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Top Draft prospect Witt Jr. unfazed by expectations

MLB.com @JonathanMayo

CARY, N.C. -- For some, being labeled as the best player in the country is a burden. For Bobby Witt Jr., it's a spotlight he willingly steps into.

For quite some time, at least since his Tournament of Stars performance as an underclassman here a year ago, Witt Jr. has been thought of as the top player in the 2019 Draft class. He wears it as a badge of honor, one he does not want to relinquish.

CARY, N.C. -- For some, being labeled as the best player in the country is a burden. For Bobby Witt Jr., it's a spotlight he willingly steps into.

For quite some time, at least since his Tournament of Stars performance as an underclassman here a year ago, Witt Jr. has been thought of as the top player in the 2019 Draft class. He wears it as a badge of honor, one he does not want to relinquish.

"It's almost like motivation for me," said Witt Jr., a shortstop from Colleyville Heritage High School in Texas. "Other kids out there, they put a target on me to try and be better than me. So I always have to be working hard every day just to get better and keep that spot. It's almost like a goal to have, keeping that spot, trying to be the best player out there on and off the field."

:: 2018 USA Baseball Tournament of Stars ::

Nothing allows a prospect to do that more than an event like the Tournament of Stars, where Witt Jr. gets to compete with and against top-flight competition. He has had this week circled on his calendar for quite some time.

"I've been itching for this day since December," Witt Jr. said. "It's like Christmas for me right now, to get back with all these 80 guys, the best players in the country. It's just amazing to be out here. These facilities are pristine. USA Baseball is unbelievable with what they do for the players. It feels like home now when I come to Cary."

There are two goals for every player at the TOS every year. One is to try to make USA Baseball's 18-and-Under national team that will compete in international competition this coming fall. The other is to impress the dozens of scouts from all 30 organizations on hand to get good looks at what the next Draft class, at least on the prep side, looks like.

Witt Jr. made the 18U Trials roster a year ago, but a minor hand injury kept him from making the team that won a gold medal. Missing out has made making this year's team an even greater priority for the talented shortstop.

"It's always been a goal of mine, because my dad -- I don't know when it was, 1984 -- he was on the USA team," said Witt Jr., whose father had a 16-year big league career and is now an agent. "Playing with the best country in the world on your chest, just representing them and playing the game hard, you can't explain what it is to play for your country. It's amazing to come out here and have this opportunity. I've been blessed to have all the opportunities in my life."

All those opportunities, along with having a father who can help guide him through the process, have helped Witt Jr. develop the right attitude when it comes to all of the attention he is and will invariably continue to get. It's clear, though, that some of it is just how he is wired, a player who is always ready, willing and able to compete.

"Really just having high energy, doing my thing," Witt Jr. said. "Just playing this game is awesome. It's been what I've wanted to do my whole life. When I'm out in the field, it's just fun for me. Kids will press, I just try to keep calm and play my game. They're there to watch what I can do, so I'm not going to try to overdo what I can't do or play too timid."

So the fact Witt Jr. has gone just 1-for-10 at this year's TOS isn't going to faze him or change how he approaches the game, and he'll be the same guy when his Free team takes the field for its third-place game at 9 a.m. ET on Saturday (streamed live on MLB.com and USABaseball.com, as will the gold medal game at 12:30 p.m. ET). He's still shown the ability to play three infield positions, if needed, though there is zero doubt about his ability to stay at shortstop, both for Team USA and long-term. Witt Jr. has run the bases well and shown the kind of energy and passion scouts, and USA Baseball, covet.

"He looks even stronger this year," said Matt Blood, the director of the 18U National Team Program. "He's just a really good athlete with tools everywhere. He's a true five-tool guy and he can impact the game in every way. On top of that, he loves to play, has really good energy and is a good kid. He's got everything scouts are looking for and things we're looking for as well. I would totally expect him to be fully in the mix for our plans this year."

There's a confidence that exudes from Witt Jr. He knows he's good without it seeming overly cocky. That translates to how Witt Jr. carries himself on the field. Being at TOS for a second summer certainly makes him feel at home, but in the end, he always just tries to keep things very simple.

"I guess I can say I'm more comfortable with it because I did it last year, but I just put it that it's the same game I've always been playing since I was 5 years old," Witt Jr. said. "There's bases, pitchers, hitters, everything's the same. I just have to keep my head right and play the game I do."

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB Pipeline. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMayo and Facebook, and listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.