07/25/12 5:15 PM ET
Talent level on the rise at Breakthrough Series
By R. Cory Smith / Special to MLB.com
In the Breakthrough Series being held in Cary, N.C., 80 of the top players from urban areas across the country have assembled to play against each other -- and the scouts have followed.
Within the first two days of the event, more than 50 scouts showed up to not only watch the event, but also to speak with the players. Major League Baseball and college scouts instruct the players on what they are looking for and give them pointers on how to stand out at the next level, whether that be college or professional baseball.
Rick Oliver, assistant director of the MLB Scouting Bureau, said the talent pool is one of the best in the five-year history of the program.
"I think everybody concentrated on trying to get as many of the good players here as they could, and I believe they succeeded," Oliver said. "I think this group this year is more athletic, their skills are higher caliber and they have the potential to play professionally one day. It's hard to find that in any other tournament."
Unlike showcase or travel tournaments, the Breakthrough Series has games played at different times throughout the day in one or two stadiums that are close to each other, rather than having overlapping games in multiple stadiums which can make it difficult for scouts to watch each individual player.
David Perkins, chief operating officer of USA Baseball, said with the talent that is on the field, each player gets a chance to prove themselves in game situations.
"One of the most unique things about this tournament is the fact that they are playing live games," Perkins said. "Scouts don't want to just see players showcase their talents for them, they want to see these athletes in various game situations and how they react to them.
"Each player gets multiple games to prove to scouts that they have the talent they are looking for."
As for the way the process works, several players come from around the country and are chosen for the event individually. With USA Baseball being one of the recruiters for the series, the process works much the same as picking the Collegiate National team or the 18U USA Baseball team.
But Perkins said what makes the process unique is the fact that the players are not brought in and cut like the 18U and college teams.
"Unlike some of the other programs, our end goal is to make sure the players leave here feeling like they had a chance to showcase themselves rather than qualifying for another team," Perkins said. "We feel that this is a completely different experience than what is provided anywhere else, and we believe that's why we get some of the most talented players to participate."
Several of the top prospects, such as Jordan Sheffield, Nicholas Buckner, Juan Escarra and Devin Williams, have already committed to colleges and came to the event looking for experts to guide them in the right direction through seminars off the field.
For Sheffield, a pitcher from Tullahoma High School who is committed to Vanderbilt, having his college commitment finalized before the tournament has taken some weight off his shoulders.
"Already having that college commitment out of the way is huge," Sheffield said. "I still have other goals after college, so I try to do my best every time I walk out. But it definitely takes some of the pressure off to know that, regardless of what I do, Vanderbilt still has my back.
"It's nice to be able to focus on just getting better, rather than worrying about getting a scholarship offer."
While Sheffield has used the experience to take in different scouts' advice, Williams, a pitcher from Hazelwood West High School (Mo.) committed to the University of Missouri, has used the experience to improve his potential Draft stock.
"Knowing that I can just focus on baseball has me thinking about the Draft," Williams said. "I know Mizzou will always be there. And a lot of the scouts have spoken about the Draft experience and, being here, I feel like I have a better chance to be seen and improve my position in the Draft."
As for the future of the program, Oliver said that this year's crop should influence future players to want to play in the series.
"What we're trying to do here is build a history for the program, and let players across the country know that they can legitimately grow from this program," Oliver said. "We want them to know that, if they work hard and play the game the right way, they will have a free opportunity to come play in front of people who have the tools to make them better in the long run."
R. Cory Smith is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.