High School : : General
Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Following in Javy's footsteps

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

2013 Perfect Game High School Baseball Preview Index

Arlington Country Day School in Jacksonville, Fla., has long welcomed ambitious students from Puerto Rico into its diverse student body, and many of those students who have entered the prestigious private school over the past several years have also been exceptional ballplayers.

Shortstop Javier Baez was the first native Puerto Rican to make an impact on the ACDS baseball program. A 2010 Perfect Game (Aflac) All-American and a 2011 ACDS graduate, Baez was selected by the Chicago Cubs with the No. 9 overall pick in the 2011 MLB First-Year Player Draft.

His heir apparent arrived at ACDS three years ago. Senior Brian Navarreto, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound, Puerto Rico-born top catching prospect, last week began his third season with head coach Ron Dickerson and the Arlington Country Day School Apaches.

Navarreto was a 2012 Perfect Game All-American and an alumnus of the 2012 Perfect Game National Showcase. He is one of as many of five native Puerto Ricans on Coach Dickerson’s 2013 roster, including top 2013 prospects like outfielder/infielder Iramis Olivencia and outfielder Bernardo Bonifacio.

They all hope to follow in the footsteps of Baez or Puerto Rico-born shortstop Francisco Lindor, a 2010 PG (Aflac) All-American and 2011 graduate of Montverde (Fla.) High School who was taken one spot ahead of Baez (No. 8) by the Cleveland Indians in the 2011 MLB amateur draft.

The tale of Puerto Ricans coming to the States – particularly Florida – isn’t new, but the arrival of so many top guys at ACDS is a relatively recent happenstance.

“It was by word of mouth, basically,” said Dickerson, who is beginning his seventh season as ACDS’s head coach. “We have a reputation of giving kids the opportunity to develop their games and their education, and learning the (English) language and moving toward (professional) baseball.

“In Puerto Rico, there’s really not that much high school baseball over there so they have a chance to play on a high school team over here in the States, and they have a chance to get an English-based education.”

By choosing ACDS, Navarreto entered a program that won back-to-back Florida High School Athletic Association state championships in 2000 and 2001, and added another in 2006. Arlington Country Day has long been celebrated for its nationally recognized boys’ basketball program, but the baseball program is definitely making inroads. The Apaches are among the top teams playing in the PG Florida Region this season.

“It’s been a good learning experience,” Navarreto told PG in a recent telephone interview. “It was a big change but I like meeting new people and (experiencing) new scenery. I’m working hard in a different place and I’m learning how to play the game faster. My game has gotten a lot better since I got here; I love to compete and I’m in a good place right here to compete with the best.”

Navarreto is certainly playing in one of the country’s high school baseball hotbeds. Florida schools occupy four of the top 12 spots in the Perfect Game National High School Preseason Rankings: No. 1 American Heritage, No. 3 Tampa Jesuit, No. 6 Venice and No. 12 Spruce Creek.

Progression at an accelerated level has been Naverreto’s calling card in the three years he’s been in the States. He hit .512 with 12 home runs, 16 doubles, five triples and 38 RBI for ACDS as a junior; he was 1-for-2 with a triple for the East Team at the PG All-American Classic; and he was 4-for-10 with two RBI in four games while helping East Cobb Baseball to the championship at the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., in late October.

But as well as he hits, Navarreto’s real strengths might be his play defensively and his speed (he’s a 6.89-second 60-yard dash runner). A PG scout who watched him perform at the PG National Showcase noted that Navarreto is “very athletic and quick behind the plate (with a) fast arm, plus arm strength, accurate arm … (and) top-level defensive tools.” Dickerson sees other less tangible attributes.

 “He brings a lot of energy; he’s such a high-energy kid,” Dickerson said. “He’s a great kid, a good character kid, a good moral kid (with) a good work ethic. He’s a kid you look forward to being around and he makes it easy for everyone to come to practice every day. He’s got a competitive nature and a competitive attitude.”

Navarreto had the opportunity to play one season with Baez at ACDS, and Baez has remained close to the program. He tries to find time to stop by whenever he can, even earlier this month before he learned he will report to Cubs’ spring training camp as a non-roster invitee on the big club’s side of the HoHoKam Cactus League complex in Mesa, Ariz. He will start the season in the minor leagues, however.

“He’s here to get a feel for what big league camp is all about, see how these guys go about their business,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer told the Chicago Tribune last week.

“Javy is a constant presence in our program,” Dickerson told PG. “He works out with the guys when he’s home, so he’s always here. He hits with them and they take ground balls together and (Navarreto) has a chance to talk to him; Javy is always a very open book when it comes to baseball.

“He brought such a high level of play and a level of expectations of his teammates that was just unreal for a kid that age,” Dickerson continued. “He felt we had to win and the way to win was to practice hard, and he showed the other kids what to expect at practice. He was a quiet, introverted kid, but he led by his actions.”

Navarreto is more than willing to listen and learn.

“Javy set a high standard for all of us here,” he said. “We all try to do as good as him and we try to beat out one another. He’s a good role model and good leader.”

Navarreto was first seen by PG scouts – and hundreds of other professional scouts – at last June’s PG National at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. From there, he participated in the East Coast Professional Showcase in Syracuse, N.Y., and then was off to San Diego for the Perfect Game All-American Classic presented by Rawlings. That event is recognized as the nation’s premier high school all-star game scouting attraction, and Navarreto soaked it all in.

“There were a lot of people there and I got to meet a lot of new kids, and it was a great experience to go out there,” he said. “It was great for me to be selected to be one of those players to go play in that game.”

His final stop in 2012 was the PG WWBA World Championship, where he got his first taste of playing championship-caliber ball with powerhouse East Cobb Baseball.

“That was a good experience, too,” Navarreto said. “It’s different up there than it is down here in Florida, but the baseball is good everywhere.”

Navarreto and his Arlington Country Day teammates have already started a 2013 season that they feel holds the potential for good things to happen. Navarreto isn’t the only highly ranked or regarded prospect on the roster.

Bonifacio is a PG National alum that is ranked 160th nationally and has signed with Bethune Cookman; Olivencia, ranked 279th, has signed with Oklahoma State. It’s possible Olivencia could be joined in Stillwater, Okla., by third baseman Blake Hennessey, the country’s No. 233-ranked prospect in the 2013 class who is a veteran of 27 Perfect Game events, including the 2012 PG National. He played for three years with Marucci Elite and has also signed with Oklahoma State.

Austin “A.J,” Kubala is a top-1,000 prospect who has signed with Kennesaw State.

“I think we have a good core group of guys who have been together for awhile now,” Dickerson said. “We’ve got (nine) seniors this year and we’ve got a lot of experience and guys with a strong work ethic.”

“I’m very excited for it,” Navarreto said of the season. “We had a good year last year and we’re hoping to follow it up with another good one this year. I’ve always played baseball, but when I came here it was a lot more competitive. I had to set my goals a little bit higher after I came here to the States.”

Navarreto has not made a college commitment and is instead looking forward to the high school season and the upcoming draft. He is ranked the No. 18 overall prospect the 2013 class (No. 5 catching prospect) and is ranked No. 73 among all draft-eligible prospects.

Four high school catchers are higher-ranked draft prospects: Reese McGuire (No. 13), Jonathan Denney (No. 23), Nick Cuiffo (No. 45) and Chris Okey (No. 66). If those rankings hold true, all five prep catchers, including Navarreto, would be selected in the first two rounds of the draft.

As for coming to the United State to earn his high school diploma, Navarreto has absolutely no regrets – he’s received a top-notch education and has certainly elevated his draft status. It’s a road traveled that worked well for him, and he would offer other young Puerto Ricans only this general advice:

 “I would just let them know to keep working hard and never give up,” he said. “No matter how far away your dream feels some days you can always work hard and make it come a little bit closer.”

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