Cape Cod league serious business for MLB teams and prospects


This is the first of For The Win’s two-part series on the Cape Cod Summer Baseball League. Part I examined the appeal of attending games on the Cape.

BREWSTER, Mass. – At a Cape Cod Summer Baseball League playoff game between the Brewster Whitecaps and Orleans Firebirds last week, members of a sparse late-afternoon crowd at Stony Brook Field staked out places to sit on the rolling hill along the first-base line or in the shade of the trees behind third base and out past the home-run territory. Among the few hundred fans in the casual New England summer uniform of T-shirts and pastel shorts, a few men stood out: MLB scouts, dressed in slacks and athletic polos, armed with stopwatches and clipboards, standing steadfast even when swarms of kids came rushing past for foul balls.

Here, where seating arrangements are typically determined with a shrug and the dropping of a picnic blanket, the small area behind home plate reserved for professional evaluators of baseball talent overflowed with radar guns and notebooks and tablets and bodies, sending the claustrophobic in the scouting ranks searching for other vantage points. For fans, the Cape Cod League appears a laid-back and low-key celebration of summer and the national pastime. But for the MLB teams sending emissaries to these games and the prospect MLB players participating in them, this is serious baseball.

“Quite frankly, our Major League club’s so bad, we’re going to have some high draft picks next year,” San Francisco Giants executive Vice President Brian Sabean told For The Win after attending game in Orleans alongside Giants scouting director John Barr last Tuesday. “It’s two-fold: I want to get as far away from San Francisco and our big-league team as I can, and get back to my roots in summer scouting.”

“We only get so many chances at school to be seen in front of scouts,” said Mickey Gasper, a switch-hitting catcher and rising senior at Bryant University who posted a .921 OPS for Brewster and earned the team’s MVP award during the regular season on Cape Cod. “We’ve been fortunate, the last couple of years at Bryant, to have some pretty big prospects. But it’s not every day that you get to come out and play in front of 20-30 scouts. This experience has been a great opportunity for me to showcase my abilities a little more.”

The Cape regularly draws some of the biggest pro prospects in college baseball, many of whom have been tracked closely by scouts since their high-school days. But for less-heralded players and guys from small-conference schools, it’s an opportunity to prove they can play against the top competition at their level.

“There are good players from all over the country, not just big school,” said Orleans head coach Kelly Nicholson. “They don’t have to be from Texas or Stanford or Arizona or Miami or LSU. There are good players all over the place.”

(USA TODAY Sports)

A player Nicholson called “arguably one of the best players we ever had here,” outfielder Kyle Lewis, starred for Orleans in 2015. His season on the Cape that summer, according to Baseball America, drew “packs of scouts” to Lewis’ games at Mercer University. The Mariners selected Lewis with the 11th overall pick in the 2016 draft.

“Incredible athlete,” Nicholson said. “People were concerned: ‘Well, he plays at Mercer.’ Well, it didn’t matter where he played; He had a really great summer here, and he was a first-rounder.”

And in a sport dominated by randomness and difficult to evaluate in small samples, leagues like this one offer front offices more data points with which to make draft decisions come June.

“It’s kind of a safety net, if, let’s say, somebody goes out in their junior year and lays an egg, but had a good Cape – and that goes for a pitcher or position player,” said Sabean, who managed the Cape league’s Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox before he started working in Major League Baseball. “It’s not a cure-all, end-all, but scouting’s year round. It’s like what’s going on around the country in the various showcases.”

“It’s just about exposure,” said Josh Fields, a Dodgers reliever who starred for Yarmouth-Dennis in 2006. “It’s a chance to compete against the best in the country. That’s what the cape draws. It’s just kind of a showcase, a way to showcase your talent for those scouts. They all know what you can do already; they’ve seen you in college, so you’re not really going to surprise anybody.”

Still, a slick play in the infield or a quick jump on the bases or a gutsy performance on the mound might convince scouts to pay attention and follow up on players otherwise off the big-league radars. Teams only need 25 guys for Major League rosters, but all 25 ascend to those heights with the help of countless minor-league teammates and opponents around them as they polish their skills. MLB organizations need these guys – best known as “org guys,” appropriately enough – and a good showing in the summer could help a Cape league player get his foot in the proverbial door. So college players covet the chance to play here.

“I’ll get calls from coaches, I’ll get calls from scouts, I’ll get calls from scouting directors, I’ll hear from the kids themselves,” said Orleans head coach Kelly Nicholson, when asked how he fills his roster every summer. “I get some really nice emails from kids. I like it. I’d rather hear from the players than the parents.”

“I’m very thankful for being able to have the opportunity to play two years there,” said Dodgers starter Rich Hill, who pitched for Chatham in 2000 and 2001. “The first year, I wasn’t even supposed to go there. They wanted me to go to the (New England Collegiate Baseball League), but I insisted on going to the Cape.”

Managing at this level comes with unusual challenges. Here, coaches must balance the desire to win with the need to keep all players on their roster both healthy and active to maintain mutually beneficial relationships with their college counterparts. Nicholson said that, by policy, no position player sits out three games in a row, and starting pitchers work in a six-man rotation while typically limited to five innings or 75 pitches.

Kelly Nicholson (21) watches as the Orleans Firebirds face Brewster in a Cape Cod league postseason game. (USA TODAY Sports)

“We rent them for two months,” Nicholson said. “We’re going to take really good care of pitchers. Our priority is to send kids back healthy, and obviously we want to make it a positive experience for them. We want to keep the college coaches happy, and the college coaches want to keep us happy and keep sending us good players. So it’s a nice relationship.”

And according to Brewster head coach Jamie Shevchik, whose Whitecaps won the Cape Cod League championship over the weekend, college coaches’ restrictions on player usage can change a team’s constitution over the course of a summer.

“A lot of the talent that you see out here right now, especially the last couple of weeks, now we’re playing the guys that are – the winner of this league is the guys that stick around here to the end trying to win a championship,” Shevchik said. “I know it’s the best talent in the world, in amateur baseball that comes here, but coaches are shutting them down, getting ready for fall ball. What we’re left with is the grinder guys that want to win. You’ll see a lot of mid-Major schools out here, guys who might never have a chance to play in Omaha (at the College World Series). This could be the only championships that some of these guys win.”

But coaches here become valuable resources for big-league clubs hoping to gather as much information as possible about potential draft picks.

“(Giants scouting director) John Barr’s going to call me, the Dodgers are going to call me, the Yankees are going to call me, the Red Sox are going to call me, and they’re going to want to know about our players,” Nicholson said. “They don’t ask me about their baseball ability – my opinion doesn’t really matter. They’re going to ask me about character and work ethic, how he was as a teammate, how he was with the host family, were there any problems off the field, stuff like that. It’s all character stuff.”

For the players, meanwhile, a summer on the Cape means more than exposure. For hitters, it’s an opportunity to show they can perform with wood bats like the ones they’ll use once they graduate from the college ranks. And for every player, the best way to get better at baseball is to keep playing baseball against the best possible competition, and the Cape league packs a lot of baseball games into two months without much rigorous travel in between.

(USA TODAY Sports)

“It’s kind of like pro ball – not as many games, but you’re playing almost every single day,” said Brewster center fielder Hunter Bishop, a rising sophomore at Arizona State who earned co-MVP in the Cape Cod League Championship Series. “It gives you a hint of what the future lifestyle’s going to be for a lot of the guys here. It’s a grind, but it’s so much fun.

“It’s nice when you can hop in the car, drive 30 minutes down the road, play another team with the best talent in the country,” said Hill. “It’s just the best players in the country, flooded within a small area.”

And Cape league teams can keep no more than four players from any one college program, so there’s a networking component to it: Guys meet former opponents who might be future teammates, and develop more contacts inside the game they’re pursuing.

“That’s one thing I would take away from this summer: The people I’m meeting out here, these connections that I’m making, will help me down the road,” said Marty Costes, a University of Maryland outfielder who spent the summer with Brewster. “Sometimes you don’t get to experience that more than once in a lifetime, you know?”

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