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For Tampa Bay area baseball draft prospects, offseason showcases have trumped the high school season in recruiting significance

Though a hearty chunk of his adolescence has been spent in the crosshairs of a radar gun, what Patrick Schuster encountered last summer in Cary, N.C., stunned even him.

Upon taking the mound for an invitation-only prep baseball showcase, the "Tournament of Stars" at the USA Baseball National Training Complex, Schuster peered behind the plate to see "hundreds upon thousands" of college and pro scouts gazing back at him.

"There were at least 500," said Schuster, a Mitchell High graduate who gained national fame in April by pitching four consecutive no-hitters. "I didn't know there were that many scouts in the business."

Mychal Givens can relate. Before his sophomore year at Plant High, while working out with the under-16 USA National Team in Jupiter, Givens and the other players were observed by scouts seated in "50 to 100 golf carts," his mother recalls.

"We had never experienced that before," Monica Givens said. "It was like a swarm."

Contrast those settings with a typical bay area prep baseball game. Then, try convincing someone such as Schuster that his prep baseball season has more bearing on his college or pro stock than how he performed during the summer.

"If it wasn't for all the extra-curricular baseball I've been doing besides high school, I wouldn't have signed with Florida," said Schuster, who may be picked as early as tonight in Major League Baseball's first-year player draft and could bypass Gainesville if the signing money is right.

"If you look at it, I (committed to) Florida over the summer because I was being looked at over the summer. And I wouldn't say that (high school baseball) is not important; it's just irrelevant."

Such is the evolution — or regression — of baseball at the grass roots level. Only a decade or so ago, the high school season was followed by a summer of American Legion ball. Elite all-star events were minimal.

"Thirteen years ago when I was in high school, all we had was Team One (an all-star event), and you were lucky to go to that," said 1996 Jesuit High graduate Ronnie Merrill, who spent nearly a decade in pro baseball before being hired last fall as a Florida scout for the San Francisco Giants. "There was American Legion and Team One."

Others concur. "I've talked to some of these high school prospects whose dads who played in the majors or in Triple-A," said Perfect Game USA information director Jim Ecker, whose group puts on more than 100 elite-level "showcases" nationwide each year.

"You ask the dad, 'What was it like when you came along in the '70s and '80s?' And he says, 'There was nothing. You had to wait for the scout to come around and show up to your game.' "

Now there is a litany of national and regional events put on by organizations such as Team One, Perfect Game USA and the Area Code Games. And there's IBC baseball and Junior National competition.

Many insist this high school offseason circuit, which hardly comes without expense, has trumped the prep season in terms of recruiting significance.

Attend a showcase or high-level tourney, and you're essentially guaranteed of being seen by dozens — maybe hundreds — of scouts and coaches. And why wouldn't they arrive in droves? Makes their job easier.

"I'll say this, with the high school seasons being shortened now, this year especially, this is really a good chance for us to see a lot of good players in a small area," Merrill said.

"It's very convenient for us as scouts to get to. And for the most part, they're usually wood bats and possibly better competition than they would be exposed to during the (high school) year."

So logistically, it makes complete sense. Financially, it might not.

Is the price right?

Schuster's mother, Sharon, estimates she and husband Roger doled out $4,000 last summer following their son from the Perfect Game National Showcase in Minneapolis to the Tournament of Stars in North Carolina to another all-star event near Atlanta.

Ecker said prospective Perfect Game USA participants needn't wait by the phone to get invited to one of the 100 or so annual showcases held by the group, which has roughly 50 full-time employees. Players can be recommended for a showcase or inquire online about an invitation. But he acknowledges that "basically the family pays the bill." Costs include lodging, travel and entry fees that can reach triple digits.

"My family alone, we were probably led to believe by people in the industry that if we didn't get him to these events, he wouldn't be where he is," Sharon Schuster said. "I don't believe that now, though."

Nor do a lot of prep coaches. Among them: Land O'Lakes' Calvin Baisley, who has watched three sons compete at various pro levels, including one who reached the majors.

"There's a fine line," Baisley said. "If you wanted to, you could play in one of these things every weekend for a ton of money. I still believe if you're good enough, they're going to find you."

While acknowledging showcases and elite tournaments help minimize his travel budget, Pasco-Hernando Community College coach Steve Winterling suggests too much summer ball can be detrimental.

"That's the positive side for kids, the exposure," Winterling said. "The negative is, kids get worn out. They go into their high school season, they haven't had any rest."

So are we approaching a point where legitimate prospects will get their rest during the high school season?

Hardly. As Ecker says, to maintain the integrity of its national showcases, Perfect Game USA must validate the prospect is a good player.

That validation comes in prep competition.

"I like to think that it goes hand in hand because I still hope the college (scouts) trust the coaches' opinions and stuff like that," said John Crumbley, who won 575 games and three state titles at Jesuit and recently was hired to start the program at Steinbrenner High.

"I like to think we're still part of the machine that runs the engine, but … there's more and more of them."

Times staff writer Eduardo A. Encina contributed to this report.

MLB draft

When: Today (rounds 1-3), Wednesday (4-30) and Thursday (31-50)

TV: 6 p.m. today, MLB Network

Rays feeling confident

Despite its later selection, Tampa Bay sees potential in the draft. 4C

For Tampa Bay area baseball draft prospects, offseason showcases have trumped the high school season in recruiting significance 06/08/09 [Last modified: Monday, June 8, 2009 9:27pm]
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