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MLB Draft: Is baseball talent pool drying up in Utah?

Published June 4, 2014 8:25 am

Another likely down year spurs questions about quality of Utah's prep players
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

From Smithfield to St. George, there are 118 high school baseball programs in Utah.

This year, not one is expected to produce a player who will be drafted by a major league team as soon as he is eligible.

So what gives?

Why would a state that sent Pine View's Marcus Littlewood directly into professional baseball as a second-round pick as recently as 2010 be shut out in this draft?

"The caliber of athlete playing high school baseball in Utah right now is not up to par with the rest of the country," said one long-time major league scout, who asked to exchange anonymity for candor.

"If you go to games, it's obvious the caliber of athlete playing baseball is significantly lower than those playing other sports. ... Foot speed. Arm strength. All the traits you look for just aren't there right now."

If Utah baseball is down, there are a couple of likely reasons.

No. 1, top high school athletes are being asked with increasing frequency to specialize in one sport. While the situation has probably helped improve the quality of football and basketball programs in the state, baseball has suffered.

"In general," the scout said, "schools having success in baseball are a little more liberal about letting kids play one or two other sports."

Bingham coach Joe Sato knows there is competition among a school's athletic programs for the best players.

"We have some great football programs in the state," he said. "There is a lot of attention devoted to that."

For some athletes, the full-ride scholarships available to football and basketball players trump the partial rewards of playing college baseball.

"Some kids think in that direction," Sato said.

Another factor hurting baseball? The coaching players receive before high school can be inadequate. It starts as early as the age of 8, when Utah's best young players are tutored in all-star travel leagues.

"Anybody who wants to coach a travel league team can coach," the scout said. "There's no certification required. … The mechanics of some of these young kids are terrible and the baseball I.Q. is not very high."

Another veteran scout, Bob Burch, agrees.

"When these kids are 11, 12 [or] 13 years old, the coaching is not always very good," he said. "Things are taught incorrectly. Then, in high school and college, they have to be re-trained — how to throw a curve ball, hold the bat or swing the bat."

The most highly-regarded local prospect in this draft, which starts Thursday, is University of Utah pitcher Mitch Watrous. He is ranked as the 167th best prospect by Baseball America. No other Utah player is ranked in the top 500. Watrous was primarily a shortstop at Riverton High. He walked on at Utah and it took years diligence to became a pitching prospect.

He was far from a draftable product coming out of high school.

"Mitch is a guy who has worked tirelessly," said Ute coach Bill Kinneberg. "Every day he came in with a goal in mind and has gotten better and better. His arm strength increased and, every time out, he's between 90 and 94 [mph]. That's what brought him up."

Of course, not everyone agrees with the notion that the caliber of high school baseball in Utah has slipped.

"It's as good as ever," insists legendary coach Jim "Shoe" Nelson, who recently retired after 29 years at Spanish Fork.

Asked about the lack of buzz surrounding in-state players prior to the draft, Nelson said, "Our goal as high school coaches is not to develop pro players. Our goal is to make players as good as they can be. …

"I know scouts look for guys on the mound who can throw 90-plus [mph] and — the last couple of years — we haven't had that. But what we have had are a lot of good high school players."

According to Nelson, scouts might have a different opinion of baseball in Utah if they didn't depend so heavily on established profiles used to determine whether players are worth drafting.

"My deal is — and I've said this before — pro guys sometimes look for too many tools and not enough for guys who can just play," Nelson explained. "With pitchers, obviously, they look for velocity. But what about getting guys out? What about being effective? What about heart?"

At the same time, Nelson understands a scout's dilemma.

"If a team drafts a tools-guy and he doesn't pan out, their job isn't on the line," he said. "But if a team drafts a guy who doesn't fit the profile or doesn't have a certain set of tools and they don't work out, then their job's on the line."

Sato believes the lack of major league prospects in Utah high schools this year is "a cyclical thing" that is partly the result of Mother Nature.

"There is a lot of talent in Utah," he said. "But I don't think kids look as polished because they can't play year-around like kids in Texas and California and Florida. …

"I can call a school in California and say, 'Hey, I've got a kid you might be interested it.' But the coach there can usually say, 'I can go just down the street and find four or five guys like that.' " MLB Draft

O At Secaucus, N.J.

Thursday, 4 p.m. MDT; Friday and Saturday, 10:30 a.m. MDT

TV • MLB Network —

Utah's prospects

The top Utah-based prospects heading into the first-year player draft:

Mitch Watrous • RHP, 6-foot, 205 pounds

U. of U. (Riverton High)

Kolton Mahoney • RHP, 6-0, 195

BYU (Northridge)

Nick Green •

LHP, 6-3, 195

U. of U. (Cottonwood)

Bubba Blau •

RHP, 6-2, 185

Dixie State (Roy)