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LAND of PLENTY
Albert Chen
June 03, 2013
GEORGIA'S SIGNATURE CROPS? PECANS, PEACHES ... AND BALLPLAYERS. HIGH SCHOOL SLUGGERS CLINT FRAZIER AND AUSTIN MEADOWS—THEY'LL BE TOP PICKS IN THE MLB DRAFT—ARE JUST THE LATEST PRODUCTS OF THE COUNTRY'S MOST EFFICIENT DEVELOPMENT SYSTEM
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June 03, 2013

Land Of Plenty

GEORGIA'S SIGNATURE CROPS? PECANS, PEACHES ... AND BALLPLAYERS. HIGH SCHOOL SLUGGERS CLINT FRAZIER AND AUSTIN MEADOWS—THEY'LL BE TOP PICKS IN THE MLB DRAFT—ARE JUST THE LATEST PRODUCTS OF THE COUNTRY'S MOST EFFICIENT DEVELOPMENT SYSTEM

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"The Braves were kicking everybody's butt," says Red Sox minor league hitting coordinator Tim Hyers, a former Georgia area scout for Boston. "Teams started to realize they had to keep them from doing that." A decade ago it was almost unheard of for a big league organization to have a scout devoted to a state other than California (pop. 38.0 million), Texas (26.1 million) or Florida (19.3 million); now nearly half have a scout assigned exclusively to Georgia (9.9 million). Says one NL executive, "The G.M.'s of teams that don't are committing malpractice."

Over the last three years Georgia high schools have produced nearly as many first-round picks (16) as Texas (18); only California and Florida had more first-rounders in that span. And there were more Georgia-born major leaguers last year than from any state other than California, Florida and Texas. "I think scouts are wise to spend a lot of time here," says Schuerholz. "I just wish they wouldn't."

The high standard for amateur programs in the state was set by East Cobb Baseball, based 30 miles north of Turner Field in the hills of Marietta. The 30-acre complex feels like a major league spring training compound, with eight diamonds, sponsors' banners draped over the outfield walls and plaques etched with the names of big leaguers who have passed through. Among them: Heyward, McCann, Francoeur, Rockies outfielder Dexter Fowler and White Sox second baseman Gordon Beckham. East Cobb, which has 82 teams for ages eight to 18 (the elite squads travel around the country to tournaments and showcases), has been around since the 1980s. But in recent years similar travel teams have sprung up throughout the state, offering more young players the chance to compete at high levels and train under full-time coaches—in many cases former major leaguers who have returned to the state. The country's top young talent flocks to the Atlanta area during summers to play against the best; at a recent East Cobb tournament Roger Clemens and Craig Biggio were in the stands watching their teenage sons. "A few years ago the scene other than East Cobb was minimal," says Bouras, who heads Team Elite, which has a facility east of Atlanta, in Barrow County, and one in Cobb County. "Now there's a travel team on every street corner." Bouras estimates that 75% of Georgia high school players join a travel team during the summer.

Bouras launched Team Elite eight years ago so top players could skip East Cobb and play closer to home—the program now has 25 travel teams and has had 40 alumni drafted and signed. Frazier and Meadows were unknowns nationally when they joined Team Elite as freshmen. Meadows's breakout came first: During a Team USA showcase in Lagos De Morena, Mexico, in 2011, he drove in 28 runs over eight games. Meadows estimates that last year he played nearly 150 games between high school and travel ball during the summer and fall. Meadows and Frazier spent the summer on the road with Bouras, jetting to showcases in San Diego, Minneapolis, Chicago and Syracuse. "Clint was seen," says Loganville coach Jeff Segars. "He went from being an underrated player to a top guy. And after that, the calls from teams were nonstop."

Major league clubs choosing high school players out of Georgia are getting prospects who are bigger, faster and closer to making an impact at the professional level. "Before I was drafted, I'd already seen the country and played against the best of the best in the country," says Heyward, who has been Atlanta's starting rightfielder since he was a 20-year-old rookie in 2010. "Without those experiences, there's no way I'd be where I am right now."

Compared to the NFL's overhyped, Kiper-ized NFL version, MLB's draft is minor league. But with young players valued more highly in the steroid-testing era and the free-agent market proving to be increasingly inefficient, it is determining the fortunes of franchises as never before. "With the trend of teams locking up their homegrown talent, free agency as a way to acquire players is dead," says an AL talent evaluator. "The currency of the game has always been homegrown talent, but that's more true than ever. It's so important to hit on your picks."

Potential first-round selections are now vetted with the thoroughness of the screening for Supreme Court justices. "There are people in every front office of every major league team who have done a study on how many 6-foot, 185-pound high school kids went on to the major leagues," says Lockhart. "How many redheads have been successful in the major leagues? I guarantee you teams have that question answered."

Frazier is 6 feet, 185 pounds and, yes, a redhead. This spring both he and Meadows hosted living room visits by scouts, scouting directors and assistant G.M.'s from every major league organization—the evaluators would go from one prospect's home straight to the other's in the next neighborhood. "It was like doing 30 job interviews," says Meadows. There were eye exams, reaction and memorization tests, 180-question surveys. "Some teams threw in some math questions, which wasn't good—I'm not very good at that," says Frazier. "One team asked, if I had to choose, whether I'd rather be an oak tree or a pine tree." He opted for oak—"more manly," he says.

One day this spring Frazier, who's been clocked at 98 mph throwing the ball from the outfield, was playfully flipping balls into a nearby bucket before a game; within a few hours his predraft adviser received a call from a big league team asking if there was something wrong with his arm. The scrutiny on Meadows was no less intense. "He has guys watching him just hitting off a tee," says Grayson coach Jed Hixson. "It was like they wanted to know what color underwear he was wearing."

The competition between Frazier and Meadows is friendly—they exchange texts, and each has embarrassing camera videos of the other—though, says Frazier, "it got not so friendly last summer," when the prospect rankings for this year's draft came out. While there's a mutual respect, "we both want to beat the other guy," Frazier says, "and we both know we're better than the other guy."

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