High school powers hotbeds for stars
Elite programs continue to produce top draft picks
Certain parts of the country are known as baseball hotspots. It's not difficult to figure out where they are. Wherever baseball is played year-round -- Florida, Texas, California -- is bound to produce a fair amount of draftable talent each year.
Within each of those regions, there are certain high school programs that, almost without fail, perennially produce top-notch talent. These are must-stops early and often for scouts. The programs are well-known and they are well-run.
That's a big reason why these powerhouses continue to be a funnel of top talent to both the pro and college games. They almost feed on themselves, with each new player who gets drafted high serving as motivation for current players to get better or a marketing tool convincing local kids to play baseball. That enables them to set up systems that help players improve each year they're in the school until they get to the point where they become legitimate prospects who can play at another level.
"Good programs just have consistently good players," Kansas City Royals senior director of scouting Deric Ladnier said. "They often have good lower-level programs -- freshman, junior varsity -- where the kids have to learn how to play the right way before they can play for the powerhouses. They teach them how to get better. They're taught the right way to play the game."
Ladnier knows firsthand about high school powers. He attended one -- Tate High School in Florida -- before being drafted in the 16th round by the Blue Jays in 1982 (he went on to college and was drafted again three years later, in the eighth round, by the Royals). He played with Jay Bell, a first-round pick in 1984, and the school also produced 1987 first-round pick Travis Fryman. In Ladnier's senior season, Tate lost to a Boone High School team that featured future big-leaguers Ron Karkovice and Joe Oliver, but every member of Tate's starting nine that season went on to play some pro ball.
In some cases, it's just a matter of being located on very fertile ground for athletes. In others, the school's reputation helps draw top players to the area and to the schools. Parents, with the huge financial burden of college tuition staring at them in a few years, will go the extra mile if they think it might help their son get at least a college scholarship.
"Familes find out where their kids should be playing," Ladnier said. "They realize a player's chances to be seen are better at certain schools. Scouts, pro and college, tend to gravitate to certain schools and programs."
Where are the top programs around the nation? It does tend to be cyclical. Ladnier's Tate, for instance, hasn't produced much pro talent of late. But there are certain schools around the country these days that can be counted on to produce top-flight players.
Arizona: Horizon High School
The Scottsdale-based school hasn't produced the most pro talent -- the overall tally lead seems to belong to Chaparral High School -- but it's definitely a program that scouts single out in the area. A couple of big leaguers have emerged from Horizon, but none bigger than the shortstop-turned-third baseman who made his big-league debut this year.
|1. TB||LHP||David Price||Vanderbilt U|
|2. KC||SS||Michael Moustakas||Chatsworth HS (Calif.)|
|3. CHC||3B||Josh Vitters||Cypress HS (Calif.)|
|4. PIT||LHP||Daniel Moskos||Clemson U|
|5. BAL||C||Matthew Wieters||Georgia Tech|
|6. WSH||LHP||Ross Detwiler||Missouri St U|
|7. MIL||LF||Matthew LaPorta||U Florida|
|8. COL||RHP||Casey Weathers||Vanderbilt U|
|9. ARI||RHP||Jarrod Parker||Norwell HS|
|10. SF||LHP||Madison Bumgarner||South Caldwell HS|
Brandon Wood graduated from Horizon in 2003 and was taken in the first round by the Angels. He's the fourth Horizon product to be taken in the opening round of the First-Year Player Draft, although some weren't taken until after they went on to college. But he definitely put the school firmly back on the map, with several players being drafted in ensuing years. During Wood's final season at Horizon, an eighth-grader with hopes of playing for a good high school program knew something positive was going on at the school, even if he didn't quite know yet what it was.
"Brandon Wood was there the year before I was there," said Horizon senior pitcher Tim Alderson, who hopes to be the next alumnus from the school to be taken in the first round this year. "I knew he was something special and they were something special, but I didn't know how consistent they were with winning every year."
Wood was not the reason Alderson and his family chose Horizon, though it couldn't have hurt. He and Kevin Rhoderick had worked together prior to high school, and they had the idea of heading to Horizon and pitching together for all of high school. Now, four years later, Rhoderick, too, should be a fairly high draft pick.
There is a certain motivation, knowing players have gone on from Horizon to bigger and better things. More than anything, though, is the winning tradition in such a competitive atmosphere. Horizon's schedule is stacked from start to finish with tough opponents, a system in which the cream is almost forced to float to the top. If it didn't, the team wouldn't succeed. That's not an option at Horizon.
"Every year, at every game, coach tells us everyone has to be on top of their game," Alderson said. "It helps us in the playoffs because we have such a tough schedule."
It also helps scouts to evaluate. One problem with the high-school level prospects is that, depending on the region, the competition might not be that high. At Horizon, that's never an issue. Scouts know they'll get a sense of how a player performs against top opponents and how they deal with the pressure that comes with that.
There's a definite positive byproduct of that for individual players who have aspirations of playing beyond high school. The Tim Aldersons of the world head into showcases and summer tournaments with the confidence they can compete against anyone. At the same time, with scouts constantly attending Horizon games, the attention those showcases can bring won't cause any extra butterflies.
"It definitely helps. People who come watch understand our competition is very good," said Alderson, who helped pitch Horizon to another state title this year. "That carries on into the summer. Some other kids can struggle to get over that edge.
"Every game, people have always been there to see our top talent, since I was a freshman. Every year, we have that one senior everyone is looking for. I got used to it really early. It helped me a lot when I go to these showcases. I'm used to having to be on my game every day because there's usually been someone watching."
California: Rancho Bernardo High School
There are a number of powers in Southern California that could be highlighted on the list. Lakewood High School has had 11 big leaguers come from its program. Catcher Travis d'Arnaud hopes to make it an even dozen as a 2007 draft hopeful. Chatsworth High, which has first-round probables Mike Moustakas and Matt Dominguez this year, has had five Major League alumni, going back to Dwight Evans.
In terms of the cyclical nature of things, take La Quinta High as an example. Bobby Crosby and Gerald Laird went there as well as former first-rounders Ian Stewart and Ian Kennedy, who went on to USC before joining the Yankees this past year. But recently, there hasn't been as much flowing through the school.
And then there's Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego. This is a "down" year for Rancho, with no top draft talent graduating in 2007. But the school that received some serious attention in Michael Lewis' bestseller, "Moneyball," certainly has a track record.
A total of six first-round picks have gone to Rancho Bernardo, described as "The Factory" in Lewis' work. Hank Blalock, who's uncle Sam is the head coach of the program, is the most accomplished. Cole Hamels isn't far behind him and Danny Putnam, who went on to Stanford before becoming a pro, made his big-league debut this season. Johnny Drennen hopes to follow in their footsteps. The 2005 supplemental first-round pick of the Cleveland Indians knew about the players who had come before him, but it's not like he felt their presence hanging over his head every day.
"You're going out there and you're playing ball. You're not looking at it from that perspective [of worrying about who had gone to school there], at least not in my eyes," said Drennen, who made a splash in 2006 by homering off of Roger Clemens in the first stop of the Rocket's Minor League tour that year.
"You're out here on a ball field. It's definitely nice knowing you're playing with a coach who knows what's going on and produced starters like that. You have Hank Blalock, Danny Putnam and so on, but I never really looked at it in that way. I was just out there competing."
Texas: Bellaire High School
Bellaire has produced more pro talent than just about any school in the state and that's saying something considering the vast quantities of players who tend to come out of the Lone Star State every year. The Houston-area school has had seven first-round picks. Chuck Knoblauch started there before evolving into a first-rounder at Texas A&M. Jose Cruz Jr. was a Bellaire kid before heading to Rice. Chris Young, the Diamondbacks outfielder, was a 16th-rounder who signed out of the school and made it to the big leagues.
All of those players are obviously impressive, but the one who really stands out as an example to Matt West, Bellaire's top pro hopeful in 2007, is Bubba Crosby, most recently of the New York Yankees.
"Our coach talked about how he didn't really have the talent when he first got here, but he worked and worked and got better throughout the years and got good enough to make it to the Majors," West said. "The coach talks about them to give you motivation personally. He talked about what they did, how they stayed after it, how hard they worked."
Bellaire's reputation helps in a couple of ways. Sure, scouts are constants at games, but West thinks it's more helpful being a Bellaire product in terms of the competition they get and the opportunities they receive to play in other areas. That gets them seen by more scouts, who, if they like what they see, will come back to Bellaire for more. It's kind of a "circle of life" thing.
"Scouts definitely know Bellaire and the talent. I guess it could help," West said. "But we definitely get exposure. We play in Georgia over the summer -- Arziona and Florida. You showcase your talent, if they see you and like you, they'll follow you."
Florida: Hillsborough High School
First-year Hillsborough coach Kenny White knows he couldn't have asked for a better situation. There may not be a school with a stronger history in terms of pro players than the Tampa institution. Among the seven first-round picks from the school are Dwight Gooden, Carl Everett and Gary Sheffield. Jason Romano also is an alum, along with former big leaguers Floyd Youmans and Mike Heath. It would be perfect motivation for White's players, something to throw out at them if they lose focus. That isn't necessary, according to White. Anyone who puts on the school's uniform is well aware of the history.
"Just saying the names of those players, not much else needs to be said," explained White, who was familiar with the legacy of the school because his brother attended Hillsborough. "That should be motivation in itself. This is an unbelievable program with so much tradition, it's pretty much written on the walls for anyone who puts on the red and black."
Michael Burgess will likely add to that tradition this year. Even with what's been termed an off year for the slugging outfielder, he still could be a first-round pick. White gives all the credit to his predecessor, Billy Reed, for setting up a program that, as Ladnier put it, helps kids get better. But the real reason for Hillsborough's success is simple: Hillsborough County just has an awful lot of talent to choose from.
"The area just produced athletes," White said. "The football team is great, year-in and year-out, and it's pretty much a year-after-year thing for the baseball team. There are a lot of schools in the area, but every year it seems that Hillsborough High School puts out another top player."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.