Roughly 1,700 sophomores, juniors and seniors are gathered at the Roger Dean Stadium complex, the Spring Training base of the Cardinals and Marlins and the home of those organizations' affiliates in the Class A Advanced Florida State and Rookie Level Gulf Coast Leagues. The event began in 1998 as the Lone Star Showdown at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas, became the WWBA World Championship, moved to Fort Myers, Fla., in 1999 and found a home in Jupiter the next year.
The 15 previous editions of the tournament have featured 348 players who have made it to the big leagues, a number that will continue to increase as more recent participants rise through the Minors. Marlins rookie standout Jose Fernandez pitched in the WWBA World Championship just three years ago, and other alumni include Bryce Harper, Matt Harvey, Clayton Kershaw, Manny Machado, Andrew McCutchen, Buster Posey, David Price, Mike Trout and David Wright.
That track record of talent makes the WWBA World Championship a must-see event for pro scouts, college coaches and agents. Five hundred scouts are in attendance at this year's event, and there are seemingly as many golf carts ferrying people from one cluster of fields to another. At high-profile matchups, dozens of carts will surround a single diamond, piled with observers to get the best possible view.
Thursday's Opening Day featured 19 games and spotlighted four of the more promising pitchers in the 2014 high school Draft class. Grant Holmes (Conway H.S., Conway, S.C.) and Alex Verdugo (Sahuaro H.S., Tucson, Ariz.) both had 3 p.m. starts, and Sean Reid-Foley (Sandalwood High, Jacksonville, Fla.) and Touki Toussaint (Coral Springs Christian Academy, Coral Springs, Fla.) both went at 7:40 p.m. They didn't face one another, but they played at the same cluster of fields, making it easier for bystanders to catch a glimpse of each.
• Pitching for the Evoshield Canes, Holmes worked the first four innings of a 1-0 win over the Ontario Blue Jays. The right-hander was very efficient, throwing 36 of 49 pitches for strikes. He averaged 92 mph with his fastball and topped out at 97. The life on his fastball and his ability to locate it where he wanted were just as impressive.
A Florida recruit, Holmes also worked effectively with a slider that sat at 80-81 mph. While his frame looks a little shorter and thicker than his listed 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, he's strong and doesn't throw with a lot of effort. His coach didn't make any fans among the many observers when he had Holmes intentionally walk Ontario's top 2014 prospect, outfielder Gareth Morgan, in the first inning.
• Scouts are split on whether Verdugo's future is brighter as a left-handed pitcher or an outfielder. Pitching for the Texas Scout Team Yankees, he struggled with his fastball command throughout his three innings and took a 6-0 loss against the Dirtbags thanks to two unearned runs in the second inning. Still, there were several positives for the Arizona State recruit.
While he walked three batters, Verdugo didn't allow a hit and struck out nine. One of those victims was outfielder Braxton Davidson (T.C. Roberson High, Asheville, N.C.), who whiffed on a 74-mph curveball. Verdugo isn't big (six feet, 195 pounds) but he has a compact, efficient delivery. He averaged 89 mph with his fastball and topped out at 92, keeping it down in the zone when he had control of it.
• The Cardinals Scouts Team/FTB Chandler may have the most talent-laden roster in Jupiter, and it rolled out its top pitcher for the first two innings of its 6-0 defeat of Cangelosi Baseball. Reid-Foley lacked consistency, as he threw just 16 of 30 pitches for strikes, but he still retired all six batters he faced.
A physical 6-foot-3, 208-pound righty who's committed to Florida State, he recorded three strikeouts on fastballs and another on a slider. He had good life on his heater, which sat at 92 mph and topped out at 94, and worked in the mid-80s with his breaking ball. When he missed with both pitches, he tended to miss down.
• Toussaint has one of the most electric arms in his Draft class, but he's also quite raw on the mound. He showed both of those qualities while working the first two innings and taking a 1-0 loss for the Atlanta Blue Jays against the South Florida Elite Squad.
Toussaint has a loose arm and room to add more strength to his 6-foot-2, 195-pound frame, and he already has impressive stuff. He consistently pitched at 91-93 mph with his fastball and topped out at 94, and he showed good depth on his curveball, which averaged 74 mph and peaked at 81. He also mixed in a handful of changeups, though he threw them a bit hard at 85-87 mph.
Toussaint tended to miss high with his fastball and low with his curve, leading to four walks in his two innings. He struck out seven batters, including two who reached when the ball got away from the catcher, and he now has 25 whiffs in eight WWBA innings over the last two years. He initially signed with Miami, but he decommitted and is presently unattached to a four-year school.