ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – The winner of USA Baseball's player of the year award does all the things expected of a big league prospect.
Alex Bregman hits for average, drives in runs, fields well and knows how to run the bases.
But he's different from other winners in one important way — he's only 16.
The first high schooler to win the Richard W. "Dick" Case award has added his name to a list that includes major league stars such as Washington Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg, Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and Colorado Rockies closer Huston Street.
Bregman received the honor for his performance at the Pan American Baseball Championships in Mexico. He won MVP there after hitting .564 (22 for 39) with two home runs, 17 RBIs and 17 runs scored in nine games for the victorious 16-and-under USA national squad at the tournament last October.
"He never takes a pitch off, offensively, defensively and even when he's not playing. And just to be clear, Alex doesn't sit the bench too much," said Ryan Brewer, an instructor and part-owner of the Albuquerque Baseball Academy.
The Case award historically has gone to professional prospects, but Bregman's performance in Mexico was too strong to ignore.
"I just love winning," he said. "Every time I go out there I try to win every pitch of the game. That's what I love to do, just competing."
Eric Kibler, who won USA Baseball's coach of the year award for leading the team to the Pan American title, said even among a very talented lineup, Bregman's baseball awareness and intelligence stood out.
That's why Kibler made Bregman his leadoff man.
"I thought he was a catalyst. I felt if we did that, the momentum would be in our favor. And he had an unbelievable tournament," Kibler said.
Kibler tells a story about how the smooth-hitting Bregman called a timeout when he was batting with a runner on second and none out.
"He comes out to the coaching box and says, 'Coach, what do you need here? I can drag bunt, push bunt, whatever we need to get that guy over to third base," Kibler recalled. "I laughed and said, 'Alex, I need you to keep doing what you're doing. Go up there and hack away.' And he did."
Bregman is a junior at Albuquerque Academy, a college prep school that is not associated with the Albuquerque Baseball Academy, a private instruction center. He plays shortstop, second base and is learning to catch, encouraged by coaches who envision having a freckle-faced manager on the field. He prides himself on focusing on the details.
Asked for examples, Bregman said Albuquerque Baseball Academy owner Mike Foote has taught him to watch pitchers for minor tendencies when he's trying to steal a base, to maintain solid footwork as he sets up to throw out a runner and to think ahead to know the next batter's weaknesses.
"You have to do that. Because I wasn't ever the biggest kid on the field, I've always had to know the game better than everyone else," the 5-foot-10, 170-pound Bregman said. "I had to hustle more. Those are things Mike was preaching to me. It paid off."
Brewer has known Bregman for eight years and said he is a versatile athlete and quick learner. Most important, he has exceptional hand-eye coordination, allowing him to adjust to a pitcher not only from inning to inning but from pitch to pitch.
"Most guys in college can't do that," Brewer said. "But that's Alex, his knowledge of the game and his knowledge of body awareness."
Kibler added: "Most kids will watch a game. Alex observes it."
Brewer told how Bregman's club team faced one of the nation's top squads during a Junior Olympic tournament. Bregman was playing shortstop that day but had studied the opposing lineup and called every pitch by signaling to the catcher.
"We ended up losing on a walk-off home run," Bregman said. "But it was an awesome atmosphere and calling the pitches was fun."
Bregman says he owes his success to his parents, who are known on the Albuquerque sports scene as owners of the NBA D-League's New Mexico Thunderbirds.
He credits his father, Sam, with helping him develop his love of baseball and a strong work ethic.
"You can never have a bad day hustling," the younger Bregman said.
Meanwhile, his mother, Jackie, keeps him focused on school.
"My mom was the valedictorian of her class. She's always on me about homework, but that's a good thing," he said.
His parents also have taught him to stay in the present.
Though his long-term goal is to play for an elite NCAA program or in the big leagues if he's taken high in the 2012 draft, Bregman knows better than to look past this spring.
"Right now, I'm really focused on winning the state championship with my high school teammates," he said. "It's definitely something to think about, but for now I need to keep working hard. Everything happens for the best."