As the clock counts down to first pitch, the search is on for a combination of Minor Leaguers who can dazzle in the All-Star Futures Game
By Kristina M. Dodge
Yankees Magazine |
They line up in front of their respective dugouts at Petco Park and walk together as one to the baselines. They're competing against each other, but share similar dark brown and mustard yellow uniforms, the throwback style a nod to their hosts for the day, the San Diego Padres. They are the U.S. They are the World. They are the future.
On July 10, 50 of the best Minor Leaguers in baseball --including Yankees prospect Gary Sanchez, in his second appearance in as many years -- suited up for the 2016 SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game.
For the players, the selection and accompanying experience can be a variety of things: a novelty as they step on the field of a Big League park for the first time, an opportunity to make new connections in the game, and -- with more than two dozen of this year's MLB All-Stars having once played in the Futures Games themselves -- a dress rehearsal for even greater things to come.
These young players consider their inclusion an honor, but the exhibition game is just one of many contests in their winding trip through the sport's lower levels to their ultimate landing spot: The Show. Their selection to the Futures Game is a natural extension of the hard work they put in to getting there, and while their sights may be focused on larger goals further down the line, there is a select group tasked with making sure their journeys include this All-Star Week pit stop, and that group has a goal of its own: to put on the best darn display of young talent baseball has to offer.
Deciding the Future
The first Futures Game was introduced in 1999 at Boston's Fenway Park as a means to connect fans with baseball's next-generation stars. And MLB had the perfect ambassador in a 23-year-old infielder out of the Yankees' farm system named Alfonso Soriano. The Dominican Republic native propelled his World Team to a 7-0 victory over the U.S. with two home runs and five RBI, earning MVP honors. Three years later, after his first full season in pinstripes, Soriano was selected to the first of seven All-Star Games.
Soriano's power in that inaugural contest is the kind of display Futures Game organizers can only hope for, and setting U.S. and World rosters that will yield a compelling show of talent has been a group effort since day one. Finalizing teams is not quite as simple as extending the honor of an invite to the "best" players, a label that is decided with a little subjectivity and much debate. The process is more a series of actions and reactions to a combination of factors continuously reshaping the pieces while the puzzle is being assembled.
"You're trying to check off a lot of different boxes when you put together the roster," said Del Matthews, who -- as MLB's senior director of baseball development -- is responsible for choosing the teams (to say nothing of the work that begins when the players have been informed, a flurry of activity that includes coordinating travel for a few dozen players coming from a few dozen places).
In his first year on the job, Matthews finds himself on the other side of the table. In his previous work in player development and scouting for the White Sox, he was among those giving the green light for Chicago players to represent the club during the midseason break. Always a big proponent of the exhibition game, Matthews -- who played some Minor League ball himself and is the son of former Major League All-Star Gary Matthews Sr. -- has enjoyed following the progress of White Sox Futures players previously under his watch, including second baseman Carlos Sanchez, who appeared in the 2012 game and made his Big League debut two years later, and Micah Johnson, who played for the U.S. Team in 2014 and debuted in the Majors less than a year later. But club approval is just one step in the selection process, and generally not the first.
Matthews consults with a selection committee including representatives from MLB.com and Baseball America, which has been involved in the process since the very beginning.
At first glance, the framework within which the committee has to work seems straightforward: Each Major League club must have at least one representative, but no more than two, with the exception of the host club, which gets three. To be eligible, players have to be on the roster of a full-season team.
Baseball America editor-in-chief John Manuel gets the ball rolling with the staff on his end in late May, and they'll send MLB one collective ballot or, like this year, several individual ballots. When Manuel, a 20-year veteran of the publication, talks about using a depth chart to organize recommendations, some of the common challenges he's seen over the years in setting the rosters naturally come to mind, including the geographical profile associated with some positions.
The Futures Game can prove to be not only a showcase for talent, but also a show of what baseball hopes is a growing diversity within the sport, so birthplace is among the factors being considered by the committee. In addition to the United States, the 2016 game featured players from 10 countries and territories, including the Dominican Republic (with the most representatives at 13), Cuba, Canada, Taiwan and Lithuania. But some areas in the world seem to produce players of a certain position more often than others. Manuel points to the difficulty they sometimes have had finding U.S. shortstops or World corner infielders.
"Teams don't go to the Dominican Republic for a first baseman; they go to the Dominican for a shortstop," said Manuel.
Another hurdle -- or a neat problem to solve, depending on how you look at it -- is the depth of individual clubs' farm systems.
In an example that may or may not be a reference to a "Team Who Must Not Be Named" in such glowing terms in Yankees Magazine, Manuel describes a scenario in which one club goes into a season with four or five names on Baseball America's top prospects list. Come selection time, the committee is faced with a handful of players from one organization it would love to include and the ability to choose only two. At that point, "spirited discussions" have sprung up in the past to hash out which of the equally exciting guys are must-haves and which the committee is willing to sacrifice.
And, sometimes, recommendations boil down to personal philosophy. Manuel can't speak for the rest of the committee, but historically, Baseball America's recommendations have tended to be on the younger side -- not necessarily the most polished players, but the guys who have the potential to put some raw talent on display. For example, on the mound, they're looking for pitchers who can throw 100 mph.
"People love seeing triple digits," said Manuel. "If you're going to see a guy for one inning, we try to prioritize the pitcher that is going to blow it out for an inning and throw hard."
Over the last two years, a couple of Yankees have fit that tools-first mold for Manuel: Sanchez, who doubled in one of his two at-bats last year before starting this year's Futures Game for the World Team and going 0 for 2, and Aaron Judge, who went 1 for 4 as designated hitter for the U.S. Team in 2015.
There are players in the Yankees' system who are good, solid prospects, but that doesn't mean they're "going to wow anybody in a one-game look," said Manuel. Sanchez's and Judge's raw power sets them apart as ideal candidates for a Futures Game.
"I saw Aaron Judge in a college home run derby in Omaha -- I guess that was in 2012 -- and he hit some balls really, really far," Manuel continued. "That's what we're looking for more in an exhibition game like that."
For Matthews, as he continues to oversee the selection process, he'll be looking for a greater emphasis on the Minors' best Double-A and Triple-A players, not wanting to miss the opportunity to highlight their skills before they make the jump to the Bigs. He believes doing so will make for a more competitive game and also address one of the factors that's top of mind for him: a level playing field.
"You don't want one team to have six A-ball players and the other team to have two," he said. "You want both teams to feel like the rosters are fair and balanced, yet representing the club's best prospects and the best prospects in the game."
This year, Matthews received the recommendations of his committee about a month out from the game, and he whittled the list down, cross-checking for common names and consulting with a separate group of scouts to ensure they hadn't inadvertently left out someone who had proved more than deserving. He sent player requests to each club for approval and feedback. Something he hadn't considered was information that he and his selection committee weren't privy to -- an injury, a planned Big League call-up and the like -- that resulted in clubs taking a player off the table.
Asked if, in his experience, there had ever been room for negotiations or a little haggling with clubs in regards to approved players, Manuel laughed.
"That would have been awesome," he said. "I wish we had been able to do that. I don't remember haggling being part of the deal. It wasn't like we were buying rugs in the market."
MLB released the 2016 Futures Game roster on June 28, just inside of two weeks before the game was scheduled to be played as part of All-Star Sunday. In that time frame, several changes were made. Yankees prospect Jorge Mateo became ineligible to play when he was suspended by the club for violating team policy. A Mariners prospect from South Africa sustained an injury. Another player was called up to the Majors. The committee weighed in. Replacements were named with the criteria that got the originally selected players there in the first place.
Matthews set a hard deadline for himself of the Wednesday before game day; it would be pencils down after that, no more roster additions. The players would be flying in Friday and Saturday.
"I kind of kept my fingers crossed," he said.
The First Glimpse of Greatness
Setting the Futures Game rosters is a meticulous and detailed process, one that is not taken lightly and requires putting the pieces -- player talent, club feedback, integrity and sportsmanship -- in place to give fans a look at a baseball future they can be excited about.
"We want the fans to be able to see the next generation, the future stars, the guys that are going to be carrying on the baton of the players that are leaving the game, so to come on this stage in this platform in this environment, I don't think there's anything better," said Matthews.
Futures Game participants -- from the team trainers to the players and coaches -- share the sentiment.
U.S. Team hitting coach Jim Thome was honored to play a potential role -- however small -- in the journeys of these young and talented players.
Throughout the day, Thome tried to touch base with each guy, especially in the cage and during batting practice.
"I think it's the process of, as the day goes, you build relationships, and if I cross paths with one of these kids in the future, I can kind of proudly say, 'Wow, I saw that kid,'" said the former All-Star infielder, who is now a special assistant to the White Sox. "That's what's so cool."
The future was not lost on the former stewards of the game, among them U.S. Team Manager Trevor Hoffman; World coach and former Yankees outfielder Curtis Pride; U.S. coach and MLB vice president of social responsibility and inclusion Billy Bean; and World Manager Moises Alou.
After leading his World Team to an 11-3 victory, Alou, in his managerial debut, expressed some special plans for the lineup card, which contained the names of players he has watched as a special assistant for the Padres and as a general manager in the Dominican Winter League.
"I'm going to frame it," said the former All-Star outfielder. "When I look at that lineup in my house, in a couple years, there are going to be a lot of guys playing in the All-Star Game, I guarantee you that."
And if that holds true, the All-Star Futures Game will be the crystal ball it was created to be.
Kristina M. Dodge is an executive editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the August issue of Yankees Magazine. Get this article and more delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription at yankees.com/publications.