Because they feature such a high concentration of pitching talent and because everyone’s stuff plays up in short stints, Futures Games are often fast-moving, low-scoring affairs. Since the game’s inception in 1999, for example, a team has scored three or fewer runs on 18 occasions. That was not the case on Sunday, however, as baseball’s top prospects combined for eight home runs. In the end, Team USA defeated Team World by a score of 10 to 6.
The end result of a prospect showcase like the Futures Game is essentially meaningless. Batting practice and infield/outfield drills, which occur before the cameras even turn on, are more informative. But, to me, the scouting-related feats of strength and athleticism seen throughout Sunday’s festivities (which I promise to address further down) were secondary to another development — namely, the number of and the performances by the game’s African-American players.
Only 7% of big leaguers are African-American, which is way down from about 27% during much of the 1970s. Articles about the declining number of black athletes in baseball have been written so frequently over the last half-decade that I assume readers are at least somewhat familiar with the issue, but if you’d like background, USA Today conducts the annual census. Like any shift of this magnitude, a confluence of variables is probably at the heart of what has caused this decline. Some of those are probably cultural, and this aspect of the decline is one about which people are quick to speculate , but, as a 29-year-old white guy, I’m not exactly qualified to discuss the African-American experience and how it does or does not intersect with baseball.
But I know the scouting process and, like many systems and processes in the United States, it has grown increasingly less suited for economically disadvantaged people — and people of color in this country are disproportionately poor. Showcases and travel ball are becoming a more significant aspect of scouting and player development in youth baseball. These cost money for the participants — to say nothing of flights to and from places like Florida and Arizona for several tournaments a year, mandated hotels in these locations, and the cost of breakable wood bats and other equipment. To take one example, each of the 328 teams participating in this week’s 2021 Class/Under 15 World Wood Bat Association Championship in Atlanta had a $2,500 entry fee, and it costs spectators $55 for a tournament pass and $5 to park. Baseball is a skill-based game and those skills are best refined against high levels of competition, but it’s expensive for an individual kid to play the kind of high-level baseball that helps develop those skills.
When I broach this subject with people in baseball, I’m met with some resistance from individuals who think the game is incentivized to mine as much talent as possible and that, poor or not, talent will be discovered. And while I agree with this premise, I think there are young athletes in this country who have the physical capability to play professional baseball but whom the scouting industry will never discover because that talent is never cultivated.
Exacerbating this systemic issue is that MLB owners like to save money and love when executives find ways for them to do it. And the fact is that, for scouting departments — and, frankly, people like me — these showcases are more efficient in every conceivable way than the alternative. They mean I sometimes get to ride my bicycle to a spring-training facility where I can mainline four simultaneous games on a backfield. At the very least, players who participate in these events are seen more and teams feel more confident about their ability to perform against quality competition. This also means individual players and their families are essentially paying for something for which, if we accept that premise that teams are otherwise willing to do whatever it takes to find talent, teams would gladly pay.
On Sunday, one black prospect after another did something remarkable during the event. Taylor Trammell had one of the event’s best batting-practice sessions, then homered and tripled during the game. Buddy Reed stole a warning-track double from Fernando Tatis Jr.. Hunter Greene threw an inning of 100 mph lasers. Ke’Bryan Hayes homered. Hopefully that resonated with whatever African-American youth audience was at home watching
And I say “at home” because the in-person audience for the game was overwhelmingly white. Seats in locations suitable for scouting the game ran $250 a piece to sit and evaluate young men who represent the best of a labor force that often struggles to make ends meet. Grossly ironic as these and other tone-deaf imperfections, it did nothing to stifle the verve and joy that emanated throughout both rosters of kids, regardless of race or country of origin, during the game. And because the game’s African-American players all played so well, theirs was especially on display.
The aforementioned USA Today article notes that African-American youth participation in baseball is up and has now passed football as the second-most played sport among that demographic. It also reports that six more black players were on Opening Day rosters this year compared to last. Royce Lewis and Hunter Greene were picked No. 1 and No. 2 overall in the 2017 draft, Jo Adell went a few picks later. Kyler Murray and Jordyn Adams chose baseball over football. Five of the top 15 players on our current board for next year’s draft are black. MLB’s Breakthrough Series foots the bill for mostly black prospects to work out for scouts at various locations across the country and has former big leaguers providing instruction over the course of several days. These are signs of progress toward a more robust baseball talent pool, one baseball’s scouting and player-development industry should continue to nurture even if it’s a net loss in the short term, as it has positive long-term implications for all involved.
Athletics LHP Jesus Luzardo (who was drafted by the Nationals) was 93-96 with a plus changeup over two innings. His breaking ball was plus when it was down beneath he zone but below average within it. The situations in which Luzardo can go to that breaking ball might be limited, but it’s not much of a concern given that he currently checks every other box.
Red Sox RHP Bryan Mata was 92-95 with a plus changeup and fringe breaking ball that plays up because of his lower arm slot. He’s filled out and is a little soft at this point, but of greater concern is a clear lack of fastball command due to an inconsistent release point.
Cubs C Miguel Amaya had one of the more impressive BP sessions on the World team, peppering the wall in right-center and generally lifting the ball with consistency. Further confirmation that his breakout statistical season is real.
Astros 1B Yordan Alvarez had an underwhleming BP and looked heavy and stiff. A scout with whom I was sitting during BP told me they thought Alvarez was a DH-only guy.
Padres SS Fernando Tatis Jr. had a well-rounded day during which he made a few nice defensive plays, showed a comfortably plus arm, hit for power during BP, and made solid contact several times during the game. He was already clearly one of baseball’s best prospects entering Sunday.
Rumored soon-to-be-Oriole Yusniel Diaz had a half-grade more raw power in BP than he did last Fall in Arizona. He was also less stiff about the upper body and has excellent feel for opposite-field contact in the air. He homered twice during the game. There’s enough bat for him to play every day in a corner.
I expected Seuly Matias to have the most ridiculous BP of all the prospects and he did hit a few of the most majestic shots in the cage, but he tired entering his last round and took a few terrible swings. It matters not. He hit a no-doubt opposite-field shot in his first at-bat and has among the best raw power in the minors. I had him 4.35 down the line at one point, speed that clearly belongs in a corner in case anyone still held out hope for him in center field.
Kiley saw Rays OF Jesus Sanchez a few weeks ago and thought he swung like late Cardinals OF Oscar Taveras. After watching Sanchez really let it rip a few times throughout the day, I buy it. He’s also a corner-only runner for me.
Rangers CF Leody Taveras had a louder BP session than I expected. His swing remains significantly better from the left side, but he has 55 raw as both a left and right-handed hitter. His approach to contact may not enable that kind of power to play in games, but there’s plenty of time for adjustment in that regard.
Hunter Greene was 98-101 on the radar gun I was using, a tick better on the stadium gun.
Danny Jansen’s hitting hands are really terrific, and he has a good combination of bat control and pull power. He does enough to catch and is going to be a very valuable big leaguer.
Peter Alonso hit the longest home runs during BP and then hit a gargantuan homer during the game that caused my to start giggling uncontrollably, as it hung in the air for what seemed like a lifetime. He is not a good defensive first baseman, however.
Most of Team USA had a good BP: Bo Bichette, Keston Hiura, Carter Kieboom, Brendan Rodgers, and Taylor Trammell all hit balls hard and had visually pleasing swings. Rays 1B Nate Lowe has wrist-flicking upper-deck power.
Twins OF Alex Kirilloff and, shockingly, Padres CF Buddy Reed had opposite-field-heavy approaches during BP. Kirilloff’s feel for airborne contact, which he has displayed since high school, is remarkably consistent. Reed’s swing has come so far since college that I’m starting to buy him as a viable offensive threat in the big leagues instead of just a plus defender in center field.
Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.