Pro teams targeting V.I. talents


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ST. THOMAS — Akeel Morris pitched a perfect game past season for the Charlotte Amalie High School baseball team, which is just one accomplishment on a baseball resume the 17-year-old is hoping will attract interest from a professional baseball team.

Morris is one of a handful of baseball players from the U.S. Virgin Islands who should be selected during next week’s Major League Baseball Draft, V.I. Future Stars Baseball founder Darren Canton said.

“The Virgin Islands isn’t exactly known for baseball, but right now, we’re developing a little name for ourselves,” said Canton, who started the baseball recruiting organization five years ago. “Nationally, we’re making strides. We are putting out talent that can compete and it’s just going to get better and better.”

The MLB Draft starts Monday and goes through Wednesday, but Canton and the players involved should find out which team will draft them beforehand.
As the players participated in daily workouts at the University of Virgin Islands this week to prepare for upcoming summer leagues, the excitement was starting to build.

“I think I have a good chance to go in the middle rounds,” said Morris, a 6-foot-2, 175-pound right-handed pitcher. “It’s been a long process as far as being scouted. I’ve been to so many tournaments and I’ve followed up on all the scouts and coaches I’ve met. It’s been quite a ride.”

But just because a young player can throw a 94 mph. fastball — like Morris — getting drafted doesn’t guarantee a starting spot alongside Derek Jeter and the New York Yankees. Actually, getting drafted doesn’t guarantee much at all.

Just ask Jabari Blash.

Blash, a sophomore at Miami Dade College, already has been drafted twice during his young career. The Texas Rangers selected the CAHS graduate last year in the ninth round, but Blash did not sign and returned to school. Last spring at Miami Dade, he wrapped up his season with a .341 batting average, 31 runs and 12 RBIs.

Blash, who worked out with the Seattle Mariners this week, has the talent to play in the pros. But Canton said he has to wait for the right situation, which they are hoping for in this year’s draft.

“This is a breaking year for us,” Canton said. “We already have kids committed to colleges so when they are drafted, we make calls and advise them on what the best situation will be. Things always change. Your game can come together within a year and that’s what we’re focusing on.”

In the five-year history of the Future Stars program, four players have been drafted but none have signed a major league contract. That may all change this year, Canton said.

“Our guys are more popular now and money is more of an issue,” he said. “In years past, signing and taking the average money was a done deal. Now, these guys have a lot more exposure and maybe five or six teams are interested in the same player. A negotiation process will come into play before any decisions are made.”

One of the top prospects coming out of the territory this year is Jamaine Cotton.

The Kean High School graduate and sophomore at Western Oklahoma State pitched in the NJCAA Division II World Series on Sunday. The hard-throwing right-hander improved to 11-0 on the season, allowed two runs on three hits and struck out four in a a 16-4 victory over Madison, Wis.

“I saw him at camp last January and he has a good arm,” said Evan Brannon, who is the southern Florida area scout for the Tampa Bay Rays. “But it’s really hard to say exactly where and which round he will go.”

James Sneed, a left-handed outfielder, should also receive some interest next week. Sneed, a senior at St. Croix’s Educational Complex High School is playing for a V.I. National Team that will compete next month in Puerto Rico at the 2010 Central American and Caribbean Games.

Several other area high school players may not be on the MLB radar yet but have already committed to college teams, thanks to the Future Stars program. Ss. Peter and Paul’s Arsenio Watlington, All Saints’ Jelani Foy and Charlotte Amalie’s Akeem Morris each will be playing next year at Daytona State College in Florida while Keithroy Charles III, of CAHS, is headed to Connors State College in Oklahoma.

In the earlier years of Future Stars, Canton had up to 25 players within the program but individual commitment to each player was compromised.

“Not everyone is cut out for this,” said Canton, who was born on St. Thomas but has spent many years playing baseball in Miami and in New York City. “They have to work hard. No exceptions. There is a lot of demand on these kids and we decided last year to keep things simple so we can be more successful.”

Over the last few weeks, Canton has met with players up to four times a week. Batting practice and pitching repetitions were key but there was a big focus on strength and conditioning.

“Right now, working out with Darren every day is very hard,” said Morris, who has also committed to Connors State College. “A lot of guys come here and they can’t take the running and the workouts. Only the tough ones get through.”

The physical preparation does not go unnoticed. More than 40 pro scouts attended the Future Stars’ annual “Scout Day” at Lionel Roberts Stadium in January and as they check in again before the draft, many have been impressed with the players’ progression.

“I’ve been to the camp the last two years and you can already see the natural improvements,” Brannon said. “More and more kids are playing baseball on the Virgin Islands and that’s always good. It seems like every year, there’s always one or two interesting players coming” out of the islands.

Morris, Cotton, Blash and Sneed hope to be the next prospects to bridge that gap and sign professional contracts. If not, more baseball grooming at the college level still awaits, which isn’t a bad thing, either.

“Each one of these guys have a path to follow,” Canton said. “We’re just trying to push them in the right direction.”

— Contact sports reporter Aaron Gray at 774-8772 ext. 352 or e-mail agray@dailynews.vi

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