FORT MYERS, Fla. – The summer of 2013 treated Palm Beach Gardens (Fla.) High School senior J.J. Schwarz extremely well. Coming into the summer, Schwarz was cruising somewhat under the radar in an area of Southeast Florida teeming with high-flying talent, but is now considered one of the top 50 prospects in the country’s class of 2014.
The increased attention began coming his way when he left his hometown travel ball organization and got on with powerful FTB Chandler. It certainly intensified when Perfect Game named him one of the top position players – and top catcher – at the East Coast Pro Showcase in Syracuse, N.Y., in late July.
And the world – literally, the world – took notice when Schwarz was selected to be one of the catchers on the 2013 USA Baseball 18u National Team that won the gold medal at the 2013 IBAF AAA/18u World Cup in Taichung, Taiwan, in early September.
So when Schwarz showed up here this weekend to play in the PG WWBA Florida Qualifier – with his old hometown travel ball team, nonetheless – no one was surprised at the attention coming his way.
“I haven’t played in three weeks since I got back (from Taiwan), so I’m just trying to get warmed up for the World Wood Bat,” Schwarz said in anticipation of his playing in the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., in just under three weeks.
Schwarz is here playing for his hometown Southeast Florida Baseball, a team coached by George Sandel who is also an assistant coach at Palm Beach Gardens High School and is a neighbor of Schwarz.
Sandel had a seven-year minor league career (2003-2009) and when he retired from playing he started a developmental program in Palm Beach Gardens that he called Florida Future. Southeast Florida Baseball was formed by Jim Barr, who originally started an organization known as Best2Show that grew into SEFB. Sandel became Barr's head coach of this team.
“(Schwarz) was the first catcher I had the first year I started coaching three years ago, and I’ve been with him ever since,” Sandel said. “This was the first summer he branched out. FTB Chandler is probably one of the best teams in the country and he had an opportunity to go play for them and as much as I wanted him with me, that’s a no-brainer – he needed to go play with them.”
Schwarz played in four PG tournaments with Florida Future in 2012 and was named to the all-tournament teams at the 17u PG BCS Finals and at last year’s PG WWBA Florida Qualifier. He also played in last year’s PG WWBA World Championship with the Palm Beach Select. He will return to Jupiter in a couple of weeks, this time with FTB Chandler/Cardinals Scout Team.
“I’m looking forward to it again this year,” he said. “I’m on a really top-notch team so there’s going to be scouts everywhere. I can’t wait.”
This summer he played with FTB Chandler at the 18u PG BCS Finals and at the PG WWBA 17u National Championship. He made his biggest impression at the East Coast Pro, where PG vice president of player personnel David Rawnsley noted:
“Schwarz really stood out in all areas of the game, making consistent loud contact with power, receiving well and throwing very well. He has the tools to be one of the first high school catchers picked next June. His father Jeff pitched in the big leagues in the early 1990s and is currently the Marlins GCL pitching coach.”
Jeff Schwarz did indeed pitch 54 games in the big leagues in 1993-94, 50 with the Chicago White Sox and four with the California Angels. The impact he’s had on J.J. has been immeasurable.
“I’ve been around baseball my whole life with my dad playing in the major leagues,” Schwarz said. “He’s had a big influence on me; he got me in the game, taught me everything I know. I practice with him almost every day and he’s my number-one fan.”
After the East Coast Pro, Schwarz became a valuable member of the USA Baseball 18u National Team that won the 2013 IBAF AAA/18u World Cup championship – he batted .333 (12-for-36) with three doubles and nine RBI in Team USA’s 12 games.
“It was awesome; I’ll never forget that experience,” Schwarz said. “We came in there as teammates and we left as brothers. I made so many friendships that I’ll never forget and I just had the time of my life.”
Schwarz, listed at 6-foot-2, 190-pounds, has risen to No. 46 in PG’s class of 2014 national rankings and No. 10 among the dozens of top-notch Florida prospects; he is ranked the country’s No. 5 top catching prospect and Florida’s No. 1 backstop and has given a verbal commitment to the University of Florida.
“Across the board, the kid is just about as good as it gets,” Sandel said. “On the field he’s a leader, he works his absolute tail off; I’d be challenged to find somebody who works hard than him – he can flat-out play. Off the field: awesome. He’s a good kid who does well in the classroom and he’s good around the community. He’s just a good kid, man, and you root for guys like that.
“Usually those guys are not the ones who are as good as he is so it’s kind of a special situation. If I had a son I’d want him to be just like J.J. Schwarz.”
That’s high praise and most likely warranted. Schwarz said he has added nearly 40 pounds to his frame since his freshman year in high school and has done that just by working out with his dad in the weight room and the batting cages. He strives to get better every day and came into this weekend’s Florida Qualifier with very high expectations – of himself and of others.
“I feel like there are expectations on me all the time,” he said. “I don’t know about all the guys on this team because I’ve never played with them but George is a great coach so I’m sure there are a lot of high expectations on everybody here.”
Two other members of the Southeast Florida Baseball team from the class of 2014 have joined Schwarz with college commitments. Outfielder/right-hander Duke Stunkel Jr. from Palm Beach Gardens is ranked 225th nationally and has committed to Florida, and first baseman/outfielder/left-hander Pavin Smith from Jupiter is ranked 234th and has committed to Virginia.
“We had a very good summer,” Sandel said. “This is a loose team and everybody has fun. It’s a fun group to be around.”
The boys from Southeast Florida Baseball (SEFB) kept it loose enough to win their first three pool-play games at the PG WWBA Florida Qualifier Saturday and Sunday, situating themselves nicely for a playoff berth, either as a pool champion or as one of the two wild card entrants.
The pool championship became a reality when SEFB (3-0-1) battled to a 1-1 tie with Premier Baseball Academy-Orlando (2-1-1) in the final game Sunday afternoon. Schwarz went 4-for-8 (.500) with a home run, three RBI and three runs scored in the four poll-play wins.
Southeast Florida Baseball will have to win the Florida Qualifier to get an invitation to the PG WWBA World Championship. Barring that Sandel is confident that his top prospects, like Schwarz, will hook up with other organizations and enjoy four or five days over in Jupiter.
Schwarz is steadfast in his belief that he will always be a catcher. He started catching when he was around 11 or 12 years old after the regular catcher on the team he was playing for got hurt and has never looked back. He was a third baseman previously, but fully expects to continue as a catcher when he reaches a level beyond high school.
“He’s got a really, really, really good arm and he’s very good defensively,” Sandel said. “His baseball aptitude scores are through the roof so he can call his own game. He’s still learning some things but behind the dish he’s special. Offensively, that’s where he really, really, really shines – he can really, really hit; he can really, really hit; he can really, really hit.”
So, the kid can really hit. He can also, according to most reports, man the catcher’s position with an efficient aplomb. And with his high national ranking and all the attention that came his way this summer, Schwarz readily admits that the 2014 MLB First-Year Player Draft is on his mind.
“I don’t think about it when I’m playing but when I’m at my house or with my friends I think about it all the time,” Schwarz said. Hey, you can’t blame the kid for being a realist.