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Monday, January 06, 2014

Puerto Rican pool much deeper

Jeff Dahn        

FORT MYERS, Fla. – More than 30 class of 2014 and 2015 prospects from Puerto Rico gathered here for the latest rendition of the long-running Perfect Game World Showcase this past weekend, and showed the professional scouting community how far they’ve come in the last four or five years.

While there were no first round draft picks among the Puerto Rican contingent here last weekend, there appeared to be a lot of top 10-round players, demonstrating how much depth the island territory’s talent pool has added just since 2011 when future No. 1 overall pick Carlos Correa mad his World Showcase debut.

The Puerto Rican class of 2014 boasts five players ranked in the top 250 nationally with four in the top 200. It’s about as solid of a class Edwin Rodriguez, the club director and manager for Team Mizuno of Puerto Rico, has brought to the World Showcase.

“A lot of people try to compare it to the year that Carlos Correa came out, but that was a special year,” Rodriguez said Saturday from Terry Park. “This is a pretty good group and I think there are a lot of tools and they’re pretty interesting. I think they project a lot and it’s going to be pretty interesting to see what comes out of this group.”

David Rawnsley, Perfect Game’s vice president of player personnel and scouting, has had the opportunity to set his eyes on this group for two years, keeping track of them at the first two Perfect Game Caribbean Showcases held the last two Novembers in Puerto Rico.

“The distinguishing factor about the Puerto Rican class here this year is they don’t have that Carlos Correa or Jose Berrios or Edwin Diaz that is not your potential first-rounder, comp-round or really even second-round pick, but it’s a very deep class and it’s a very toolsy class,” Rawnsley said.

The top-ranked national prospects from the 2014 class that were here over the weekend included outfielder Marco Rivera (No. 164), shortstop Alexis Pantojas (No. 183), shortstop Luis Alvarado (No. 193, shortstop Jose Antonio Rodriguez (No. 194) and catcher Roy Morales Rivera (No. 250).

Those players and several others excelled during Saturday morning’s workout session, mostly when it came to showing off their strong arms, reaction times and speed in the 60-yard dash.

Alvarado, a 6-foot-5, 185-pound senior at Puerto Rico Baseball Academy High School, recorded throws of 94 mph both across the infield (tied for the top effort at the event) and from the outfield (tied for second best);  Pantojas threw 91 across the infield (third best); shortstop Kevin Rivera was at 89 across the infield (fourth best); Marco Rivera threw 95 from the outfield (top effort); and Arnoldo Berrios was clocked at 92 from the outfield (fourth best).

The Puerto Ricans also shined in the 60-yard dash with seven of the players running it in 6.82 seconds or faster. The fastest among the group was outfielder Joseph Estrada at 6.64 (sixth best at the event), followed by Marco Rivera at 6.66 (seventh best) and shortstop Jose Antonio Rodriguez at 6.62 (ninth best).

Morales Rivera recorded the top Pop time at 1.82 seconds and also threw 81 mph from behind home plate (tied for second best). Catcher Gabriel Ojeda had the best Pop time at 1.87.

“We always tend to have a couple of shortstops that are pretty decent, and obviously the catchers,” Rodriguez said. “We tend to standout a little bit with our catchers, and this year especially with Roy Morales. He’s looking a lot more mature and lot stronger hitting-wise, and he (had) a very, very good BP.”

Rawnsley considers Pantojas the top draft prospect in the class – and Edwin Rodriguez seemed to concur – with the potential to go as high as the third round. Rawnsley commented that he really enjoyed the World Showcase game between Steel and Teal on Saturday afternoon that saw Pantojas, Nick Gordon and Milton Ramos all take the field at the Terry Park Stadium.

“Obviously, what sets him apart is his defense; he has a very good glove,” Rodriguez said of Pantojas. “He can run … and that helps a lot with his range. He’s a left-hander hitter and is a guy who can be a leadoff hitter because he can steal, and he’s got a very, very strong arm. Those tools are going to help him probably get signed and stay at short which is the scouts look at and (try to determine) if the player can stay in that position or not.”

Rodriguez also feels that Pantojas – along with his Teal teammates Antonio Rodriguez, Marco Rivera, Ojeda and Morales Rivera – benefit greatly by playing in a game against top prospects like Gordon and Ramos.

“They can go out there and you can see them and say, ‘Hey, you can hold up with those guys,’” he said. “It’s not that they’re better than them but you can say that they will be able to play at the same level of them because they are holding their own.

“And it obviously helps when you keep doing these type of showcases a lot.You keep doing it because you get accustomed to them – you might be nervous and you might not do well at one showcase, but then you have another one where you can showcase yourself better at.”

It’s difficult to pinpoint one absolute reason why the depth in the talent pool has grown so much in the past four or five years. Both Rawnsley and Rodriguez agree that just getting the prospects front and center to people on the mainland who are position to make important decisions is the key.

“I think it’s just more exposure for the kids,” Rawnsley said. “I think Puerto Rico went through a kind of a ‘Death Valley’ of talent as the development process there just stalled, for whatever reason. Between the late 1980s and early 1990s when you had some Pudge Rodriguez-type future Hall of Famers and Juan Gonzales-type MVPs coming out, and then for a while there was a stall in baseball development there.

“Now, with the money Major League Baseball has put in there, with the development of academies and with the involvement of Perfect Game you’re just seeing more and more players excited to play.”

Added Rodriguez: “What I try to do with the players is get them exposure; you’ve got to get them out there. Obviously, you’ve got the (Perfect Game) National (Showcase) and Jupiter (PG WWBA World Championship) – these other events that have a lot more scouts than what you have here, but you still have over 100 scouts here, maybe, that are seeing these players. And it all depends on who sees you and when they see you.”

The addition of the now two-year-old Caribbean Showcase has proven to be a boon for the young Puerto Rican prospects. More than 250 players attended in the event’s first two years which leads to even more opportunities.

“One of the (issues) the (Puerto Rican) players had was when they were trying to get into the (PG) National or trying to get into an event like the Perfect Game All-American Game, you need to be seen before that – you can’t request and invite, you have to be invited,” Rodriguez noted. “The Caribbean (Showcase) is helping a lot with that, especially the young guys.”

More and more Puerto Rico players are starting to consider the college route, as well. At least nine of the Puerto Rican prospects here have committed to or signed with colleges, including six to Alabama State University. That can be attributed to, of course, the fine recruiting efforts of ASU head coach Mervyl Melendez, himself a Puerto Rican native.

“How long is it before there are more Alabama States, who have that connection, who recognize that deepening pool of talent in Puerto Rico that they can tap into?” Rawnsley asked rhetorically. “And it has a dual effect because now the Puerto Rican kids will be saying at younger age, ‘Hey, I need to study my English and I need to get my grades together because there are more college opportunities, too.”

Rodriguez also brought about five underclass players to take part in the PG National Underclass Showcase-Session 3 that is running concurrently with the PG World Showcase and also has quite a few 2015s participating in the World.

Among them are a couple of hard-throwing right-handers: Alex Omar Diaz, the younger brother of righty Edwin Diaz, a third-round pick of the Seattle Mariners in 2012, and Michael Rivera, whose fastball has reached 90 mph.

Neither Rodriguez or Rawnsley foresee another “Death Valley” in the near future, when the Puerto Rican talent pool dries up for an extended period of time. Interest in baseball among the youngest players seems to be at an all-time high on the island.

“I think it’s going to get bigger and bigger,” Rawnsley said. “We’ve had (more than 250) kids at the Caribbean and they come back and they have teammates, they have younger brothers, they have cousins. More and more kids will want to continue to be involved.”

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