07/01/11 11:30 PM ET
Prep prospect Almora veteran of Team USA
Florida center fielder on verge of sixth international appearance
By Jonathan Mayo / MLB.com
None of it may have been quite as resounding as the 12-1 thumping the Collegiate National Team gave the 18-and-under trial team in the first of two games in this new Prospect Classic on Friday night, but the Florida high schooler has learned how to bounce back with a USA jersey on.
A year ago, Almora played on the 18-and-under team as an underclassman, and that club didn't medal in the IBAF World Junior "AAA" Baseball Championships in Canada. He hit just .175 in 40 at-bats in that tournament, playing alongside 2011 first-round picks like Bubba Starling, Francisco Lindor and Blake Swihart.
Playing in the Prospect Classic, Almora, who went 0-for-3 on Friday night, is putting himself in position to be a first-round pick himself in 2012. And he's the first to admit that his time with USA Baseball has played a big part in his development.
"It's amazing," the young center fielder said. "It's a complete honor. I'm so grateful with this team. It's an honor to play for your country and I know a lot of kids don't have the opportunity. For me to do it for six years, it's a blessing."
That's right, six years. Assuming Almora makes the 18U team that will travel to Colombia for the Pan American Games, it will mark the sixth time he's donned the USA jersey in international competition. That ties him with A.J. Hinch for the most times a player has suited up for Team USA.
"Since I was 13 years old, I always told my dad that I wanted to be the guy that played with Team USA the most times in history," said Almora, a cousin of 2010 first-round pick Manny Machado, who also hails from Florida. "I want to keep doing it the rest of my life, until the day I retire. I'll retire with the USA jersey on my chest."
Almora played for the 14-and-under team twice, the 16-and-under team twice and this will be his second go-round with the 18U squad. And while he has dealt with some adversity, he's also won quite a bit. In 2009, he helped the 16U team win gold in the IBAF "AA" World Youth Championship, held in Taiwan, by hitting .356. He brought home another gold in 2008 in the COPABE "AA" Youth Pan American Championships in Mexico. The 2007 14U team won its Pan Am Qualifier in Guatemala in January and won it all in the COPABE "A" Pan Am Championships in Puerto Rico as well. Not only has Almora won at high levels, but he's been able to collect more stamps on his passport than many people get in a lifetime.
"I'm very fortunate," Almora said. "That's what my mom tells me, 'You've been all over the world already and you haven't even hit 20.' I'm very fortunate and very grateful."
That experience will undoubtedly be a key for Almora and his 18U teammates as they prepare for the trip to Columbia in late September. The Prospect Classic, which concludes on Saturday with Game 2 at the USA Baseball training facility in Cary, N.C., is the culmination of the trial period for this team. The Tournament of Stars, held June 22-26, yielded a 40-man roster. Manager Scott Brosius and his staff will whittle it down to 28 following the Classic, then cut it down more in September. Brosius, in his first year at the helm, has already learned he can rely on Almora to lead the way.
"You can tell, he's been a guy who's been there, done that," Brosius said. "The experience, certainly, is a very positive thing. A guy that's been in the program, that's been overseas, that's played, that's won multiple gold medals for Team USA already. I think he can serve in some of that leadership role and talk to guys about what the experience is.
"He's obviously a very talented player. Leadership-wise, he's a guy we're really going to need to settle guys and help them [understand] what the experience is going to look like."
Almora likely will help the young club settle down after a rocky start to this Classic. He has been facing older competition for quite some time. He played junior varsity baseball at Mater Academy when he was in sixth grade and was a varsity player starting in eighth grade. He played against his first 18-and-under team when he was just 13, so facing the older, more advanced Collegiate National Team is nothing new for him.
"I was very blessed to start earlier and to see the talent there is at an early age," Almora said. "This [is] just like when I was 12, to face older guys. It's going to be the same kind of baseball. It's going to be fun, another day at the ballpark."
All those days at ballparks around the world has undoubtedly shaped who Almora is as a player. He gets equally high marks for his tools as for his makeup and character. He admits he feels comfortable in these surroundings now and that has enabled him to grow into a leadership role, both here and back on his high school team. There's no question it's made him a better player.
"It's incredible, to face the best guys in the world, to go international, facing the other best guys, it's amazing," Almora said. "I go back to high school, it's a different level of competition, but I try to keep my expectations high. This helps me enormously, in the summer, and to produce better and better every year."
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.