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Georgia becomes prime ground for major league prospects.


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Georgia becomes prime ground for major league prospects

By Paul White, USA TODAY

ATLANTA Tim Beckham wasn't sure he wanted to be a baseball player. Gordon Beckham wanted nothing but.

Their careers as baseball players will be all but guaranteed Thursday during the first round of baseball's amateur draft in Orlando. Tim is a strong candidate to be the first overall pick by the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Beckhams aren't related, but they have plenty in common. Both are shortstops. Both are likely to be among the top 10 picks.

Perhaps most significant, both come from Georgia, which is rapidly becoming one of the nation's hottest spots for baseball talent.

Atlanta native Gordon Beckham is the Southeastern Conference player of the year from the University of Georgia and is third in the nation with 23 home runs. Tim Beckham batted .500 during the season as Griffin High School reached the state finals.

"The California players are good players," Tim says, throwing down the gauntlet to the state that regularly produces the most first-round picks. "But they are all fundamentals. Georgia has a lot of athletes. Put some good coaching behind them, and you have some good baseball players."

Major league teams have noticed. Since 2000, Georgia high schools and colleges have had 20 players taken in the first round and the supplemental round between the first and second rounds, including six last year. That ranks fourth behind amateur baseball's traditional big three California (74), Texas (47) and Florida (43).

"California and Texas are so big in size, they probably have more kids," says Grady Fuson, San Diego Padres vice president for scouting and player development. "But with the consistency and quality of players coming out of Georgia, I'm not sure anyone is better.

"The last five or six years, that state has really become a target for a lot of people in the game."

Braves' success sparks interest

Besides the Beckhams, Georgia could produce several other high draft picks Thursday, including:

" Josh Fields, Gordon Beckham's teammate and the Bulldogs closer. Fields was a first-round pick last year but decided to return to school for his senior year rather than sign with the Atlanta Braves.

" Ethan Martin, from Stephens County High in Toccoa, who could be picked as either a hard-throwing right-handed pitcher or a power-hitting third baseman.

" Zeke Spruill, a pitcher from Kell High in Marietta.

" And outfielders Jay Austin from North Atlanta High, Xavier Avery from Cedar Grove High in Ellenwood and Zach Cone from Parkview High in Lilburn.

"Our talent in this state stacks up with anybody on the Eastern seaboard," says Milt Hill, a former major league relief pitcher who is the Rays' area scout for Georgia. "Georgia is right in there, maybe No. 4 nationally in the number of prospects."

It wasn't always that way, says Hill, who spent Friday watching Tim Beckham in the state finals.

"The Braves playing well and going through that big run had something to do with it," says Hill, an Atlanta native. "When you win 14 division titles, everybody gets interested. When I was growing up here, they always finished last."

One of those kids who got interested was Jeff Francoeur, born in Atlanta and drafted in 2002 out of suburban Parkview High in the first round by the Braves.

"In New York, kids grew up wanting to play for the Knicks; here it was the Braves," says Francoeur, who was 7 when the Braves won the first of their 14 consecutive division championships and now is their starting right fielder. "The (NFL) Falcons weren't very good. The (NBA) Hawks weren't very good. The Braves were cool.

"When you went out in your backyard, you're David Justice or John Smoltz throwing the Wiffle Ball."

Francoeur played for suburban Atlanta's East Cobb Baseball youth program, a travel team that became the model as facilities and elite teams spread across the state.

East Cobb, where Gordon Beckham played, has produced 109 minor and major leaguers, according to its website. Current big-leaguers cited include Nick Markakis of the Baltimore Orioles, J.D. Drew of the Boston Red Sox, Stephen Drew of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Dustin McGowan of the Toronto Blue Jays and Brian McCann of the Braves.

In addition, Georgia teams have won the last two Little League World Series Warner Robins last year and Columbus in 2006. And the University of Georgia, which fields an almost completely in-state lineup, will try for its fourth College World Series appearance since 2000 when it takes on North Carolina State in the super regionals starting Friday.

"Georgia is my favorite place to go," says Fuson, whose Padres drafted Georgia Tech outfielder Danny Payne with the 64th overall pick last year. "It's not just the players you're hearing about, but the quality of the summer programs and everything else.

"The high school program in almost every facility is something special."

Picking homegrown talent

The Braves are getting a payback on the interest they generated. Four of their eight first-round picks this decade are from Georgia Francoeur, outfielder Jason Heyward last year, shortstop Josh Burrus in 2001 and pitcher Adam Wainwright in 2000 and they've increasingly turned to homegrown products in all rounds.

"All things being equal, we'll take the Georgia kid," Braves general manager Frank Wren says. "We think we have a better chance of signing a kid who grew up rooting for the team. The Braves have been a regional team, and we've used that to our advantage."

Now Francoeur, 24, is becoming a mentor to the next wave of Georgia talent. He often works out during the offseason at the University of Georgia. That's where he's become familiar with Gordon Beckham and his work ethic.

"That's my claim to fame," Beckham says, laughing about a workout session with Francoeur and Padres catcher Michael Barrett, another Atlanta product. "I think Francoeur might have lost his lunch. It was running and agility, but I had an advantage. I had been doing it for a couple of days and he just showed up that day."

Francoeur will confirm nothing more than "he sure worked me" but came away remembering Beckham "sure had the competitive drive."

Baseball finally wins out

Tim Beckham had to be convinced baseball was for him.

"I dropped out of baseball for a time and wanted to be a Division I point guard," he says. "My brother kept after me about playing, and I worked back into it."

Jamie Cassady, the Griffin coach, remembers the day clearly.

"We didn't have enough players for a little scrimmage we were having, so his brother, Jeremy, brought him along," Cassady says. "He was just in the sixth grade, and there he was playing in a varsity game and he stands in there against varsity pitching. He hits a flare to right field and gets a hit. You never know what is going to happen with a kid, but you could see something."

Jeremy Beckham was the Griffin shortstop and also could be a late-round pick in this year's draft as a second baseman out of Georgia Southern University.

"I kept coming to the field with my brother," Tim says. "I would toss the ball for him, and then, every once in a while, he would trick me, be real sneaky about it, and get me to hit one or two. Then one day he said to me, 'You could make a million dollars playing this game.' He didn't have to say it twice."

The hoops dreams quickly disappeared.

"He played with an AAU team, the Atlanta Blue Jays, when he was 15 and he was playing with 17-year-olds, so that told me he might be pretty good with baseball," says Jimmy Beckham, father of Tim and Jeremy. "I still didn't believe it when he came home from a trip they made to San Diego and he said he hit a 400-foot home run. I said, 'Sure you did, you're 15 years old.' Then I saw for myself a home run he hit. I went, 'Wow.' "

Major league teams are having a similar reaction whenever they watch the Beckhams and many of the other top talents in Georgia.

White also reported from Birmingham, Ala. Contributing: Scott Boeck, Bob Nightengale and Ray Glier in Griffin, Ga.

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