Urban Youth Academies, RBI program and Breakthrough Series developing top prospects
By Spencer Fordin
Every year, the Major League Baseball youth initiative pays new dividends in the form of accomplishments and discoveries. This year, the MLB Draft brought several signs of progress for the Urban Youth Academy, the RBI program and most notably the Breakthrough Series.
The Breakthrough Series, an event designed to bring several of the nation's top baseball prospects to play in front of professional scouts and college recruiters, had nearly 15 percent of its participants chosen to play in the professional ranks. Thirty of the approximately 200 kids invited to the Breakthrough Series were drafted this year, a group highlighted by No. 4 overall pick Dillon Tate by the Rangers.
Four other series participants -- Ke'Bryan Hayes (Pirates), Austin Smith (Padres), Juan Hillman (Indians) and Blake Perkins (Nationals) -- were taken on the first day of the Draft, but the names kept coming as the Draft progressed.
"That was really exciting. We looked at the numbers, and the numbers continued to accumulate, and we were like, 'Wow, this program is only a couple years old,'" said Tony Reagins, MLB's senior vice president for youth development, about the Breakthrough Series. "Last year, I think we had 200 kids in total participating in the Breakthrough Series, and 30 of them got drafted. And a number of them weren't even Draft-eligible, so that's very encouraging and does show some advancement."
Many of the participants in the Breakthrough Series have played in RBI leagues or at one of the academies, but the rest are recommended by the Major League Scouting Bureau and by various scouts and club personnel. And whoever's doing the recommendations, pro teams are reaping the bounty.
Ten players with ties to the RBI program -- which stands for Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities -- and nine with history at the Urban Youth Academy were selected in the MLB Draft.
That included Tate, the highest selection from an Urban Youth Academy member, and two players who are pioneers in their respective cities. Paul Salazar became the first draftee from the Houston Urban Youth Academy, and Earl Burl III will go down as the first draftee from the New Orleans facility.
Salazar, a shortstop and right-handed pitcher at Lutheran South Academy in Houston, was taken in the 11th round by the St. Louis Cardinals, but he's also entertaining an offer to play in college. Daryl Wade, director of the Houston academy, said few players are as deserving of their success as Salazar.
"When we opened up the academy several years ago, he was one of the first kids that came that first year," said Wade of Salazar. "I always hoped that in four or five years, we'd get our first Draft pick, because most of our kids were 12 and 13 years old. I was just hopeful, but my wish came true."
Salazar, who also goes by the name Pablo, grew steadily over his years at the Houston Academy, and he was afforded the opportunity to go on travel teams to tournaments in other states. Salazar also got to play with USA Baseball's National Development Program, which spurred his maturation.
"I felt really proud of myself and felt that I'd accomplished a lot when I was accepted to play at the USA Baseball level. It was really exciting, and all those players were really good," said Salazar. "I'm very thankful and blessed to have the opportunity to get picked up by a team. I put in work at the Academy for about three or four years, and they helped me with my craft every day. They helped me with my skills and everything, so a lot of credit has to go to the academy."
Salazar, of course, deserves all of the credit for putting himself in this position, and Wade was happy for the Salazar family. They don't live particularly close to the Houston-based academy, but day after day they found their way there, and Salazar grew along with his dreams.
Now, he can serve as a symbol for all the players that can come after him. Wade said that more than 3,000 kids have come through the Academy doors this year, and from now on, whoever walks up and signs up will see photos of Salazar and hear tales of how he developed locally.
"People are already looking up to him," said Wade of the impact Salazar can have. "I think now more than ever, it's going to help our program, because they're going to see a kid that came from the same place they came from and played on the same fields they play on. We already have pictures of him, and we're about to have them mounted at the academy so kids can say, 'Oh yeah, he was here.' We've always felt once we get that first one -- which is Pablo -- our program is really going to skyrocket."
The Compton facility, the first of the Urban Youth Academies, saw several players move on to the pro ranks over the Draft's three days. There was Tate, the fourth overall pick, and fifth-rounder Brendon Davis, sixth-rounder Tyler Mark, ninth-rounder Jerry Keel and late-round picks Dalton Blumenfeld (12th round), Rock Rucker (20th round) and Devin Davis (25th round).
In a few years, the New Orleans and Houston facilities may also be churning out draftees regularly, and the Cincinnati and Philadelphia academies may be starting their own cycle of development. For Reagins, that's the hope provided by players like Salazar and Burl III, the New Orleans draftee.
"It's one player, but that lends itself to hope, and it lends itself to belief we're headed in the right direction," said Reagins of the first draftees from Houston and New Orleans. "The programs are starting to take root, and these kids are going to see guys they worked out with going on to be drafted. That's part of what we're trying to accomplish from a developmental standpoint -- not only getting players seen, but getting them instruction and ultimately getting them in college or drafted into pro ball."
Tate, Mark, Blumenfeld and Davis all played at the academy and in the RBI leagues, but there were a few players who came from non-baseball hotbeds. Alex Robinson, an alumnus of the Greater New York RBI program, was drafted in the fifth round, and Bradenton alumnus Jordan Guerrero went in the sixth.
Wesley Rodriguez, who played for Paterson RBI and for George Washington High School -- the same school as Manny Ramirez -- went in the 12th round. Ashford Fulmer, a Houston RBI product, was drafted in the 28th round, and Jalen McMillan from Chicago White Sox RBI went in the 39th round.
Seven of those players played in at least one edition of the RBI World Series, which brings inner-city kids from all over the country together to compete for a national championship. It is those experiences, and countless others along the way, that have enriched their lives and their ability between the lines.
"There's so many stories that don't get told that these kids go through off the field," said Reagins. "There's tragedy and family situations and tough times. But they persevere. The payoff is you get drafted, whether it's Dillon Tate in the first round or Paul Salazar out of Houston for the first time. Things like that make you feel you're doing something right in the time you're putting in. It's starting to pay off."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.