 14 Wyatt Cross are all on Marucci’s roster. Shortstop Shumpert has committed to Kentucky and catcher Cross has committed to North Carolina.
Some of the other top 2015s include: No. 10 Brendan Rodgers (Orlando Scorpions ’15 Prime), a Florida State commit; No. 13 John Aiello (Tri-State Arsenal Underclass 1), Wake Forest; No. 24 Thomas Szapucki (Panthers Baseball Club), Florida; No. 28 Ryan Cole McKay (Team Citius Blue), Louisiana State; No. 29 Daniel Reyes (S.F. Elite Squad-Louisville Slugger), Florida and No. 30 Bryant Harris (EvoShield Canes).
The top 2016s joining Bergner include: No. 2 Seth Beer (Georgia Roadrunners); No. 5 Anthony Molina (S.F. Elite Squad-LS), Miami; No. 6 Bo Bichette (FTB Chandler Mizuno); No. 7 Will Benson (East Cobb Astros) and No. 8 Joe Skinner (Orlando Scorpions ’16 Purple), Central Florida. No. 18 Rylan Thomas is a teammate of Bergner’s on Florida Burn ’16.
Is the next Manny Machado in the house, the next guy that will be playing in the big leagues only five years after playing in the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship? Only time will tell, of course.
Incredibly, Machado wasn’t the only prospect that played in the 2008 event that has made his big-league debut. Nick Castellanos was suited up for the All-American Prospects Blue in ’08 and made his major league debut with the Detroit Tigers on Sept. 1. All told, 54 PG WWBA Underclass World alumni have played in the major leagues and 860 have been drafted.