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Economics take toll on talent pool in MLB

The scout is concerned.

He has watched the game for decades at the amateur level, and he has seen the changes: the equipment costs, private lessons, four-figure fees to participate in showcases and travel leagues. He sees baseball becoming an “upper-middle class game” like golf.

Too often, the American League scout says, his colleagues are too focused on showcase events and spend too little time in search of talent. He recalled the legend of when a Braves scout first saw Hank Aaron: He noticed Aaron incorrectly gripped a bat, placing his left hand over his right on the bat. The scout showed Aaron the proper grip. Today, the scout said, such a player would be laughed out of a workout. The scout said part of baseball’s power outage is because the country’s strongest and best athletes are no longer playing baseball.

The dialogue was part of a lengthy answer to a simple question: Where are the athletes?

“I will tell you a club that is still willing to go raw and still is willing to bank on their development. It’s the Pittsburgh Pirates,” the scout said. “They are one of the lone throwbacks saying, ‘Give us athletes, and we’ll take our chances.’ They do a lot of it.”

In an age of amateur sports specialization, which is being blamed for pricing athletes out of baseball, the Pirates remain in search of athletic players whose skills might require refinement.

New approach

Like any club, the Pirates always are searching for competitive advantages.

From 2008-11, they targeted projectable high school pitchers. In recent drafts, with spending caps in place and the ongoing epidemic of young pitchers having Tommy John surgery, they have used their premium picks on position players. The Pirates have tried to identify players capable of sticking at premium defensive positions.

The Pirates’ search for athletes capable of manning premium defensive positions often starts with prospects who have a dual-sport history.

Consider that the Pirates’ first-round pick Monday, Arizona shortstop Kevin Newman, was a two-sport athlete at Poway High (Calif.), lettering in basketball and baseball. The Pirates’ second-round pick, shortstop Kevin Kramer out of UCLA, was a decorated quarterback at Turlock High (Calif.).

“We like two-sport athletes, and we absolutely covet three-sport athletes,” General Manager Neal Huntington said. “We think they are a much better athlete. We believe in our developmental system. We feel there is a little bit more ceiling.”

Jacoby Jones, a third-round pick in 2013, played outfield and second base at LSU. But the former prep football player has played shortstop in the Pirates’ system.

“The mobility, agility stuff, quick short-yardage stuff,” Jones said of football actions that help him at shortstop.

The Pirates believe Austin Meadows, a 2013 first-rounder who played high school football in Georgia, can stick in center field.

“I played running back, and it helped my footwork,” Meadows said. “All summers in the weight room, all the hard work, it really helped my mentality to just grind.”

What do usually dual-sport athletes possess? Light feet.

“Does he have hard hands or soft hands?” Pirates director of minor league operations Larry Broadway said. “It has to do with his feet. It always does.”

Huntington noted the supply of prospects with a dual-sport history is dwindling.

“We think it’s unbelievably valuable when guys still play two sports because it’s becoming such a rarity,” Huntington said. “I think we are ruining our amateur sports with specialization at (ages) 8 and 10 and 12.”

Specialization that perhaps threatens the careers of the next Andrew McCutchen, Josh Harrison or Jordy Mercer.

Endangered ballplayers

In November 2012, McCutchen shared on social media a picture of himself standing outside his childhood residence, a weathered mobile-home unit, in Fort Meade, Fla. McCutchen — also a high school track star and football standout — might never have carved out a path in baseball had it not been for a local Amateur Athletic Union coach who helped pay for McCutchen’s baseball travel and equipment expenses.

Wrote McCutchen in a February article for The Players’ Tribune: “When you’re a kid from a low-income family who has talent, how do you get recognized? … It’s not about the $100 bat. It’s about the $100-a-night motel room and the $30 gas money and the $300 tournament fee.”

Harrison’s career at the University of Cincinnati almost ended before his freshman season.

“There was one point where my account was on hold because we didn’t have enough funds,” Harrison said. “I had to take out a small loan. My parents couldn’t throw out an extra $2,000.”

Harrison, who was acquired by the Pirates from the Chicago Cubs in a 2009 trade, was named a freshman All-American that spring.

“A guy that was crude when he first started out was Josh Harrison,” the scout said. “We fail with a lot of guys like this, but when we succeed … we have a guy that can win a game in a helluva different ways.”

The athlete drain is tied to economics and geography.

The Mercer family farm encompasses thousands of acres in Taloga, Okla. (population: 299). The farm contained 200 heads of cattle and hundreds of acres of wheat. Taloga High is the kind of place that cannot afford specialization.

“We had 12 guys total. All but two of them played basketball,” Jordy Mercer said. “Everyone knew you had to come out and play baseball and play basketball. Otherwise we weren’t going to have a team.”

They don’t play baseball anymore in Taloga.

The high school field Mercer once played on is overgrown. Baseball resources are scarce. Mercer’s parents drove him an hour round-trip for hitting lessons at the nearest batting cages.

“Sometimes, I look back and wonder, what if I didn’t play in AAU games?” said Mercer, who was a third-round draft pick by the Pirates in 2008. “There’s got to be some kids left out because (scouts) don’t know where they are.”

Huntington said players from rural areas are being left behind. He and St. Louis Cardinals GM John Mozeliak challenge scouts to get off the well-traveled path, but Mozeliak said there is “resource issue.”

“We do allow for that larger net to be cast,” Mozeliak said, “but you are trying to optimize your resources the best you can, and typically that is hitting the power bases of amateur baseball in Florida, Texas and California.”

Commissioner Rob Manfred expressed concern about baseball’s loss of athletes Monday prior to the first round of the draft, considered one of the weakest in recent memory. According to a Wall Street Journal story last year, youth baseball participation fell 7.2 percent from 2008 to ’12.

From the commissioner’s office to the scouts in the field, there is an understanding that one of the great threats to the game’s future is playing out on youth fields today.

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.


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