BRADENTON, Fla. — Down the first base-line, past the dugout, former Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland leaned against a chained-link fence — his gaze locked on a group of baseball players from IMG Academy, a high school team loaded with potential major league talent.
Dave Turgeon, the IMG Academy national team head coach, called his players together.
“Let’s make this the best one yet,” he said. “Let’s be sharp.”
Their hands shot in the air. “One! Two! Three!” a player said.
“IMG!” they shouted and ran to their positions.
Three players from IMG are expected to be taken in the first three rounds of the MLB draft. So back in February during the MLB owners lockout, the Tigers sent a special contingent to scout this unusual collection of high school talent: Leyland, vice president and assistant general manager David Chadd and Eric Nieto, the assistant director of amateur scouting.
Chad and Nieto stood on one side of the dugout, Leyland on the other.
Nine scouts from other organizations stood against the fence down the left-field line. Four more scouts were on the sidewalk, walking toward the practice field. Within a few minutes half the field was ringed with scouts.
I climbed the bleachers behind home plate and found an unusual view, watching the Tigers front office at work. The MLB draft will be start on July 17, and 600 players will be picked. Some based on what they did in college. Some based on the potential they have showed in high school.
Will the Tigers take one of these kids from IMG?
Maybe. Maybe not.
But the Tigers only bring out the big dogs — like Alan Trammell or Leyland, who are both special assistants to general manager Al Avila — to watch players with serious potential.
Just from the sheer number of talented players at IMG, it’s not crazy to think the Tigers will take one of them.
So if the Tigers were looking at these players from IMG, I figured I should be as well. At the very least, it was interesting to get a small glimpse of what happens behind the scenes.
These guys are good
IMG went through a typical high school warmup, as the Tigers contingent watched every move.
An IMG coach hit a ball to center field and Elijah Green came running in, scooped it up and fired to third base, air mailing the cut. Green is projected as a top-five pick because of his tools. The son of an NFL Pro Bowl tight end, Green has uncommon speed, arm strength, power and a majestic bat.
Maybe, in some eyes, it’s a bad sign to miss a cut in a warm up. But he certainly showed off a cannon of an arm. It is unlikely that he’ll be available when the Tigers pick at No. 12. But if Green slips, it would be hard to pass on his potential.
MORE FROM SEIDEL: I went looking for the next Tiger & found a star LB for Michigan State
Jackson Ferris, a left-handed pitcher committed to Mississippi, was getting ready to pitch. He has been projected anywhere from the middle of the first round to the top of second. Orchard Lake St. Mary’s star Brock Porter is generally considered the top high school arm in the country. But Ferris is in that next tier of prospects. And the Tigers haven’t been shy about taking high school pitchers. They took Jackson Jobe with the third overall pick last year.
IMG catcher Brady Neal stood near home plate, directing the warmup. He is committed to LSU and Baseball America ranks him as the No. 67 prospect in the country. Extremely young, Neal has reclassified and will be 17 when the draft begins.
Finally, there was shortstop JeanPierre Ortiz, ranked No. 367.
“Scouts view him as one of the better defensive shortstops in the prep class, with sound defensive actions and above-average arm strength,” according to Baseball America.
And that’s what he showed on this night.
The ball was zipping around the infield.
“Four!” Neal screamed, directing the outfielders to throw the ball home.
When the warmup was done, the Tigers contingent came together for a brief discussion. Leyland and Chadd whispered back and forth, as the players from IMG walked to the main stadium, which was nicer than many college facilities.
Three years ago, Leyland helped scout Riley Greene, who was taken in the first round. Leyland is quick to point out that he doesn’t know how to project player. And he isn’t involved in ranking them. But he knows a player when he sees one. And he saw it in Greene.
“This was a kid with a presence,” Leyland told me recently about Green. “This was a poised kid with a good swing. You know, he looked the part, but I didn’t know we were gonna get him. I didn’t know where they would have him in our list or anything like that because I’m not involved in that at all. But yeah, he was special.”
And that’s what the Tigers are looking for again.
But it’s easy when you are picking at the top of the draft. It’s far harder picking at 12th. Which makes scouting trips like this so vital. The Tigers have to scout a bigger pool of players.
Just in case somebody drops.
Just catching up
I walked toward the main stadium and saw Leyland talking to a coach in a golf cart.
Leyland seems to know everybody. You don’t fully appreciate Leyland’s place in the game until you see him walking around a facility like this. He is treated like baseball royalty.
Heads snap and people whisper: “Hey, that’s Jim Leyland!”
He can go up to anybody in baseball and get the real scoop on a player, talking coach to coach: What’s a kid like?
And on this night, Leyland approached Elijah’s father, Eric Green.
“I was standing up here talking to a couple of my friends and he just came up to say hello,” Eric Green told me. “He said that he thought I would be here. And he wanted to come say hello.”
They have known each other for years.
Green played for the Steelers when Leyland was with the Pirates.
“When he was in Pittsburgh, I used to follow the Pirates,” said Eric, who played tight end with the Steelers, Dolphins, Ravens and Jets during a 10-year career. “I just love his style. I used to watch their games from under Three Rivers Stadium.”
Coach breaks it down
I found Turgeon near the IMG dugout.
“What makes Elijah Green so special?” I asked him.
Turgeon has a long history in baseball. He has been a minor league field manager for Cleveland and Pittsburgh; an assistant coach at Boston College, Connecticut and Duke; and a consultant for USA Baseball.
“The talent level, obviously it’s super high,” Turgeon said. “But he was really raised right. And he’s an awesome kid, shows up to work every day, really good teammate.”
“How about Jackson Ferris?”
“Quietly, a really good athlete as well,” Turgeon said. “I don’t know if a lot of people know how athletic he is. But also another guy who is very serious about what he’s doing. And a really, really competitive guy. His demeanor may not look that way. But he’s an absolute tiger on the mound.”
Then, I asked about Neal.
“He’s another special one,” Turgeon said. “Awesome. guy. He’s a backbone for me. He’s my field general.”
MORE FROM SEIDEL: Spencer Torkelson’s struggles sum up this Tigers season perfectly
As Jackson took the mound, Leyland and the Tigers contingent sat behind home plate.
All the scouts held poker faces. No emotion. No cheering. Just blank stares.
Baseball is so hard to scout because a defensive player might get a couple of plays in a game.
Which is why that warmup was so important.
Midway through the game, I decided to leave. It was getting late and still had to drive back to Lakeland. I glanced to my right and Leyland was still sitting behind home plate. His sunglasses were on top of his white cap, his arms folded.
He was focused intently.
Just like when he was managing. Only now he’s part of a huge team of Tigers scouts, cross checkers and front office folks, trying to find the next Tigers stud.
Contact Jeff Seidel: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.