Nations: VBL has diamonds in the rough

By Jeff Nations

The 2013 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft is in the books, 40 rounds worth of players (1,216 picks) selected over a three-day period last week.

Maybe you’re aware of this, maybe not. The MLB Draft, despite recent attempts at making it a bit more visible by televising it since 2007, and since 2009 featuring it on their own MLB Network as sort of a calling-card attraction. Still, the MLB Draft has never had and likely won’t ever have the cachet of the NFL or NBA Draft, where the players are so much better known by fans.

College baseball, compared to its football and basketball brethren, still remains largely an anonymous sport outside the annual College World Series. There are of course some traditional powers that routinely produce pro prospects — count the University of Virginia among that group, with other state schools like Virginia Tech and VCU also producing their fair share of draft picks. But even a die-hard college baseball fan would be hard-pressed to identify many of the selections, especially beyond the first few rounds. The internet is helpful in that regard, to an extent — even fairly obscure high school picks probably have some video floating around out there somewhere on the web.

For most fans, though, the MLB draft is largely a collection of unknown players, most of whom won’t get anywhere near a big-league ballpark. Some of them will, though, and seeing those players early in their careers can be a special thrill for any baseball fan.

There’s no finer option than catching local high school baseball games, of course — since I’ve been doing this, I’ve had two kids from my coverage area go on to Major League careers out of the hundreds and hundreds I’ve seen over the years. They are out there, though, scattered throughout the country every year.

You could wait a long time to see a future big leaguer at a high school game, or even at the collegiate level. To narrow the odds a bit more, check out summer-league baseball. These wooden-bat leagues range across the country, and draw the most serious and talented college players looking to someday get that telephone call from a Major League team letting them know they had been picked in the draft.

Area fans don’t have to travel far to do just that, with the Valley Baseball League stretching throughout the Shenandoah Valley offering nightly glimpses at potential Major Leaguers in the making.

The VBL, in existence since 1923, has churned out well over 1,000 professional players of over the years. Of the current 12-team league, Front Royal, New Market, Strasburg and Woodstock have all been long-time members, along with Winchester, Staunton, Waynesboro, Harrisonburg, Rockbridge, Covington and newcomers Aldie and Charles Town, W.Va. All but the two newest members of the VBL already have solid track records of producing pro players, and this year’s MLB draft only added to that lengthy resume.

Front Royal can claim the honor of having the highest-drafted former player. The Washington Nationals used their first pick, a second-round selection (68th overall) on imposing 6-foot-6, 235-pound right-hander Jake Johansen. The Dallas Baptist University hurler, who just finished his senior season, didn’t exactly set the world aflame during that 2011 summer with the Cardinals, but that highly-projectable frame plus a fastball that reaches 100 mph on occasion was enough evidence for the Nats, who agreed with Johansen on an $820,000 contract last week.

Another former Front Royal righty, Harrison Cooney (Florida Gulf Coast) went in the sixth round to the Los Angeles Angels. Other recent VBL players picked in the top 10 rounds this year include former Winchester Royal infielder Jimmy Yezzo from Delaware (Nationals, 7th round), former New Market righty Chad Kuhl from Delaware (Pirates, 9th round) and former Harrisonburg Turks righty Emilio Pagan from Belmont Abbey (Mariners, 10th round).

There were a score of other former VBL players picked, as well, and likely more will find their way into professional baseball as undrafted free agents or by playing in the independent leagues. My favorite VBL success story remains former Woodstock River Bandit right-hander Brandon Beachy. Undrafted during his 2008 season in the VBL, the full-time infielder and occasional closer from NAIA Indiana Wesleyan just happened to be pitching one July night when Atlanta Braves scout Gene Kerns stumbled across him. Kerns needed just one inning to see what no one else had — that Beachy was a bona fide pro prospect. Kerns convinced Atlanta to sign Beachy to a modest free-agent deal. Two years later, Beachy was starting on the mound for the Braves in the Major Leagues.

Is there another Beachy on a Valley League roster right now? Probably not, but there’s a good chance some of the players suiting up right now in the VBL will one day be playing in the Major Leagues. Seeing them now, before that happens — that’s worth the price of admission for any baseball fan.

Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com>