Team USA experience aids prospects
USA Baseball a proving ground for Draft hopefuls
For amateur players with dreams of playing in the big leagues, an invitation to compete for Team USA can lead to a big boost in their draft stock a summer later.
Infielder Josh Rodriguez was coming off a strong sophomore season at Rice University when USA Baseball picked him to play for the College National Team in the summer of 2005. After batting .345 with 11 homers, 54 RBIs and 48 runs scored for the Owls, Rodriguez hit .326 in 43 at-bats against international competition.
It's no coincidence Rodriguez entered the 2006 college season as one of the top shortstop prospects in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft. Plenty of scouts watched all 20 of Team USA's games the summer before.
"Even when we were playing in Japan, we saw a lot of American scouts," remembered Rodriguez.
Rodriguez's teammate on the 2005 College National Team, third baseman Wes Hodges, also used the experience to enhance his draft status. As a sophomore, he was a heart-of-the-order masher at Georgia Tech, leading the Yellow Jackets with a .397 average. He hit .309 with five doubles for Team USA.
"I knew how I did with [Team USA] was important because it's the last chance scouts get to see you hit with wood [bats] before the draft," said Hodges. "Luckily, I played well, but it was tough to get into a rhythm when I'd play three days then sit out one."
Unfortunately for Hodges and Rodriguez, things didn't go as planned when they returned to school.
Hodges' stock fell when he played the last two months of his junior year with a stress fracture in his tibia. Early-season elbow problems hampered Rodriguez all spring, and both players fell to the Cleveland Indians in the second round of the 2006 draft.
One member of the 2005 College National Team whose stock didn't drop was right-handed pitcher Kyle McCulloch, who was drafted by the White Sox in the first round, 29th overall, last June. McCulloch was an effective hurler at the University of Texas, but his performance for Team USA raised eyebrows. He went 4-0 with a 1.44 ERA, 22 strikeouts and just three walks in 25 innings.
"I think [playing on Team USA] had a big impact on the draft," said McCulloch. "It built momentum for me going into my junior season, and it helped put me on the map or got me higher on the map with the scouts."
At the very least, competing on an international stage takes players out of their comfort zone, which is something they have to get used to in the Minor Leagues. Last summer's College National Team played games in Cuba, and many of the players remembered the environment more than the baseball.
"It was an eye-opening experience," said Nick Schmidt, a left-hander from the University of Arkansas who figures to be a top pick in this year's Draft. "There were people running around with no shoes on and a lot of people didn't have running water. Seeing all that makes you appreciate what you have."
|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|
Schmidt was one of the stars of the 2006 collegian squad, going 2-1 with a 1.53 ERA in 29 innings of work. He didn't face Cuba, but rather Asian teams that played a different style of baseball than what he was used to in the SEC.
"Their style of play has more slap hitting," said Schmidt. "You see guys running out of the box as they hit the ball, like Ichiro."
Hodges said he noticed a big difference in Japanese hitters when he played in Japan in 2005.
"It was almost like they would sit on off-speed pitches," said Hodges. "They'd foul off fastballs until they got a breaking pitch they could handle."
"Their pitchers pitch backwards, and I think the hitters take the same approach," added McCulloch. "If you could command your fastball, you could attack them and put guys away."
Making adjustments like that has been a precursor to life in professional baseball for McCulloch, Hodges and Rodriguez. They now do that every night in the Minor Leagues, whether it comes from an opposing pitcher or hitter or a promotion from their organization.
There were other important lessons from the Team USA experience.
"In college, you have your clubhouse, but we played at a lot of Minor League parks when we had games here [in the United States]," recalled McCulloch. "We had the clubbies taking care of us, and you have to pay your clubhouse dues. You obviously don't have that in college."
Whether it helped their draft result or not, nearly every Team USA alumnus treasured the opportunity to play for their country. Rodriguez said he and Hodges often recount their games in Taiwan, where they played in villages smaller even than the one where they began this season, the Indians' advanced Class A affiliate in Kinston, N.C., one of the smallest outposts in all the Minor Leagues.
"Those conversations about Team USA come up quite a bit," said Rodriguez. "And there are several other guys in the Carolina League who played with us, so we always talk to them about that summer when we see them."
"It was awesome," said McCulloch. "I got to play with a bunch of great guys, represent my country and play some great baseball. I had more fun that summer than I'd had in a long time. It was a blast."
Chris Gigley is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.